Tuesday, March 22, 2016

I Saw This!!: A few words on works of television

More like "I Sat on This!!"  I started writing this in December of 2015 and plum forgot that I hadn't finished it.

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The Jinx (6 episodes) - HBO
Silicon Valley (season 1) - HBO
Wayward Pines (5 episodes) - Fox
Transparent (season 1) - Amazon/Shomi
Fresh Off The Boat (season 1) - ABC/Shomi
7 Days in Hell (special) - HBO
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (7 episodes) - BBC
The Wrong Mans (season 1) - BBC/Shomi
Fargo (Season 2)

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If I don't write many movie reviews anymore, it's because I'm not watching that many movies.  I'm too busy watching TV.  While TV has always been loveable, a perfectly adequate and enjoyable way to pass time, it rarely had the stigma of fine art and impeccable storytelling, not like film.  Because of the nature and demands of American television networks in the past, shows used to have to skew as broadly as possible such as not to upset anyone, and to have a generic enough premise with generic enough characters so as to sustain 5 to 10 seasons worth of storytelling.

Of course, with the influx of specialty channels, pay cable, streaming services, and more the demand and desire for original programming is at an all-time peak, and TV show creators (and the people that fund them) want nothing more than to stand out from the crowd.  How best to do that?  Be worth watching, tell an engaging, uniform story, with great characters and in a visual style that is cinema-quality.  Special effects can't measure up to a 200 million dollar blockbuster, that's for sure, but they can do enough to get the point across (and tell the viewer that the focus is more character than spectacle).

Television is so good today, and so plentifully good that it's legitimately frustrating.  Programming one's evening to optimize viewing time is almost a regular affair, and it's hard enough to just keep up with the shows that are currently running, never mind going back and watching ones that have ended or, Cthulhu forbid, watching a beloved show again.

Here I present some thoughts on a bunch of notable new-ish television I've been watching.

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We've been watching Game of Thrones through whatever means necessary in prior years (but always backing up our viewing with a purchase of the Blu-Ray set upon release), but this year we went legit, subscribing to HBO for its 10-week cycle.  This gave us access to a wealth of HBO-On-Demand programming which finally let me check out a number of shows people had been talking about but I otherwise would not have seen.

The Jinx naturally made a huge splash early this year with the surprise (and spoiler-filled) news of Robert Durst's arrest.  This six-part documentary examines Durst's life, his criminal history (both official and alleged), and the various crimes he's seemingly gotten away with, including the murders of his wife, his best friend, and a neighbour.  This is all framed with the usual talking heads-style commentary from people related to the story, but made fascinating even further by an in-depth, on-camera interview with a fully cooperative (if not really truthful) Robert Durst.

As far as examinations into true crime go, this is easily a high watermark.  Director Andrew Jarecki, who made another benchmark true crime documentary with Capturing the Friedmans, legitimately tries to maintain objectivity in the face of overwhelming (if largely circumstantial) evidence that points to Dursts involvement in his wife's disappearance and his best friend's murder.  Meanwhile he has to answer for the murder and dismemberment to which he fully admitted to doing but was acquitted of any wrongdoing.  Durst is a fascinating figure.  Even with a record of cold blooded, calculated murder, he still is completely unassuming on camera.  Not charming in the least, but genuinely intriguing.  He speaks in a curious croak with beady, darting eyes that project a constructed frailty, he plays the genial patsy but is a legit criminal mastermind.  Amateur psychologists will have a field day watching this.

The show ends with a stick of verbal dynamite, and the story behind it is as fascinating as what happens itself.  Even if you know what it is, it's still a massive "Holy shit!" moment that will have you rubbing your eyes in disbelief... and if you don't know how it ends, spare yourself the curiosity until you actually watch the show.  It's insane.  If I had to quibble, Jarecki and company do mess with the timeline of events late in the show (as reported on the internet) for storytelling purposes, which is an unfortunate side effect of being "entertainment programming" rather than straight up journalism.  It's not terribly crucial but understanding there's any deceit in the storytelling leads one to question much else of what we've seen.

