Monday, March 25, 2013

Slate's ultimately sexist "Guys on Girls" column fails to validate its existence

     Lena Dunham and Patrick Wilson on "Girls".
     Photo Credit: HBO

This essay was originally submitted as a web feature assignment for my "Journalism and Social Change" class on February 28. That piece was capped at 1,000 words, but the version I've included here is slightly longer (I excised some unnecessary critical blather that made it extremely obvious how badly I was getting away with writing about a TV show for a school assignment). I also got some excellent quotes from Mo Ryan at The Huffington Post that unfortunately came too late to be included in the piece (my fault for leaving it so late, as well as making the piece so long that I wouldn't have been able to fit her quotes in anyway). Probably fair to point out that Emily Nussbaum did have something nice to say about the guys' discussion of Adam and Natalia's bad thing in the "On All Fours" episode on March 10. As for the others, who knows if they have had a change of heart re: the "Guys on Girls" feature, or whether they've kept up with at all. I know Jaime Weinman said he wasn't reading it regularly when I asked about it.

General disgust after the jump...

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

An open letter to Netflix

     Photo Credit: HBO

Dear Netflix,

My name's Brendan, and I'm one of millions of people who subscribe to your instant video service. I know there are about 28 million subscribers in the U.S., but I'm from Canada so I don't have an exact number to count myself among.

Let me begin by saying that I can feel the greed flowing through me as I type this. To ask anything of you right now seems ungrateful of me, because in May you will be providing me with 14 new episodes of "Arrested Development" that I never thought I would see. That should be more than enough. Your response to anyone asking you for anything at the moment, even basic tech support, should be, "Sorry, what's that? I can't hear you over the new 'Arrested Development' episodes we're giving you." And yet I do have something rather important to ask of you, and it's this:

Millions of years after mankind has died out, leaving the Earth nothing but a dust-collecting, burnt to a crisp ball of dried mud, what will be your legacy to humanity?

Monday, March 18, 2013

"Girls" - "Together": See you next fall

     Adam (Adam Driver) saves the day (I guess?) on "Girls".
     Photo Credit: HBO

I recently started watching "My So-Called Life" for the first time and I've been following along with Amelie Gillette's old-ish reviews on The A.V. Club. I haven't been as impressed with them as I have with some other things written for that site, but I do enjoy her reviews especially because she watched "My So-Called Life" when it originally aired on ABC back in 1994, and it provides her with an interesting perspective. Her review of the sixth episode, "The Substitute," notes that her opinion of it had largely changed over the years because upon first watching it as a student of creative writing, she felt it was an inaccurate depiction of the process - "I had an aversion to anything that made writing seem like something anyone could do if given an inspirational teacher and a few candles, as well as anything that reduced good creative writing to something that 'does better than make sense. It makes you feel,'" Gillette wrote.

I mention this because I'd like to highlight what I felt was the sole positive of the season two finale of "Girls" that aired this past Sunday (March 17) before I tear apart what was otherwise a disappointing conclusion to the season.

"Girls" has had its fun with Hannah's writing career this season (can I make one last mention of Murjashiway?) and as something of a writer myself, I can appreciate that the show doesn't attempt to portray it with any kind of glamour - I'm not sure how they would do that, but you get what I mean. I didn't necessarily love the story, but I did find her troubles amusing and thought that Lena Dunham got some Lena Dunham-y lines to read in her Lena Dunham-y delivery that were quite funny, such as telling her father that she was able to self-diagnose her scarlet fever by reading Louisa May Alcott. I would have probably really enjoyed an episode that was just a day in the life of Hannah the writer. Obviously "Girls" isn't the kind of show where she could have buckled down and cranked out her book in that one day, but I think I still would have enjoyed watching her fail at that rather than give up immediately and try to get her parents to bail her out as always (I know it's Hannah, but she should really learn how futile it is to ask them for money at this point).

We couldn't get that episode, however, because it was season finale time. Only this wasn't "She Did". It wasn't "Casino Night". It wasn't "Shut the Door. Have a Seat." Little to none of "Together" felt like it was happening organically, for any reason other than the show was going to be away for awhile and some things needed to be brought to a close. The Shoshanna and Ray breakup we all knew was coming happened, but wasn't brought about by any new developments in this episode. They might as well have broken up in any of the last two or three episodes, because in the interim we saw the same beats of Shoshanna realizing what a crummy relationship that was that we only needed to see once (probably in the Radhika episode where she makes out with the doorman).

