Wednesday, February 29, 2012

New Smash clips promise sex, love and drama

I don't know about you, but I'm quite enjoying Smash. I like the musical numbers, the backstage drama, and the lived-in feel of many of the show's longstanding relationships, particularly Tom and Julia and Derek and Eileen. I didn't even hate Nick Jonas' guest appearance. Plus, for the moment, the terrible adoption storyline and the Ellis-the-assistant drama have faded into the background, for which I am truly grateful.

This is all to say that I'm quite excited for the next episode, and the three preview clips floating around the internet have only increased my impatience. The first clip amps up the drama, spotlighting Ivy and Karen's rivalry, which reaches a breaking point when Derek (who is in jerk mode here) has Karen show Ivy how to do Marilyn (via TVLine):

I like this scene because it highlights both girls' insecurities. Karen is just trying to make it through rehearsal without bringing Ivy's wrath down on her, and she's incredibly hurt by Ivy's petty, jealous machinations. Ivy, meanwhile, knows that Karen almost got the part over her, and she's not only pissed, she's incredibly upset that Derek - her boyfriend - is doing this to her. I really, really hope that this incident demonstrates to Ivy that Derek, not Karen, is the one she should be mad at. (Also, while I quite enjoyed McPhee's performance of "Happy Birthday" in the pilot, this one did nothing to convince me that she would be a better Marilyn. Point Ivy.)

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Some suggestions for the new True Blood showrunner

Photo courtesy of

TVLine reported yesterday that Alan Ball, creator of Six Feet Under and True Blood, will be leaving the vampire drama after the show's fifth season, according to HBO:
“When we extended our multi-year overall deal with Alan Ball in July 2011, we always intended that if we proceeded to True Blood’s sixth season that Alan would take a supervisory role on the series and not be the day-to-day showrunner. If we proceed to season six, the show will remain in the very capable hands of the talented team of writers and producers who have been with the show for a number of years. This is the best possible world for both HBO and Alan Ball.”

Let's renew Community so that Alison Brie and Gillian Jacobs stop crying


This Daily Beast interview with the women of Community - cast members Gillian Jacobs, Alison Brie and Yvette Nicole Brown and writer Megan Ganz - is fascinating for a number of reasons. They address issues of slut shaming, infantilization as sexiness, rape jokes and teenage girls on film with a great blend of candor, humor and charm. All gets overshadowed, however, when first Jacobs and then Brie break down in tears when discussing the possibility of cancellation. My whole brain is crying just reading it.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Let's talk about the new Game of Thrones trailer

This full-length trailer for everyone's favorite epic fantasy series is here, and it is seriously fantastic.

There are a host of things to get excited about here, but my favorite is, of course, Daenerys Targaryen vowing to raze cities with the power of her dragons. I am ready for the rise of badass Daenerys (it seems wrong to call the woman "Dany" when she's showing such blatant bloodlust). And those baby dragons are the cutest killing machines since the direwolves.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Trying to understand the 30 Rock backlash

Jesse David Fox over at Splitsider has perfectly explained my disagreement with the critical backlash directed against 30 Rock's sixth season, citing the show's newfound sentimentality and character development:
When you ask the viewer to invest more in the characters, there is a greater possibility of them not liking whom they see. Early this month NPR posted a decidedly myopic argument about how Liz Lemon has become a needy toddler. They wrote, at 30 Rock’s “core, initially, was a likable, smart, profoundly flawed woman trying her hardest to navigate all manner of show-business nuttiness that surrounded her. Now, she just seems flattened and robbed of everything that made her relatable.” If anything, Liz, by becoming less flattened and more specific, has become harder to project oneself upon, which NPR seemingly confused with regression. Liz is not devolving, if anything this season is about her growing more comfortable with her absurd surroundings. She is further freed up by her relationship with Criss. Of all Liz’s boyfriends, he has been the most accepting of all her quirks, saying in the Valentine’s Day episode, “You can get mad at dumb stuff, that’s your thing. I’ll get over it, that’s my thing.” With a supportive environment like this, Liz has never been more able to let her freak flag fly, which for her means dressing like The Joker if he was an crazy old lady.
I pointed to 30 Rock's newfound heart in my review of the season's first episode, and my fondness for the new tone has only increased. Fox mentions one of my absolute favorite moments from the show's hourlong Valentine's Day episode: the way Criss easily moves past the fight he and Liz had by not only acknowledging her crazy, but accepting it and loving her for it.

The reason that I loved this moment, just as I loved Criss' earlier refusal to get drawn into Jack's attempt to control Liz's love life, was the maturity it signaled for their relationship. Real, adult relationships don't happen if one party is completely changing themselves for the other person. They happen because two people accept each other's flaws and accomodate them*. Criss loves Liz enough that he doesn't care if she gets mad at dumb stuff, and he's able to handle her crazy because of that love. Criss might be an unemployed guy whose goal in life is to run an organic hot-dog stand, but that scene showed his maturity. Like I said of the season premiere, I really want to see Liz Lemon ride off into the sunset at the end of series, and her relationship with Criss seems to be inching the character closer to that goal.