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Another HBO show comedy fans won't shut up about, Silicon Valley is the latest show from King of the Hill/Beavis & Butthead/Office Space creator Mike Judge.  I was expecting a transcendent comedy experience and instead found another outstanding, thoughtful, insightful, and rewarding Judge creation that was less about manufacturing laughs than about telling a meaningful character story that happens to be humorous as well.

The show zeroes in on Thomas Middleditch, an unassuming, awkward programmer working and living in the same house with a small group of other programmers (Kumail Nanjiani, Martin Starr) and their benefactor (TJ Miller), creating intellectual property which hopefully will break big.  Middleditch stumbles upon a compression algorithm that winds up in a bidding war between Hooli, a Google analog, and an Elon Musk-style genius/venture capitalist.  Turning up a 10 million dollar offer, he takes the small development handout and the majority percentage ownership and he and his small team get to work on building a company out of a suburban home.  Much of the show focuses on how uncomfortable and ill-suited Middleditch's character is with leading the charge for what could be a massively successful and revolutionary product.  Not helping is the additional pressure of Hooli's attempts to go to market first and reverse engineer his code, or equally Miller's loudmouth pothead character who should at this point be a silent 10% investor and is instead anything but.

 The show has a strong cast of characters and performers which allows it to take comedic diversions without distracting from the more naturalistic elements of the show. It dwells heavily in the world of tech culture and the socially awkward personalities that dominate it, doing so in a manner that doesn't feel exploitative, but equally doesn't accept it as (it seems to be of the opinion people can change).


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Oh Wayward Pines.  You tried so hard.  Too hard.  You wanted to be what you couldn't, because we already have Twin Peaks.  Based on a series of novels (which own up to their Lynch-ian influence), Wayward Pines was shepherded into existence for the summer TV schedule (home to many a middling genre programming) by M. Night Shyamalan, whose predilection for story twists has audiences anticipating and mocking him, sometimes simultaneously.  Pines is filled with twists, each episode doling out one, two or sometimes much more of them, but rarely doing so with any real craft or effectiveness.  The plot has Matt Dillon's FBI agent on the search for two other agents who have disappeared.  He gets Doc Hollywooded into Wayward Pines where he finds one of them long dead, and the other many years older and quite settled into the sleepy environment that's oxymoronically draconian and utopic.  Public executions take place in the streets for disobeying the town's rules (which feel about as simplistic as those accompanying a Mogwi in Gremlins) and everything appears to be on camera or audio recorded.

It's all so sinister, so anyone who seems happy with the status quo seems in on it, and if they're not then it's all the more creepy.  The show aims for a Lost-like formula whereby it introduces new mysteries each time they expose one, only Lost had the benefit of engaging and mysterious characters as well as an engaging and mysterious setting and overall narrative.  Pines just has the town, and its mysterious quite quickly become maddeningly ridiculous (or perhaps even guiltily enjoyable).  It all culminates in the fifth episode whereby Hope Davis teaches the students of the local Academy all about the town's history while Matt Dillon silently scales the city's wall, discovering for himself its awful secret.  As clunky as the first four episodes were, the fifth is a masterpiece of exposition, one that somehow makes an undeniably ridiculous scenario seem totally logical.  I was beyond impressed.  And yet, I stopped watching with that episode.  I had no burning desire to continue the series and I still feel completely uninvested in it or its events.  I don't think a bad story really, but the show certainly wasn't executed well overall.

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We started watching Transparent shortly after we finished watching Sense8, coincidentally more than by design.  Though there's little similarity between the shows, I mention it because, as per its title, it too features a lead trans character as well as bisexual and gay characters in its main cast.

Jeffrey Tambor is the trans parent of the title who, in their advancing retirement years, finally decides to embrace who they feel most comfortable being, becoming Maura and moving into a trans-friendly community as part of the transition.  The show doesn't just follow Maura's transition, but her whole family, who as the children of a neurotic mother and distant, psychology professor father, are all a bit askew in the world.  Eldest daughter Sarah rekindles a romance with her college lover, terminating two marriages in the process, while youngest daughter Ali still struggles with adulthood and responsibility well into her thirties.  Middle child Josh suffers form anger and trust issues, having had an unstable romantic relationship with his childhood babysitter for years, and (not coincidentally) using his position as a music promoter to curry the favor of young female musicians.