I was also extremely disheartened by the end of the Marnie arc this year. Marnie has been making an ass of herself in front of Charlie all year and it's been at times quite painful, and at times quite funny (often both). But that arc doesn't end with her and Charlie together in a happy relationship where she's ready to have his brown babies. It ends with Marnie realizing that Charlie is making her do stupid things that she shouldn't be doing because he's just Charlie and she's not a good or prosperous person when she's around him. I had enjoyed this arc through the preceding nine episodes and was happy that character was given more to do than the first season made Allison Williams seem capable of. I trusted the writers to give her the wake up call she needed by the season's end, and they didn't give it to her. Marnie is just as much a screwup as Hannah in her own right, but she doesn't deserve that kind of shaft. If anything, I'd like to selfishly find some weird way for Christopher Abbott to return to "Enlightened" as a regular for season 3 (which, psh, is totally happening, duh) so that the temptation of Charlie can be eliminated for her altogether.

And while I was slightly amused by Hannah's earlier misadventures in writing, her final scene with Adam left me very confused about that relationship as well and what the show was telling me about them. I get that Adam is the person in Hannah's life who tells her to keep away from the broken glass, but I neither understood nor felt the apparent triumph or heroism that was him running shirtless all the way to her apartment through Facetime. I think the takeaway was supposed to be that in the end, Adam's a good guy and he's the one person she can really count on no matter what she might otherwise feel about him. But to me that's such a bleak statement about their relationship ("At least Hannah has one person she can always count on...oh, but it's...Adam") that I think sells short a lot of their history and the things that make them their most interesting when paired together.

To me, it felt like a strangely sad appropriate capper to a season that's seen higher highs and lower lows than the show saw in 2012. This season gave us some really tremendous episodes like the "Louie"-esque adventures "One Man's Trash" and "Video Games". But as good as those half hour standalones are, they're really detrimental to the overall arc of the season. There were 10 episodes in total, but only seven or eight of them lived within any kind of story continuity, a short amount of time to develop a plot on a television show ("Veep," the former neighbours of "Girls," produced only eight episodes for their first season and wisely opted out of any attempts at a running arc last year). That means when it's time to wrap everything up, it's hard to tie everything up in a nice bow the way a delicate show like "Girls" needs to.

I'm hoping the third season, which will consist of 12 episodes, will let them have their cake and eat it too by writing outstanding standalone episodes that don't cut into time that could be better spent on fleshing out and concluding the 2014 adventures of Hannah, Marnie, Jessa, and Shoshanna. In the meantime, I'm okay with "Girls" taking a bit of a breather to refocus - if need be, possibly get a whiff of a few candles.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

"Girls" - "On All Fours": Can't get much wronger

     Marnie (Allison Williams) in the midst of the worst
     decision she's ever made.
     Photo Credit: HBO

Something happened on "Girls" this past Sunday (March 10) that I don't think has ever happened before: part way through the title card, the logo changed colour. When it first appeared, it was pink on a purple background, then transitioned to green on a yellow background. According to colour theory, pink evokes feelings of immaturity and silliness, but also of nurturing and unconditional love. Green suggests self-reliance, but also an unhealthy possessiveness.

I didn't look into previous title card colours as they aired, and I don't have the time to do it now. Who knows whether Dunham and co. ever take the logo colour into consideration. But the actual changing of those specific colours in this episode doesn't seem accidental. "On All Fours" was a fairly natural extension from last week, where we revisited Hannah's onset OCD in a much more horrifying form (personally, I'm pretty squeamish about things being done to my ears so that whole story was hard to watch). We knew from last week that Adam having a girlfriend would make its way back to Hannah at some point, and she took it about as embarrassingly as she could have, trying to think up reasons to like her only knowing her first name and nearly crying when Adam calls her "kid". Shoshanna continued to have no clue what she wanted out of her relationship with Ray other than knowing that she wanted it, which made it all the more disheartening for her to hear Ray described as an asshole by nature. I know the whole point of that relationship is that nothing about it makes sense and there's really nothing to it, but I'm starting to find it uninteresting and I hope there's some more serious development on that front in next week's finale.

