Archive | May, 2017

End of Season Report: Master of None, Season 2

30 May

Contrary to the age-old proverb, sometimes absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder. There are many times when two years between seasons of a TV show, a practice which is becoming more and more common, would cause me if not to lose interest in a show, than to at least somewhat forget about a show, and thus lower some of my enthusiasm for the upcoming season, not because of loss of quality but because of loss of momentum. Sometimes that additional time feels just about right though; a needed break to recharge, and even if you forgot exactly how much you liked a show, or had let it sip from your mind for some months, within the first few minutes you remember exactly why you loved it what you loved about it. So was the case with Master of None.

Master of None, while a clever title on its face actually misleading. Jack of All Trades, Master of None the saying goes; a show that fit that model would be a solid but not spectacular show that could be counted on to reach that set level of quality every episode. Master of None, while a better show overall than the aphorism might suggest,  is in fact a master of some while being not quite as masterful with others. The most gimmicky episodes of this season are TV at its very best while the episodes that focus on the continuing storyline are certainly more than decent but don’t quite reach the same peaks.

Master of None is from the Louie school of comedies. The show is a showcase for ideas, short stories, and vignettes that Aziz wants to tell, in whatever form, using the existing characters in whatever way necessary to get these ideas across. This formula has plenty of benefits, but what it isn’t, because it does choose to jump around so much, is a place for well developed characters and story arcs. When Master of Show brings the boldest and most interesting thoughts from Aziz’s head, it succeed wildly, when it attempts to focus on its characters it’s not bad but it’s certainly on shakier footing.

Two absolute standout episodes were “New York I Love You” and “First Date.” “New York, I Love You” which barely even contains Aziz or any of the regular characters spotlights three vignettes of regular blue collar New Yorkers; managing to in a a very short time tell full and realized stories and add the type of little character details that absolutely maximizes the very short amount of time spent with the three primary characters. “First Date” features interspersed footage of the same first date with Dev and several different women, some successes, some disasters, some in between. This is the best of Aziz’s continuing attempts to get at a modern internet-age millennial rom com. It’s funny and true to the experience; I’ve never seen a better realized example of the experience of going on first dates with people you’ve never met before.

With its ongoing season-long plot, primarily about Dev’s experiences with an engaged Italian woman, Francesca, with which he’s smitten, Master of None isn’t quite playing to its strong suit. Dev isn’t a particularly well-developed character; part of us feeling like we know him relies on our fleshed out sense of knowing Aziz Ansari’s comic persona outside of the show. The often substandard acting on Master of None doesn’t quite work as well in this setting also. While the real people play well in some episodes like “Religion” – when the show enters more traditional rom com territory, the commitment and performances are everything .

The last two episodes (“Amarsi Un Po” and “Buona Notte”) are by no means without merit;  the make up a relatively well-crafted hour and a half movie about ill-timed love and how one deal with it. However, it both hued to convention more than Master of None generally does, and more than that wasn’t even the best example of those conventions –it wasn’t the funniest, or the most heartfelt.

I appreciate Aziz’s willingness to be drawn to whatever’s on his mind, and I’d gladly take 10 more episodes of whatever he’s thinking, even if that means the ten won’t necessarily be equally brilliant, but it was a little disappointing to leave on a moment that didn’t express the very best of what Master of None has to offer.

 

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End of Series Report: Girls

24 May

Well, Girls, is over, and without a bang but with a whimper, one of, if not the, most polarizing series of the last decade slides to a pretty placid end. Girls went from being the most buzzed about series before its first episode to, well, just being more or less a TV show during the era of Peak TV by the end, for both better and worse but certainly for the more accurate, because that’s what it was, and that’s how it deserves to be evaluated.

Girls wasn’t a vehicle for some Lena Dunham agenda designed to sew controversy wherever it went. It was a TV show, with characters, and plotlines, and dialogue. On the whole, it was a good one. It was at many times an excellent one, with moments that reached the best of what TV has to offer, but was a little too inconsistent to be considered among that echelon for the entirety of its run.  Just like the meanderings of the protagonists, the show meandered over the course of the six seasons, winding its way back and forth, picking up and dropping stray storylines, raising and lowering in importance the and screen time and value of its non-Hannah characters.

This lack of commitment to a more unified story led to trade off of some absolutely brilliant one off episodes for the occasional lack of focus or clarity or plan that occasionally turned the show down some dead ends. These moments of brilliance include particularly episodes with Hannah, such as season three’s “One Man’s Trash,” in which she spends a weekend with Patrick Wilson, and when Hannah and Jessa visit Jessa’s father upstate (“Video Games”) but also Charlie and Marnie’s reunion in the fifth season (“The Panic in Central Park).