The show can be wickedly funny and squeamishly uncomfortable in equal measure.  The Pfefferman clan hits just that precise level of self-involved assholishness that it makes them uneasy to watch or even care for.  If it weren't for Maura's sympathetic journey, it would be intolerable, but Maura's transition is dealt with in such a positive and favourable light that it gives a bright center for these dark spirals of characters to orbit around.

The best handled aspects of the show are the flashbacks, which largely show Mort as he tries to come to terms with who he is 15 to 20 years in the past.  For a lot of his journey, he's accompanied by Bradley Whitford who portrays a transvestite, and they retreat away to hotels on weekends to dress up.  This culminates in a brilliant full-flashback episode where the two go to a camp for transvestites and Maura encounters the prejudice they have towards transexuals there.

Most episodes have particular moments that stick in your brain, either by subject matter or by visual craft.  Perhaps the best episode deals with Ali's relationship with Dale, a transsexual she met through her father's sessions, which seems to be portrayed as something a little unhealthy as she's denigrated and the submissive, only to be revealed to Ali's own surprise as something far more awkward and confused.  This spin on fantasy versus reality doesn't actually have any logic in how its presented, but it allows for so much pondering on themes of identity, desire, and fantasy as well as delving into Ali's psyche in an indirect fashion.

It's a brilliant and challenging show.  I never look forward to watching it, but once I start, I binge on two or three episodes before I have to stop.  I feel overwhelmed, and yet I also feel rewarded.

(Supplementary Note: Even though Season 2 has completed and we have access to it, I'm finding it hard to bring myself to watch it. )

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Family comedies haven't really been my thing since the late 1980s, and yet here I am regularly watching Fresh Off The Boat.  Based (loosely, and somewhat contentiously) off Eddie Huang's memoir, the series first season finds young Eddie moving to Miami with his family as his father starts a new restaurant.  Early on the series dealt with some of the more difficult elements of the transition, mainly being Chinese in a predominantly white city, as well as the hardships of establishing a new business, always with little peculiar touches that differentiated itself from other shows, but establishing itself on the same playing field as Malcolm In The Middle and Everybody Hates Chris before it.  As the show got deeper into its half-season order, it started to eschew the moments of drama and the darker elements of their life to focus more on the absurdist comedy (where things like the "success perm" and Jessica's gaydar blindness seed themselves as running gags).  Like The Wonder Years or Everybody Hates Chris, the adult Eddie acted as narrator, and as such the show largely revolved around him.  Eddie identifying with 90's hip-hop, having a crush on his older neighbor, and feuding with kids at school were key parts of his story entering the 7th grade at a new school.  His younger brothers Emory and Evan seemed to have an easier time adjusting, the former a schoolyard Lothario, the latter an extremely bright student and social butterfly among the adult neighbors.  Where Eddie is a disappointment to the standards of a Chinese child, having little interest in educational pursuits and defying his parents regularly, Emory and Evan both are dutiful children who enjoy their disciplinary tiger-mom.

The real Huang became publicly disgruntled with the show's direction, which put him at odds with the producers and network as the show became the first successful Asian American-led network sitcom.   Just as the writer decided to distance himself from the show, so too did the program decide to distance itself from Huang's source material, for season 2 it dropped its narration and expanded the focus on all of the family members for its full-season order.  It's first season was solid, but this second season has been far more entertaining, fleshing out both its major and minor characters in more interesting (and often sillier) ways.  It playfully toys with both Chinese and Chinese-American culture, fielding an even mix of the real and surreal, showing elements of American culture that the Huangs (as individuals and as a family) have glommed onto, and also highlighting some other aspects of Americana that still elude them.

The show uses its 90's setting to great effect, putting a spotlight on some of the cultural touchstones from the time, whether it be Shaquille O'Neil's ill-fated Shaq-Fu video game or a Janet Jackson concert, there's equal time for reverence, nostalgia, and mockery.

