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What Happened to New Girl?

10 Mar

jessnick

There was a time when Tuesday night was New Girl night. After the ramping-up period, back when The Mindy Project was an infant and Brooklyn Nine-Nine was just someone’s pitch for Andre Braugher holding puppies, New Girl got good. It grew nuance and originality along with silliness, and cultivated a gift for amazing throwaway lines. It developed characters so weird that you had to love them. It had something going. And now, in its third season, it’s lost its way.

The last season of New Girl was incredibly exciting. Among other plot points, the writers leaned hard on the developing romantic relationship between Jess and her roommate Nick, with thrilling results. The story was exciting; Zooey Deschanel and Jake Johnson’s crackly, grown-up chemistry was exciting; and the writing was really exciting. The writers approached Nick and Jess’s story with the kind of abandon—one might say recklessness—not often seen on network sitcoms. Instead of drawing out the will-they-won’t-they, they went for it, all at once, and it was a glorious thing to watch.

In comparison, this season is dead in the water. Nearly everybody’s flailing, looking for an arc and not finding anything of substance. Schmidt moved out, and then back in again, for reasons I don’t really remember. Winston, never a character of great purpose in the first place, continues to have harebrained schemes that never go anywhere (though I hope he becomes a cop, and stays one; there’s lots of material there). And Coach, the roommate who was replaced by Winston after the pilot, has resurfaced for reasons nobody seems to get, other than the cancellation of Happy Endings and the availability of Damon Wayans, Jr. Cece is working at the bar with Nick—potentially a fun move—and fostering a mostly platonic soft spot for Schmidt, but she isn’t going anywhere. None of them are.

The thing is, though, that there are two characters who aren’t really flailing, and they are Nick and Jess. They’ve lost the urgency of last season, but their relationship remains the best part of the show—they’re funny, they’re sexy (except when they’re deliberately not, a la Nick’s nightgown), and their storylines stem primarily from the drama and humor inherent in two weird humans trying to establish a life together. This is huge: by far, the biggest killer of television couples (and, sometimes, television shows) is the temptation to manufacture drama externally, as if human relationships were somehow not interesting enough. It’s this impulse that brought us Luke’s long-lost daughter April, Luke’s inexplicable desire to keep her a secret, and a totally unnecessary breakup on Gilmore Girls; it’s this impulse that replaced Lois Lane with a frog-eating clone a million years ago on Lois and Clark; it’s this impulse that made a serial killer force Booth to refuse to marry Brennan, and not tell her why, on Bones. It’s an infuriating instinct—and on New Girl, the writers have mostly avoided it, apparently getting that these two characters have enough neuroses and conflicting pressure points to keep an enterprising sitcom writer busy until the next winter Olympics, at least. It’s a slowed-down version of what they started last year, and that’s understandable; what they were doing last year wasn’t sustainable. I suspect not everybody is enjoying the monogamous setting-up stage of Nick and Jess’s relationship—but it’s keeping them focused, and in motion, which is more than anybody else on the show can say.

Maybe The Nick and Jess Show in its barn-burning heyday sucked all the energy from everybody else’s storylines, and we were all so busy watching them that nobody noticed. Now, when everything has normalized, we notice, and adjustments need to be made. At its best, this show invests in all four roommates, and regardless of what Fox tries to tell us, Jess can’t carry the show alone. This week may have been a step in the right direction, with Schmidt moving back into the apartment, forcing Nick and Jess to continue sharing a room despite realizing they’d rather not. This reshuffling is a chance to refocus the action in new ways and go back to some established routines, and maybe find new arcs with new setups and new payoffs. Let’s hope a little proximity and a little reset button can breathe some life back into apartment 4D.

This is the first of a three-post series on the Fox Tuesday-night comedy lineup. Coming soon, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and The Mindy Project

Glee Takes New Directions, Unless It Doesn’t

1 Nov

We’re two months and three episodes into the new season of Glee, and I’m not sure what’s happening.

I had—have, actually, present-tense—high hopes for this season of Glee. After two seasons being written by the sometimes-genius-always-unpredictable team of Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan, the new season saw a writing staff tripled in size, including an impressive team of veteran writers: among others, Allison Adler, who did great things with the first few seasons of Chuck; Marti Noxon, of Buffy and Mad Men fame; Michael Hitchcock, who was hilarious in Season One as the coach of the deaf choir (“SCARLET FEVER!”); and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, fresh off of his rewrite, for better or for worse, of the book for Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.