Liz isn't the only character undergoing some changes; Jack, in last week's fantastically weird Dark Knight parody, allows his uncertainty over his job, the loss of Avery, his daughter and his city to paralyze him, while Jenna and Paul's relationship, despite it's absolute insanity, grows more grounded every week. Really, though, my first love on 30 Rock is always Liz Lemon. If she's happy, I'm happy, and so I'm loving every minute of this season.

*I'll admit that one reason I love this moment so much is because it strongly resembles my own relationship, where I'm the crazy Liz and my fiance is the calm Criss, so I might a little biased.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Check out this piece on Splitsider!

Photo courtesy of

If you happen to have a few minutes to devote to something other than rejoicing over the return of Community, you should check out this piece on Bridesmaids over at Splitsider. It perfectly expresses my opinions about the movie, which might be because I wrote it. Or that might not be the reason. (It totally is though). So take a moment to read it, and try to refrain from writing overly nasty comments, okay?

We have officially exited the darkest timeline

There's not much more to add. In celebration, the pencil TV's goatee will be coming off, because we no longer need to break into a better timeline. Six seasons and a movie!

UPDATE: Alright, there are some things to add. For information about how Community's return affects NBC's Thursday night lineup, check out Splitsider.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

What's the greatest Simpsons episode?


Tonight, The Simpsons will air "At Long Last Leave," the groundbreaking series 500th (!) episode. While there are those who argue that the show should have bowed out years ago, the 500-episode milestone is an undoubtedly impressive accomplishment that has inspired anyone and everyone to reflect on the series. While some writers - like The Guardian's Euan Ferguson - have written about the elements that make The Simpsons great, the majority have gone the route of choosing a favorite episode (or episodes) and situating it within the context of the series as a whole.

One of the most remarkable things about reading these pieces is the sheer variety of picks. Andrew Farago at the Washington Post chose the heartfelt second-season outing "Lisa's Substitute," while HitFix's Alan Sepinwall went with the fourth season's "Homer the Heretic." Both Hank Azaria and Time's James Poniewozik chose the darkly satiric "Homer's Enemy," which aired in the eight season, and Entertainment Weekly's Dan Snierson picked season four's "Duffless."

USA Today went straight to the source, asking creators Matt Groening and James L. Brooks and producers Al Jean, Mike Reiss, David Mirkin, Josh Weinstein and Mike Scully to list their favorite episodes, and there was surprisingly little overlap, with only three episodes making an appearance on more than one list: Brooks and Mirkin included the satiric two-parter "Who Shot Mr. Burns?" (seasons six and seven), while Brooks and Jean both chose the series' pilot, "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire," and Jean and Groening both nodded to the current season's "Holidays of Future Passed."

The disparity of opinions is due not just to the number of episodes that have aired, but also the many different tones the show has taken over the course of its run. Episodes like "Lisa's Substitute," "Holidays of Future Passed" and "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire" are heartfelt, family centric outings. "Duffless" and "Homer the Heretic" are stuffed with hilarious gags and over-the-top setpieces. "Who Shot Mr. Burns?" is a sharply satiric pop-culture parody, and "Homer's Enemy" is a darkly comic exploration of stupidity triumphing over aptitude. The Simpsons has made use of an incredibly diverse range of styles and viewpoints over the years, but the fact that it remains recognizable is one of the series' greatest achievements.

And yes, I am going to offer my choice for the best Simpsons  episode of all time. The excessively long lead-up is just a way of saying that I had a really, really difficult time choosing just one of the 499 existing half-hours, and that I'm certainly not claiming that my pick is the alpha and omega of Simpsons episodes, because there are so many others that are just fantastic. Ultimately, my choice comes down the fact that I like my comedy with a undercurrent of both heart and darkness (probably the reason Community is my favorite sitcom). I also like Ferguson's analysis of the way The Simpsons frames the American Dream as, essentially, the right to be lazy and incompetent and still succeed. It's obviously a very British perspective, but its one of the reasons the show's sharp-edged early episodes still hold up, and it lays the groundwork for my choice: the seventh season's "Scenes from the Class Struggle in Springfield."

I love this episode for a lot of reasons, but the image it presents of the American Dream is probably the most important and, ultimately, incredibly bittersweet. The way that the family's working-class principles (such as they are) fade as they ingratiate themselves with the country club is sharply observed, and the satire of class distinctions is equally witty. Ultimately, the family's American Dream isn't being rich - it's sharing a meal together at Krusty Burger, and that moment marks the ultimate statement of the working-class reality that defined the show (at least in the early seasons).