Where the show triumphs is in its dense supporting cast, including the team at Louis' Cattleman's Ranch restaurant, Jessica's family from D.C., or Eddie's misfit group of friends at school.  But the main cast is resoundingly great.  Randall Park has deserved a spotlight show for years, and has finally found it.  Constance Wu makes Jessica one of the liveliest characters on television, while the trio of Hudson Yang, Forrest Wheeler and Ian Chen as Eddie, Emory and Evan respectively are three immensely delightful young actors who manage to eschew precociousness or excessive cuteness that so many family comedies rely upon.  Especially in season 2, Emory and Evan are given room to grow as characters, rather than the more one-note jokes they were in the first season.  As a whole it's a genuine delight.

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I'm not certain what spurred HBO on to make 7 Days In Hell. At 50-ish minutes, it's not a movie-length production, and it feels more like it would fit on ESPN despite it's satirical nature (I think ESPN should have more original scripted programming that's very sports-centric).  The special is a talking heads mocumentary ala Zelig or the Rutles about an epic 7-day match between the top tennis players of the early 2000's at Wimbledon.  The players are Aaron Williams, the adopted brother of Venus and Serena Williams, played by Andy Samberg (so immediately you see the humor in that family dynamic), and Charles Poole, a dimwitted prodigy played by Game of Thrones' Kit Harrington.  The special doesn't demand deep knowledge of Tennis, but does request some familiarity.  If you don't know the structure of the game, at least somewhat loosely, nor do you know the more famous commentators/ex-players like John McEnroe or Chris Evert it's going to lose you somewhat.

But the production is very entertaining, focusing on the manufactured rivalry between Williams (the bad boy superstar of the game) and Poole once idolized Williams, but is manipulated exceedingly by his mother (Mary Steenburgen) and manager (Fred Armisen).  There's a lot of sports and sports-biography stereotypes put through their paces, mostly hitting on the funny, but occasionally falling flat.  Top marks go to Michael Sheen as the aging, salacious British talk show host drooling over Poole through a chain of cigarettes and whiskey on air.  The tennis itself is a joke, both players rather than being so good having instead a crazy rash of illnesses, overdoses and other afflictions.  It all ends in a somewhat unsatisfying fashion, leaving no closure (as well as the absence of the two stars from the talking heads), and yet not really having anywhere else of go when it's all said and done.  It's a definite curiosity, the like you don't see too often, as it's not a film, nor a sketch.

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Magic isn't really my thing, man.  I mean magic as a superpower, or as a trope of fantasy. It's so nebulous and unspecific such that it can pretty much do anything, the consummate Deus Ex Machina.  The  rules of magic, the limitations of it, how one can wield it better than another...these are all things that rarely have good definition in a story.  It's magic, so there's often no logic for it, nor is there a how or a why.  I guess I just don't get it most of the time.  But I got Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, I got it almost immediately.  The magic wielded in this mini-series, based off the novel by Susanna Clarke, all comes from textbooks, and are limited mostly to the incantations inscribed.  Sure it ventures somewhat outside of that, but it's knowledge, it's studies, and understanding.  It's more like science in this series than magic, even though it does fantastical stuff.

Harry Potter spent a good seven novels (and eight films) building a world around magic and magic learning, and while I found that series to be generally palatable, it was still full of mystical mumbo jumbo and an overwhelming number of magic peoples that it still put me off a little.  Meanwhile Strange & Norrell takes place in the very specific era of the 19th Century Napoleonic Wars, an establishes a very tangible English society that the characters live in.  At this time, Mr. Norrell (Eddie Marsan) is the main keeper of the mystic texts and the sole purveyor of magic.  It's otherwise a largely distant memory in the public consciousness.  Mr. Norrell offers up his services to English army to help protect and advance the homeland's interests, gaining some powerful political allies in the process.  When Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel) comes along, a gifted amateur who seeks tutelage under the only magician in the land, Mr. Norrell is both excited and wary.  It's his pleasure to finally have an associate, but the fact that Strange seems so much more adept and agile at spell casting troubles him, and his ego.

