Tag Archives: FOX

Half-Hour TV for the End of the World (Or Not)

12 Mar

lastmankimmy

Apparently, March is a good month for TV about people who believe themselves to be the last humans alive after the apocalypse—only to discover they’re incorrect. The Last Man on Earth premiered last Sunday with back-to-back episodes on Fox; Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt dropped a complete thirteen-episode season on Netflix four days later. Is this some kind of cultural neurosis we’ve just now uncovered? We’re, what, somehow worried that the Doomsday Preppers bunker we’re building in the backyard might just be a distraction from reality? Or that we (and only we, as individuals) are going to survive the apocalypse we suddenly seem pretty interested in? It feels like a weird coincidence, is all I’m saying.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is terrific. It immediately feels like a classic, the kind of thing that’s going to fold itself seamlessly and completely into the cultural landscape—but then, it’s possible that anything that sounds like Tina Fey automatically sounds like a classic to us now. (Though Kimmy is a thousand times more sure-footed than 30 Rock was in the beginning, or—and I say this with deep affection—possibly ever.) It’s sharp and agile and, at the same time, incredibly solid: dense with spot-on characterization, dense with good jokes, dense with the confidence of knowing exactly what it’s doing.

Kimmy was originally developed for NBC, but ended up on Netflix, which pretty much everybody agrees was the best-case scenario all around. Kimmy is not a network show: it’s very weird and very dark in places, in a way that might not exactly set off the network censors’ sirens, but also might make them feel a bit queasy. It’s also not the kind of thing that might do well on cable: ironically, it’s maybe too sunny, too pro-social, not cynical enough (Kimmy Schmidt is, after all, unbreakable—which is so not what cable is doing these days). But Netflix, which is building a reputation on shows like Orange is the New Black? That’s a good match. And with the freedom from the network system, Kimmy feels like mature work from Tina Fey and Robert Carlock: there’s no ramping-up period, no hunt for what the show is and what it wants to say. It’s immediately funny and immediately clear, and it’s fully formed in a way that week-to-week shows sometimes struggle with.

The Last Man on Earth is also good, and part of its appeal is that it exists at all. The fact that something so strange and abstract could get made, and convince Fox to advertise it, and actually get some ratings, feels improbable and amazing in a world where this year’s Academy Award-winning Best Actress is also—as CBS constantly and gleefully reminds us—the star of the new CSI: Cyber. In that kind of landscape, who wants to go in and pitch a silly, yet expensively shot and production-intensive, sitcom about solitude and the human condition?

Amazingly, Last Man pulls it off, so far. Tonally, it’s like Kimmy Schmidt‘s stoner pal: Kimmy is bright and quick and features Ellie Kemper ruling New York City in light-up hi-tops; Last Man is vast and full of the silence and the color palette of post-apocalyptic Tucson, and some of its jokes a) take awhile and b) involve pick-up trucks full of bowling balls. (A surprising number of the jokes on Last Man revolve around balls of the sports-playing variety, actually. You’ll see.)

What both shows have in common is that they require, and deliver, exceptional performances: Kimmy Schmidt because Kimmy could so easily turn grating; Last Man because, well, there’s nobody else. This is career-making stuff from Ellie Kemper, who commits to Kimmy’s cheerfulness (I never realized before how big her mouth is) but also to a certain steeliness and to the shadow of an incredibly sad past. We’ve seen wide-eyed wonder from her before (Bridesmaids), but this is better: a character rather than a stereotype, and therefore a real opportunity for her as an actor. She’s a tremendously physical performer, and makes it look like she’s not even trying. Forte is in a slightly different position; nobody doubts his talent, but nobody’s had a TV project that grooved with his goofy, slightly poignant sensibility, either—which is, I think we can presume, why he wrote and produced Last Man. It was a good call: capturing the humor of being the last man on Earth, and the total and utter tragedy of the exact same thing, is just the kind of thing a weird, kind of sad guy can pull off. A show that just followed Phil Miller around, Wall-E-style, wouldn’t be the worst thing.

Except. Phil Miller may be the last man on Earth, but it turns out he isn’t the last human on Earth. The last moments of the pilot introduced Kristen Schaal as another survivor; episode three introduced yet another, played by January Jones. I’m just going to say it: this is a LOT of Kristen Schaal. I tend to think she’s funny, but she’s an acquired taste for a lot of people—and as her first live-action leading role, I think this show is going to require more from her than we’ve seen before. I hope she’s able to shed some of the ironic distance she’s built a career on, and invest in the connection that Carol is going to need to be funny and pathetic rather than just plain irritating. That said, the third episode was very good and planted the seeds for some fun sitcom drama in the weeks to come. It’s early yet, but I think greatness—or at least high-quality originality—is at least a possibility there.