This is all great news, because it’s a move toward sustaining the series. The first seasons of Glee are an oddity in terms of the ways they ignore the tropes of mainstream TV and instead take the shape of Murphy’s apparent spirit animal of the week. When it works, it’s fresh and unique in the TV landscape. When it doesn’t, it reads as an unwillingness to commit and ultimately an exhausting lack of confidence. This new crew of writers is a talented group with a tantalizing goal—not to strip the show of its voice, but to add narrative strength and consistency.

A few episodes in, it’s hard to say how things are shaking out. The season is still young because of the World Series break, and FOX left things on a high note, with a strong third episode. It wouldn’t be Glee without a dash of the obnoxious: weekly play-by-play on the state of Emma Pillsbury’s virginity, the plot to defame baby Beth’s adoptive mother, and hints that Mercedes might be pregnant; on the other hand, she might be pregnant by Friday Night Lights alum LaMarcus Tinker, and the very presence of Blaine covers a multitude of sins. And who even remembers what’s happening with Rachel and Finn? In any case, this season is a turning point for the show—with its three biggest stars leaving at the end of the season, better writing is of the essence. Here’s where I think you go, if you’re trying to make Glee respectable:

– Move on from the Rachel/Finn train. Let them be together, or don’t; whether they get their true love story, live happily ever after as Broadway’s new power couple, or never even get out of Lima, give them the endings they deserve and lay the groundwork for new romance. Which brings us to…

– Make Brittany/Santana your It Couple–allow them to remain supporting characters, but follow through on making them the fan favorites they deserve to be. Place them in contrast with the carousel of random dating that is the rest of the cast, turn up the charm, and give fans a couple to root for long-term. (To be fair, the writers’ work with Kurt and Blaine approximates this already—but Kurt won’t be around forever, and to deny Brittany and Santana the fruition of their relationship would be a terrible thing.) Additionally, if Ryan Murphy’s looking to make a lasting cultural impact with this show—and it seems like he is, whether or not he cops to it—making the entire TV-watching American public root for a couple of teenaged lesbian cheerleaders isn’t a bad way to do it.

– Figure out what to do with Quinn. First-season Quinn was great. She had a purpose, she had an arc, she had spectacular hair, and Dianna Agron proved she’s a mature enough actor to handle the big stuff with grace and nuance. The downside to all this is that, post-baby, her plain old high school “big stuff” came across as petty melodrama. Her second-season quest for Prom Queen status made a vague kind of theoretical sense, but it wasn’t rooted in the experience of her pregnancy or carried out with an eye to how she’d changed—instead, we got the idea that she actually hadn’t. This season started out in an interesting place, with Quinn rebelling against her old social routine to play queen of the losers, but her plan to get baby Beth back from her adoptive mother (Idina Menzel) still reads as shallow compared to the emotional potential of the character. In other words: Shut it down and find this girl something realistic and satisfying to do, stat.

– Offer Dot Marie Jones Dictator-For-Life status. Coach Beiste is one of Glee‘s most inspired creations, and Jones inhabits her beautifully. Use her.

– Commit to Emma Pillsbury. Emma was barely around last season (possibly unavoidable for scheduling reasons, though I question the amount of press junketing The Smurfs required); as one of the few semi-reasonable and sympathetic adults on Glee, it’s nice to have her back. Whether or not her continued affection for Will actually speaks well of her taste in guys,  Jayma Mays is a warm human presence who also happens to nail the comic stuff without making a big deal out of it. Depending on the extent to which the writers decide to engage with her mental illness—and the sensitivity with which they handle it—Emma is a rich vein of material wrapped in a pretty, funny package. While you’re at it: bring back her psychotically matchy vintage wardrobe.

It’s hard to say what a grown-up version of Glee  would look like—Freaks and Geeks with singing?—but the move towards finding out is an encouraging one. If the new staff can impose order while preserving the tone of the show, more power to them. If that’s the case, everybody wins.

On Dumbasses I Have Loved

28 Jun

First, let me just say: if you are a dumbass, a real, in-the-flesh dumbass, I probably don’t like you. I probably don’t think you are funny, and I probably don’t think you are charming; actually, I probably don’t think that much about you at all except maybe to wish that you were not a real, in-the-flesh dumbass. HOWEVER. If you are a dumbass in fiction, a dumbass who does dumbass things but then learns and grows and becomes a real person, well. In that case, it is very possible that I might be a little bit in love with you. Surprise!