The show tended to recover well from those dead ends; the series never jumped a shark, pulling out of sticky situations and less satisfying storylines to always bring the characters back to interesting places.   The lack of focus, however, caused Girls to have the opposite problem that many 22-episode network programs with more time than material have – with only 10 half hour episodes available, characters and arcs inevitably felt underserved and that was particularly evident in the final season.

The final season was a particularly powerful encapsulation of this trend over the course of the series. This trend was exacerbated in the final seasons for two reasons – the core group of four titular girls that were only tenuously good friends to begin with, were less and less friends as the show went on and they naturally drifted apart, making it harder to give everyone screen time since they were rarely together. At the same time, the universe of characters expanded to the point where Ray and Adam and Eljiah were full-fledged characters who had their own arcs. While this was a testament to what solid characters they became, it then felt like they needed their share of screen time as well.

It’s hard to fit fulfilling stories for all those characters, especially when you want to have more narrowly-focused episodes in just ten half hours. There’s a reason that similar shows with similar episode amounts and run times – Atlanta and Insecure, for example, have kept up, at least so far, with a smaller cast of major characters.

There’s something to be said for being loose and flexible, and diving down those strange rabbit holes – but in that exchange, there has to be enough time left over to cover the amount of story that feels like it needs covering and Girls couldn’t quite get there this season.

It’s worth checking in at least briefly character by character, on the seven who are worth caring about to see where they started and where they ended.

Hannah was the show; Hannah was far more important than any other character, Hannah was the best and most constructed character, and Hannah was the best example of a character who  learned everything and learned nothing over the course of six seasons, which was one of Girls’ greatest gifts; Hannah managed to feel as if she grew as a character while still being in most ways the same person she was at the beginning and that’s impressive and interesting. She has a baby at the end but she’s basically still figuring it out; she manages to keep the baby alive and healthy so far but doesn’t feel far from another minibreakdown at any given minute. Her career evolution was her more traditional arc, and it was never the show’s strongest work. While much of the show felt real, the show’s jump from job to job for Hannah never quite did; everyone complimenting her work so much and so easily sometimes felt cheap. But in terms of personal growth – she’s every bit as needy, as self-centered, but by the end it still feels like she’s come a long way in our six years with us even if that isn’t entirely manifested in her behavior. She’s a mess but she’s somewhere.

Marnie is probably the character who has potentially moved backwards during our time with her. She’s hopefully broken up for Desi for good, but after half a dozen different moments which shouted at her the need to get her shit together; from her reunion with Charlie, to her and Hannah’s trip upstate with Desi, to her being dumped by Ray, it’s hard to imagine what could get through to her.She’s a narcissistic who is so self-involved she doesn’t notice what’s going on with others, be it Charlie or Desi’s drug problems, and can’t conceive of the possibly that Ray would break up with her. She’s the only other girl to make it into the finale; and her love-hate relationship with Hannah seemed to occasionally pop in and out. Often it felt as if their friendship existed only because he had for so long, and sometimes because they had no one else who wanted to listen to them and they mutually used each other. When Hannah’s mom asks what’s next in the finale, she doesn’t really know, and it’s hard to imagine what it could finally take for Marnie to take stock in herself and how she treats others.

Jessa always seemed to have the most functional friendship of all the Girls with Hannah, and while the last season didn’t accomplish everything, it at least gave us a much needed reconciliation between Hannah and Jessa in the penultimate episode. Jessa’s also made strides while being fundamentally the same destructive force she was to start the show; she embarrasses Shoshanna and takes over her networking event for no reason. Still, her heartbreaking relationship with Adam which was cemented and dissolved this season showed a much needed side to Jessa and made me both root for her going forwards and believe she has adopted enough – kicking substance abuse, at the very least, to find a path forwards.

Shoshanna was always the odd Girl out. She had no initial connection to Hannah, and has the least in common with the other girls. And when tensions frayed, and conflicts happened, it became harder and harder to find room for her plots, to pair her with anyone on the show except Ray, and she, more than anyone else, got the short shrift in the final season. The penultimate episode, which was more of a traditional series finale than the actual finale, which served as more of a coda, seemed like a meta-joke on how the show had forgotten about and run out of room for Shosh. All of a sudden, apropos of nothing, she’s gotten engaged to someone we’ve never met. She, in the final scene with all four girls, in the bathroom at her party, tells the other girls, they should call it – she doesn’t want anything to do with them going forwards, and she never had much in common with them before. The sad lesson for Shoshanna seems to be that the other three girls were simply a maelstrom which kept her off the life plan she always wanted.