TV Judo: The Shifting Physics of The Mindy Project

3 Apr

mindydanny

Good TV can be tough to quantify. It can be serious or funny, glossy or gritty, HBO or Sesame Street, the product of collaboration or a single voice wearing every hat. It’s entertainment for millions of people that we let into our private homes, and our lives, sometimes for years at a time. Sometimes TV is good, but it doesn’t stick in our hearts; sometimes we know it’s shoddy, and we love it anyway. Which brings us to the question that comes up every Tuesday night on Fox: Is The Mindy Project good TV?

In a lot of ways, it isn’t. It’s messy and inconsistent and nonsensical. It has a promising romantic-comedy concept, but haphazard execution. We’re supposed to root for Mindy to find love, but she’s often a terrible person. In a little over a season, four supporting characters have been written out and seven have been written in; the ensemble isn’t really supporting anybody. All told, if thoughtful storylines and polished comedy are your thing, go watch reruns of Modern Family.

But in so many other ways, like joy, delight, hilarity, random hip-hop dancing, and attractive goofballs falling in love, it’s gotten so, so great—from Mindy Kaling loyalty viewing to appointment TV, really, in about six episodes flat. The weird thing is, the bones of the show haven’t changed; a lot of its flaws are written into the premise of the show. But there’s some kind of TV judo going on here, in that the physics have changed. It’s the same show, but in learning to play to its own silly strengths, it feels about a thousand times more magnetic.

For one thing, they’ve stopped the boyfriend carousel and given us something to pay attention to, for now. One difficulty of the romantic-comedy series is the endless stream of love interests, none of whom feel important—especially when there’s an obvious soulmate waiting in the wings. One way to solve this and gain a little momentum is to write in a few significant significant others along the way—your Aidans and your Treys, in Sex and the City parlance, to bring up a show that dealt with this issue pretty well. (Mindy gave this a shot, bringing in Anders Holm as Mindy’s cute minister/missionary fiance, Casey; still, even he never quite stuck.) Another is to cut out the middlemen and just go for it with the obvious soulmate. New Girl dove into this type of storyline last year with Jess and Nick, to excellent results at the time, but it’s turned into a cautionary tale: this post-Nick/Jess season has so little momentum, it’s practically moving backwards.

Regardless, that’s where Mindy seems to be headed: in the last moments before the winter hiatus, Mindy made out with handsome curmudgeon/soulmate Danny Castellano (Chris Messina), rather satisfyingly, in the back of an airplane. This week’s returning episodes ended with them snuggled up together, reading Bridget Jones’s Diary aloud—obvious boyfriend behavior. Whether it’s a good move long-term or not, it’s been a jolt of energy for the show; after the fact, everyone was talking about that airplane kiss. It also, incidentally, condenses all the best parts of the show into one storyline. Mindy and Danny are the most interesting characters in the Mindy universe, and Messina and Kaling are spot-on together, and this just gives them more time to put their flawless comic and romantic chemistry to work, and for Messina to do silly/sexy dances to 90s hip-hop songs. A victory, obviously.

They’ve also stopped the supporting-cast revolving door, which is one of those production-side things that ends up impacting the creative side. Mindy has struggled with its ensemble from the start: who should be in it, how much attention to give them, and who among them is actually funny. (With regards to Ike Barinholtz as Morgan, two words: SMALL DOSES.) But things are getting better! The final casting change took place earlier this season, when Adam Pally, freed up after the cancellation of Happy Endings, joined up as bro-y OB/GYN Peter Prentice—and immediately became the glue of the supporting cast. This character could so easily have been a) an unlovable disaster or b) maybe worse, another supporting doctor who doesn’t quiiiiite have enough to do (sorry Ed Weeks you’re so handsome), but Pally has turned out to be a much-needed source of grounding and focus for the non-Mindy/Danny portion of the cast. Maybe the writing staff just knows what to do with him; maybe Pally himself is just the right amount of cute/skeevy; maybe he plays extra well with his costars; whatever it is, it feels like he’s singlehandedly rescuing the supporting cast.

And, really, they’ve gone for it, and I think that’s the key. Even more than other sitcom casts, this crew is game for goofy, undignified physical comedy. Almost by definition, it doesn’t always work—there was this one time, with a disapproving Mindy and a frat-house stripper pole? But sometimes the payoff is big: Mindy and Danny’s horrifying attempt at airplane-bathroom sex, Danny’s terrible Bridget Jones accent, basically Morgan’s entire existence. Danny’s Aaliyah dance—and I’m sorry to have to say this; I love it, too—makes no sense and isn’t something Danny Castellano would really do, but it’s a tiny, .gif-able moment of joy, and that’s its entire purpose. In a way, it’s the emblematic scene from this season of the show: funny because it’s funny, sweet because it’s sweet, and not totally concerned with making sense. And that’s what makes it great. (That, and Messina’s shoulder-brush. Because, come on.)

This is the last of a three-post series on the Fox Tuesday-night comedy lineup. Hop on over to New Girl here and Brooklyn Nine-Nine here!

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.

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.