Let’s talk about a couple of fictional dumbasses. Billy Riggins (Derek Phillips), of Friday Night Lights fame, is the kind of guy who proposes to his girlfriend at the strip club where she works and thinks burying stolen cars is the same thing as disposing of them. He’s “raising” his teenage brother, perpetual audience favorite/heartbreaker Tim Riggins (also in possession of dumbass tendencies, but endlessly golden-hearted, not to mention pretty-faced), which mostly consists of buying him beer and then yelling at him about it later. Billy occasionally spills over into “genuinely destructive” territory–Tim eventually goes to jail for a crime he didn’t commit so that Billy can stay with his wife and newborn son–but mostly he’s just a guy who wants to be a man but doesn’t have the common sense to pull it off.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have Mason (Callum Blue), George Lass’s smarmy  grim reaper colleague on Bryan Fuller‘s 2003 show Dead Like Me. Mason is fundamentally gross. He’s British, perpetually high, and spends most of his time scamming on girls and staking his squatter’s claim on the apartments of dead people, or both. Par for Mason’s course is his cause of death: self-inflicted head wound via power drill while in search of a permanent high…which does nothing to stop him trying to smuggle drugs fifty years into his afterlife (“I’ve got illegals in my bottom!”). Unlike Billy Riggins, the source of Mason’s dumbassery is that, after fifty years of taking souls and observing human nature, he knows better, sort of—and continues to be repellent in a number of hilariously dumb ways. And yet, Mason is moved by those around him in ways that surprise nobody more than Mason himself: there’s the gay couple who start out as a joke and end up as a (somewhat disturbing) lesson in true love, the old lady from whom he intends to steal art and whose worthless paintings he ends up hanging around her house (…after he moves in as a squatter, of course), and Daisy Adair, his love-starved reaper nemesis/love interest, played infuriatingly and then heartbreakingly by Laura Harris. Between acts of mind-blowing stupidity, he’s prone to acts of random kindness: surrendering his beautiful house to the girls, say, or simply treating Daisy like a loved person for just a second.

And that’s the shocking, wonderful thing about great dumbasses in fiction: even in the midst of their deepest cluelessness, they’re always ripe for just a hint of redemption, and for touching the the lives of others in ways they’re too self-absorbed to have planned. The ideal balance of idiocy and self-transcendence is a delicate one, making dumbasses a risky character type to create; on the other hand, they can be the most satisfying to write and to watch–hence the title of this post. When Billy Riggins becomes a maker of men as an assistant coach for the East Dillon Lions, we know it’s all he’s ever really wanted–not the football job, per se, but success as a leader. When Mason kills Daisy’s violent boyfriend Ray (a surprisingly scary Eric McCormack) in her defense, it’s spur-of-the-moment–but it’s an act of bravery of the kind that Mason generally avoids, and it comes with a brand of guilt that he spends most of his time trying to escape. It’s a coming-of-age moment, sort of, or at least a statement that he cares. And we love him for it, murder or no.

This is the joy of the fictional dumbass: the fictional dumbass is always shadowed by his or her own potential in a way that the non-fictional dumbass is not required to be. It’s a potential for brilliance or a potential for compassion or a potential for just maybe being okay, but it’s the possibility that that character might someday not be a dumbass. Or maybe they will be, forever and ever amen, but by the time that ship has sailed, it’s too late, and we don’t mind all that much.

The List

28 Mar

 

For me, 2010 was a year of monogamy, TV-wise. I essentially watched two shows, and two shows only, on DVD: The Wire and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That’s twelve seasons of intense, arc-heavy must-see TV, mostly about cops and drug dealers and teen angst (and occasionally all of the above). If it’s about Southern California/the mouth of hell or about the Western District way, you can ask me anything. I was in it.

This year? This year, I’m like a soldier on leave. I’m hanging around in bars, picking up strange shows, just because I can.

To emphasize the frolicky feeling of watching whatever I want, I’m starting with the short stuff—the young and the canceled-too-soon. There’s Wonderfalls, which, let’s face it, might get me off track right away if I let myself veer into re-watches of Dead Like Me and Pushing Daisies, and there’s  White Collar, which is charmingly retro and features Matt Bomer’s stellar fedora-wearing skills, and there’s The Middleman, which is brief and which I somehow see as the much-delayed successor to the live-action Patrick Warburton/Nestor Carbonell version of The Tick. There might also be a brief rendezvous with the most recent (Eleven/Amy Pond) series of Doctor Who, which I didn’t even realize was on DVD yet, because everybody I know downloaded it. Or, you know, so I hear.