Elijah gets the most traditional arc in the final season, which was somewhat welcome with the other characters swirling all around him zig zagging left and right. He attempts a return to his old love of theater and is pretty successful against some odds. It would have grown tired if everyone’s story followed this path, but it was definitely a nice moment for Elijah who had become a better and more important character with good reason over the course of the show.

Ray had some heartwarming moments as well but got shafted on his ending; appearing for the last time in the third to last time sharing a kiss with Shosh’s old boss Abigail. The pairing doesn’t really make sense, as Abigail had been nothing but obnoxious in our previous interaction and it seemed as if they were trying to force a quick warm relatively happy ending for Ray by having him share a moment with a character we’ve at least seen before. His arc up to that point, turning over a new leaf upon Hermie’s untimely death and ultimately dumping Marnie was inspired; it would have been nice if he could have gotten the sendoff he deserved (particularly how was he not at Shosh’s party as the only character that’s actually friends with Shosh?).

Adam got shafted even more than Ray when his ending boiled down to marginalizing him in terms of his relationship with Hannah, rather than the fuller character he become over the seasons. His last scene was poignant in and of itself as a realization that both him and Hannah’s yearning for their halcyon days could never be. But he deserved a scene more dedicated to his individual journey, rather than merely his part on Hannah’s.

The last two episodes were fine in and of themselves; all that was disappointing was the lack of story for the non-Hannah characters that got them there. I did like having the second to last be the more traditional finale as a nice change of pace, to relieve the pressure from the finale, and to be one of the smaller episodes that Girls has always done best.

End of Season Report: The Expanse, Season 2

23 May

“I’m into hard sci-fi. Fantasy is bullshit,” Roman DeBeers declaims in Party Down. My feelings certainly don’t run nearly that strong and I’m as big a fan of Game of Thrones as anyone, but there is a thirst for hard sci-fi that really can’t be quenched by anything else.

There’s plenty of sci-fi on TV these days – Westworld, Black Mirror, and Stranger Things for example, which is great for us and great for the genre. But what I (and hopefully Roman) means by hard sci-fi is more than just sci-fi. It’s sci-fi with planets, with space stations, with arcane political configurations, conflicts, and alliances. It’s filled with absolutely nonsensical explanations for technology that still has to be explained and rapid fire series of shouted commands from ship captain to crew that mean nothing in modern English.

And it’s this niche that The Expanse, while never quite expanding too far beyond, satisfies. As a non-science fiction junkie, merely satisfying that niche is not at all a low bar; I won’t watch a sci-fi show simply because I love the genre and I haven’t regularly watched a show on Syfy since Battlestar Galactica. (I haven’t tried the Magicians yet, but that’s not even science fiction anyway and I watched one season of Helix, but I don’t like to talk about that).

As the most successful in the genre this century, BSG is the precedent that every modern hard sci-fi show looks towards. And while I could write a few thousand words on BSG, which I’ve seen all of and have a complicated relationship with, merely chronicling the similarities and differences between The Expanse and BSG should suffice for this moment.

BSG desperately wanted to be important; more than a genre show in both a popularity sense and in a sense of being imbued with more and deeper literary layers of meaning. The Expanse wants that in some degree; it’s almost impossible to make a hard sci-fi show without feeling like it wants to say something about politics and humanity and the future. But The Expanse doesn’t nearly have the pretensions that BSG had. There’s nothing inherently wrong with BSG’s huge ambitions; if you meet them, it’s admirable and incredibly impressive. But BSG’s quest for importance didn’t really hold together on its own, while admittedly, asking some legitimately interesting questions about humanity on the way. More importantly, though, the process of trying to satisfy those ambitious likely exacerbated BSG’s difficulties with some of the more rudimentary pieces of building a successful TV shows, like having developed characters and episode-to-episode consistency.

The Expanse’s plot has, so far, at least, less unnecessary stops and starts as BSG. While the very best BSG may have topped anything in The Expanse, The Expanse has never had an episode anywhere near the worst BSG episodes. The plot moves, and there’s a good sense of forward momentum which would make The Expanse an excellent show for binging. In general, the less pressure to be important, makes The Expanse a relatively less heavy and easier to enjoy show. While The Expanse is hardly light fare, it wouldn’t have to go far to not suffer under the weight of BSG, and merely meeting that burden makes it a more watchable show.