I recently mainlined all 18 episodes of "Enlightened," which has its own cringeworthy moments. But show me the most hard-to-watch moment of "Enlightened" and I will show you Marnie singing "Stronger" at Charlie's party, which is maybe the most excruciating but simultaneously hilarious sequence ever televised. In fact, this was a really funny episode despite how dark things got at times. Hannah telling her parents about the 12-15 very close friends she had was a classic Lena Dunham delivery, and pretty much everything happening at Charlie's party (especially the douchebag talking about how restaurants are just a part of him and Shoshanna's reaction) was hysterical. Even as bad as things got between Adam and Natalia, Adam Driver got to work in some good physical comedy in their dance scenes.

So let's talk about Adam and Natalia and the thing she really didn't like, possibly the most excruciating and not at all hilarious sequence ever televised. Credit where credit is due, the show went for it. Nothing about this show is whitewashed, so why start with rape? The "too far" moment for me was the actual shot of Adam's semen. When you're paying a monthly fee to subscribe to HBO, you expect sex, nudity, and violence as a compensation. But I think I still would have understood just how horrifying that was without the borderline pornographic "evidence". If we're choosing to read into the logo colour, it seems like any break Natalia will be making from Adam will be as clean as the one Hannah made from him. I might have a better idea of where this would be headed in a 12 episode season, but with only 30 more minutes to go, my guess is as good as yours.

Season two of "Girls" ends this coming Sunday. Here's hoping I handle the breakup better than Marnie.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Review: HBO's "Enlightened" is the best show you've never heard of

     Laura Dern as Amy Jellicoe in "Enlightened"
     Photo Credit: HBO

Since around its eighth season, Comedy Central's "South Park" has been known particularly for its sharp cultural satire. That isn't to say the show never did satirical episodes before that, mocking suburban life and celebrity culture - many consider the Ben Affleck/Jennifer Lopez skewering "Fat Butt and Pancake Head" from the seventh season to be the show's best episode. But Trey Parker and Matt Stone see season eight as the point where the show stopped being just an aimlessly wandering cartoon devoid of any law or precedent and started being the show whose six-day turnaround gave them television's first crack at a takedown of current events.

One of the seemingly less beloved episodes of "South Park," season 12's "Britney's New Look," was a dark examination of celebrity and tabloid culture through a story in which the boys, trying to sell a picture of Britney Spears to the paparazzi, push her to the breaking point as she puts a gun in her mouth and pulls the trigger. Spears survives the attempted suicide, despite the fact that she is now missing most of her head. And through the remainder of the episode, the boys attempt to help revitalize her career to no avail as Spears' critics continue to nitpick flaws in her appearance and vocals, barely registering that there's nothing above the flapping mouth that she can no longer speak out of. The episode's plot and themes pay homage to Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," a good reminder that "South Park" apparently didn't learn to distance itself from esoteric parodies following their disastrous "Great Expectations" takeoff "Pip".

In the DVD commentary track for "Britney's New Look," Parker and Stone acknowledge that the episode's bleak and unattractive shell are off-putting to the audience, making it difficult for fans to appreciate the intended message. Specifically, Parker mentions that such an episode is one in a handful of episodes through the years of "South Park" that requires the full trust and acceptance of the viewer. You're either on the train or you're not, and if you're not, it's gonna be a 22 minute bummer.

HBO's "Enlightened" asks something similar of its viewers. It's a half hour show, but like so many of those on premium cable, it isn't really a comedy outside of awards purposes (its comedic moments are really limited to Timm Sharp's Dougie). Yet it's not quite a drama, because everything happening is so wonderfully ridiculous. "Dramedy" is a word that never had any positive meaning and yet has somehow lost all meaning, especially when you see things like the "Silver Linings Playbook" ad where Bradley Cooper explains that the movie is both "a drama and a comedy, much like life". This show defies classification like no other unique show that has come before it. Co-creator Mike White extended his hand and said "Come with me and I'll show you something awesome. Just trust me." And unless you were expecting highlights of his time on "The Amazing Race," he delivered.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

"Girls" - "It's Back": No one can hear you scream

     Peter Scolari, Lena Dunham, and Becky Ann Baker on "Girls".
     Photo Credit: HBO

We've all had a person in our life who is either a horrible influence or brings out the worst in us. In some cases, we don't tend to realize this about that person until they're gone from our lives. They weren't necessarily trying to push the dime bag closer to us and asking us whether or not we want to be cool, but they do behave and think in a way that is, below the surface, ultimately toxic. The behaviour seems so normal that outside perspective is the only way to finally realize what a mess that person is.