After the palate cleansers will come the time bombs—shows that are currently airing and getting away from me with every passing week, i.e., The Good Wife, Fringe, and a few errant episodes of Friday Night Lights. And then, if it turns out I’ve somehow caught up and it’s the end of the list or, like, endless reruns of MASH or whatever, there are the beloved but non-urgent–the ones I intend to watch, eventually, but that aren’t pinging my radar all that loudly. There’s Community, a show I’m supposed to love but don’t, and Psych, which I suspect will seduce me more successfully than I can possibly imagine, and possibly a variety of other comic procedurals. I can get a lot of mileage out of comic procedurals.

And then, once I’m feeling good and ready for a commitment, I’ll go back for Angel: The Series. Because we can’t all be TV sluts all the time, and…nothing says monogamy like David Boreanaz? Right.

On meaning and character: Some frank talk about Lost

25 May

I learned two things from the series finale of Lost:

1) It doesn’t matter. Destiny or free will, science or faith, different sides of the backgammon board—it’s all irrelevant. What matters is people. People, and love.

2) Don’t forget to set up an afterlife meeting place, like when my family goes to the mall and we all decide to meet at the pretzel stand if things don’t go well.

And, you know, I think I’m satisfied with that.

To those who are throwing up their hands: I get it. I do. If none of it mattered, if all of it were just erased, if Lost was six years of wasted viewing time, then that’s incredibly disappointing.

(To those hating on the finale because it’s fashionable, in the same way that hating on SNL is perpetually fashionable, I have no patience for you.)

But nobody—not even Desmond, in his scene with Jack—ever said that what happened on the show didn’t matter. What happened on the show, in the past, matters deeply—all that tromping through the jungle, all that shared experience, all those fish-and-mango dinners on the beach, all the sacrifice and the tears and the laughter and the Star Wars jokes, they’re redemption for those characters. So maybe the outcome of Jack and John’s personal battle doesn’t matter, per se. Maybe—and I’m not actually clear on this—the status of the Man in Black and his giant cosmic bottle of wine isn’t the most important thing. Maybe nobody was actually saved from anything with Kate’s saved bullet. But in the context of this band of people snatched from their angsted-out lives, what happened is everything. And that’s why the finale, so rooted in memory and relationship, makes sense.

Answers are satisfying up to a point—but on TV, answers are bound up with characters. After six years, we have answers: we know about Jacob and the Man in Black, and we know what the Smoke Monster is and how he came to be and what he ultimately wants. We know who the Adam and Eve skeletons are, and we know all about the four-toed statue. We know about the hatch and about the numbers, and about why Richard Alpert doesn’t age, and about the cool infinite back-and-forth of his and Locke’s shared pocket watch. But none of these things are the heart of Lost, and no single gimmick or structural point was going to provide the kind of emotional and intellectual satisfaction that we as audiences are always looking for . Better, then, to actually have Jack successfully fix something, after six years of botched heroism. Better to let Sawyer be with the woman who grew him up back in 1977. Better to let Hurley, the pure at heart, be a leader, and to let Ben finally be chosen for something—after all, it’s all he’s ever wanted. Better to let the structure of Lost be a vehicle for its characters, rather than the other way around—even if that vehicle isn’t as neat and all-inclusive as we’d like.

It wasn’t perfect. I wish I had a better grasp on the relationship between Desmond and Daniel—constants and variables and such—and their significance to…well, basically anything. I could go for a quick run-through of who belongs on the Afterlife Express and who doesn’t, and why. I’d like another run-down on numbered time-traveling bunnies. I wonder about characters like Eko, who never turned up again.

(Would I like to know how the castaways created the purgatorial Sideways for themselves? Yes and no. Yes, because that’s some business meeting. No, because the literal translation of the Lost mythology has never been the show’s strong suit—I’d rather admire the pretty light-up cave from a distance than sit through another temple debacle.)

But as a finishing statement, as an arrow pointing us towards the characters and not just towards the fascination of the universe, I think the finale—and, really, the Sideways, if we consider it as an extended portion of the finale—did its job. As the end of an arc, it allowed us to remember the highs and lows that came before, and to pinpoint the very redemption of each character by way of the characters around them. It’s the fulfillment of Jack’s ultimatum back in the first season, and the definition of living together—even for those who have already died alone. And that is the very thesis of Lost.

In which the spirit of John Krasinski inhabits a Vietnamese infant on another network

29 Jan

People, we have a prodigy on our hands.

I assume you’re all familiar with the patented Jim Halpert Face.

Well, check this out:

Vodpod videos no longer available. Vodpod videos no longer available.

What’s next, she and her mild incredulity get to marry the receptionist?