The Expanse does share some of BSG’s flaws. Particularly, choosing plot over character, which is sadly typical of the sci-fi genre. The characters tend to be mere passengers for a wide-ranging plot. Even after two seasons, we know almost nothing about most of the characters with the exception of Shoreh Aghdashloo’s Chrisjen Avasarala, an important diplomat for earth. There’s an utter lack of comic relief as well; like salt, even just a few more grains of humor would go a long way towards making The Expanse even more enjoyable.

Overall though, if you like sci-fi but don’t love it, like me, but want that piece of your diet filled, The Expanse is the place to go like nowhere else right now. It’s not a mystery show, or a dystopian show, or a post apocalyptic show, or a conspiracy show – it’s about complicated interspace politics, and it’s a fun view.

End of Season Report: Big Little Lies

9 May

Big Little Lies blurred the line largely but not entirely successfully between melodramatic pulp and very serious prestige television, producing a miniseries that was quite good but not quite great. Ultimately, Big Little Lies will be remembered best for its performances more than for its characters, and for its characters more than its story which was riveting enough from episode to episode but not quite up to the memorable standards of the canonical HBO shows of the past. The show was not helped by the gimmicks and storytelling methods utilized which served some purpose early on but which also led to a sense of misleading tension in the second half of the series which felt somewhat unfulfilled and took up valuable time that could have been used to spend more time with a couple of less developed characters.

It’s impossible to talk about the series without talking about two storytelling gimmicks which are used throughout the series and which may have initially served a smart and interesting subversive purpose but which through their continued use over the entire course of the series, felt distracting and a waste of screen time.

First, right from the very beginning, there’s the posing of the story as a murder mystery, by way of flash forwards showing two detectives investigating a murder. The detectives reveal only that there’s been a murder, but not of or by whom. Having seen this type of set up on many shows (Damages comes to mind), and not knowing much about the source material, for the first couple of minutes I though Big Little Lies was a murder mystery in which I would speculate who would be killed and by whom and that the case would slowly unfold over the course of the series, leading up to a climax where the case is solved or the murderer confesses in the last episode. It’s not and it doesn’t.

Second, the series is dotted from the start with the inter-splicing of several talking heads. Other moms, dads, and school officials from around Monterey, California, outside of the primary nine moms and dads exchange trashy rumors and gossip about those nine in the context of each being interviewed by the police after the murder, dishing on why each and every one of the major characters might be involved in the murder. This led me to believe Big Little Lies would be a Mean Girls for moms (“Mean Moms”), about the uber competitive nature of rich white moms in a chichi lefty California beach town. This was also a feint; it’s not what the show is about at all, and much like the murder mystery red herring, this feels like a little trick to deceive the viewer. Big Little Lies is certainly somewhat trashy, but more serious and character-driven than these gimmicks would have you believe.

The only purpose I can see for both of these story-telling gimmicks is to subvert our expectations into what kind of show Big Little Lies is, and in that purpose they are successful. Still, these two devices appear over and over throughout the entire run of the show and I can’t help but feel like the subversion, which revealed itself by the third episode at the latest, is not worth the use of all this valuable storytelling and character building time. Time which could be used to flesh out, say, Bonnie, who plays a pivotal role in the final moments despite never being afforded the character depths of Madeline, Celeste, or Jane. If absolutely necessary, having a flash forward for maybe five minutes at the beginning of the first episode would still have been a little strange and distracting but would have more than sufficed as the requisite red herring.

What Big Little Lies does have is excellent actors at its heart, especially the three core actresses, Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, and Shailene Woodley who play the biggest and best characters Madeline, Celeste, and Jane respectively.  All three of their storylines are moving, well-acted and play off each other very well. Jane’s struggles with her past rape play off of Kidman’s current difficulties coping with her abusive husband, even while no one else within the show knows about Celeste’s husband’s monstrous behavior. Everyone in the town sees Celeste as the bad-ass drop-dead gorgeous corporate lawyer with the perfect marriage who make the sacrifice of giving up her career to raise her kids entirely of her own volition. Madeline, who never got the education or career she wishes she had, is envious of the careers Celeste and Laura Dern’s Renata made for themselves, as well as frustrated that her ex, who was admittedly immature and unready for children when they were married, has put it all together just in time to marry a beautiful younger woman. She struggles for purpose, digging in to fights with her children, with her husband, and with Renata as outlets to channel her frustration. Jane is still dealing with her rape, which she never disclosed to anyone, with her raising a child on her own, and with the possibility, no matter how small, that her kid might not the sweet little harmless child she has presumed his entire life. The conflicts between non-character kids allow the actual character parents to fight amongst themselves in realistic ways without any one of them being completely at fault.