Ultimately, Strange realizes he's surpassed his master, though he still reveres him and his intelligence, Norrell seethes with jealousy and envy, and seeks to spite his pupil and stunt his growth any way possible, yet every turn seems to only build his legend more.  Norrell seeks power, gains and abuses it, while Strange left somewhat untrained messes with forces he's not quite equipped to control or contain.  While the world wages war around them, they wage war with one another and it's fairly intense, as the audience can see it fall apart from the beginning but are also keenly aware there's little these two men can do to stop it.  It's a fantastic production, utterly engrossing, and both Strange and Norrell are such deep characters, where they could have been made so thin.  Marsan and Carvel are fantastic in the lead roles conveying all manner of subtlety, foregoing scene chewing or overt theatrics.  Like their magic, their performances are ones of nuance.

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Another British import, but of a completely different sort, The Wrong Mans is a mistaken identity comedy that somehow manages to trump all mistaken identity comedies that came before it.  Over six episodes writers/stars James Corden and Mathew Baynton manage to exploit and exacerbate every trope of the subgenre while playing up most of the conventional action movie tropes at the same time.  The result winds up a genuinely compelling action-mystery that just so happens to be quite hilarious.  Rather remarkably on a modest budget the show manages to maintain the tension of an action vehicle without really containing that much action, but when it does it looks pretty good.  It constructs itself around a genuine mystery for the characters to solve.  Where most mistaken identity comedies have the audience in on the truth and watching the character bumble their way through it, this one unfolds in as engrossing a fashion as any of your binge-worthy peak-TV series.

What The Wrong Mans does both to differentiate itself and make it so entertaining is it keeps doubling down on the mistaken identity.  Each episode seems to thrust Baynton's hapless character into another alias or misunderstanding that pushes him deeper into the web of corruption and crime that the show takes place.  Baynton does hapless well, and seems out of his depth perpetually throughout, even at the successful resolution.  Cordon does a satisfying job filling the role of the desperate clinger-on, a very Nick Frost-type part at first but the show does an effective job at humanizing him and not just making him pathetic comic relief (or simply a situation exacerbater).

The show works both as a whole and as an episodic.  There are clearly defined breaks, but it all still seamlessly runs together like a 3 hour film.  This one came recommended and I wholeheartedly pay that recommendation forward.  There is a second, 4-episode season that I've still yet to get to, but I hear is quite complimentary and equally enjoyable.

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Fargo Season 1 was an utter surprise, managing to capture a Coen Brothers-esque flavour without aping or parroting.  It was a show that forged its own path, with a debt owed to its source that it repayed tenfold.  In this golden age of television, Fargo managed to be one of the shiniest spots.  Given that it was a complete story told over ten episodes, one had to wonder where a second season would go, and whether it was even necessary.  One also had to wonder whether the Fargo crew shouldn't quit while they were ahead, seeing as what they got away with in season 1 was a minor miracle.

Once again, defying expectations, Fargo Season 2 came in and blew the excellent first season out of the water.  Like the source and Season 1, Season 2 is a crime story taking place in the Northern Mid-west States in 1979, the tale of two mob factions gone to war, the troubled husband and wife caught in the middle of it, and the police who are trying to understand what is happening and how to quash it.

Season 1 had a dynamite cast, and Season 2 kept up the caliber, with Patrick Wilson, Jean Smart, Ted Danson, Kirsten Dunst, Bokeem Woodbine, Jeffrey Donovan, and more.  Every single player in the very deep cast is excellent, some new(ish) players doling out very take-notice performances.

Not just satisfied with simply telling an already engrossing story of these characters and their lives, creator/showrunner Noah Hawley also seeds through the show with a number of different themes as part of its backdrop, including Reagan's presidential run, feminism, and UFO sightings.  The density of Howley's storytelling, coupled with his astounding visual flourishes (frequent use of split screens and screen wipes, which were very much a staple of 1970's cinema) and a killer soundtrack (both the song selection and the score from Jeff Russo are dynamite) all contribute to one of the most immersive television experiences that demands revisiting.  With this second season the show crawls out of the shadow of the Coens, but once again begs the question "What's next?"  Again, I wonder if perhaps they shouldn't quite while they're ahead, but now I'm more curious than ever to see where (and when) they go and what they come up with.  Simply the best television has to offer.

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And this is what I watched as of mid-late 2015.  I've been subsequently watching this stuff...