You’ll thank me later

27 Oct

I am what you’d call a TV imperialist. Like any good empire-builder, it’s my mission to spread the glory of my riches to those who have no desire to receive them (or, you see, to those who don’t know what they’re missing! We will be greeted as liberators!)—I’m forever recommending shows to people, trying to coax them onto my favorite sections of Hulu and threatening to buy them whole seasons of my favorite shows, hoping they’ll want to talk about it. I pretend it’s for their benefit, but mostly it’s because I like creating new fans. I like watching people enjoy something they wouldn’t have known about otherwise. I like sharing stories.

Today, in the spirit of spreading democracy the joy of good TV, I present two of my favorite television shows—shows that you would love, whoever you are, but probably are not already watching. Don’t make me send you my DVDs (Hey, man, shipping is expensive).

Bones

Thursdays, 8 p.m., FOX; perpetual reruns on TNT

Bones

Premise: A socially awkward forensic anthropologist and her hottie FBI partner solve murders using the victims’ skeletons. Grossness, hilarity, and crazy sexual tension ensue.

Warning: Statistically, if you begin to watch this show, you will not stop. You will tell yourself that it is nonsensical, or inconsistent, or that you don’t really care about these characters, or that you’re going to do something else after just one more, but it will not matter. You will have discovered that murder and forensic anthropology are, in fact, made of puppies and rainbows and light, and you will be sucked in for good. And it will be a happy, happy day.

The thing is, you will not be wrong about those first things—Bones has been, on various occasions, nonsensical and inconsistent and a variety of other unpleasant things. Sometimes it still is, but it doesn’t matter: in its fifth season, this show may actually be the happiest show on television, and it’s still getting better. It’s funnier and gutsier and weirder and sweeter and maybe a bit smarter than it’s ever been, and how many shows can say that?

The secret of Bones is all in the cast—the story revolves around Booth (David Boreanaz) and Brennan (the grossly underrated Emily Deschanel), and they are delightful together, but the concentric circles of well-cast supporting characters, from the lab crew to Brennan’s family of (mostly) well-meaning convicts, are what make every episode feel like all of your favorite people are coming together for Thanksgiving dinner. This is the power of a great ensemble: you will love these people, and they will make bad TV ideas seem like good TV ideas just by showing up.  Crazy, apparently ill-advised plot points will arise (Remember the time Booth and Brennan went undercover with the circus as a Russian knife-throwing act? Remember the time Booth shot the head off an animatronic clown, and Stephen Fry became his therapist? Remember the time they did an alternate-universe episode where Booth and Brennan were married and owned a bar where a murder took place? I do!), and you will just think to yourself, “I did not know how incomplete my life was without that moment.”

How to watch it: Bones is currently in its fifth season; all previous seasons are available on DVD. TNT also runs constant reruns, and rumor has it that FOX will be rerunning it on Fridays this winter, as well. Finally, this isn’t a heavily serialized show—watching it in order is helpful, but not necessary. Cherry-pick at will.

Parks and Recreation

Thursdays, 8:30 p.m., NBC; Hulu

parks and rec

Premise: An ambitious and sometimes oblivious public servant (Leslie Knope, played by Amy Poehler) attempts to do good works (among other things, turn a huge dirt pit into a city park) in Pawnee, Indiana.

This show got off on the wrong foot in so many ways. The first few episodes were a mess—the characters were vague, the dialogue was clearly Office dialogue that didn’t make the cut, and nobody seemed to take Poehler’s comic voice into account. Disaster seemed imminent.

It’s infinitely, unspeakably better now—one of my favorite shows, and WAY funnier than the current season of The Office, if you must know. Summer was obviously kind to Greg Daniels and Friends; they’ve gotten a handle on their characters, Leslie Knope (best government worker name ever, yes?) no longer speaks with Michael Scott’s cast-off dialogue, and they’ve figured out what to do with Rashida Jones as Ann, the “normal” girl in this story. Even better, they made Chris Pratt a regular as Ann’s freeloader ex-boyfriend, who sometimes lives under a tarp in the pit (“Yeah, the hardest part is keeping my suit pressed”)—he’s completely hilarious. It’s light, it’s quick, and it’s really, really funny; if you like awkward humor but find The Office painful, try Parks and Recreation instead.

How to watch it: P&R had one previous season of six episodes; it’s on DVD, but doesn’t seem to exist anywhere (legally) online. In any case, only the last two or three episodes are worth really watching (the one where Leslie takes Ann as her date to an awards ceremony is, however, pretty priceless). The most recent episodes of the current season are on Hulu and NBC.com.