Countless TV shows have dealt with the trope of a protagonist reuniting with an old friend. "How I Met Your Mother" depicted a phenomenon known as "revertigo" in an episode where the presence of Lily's high school friend reactivates her urban slang. In fact, most shows that tackle this subject are comedies depicting a humorous personality clash in the former friends. I always enjoyed the way that "Freaks and Geeks" handled the pseudo-fallout between Lindsay and Millie because of its complexities. Lindsay knew creatively and spiritually that Millie and the geeks were not going to bring out her full potential, but she also realized academically and sensibly that Millie was a positive influence, and that made it difficult to constantly reject her. And because Millie is too nice and believes she can bring Lindsay back from the dark side, she always welcomes Lindsay back to her with open arms, trying to do whatever she can to help her. Sunday (March 3) night's "Girls" gave us the opposite, in that almost every main character is confronted with the person or people who are their biggest impediment to success. And in a way, even the title "It's Back" could suggest that these people are akin to horror movie villains, back to finish the job they don't realize they were drafted for.

Shoshanna is just beginning to find some kind of stable adult life with Ray when her old friend and party girl Radhika (like "30 Rock," "Girls" appreciates the funniness of funny names) reappears. Radhika isn't pushing that lifestyle on her, but in reflecting on her recent progress, Shoshanna realizes that regardless of whether or not this was a life she at one time wanted or wanted to feel comfortable with, it certainly isn't any longer. Yes, Shoshanna ends the night confused as ever about her feelings for Ray, but it was hard to do worse than Marnie, who once again makes a complete ass of herself in front of Charlie. Marnie knows exactly what's wrong with her. She just thinks those things are either Charlie's fault or flaws of Charlie himself. But...progress! Right? (Yeah...we'll see.)

By all means, Hannah isn't capable of taking care of herself, but her parents (the always great Becky Ann Baker and Peter Scolari) aren't doing her any favours by dragging her to a pediatrician to cure her onset obsessive compulsive disorder (which...weird right? It's never been my understanding that OCD comes and goes, but who knows). It wasn't a terribly gripping storyline, at least not with the track record "Girls" has had with the Hannah character, but it featured some good work by Lena Dunham and the previously mentioned Baker and Scolari (and hey look, HBO favourite Bob Balaban!) and was an interesting counterbalance to what seemed to be the episode's major story.

I was not impressed with the direction Adam was taken early in the season, as it seemed a lot of the work done to humanize him in the end of the first season was being undone because of the mistaken belief that a creepier Adam is a funnier Adam. I enjoyed the Adam and Ray scenes in "Boys," but Adam's dinner date with Natalia was the first time all season the character really intrigued me. Natalia's stories about working as a decoy for a private investigator made me wish that that had been the outcome of the date instead simply because it would be hilariously tragic, but I'm much more interested in seeing a happy Adam, and no one has any reason to sick a PI on him.

Not their best episode, but one that exhibits promise for the season's remaining two weeks.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Stay tuned: The past 24 years of the Super Bowl lead out show

     The 1996 "Friends" episode "The One After the Superbowl"
     is still the most watched Super Bowl lead out show ever.

Here’s the thing about not being a professional: you’ve got to make sure real life is taken care of first before you commit to what you’re passionate about. And with that in mind, I present to you an examination of Super Bowl lead out shows in March.

The question that seems to constantly perplex the networks is, “What makes a successful, and hopefully good, lead out show?” Just because a network figures something out one year, doesn’t mean it can be emulated for their next Super Bowl year, or even the next calendar year.

So for no real reason other than me liking lists, I decided to take a look at the last two decades of lead out shows (1990-present), arbitrarily put them into “great,” “good,” “bad,” and “ugly” columns, and talk about where and why things went right or wrong. At the end, we’ll regroup and talk about what we’ve learned and what the postgame slot might go to next year.