Big Little Lies more than anything gives these these actresses a showcase for their talents and puts them in roles that are juicy but which allow them to outshine the roles; without the layered portrayals, these roles simply wouldn’t work. We have to believe Madeline really feels conflicted about her affair; that she wants to remain with her husband but she also can’t seem to help but look elsewhere and that her having both of these opposing feelings is consistent with her character.  She knows what she did was stupid, but she wanted it in during the moment. Not that it’s necessary by any means to root for a character for it to be a good character, but Witherspoon makes us want to root for Madeline in spite of her shitty behavior towards her husband and erratic behavior towards her kids. She manages to portray Madeline as spiraling somewhat out of control without ever making her comical or campy.

Nicole Kidman manages to make us really understand what’s going through Celeste’s mind in a role where she’s far more reticent than Witherspoon’s Madeline. On the journey Celeste makings from thinking her marriages has problems but is salvageable to realizing she has to leave her husband, Kidman makes us understand viscerally and emotionally why she, a brilliant woman, doesn’t want to leave, and doesn’t want anyone else to know, and that why, as a lawyer, even though on some layer she understands what’s happening, she still feels like she can’t, doesn’t want to, or shouldn’t do anything about it. When Celeste eventually leaves, we know the exact proximate factor is her son becoming a bully, but to fully convince, we have to feel Celeste has turned a corner over the course of the show and is ready to leave, and because of Kidman we do.

Shailene Woodley has a slightly easier job than Kidman or Witherspoon, but she still executes it to perfection as Jane, the new, poor, mom in town trying to fit in to a town in which she doesn’t really belong. Madeline’s introduction to Jane is the first sign that Big Little Lies isn’t the type of show it tries to pass itself off as initially. Instead of hostile and alienating, type A mom Madeline is overly welcoming to Jane, no matter how different she is, and perhaps partly because of it, and though Jane struggles with fish-out-of-water situation, it’s much less an important theme to her character that one would think based on the on-paper description.

Big Little Lies couldn’t quite make it all the way to the difficult task of having all this believable character conflict with no actual villain. In order to make just about every other character on the show three-dimensional and at least somewhat easy to root for, the show stuffed all of the antagonism deep within Alexander Scarsgard’s Perry, making him one truly evil dude.  Jane is worried over the course of the show that her abuser’s innate evil somehow seeped down into her child, which it didn’t, but Perry’s behavior did influence his children, as the slow building reveal is that Renata’s daughter’s abuser was not in fact Jane’s child, but Celeste and Perry’s. When Celeste realizes that her kids are actually suffering from Perry’s abuse towards her, she decides to leave, and that sets off the final actions leaving to Perry’s death. So Perry is not only responsible for beating Celeste, but is actually responsible for the bullying between children that leads to Renata and Madeline’s fight that dominates the first half of the show.

The general build to the ending is largely well-executed, particularly the changing relationships between the moms. The ending is somewhat anticlimactic. The murder feels out of place for the story being told, and by the time it happens, it’s fairly easy to guess who is going to get murdered, if not who actually commits the murder which really doesn’t seem to be all that important in the context of the show anyway.

There are two final issues with the ending. First, Perry being Jane’s rapist comes absolutely out of nowhere and feels so out of place and unnecessary. Yes, technically there’s no reason he couldn’t be, but it’s beyond random, and only foreshadowed in that he’s the only character it could be if it had to be a character we know on the show. Everything was set up for her actual rapist to be unseen; and the groundwork was so well laid for her to be able to empathize with Celeste simply through their shared experiences, rather than needing to have suffered the abuse at the hands of the same person.

Secondly, all the women banding together to lie to the police makes sense for the literary purpose of sealing their bond as a group, but doesn’t make a whole ton of practical sense at the moment. The homicide was very obviously accidentally and in self-defense and was perfectly and pretty clearly justifiable and keeping their stories straight would be much more difficult than the alternative. This is much less of an issue than the previous, and I’m nitpicking a little bit, but it felt like their lying was forced to give them all this secret, rather than what they would these characters would actually do.

Big Little Lies is definitely an overall win and a nice little miniseries delivered at the beginning of a year. It was extremely bingable; I watched it over the course of a couple days, and it’s very digestible. It’s not going to be remembered as an all-time classic, or an absolute must-watch. But for a weekend in, it hits the spot.