The real reason the episode works, though, is because of its characterization of Marge. She is very much the unsung Simpson - being the voice of reason and the element that holds the family together means that she doesn't get a lot of opportunities to be funny, and her personal struggles are not given the attention the rest of the family gets. "Scenes from the Class Struggle in Springfield" offers a portrait of Marge that is heartfelt and very poignant at the same time. She's a stay-at-home mom in a working-class family who loves her kids and husband, but who would also like to be able to buy brand-name items and go to fancy parties. She's desperately insecure, which allows her better judgement to go out the window when praised, but she's also strong enough to recognize how much her family needs her, and to love them as they are. She's happy, but she's also trapped. "Scenes from the Class Struggle in Springfield" is attuned to the subtleties of gender differences, and the episode's gender politics drive the narrative of class struggle.

None of these elements would make this a great Simpsons episode, however, if it weren't for the laughs. Many of the funniest elements come from Homer's newly realized talent for golf and Lisa's sudden obsession with horses, neither of which are groundbreaking, but which are both are very funny. The family's attempts to fit in with the upper echelon of Springfield society are also hilarious, particularly Homer's plea to Marge to let him valet park their car: "Maybe for once, someone will call me 'sir' without making a scene" is a classic Homer quote. And the detail put into the rich "ladies who lunch," from names that would be normal if they were pronounced properly and the disguise of cutting insults as wit, is phenomenal. One of my favorite lines from any Simpsons episode, ever, is Susan's blase comment, "I hope she didn't take my attempt to destroy her too seriously."

I'm sure, however, that everyone disagrees with me. That's one of the greatest things about The Simpsons; everyone has their favorites, and is willing to defend them to the death. So, in honor of tonight's milestone, think about your favorite Simpsons episode and, if you want, sound off in the comments!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Putin's hold on the media slips, but for how long?

Photo courtesy of the Moscow Times.

The New York Times ran a fascinating piece today about how TV news shows in Russia - which are almost entirely state-controlled - are being forced to acknowledge the changing political situation.
A concentrated dose of Russian television — still where 70 percent of Russians get their news — shows that the ferment is too big to ignore: The Kremlin-loyal networks that at first airbrushed out the protest movement are including it in their newscasts.
Now, brisk updates on voter fraud, anti-Putin rallies and opposition candidates share a news hour with long, choreographed tableaus that showcase Mr. Putin as prime minister, hard at work inspecting factories, raising pensions, scolding lazy bureaucrats, and doing what it takes to preserve stability and spread prosperity. He has taken to publishing long mission statements for Russia’s future; each one is framed on the news like a tablet from Moses.
For viewers the effect is bipolar: a little bit NPR, a little bit North Korea.
(via the New York Times)
The Times piece illustrates a fascinating dynamic at play in recent resistance to Putin. Because of the rise of digital connection - the article notes that "Bloggers and political Web sites not only contradict government-tailored newscasts, they also offer an alternate, unscripted reality - live, via cellphone camera and Skype" - the Putin administration can no longer rely on TV news to promote their agenda while ignoring all others. In the same way that the recent election fraud was immediately brought to the attention of the world, anti-Putin sentiment can't be glossed over by the news programs unless they want to lose all credibility with the Russian people.

Another thing I liked about this article was that is acknowledged Putin's continued dominance in Russia. Many media outlets have implicitly (or explicitly) compared the current protests to the Arab Spring, while failing to report on the very high percentage of Russians who support Putin. Having spent time in Russia, I can assure you that Putin's popularity isn't driven purely by his autocratic tendencies, but by actual voter approval. Regular Russian people love Putin, and they have some fairly compelling reasons to do so that I won't go into here. This isn't to condone the man's authoritarian tactics, but merely to offer some perspective. As the Times put it:
Many Russian journalists and media stars have leapt at the chance offered by the government’s tactical shift. Yet few reporters predict that the freedom will survive beyond the elections, since nobody expects Mr. Putin to lose.
“The institution itself hasn’t changed,” said Leonid Parfyonov, a well-known journalist and producer who has attacked the government’s control of the media. “Everyone sees that it will last only till March 4.”
 Vladimir Putin is many things, but stupid is definitely not one of them. He'll probably adapt to the new media environment and keep himself in power. That's going to be harder, however, now that he knows someone is watching.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Max Blum, Toyota, and quiet acceptance

Jeffrey Songco's excellent piece about Toyota's "It's Reinvented" ad over at the Huffington Post really crystallized my thoughts about last night's Happy Endings. The ad, which features Toyota reinventing various mundane objects and making them better, has been praised as a step away from the heteronormative culture of advertising due to a moment early on concerning a "reinvented couch." The narrator describes the reinvented couch, which is made up of girls in bikinis, as a schlubby Everyman comes into his apartment, looking excited. The narrator then notes that the couch "also comes in guy," the camera cuts to the everyman, and he shrugs, as if to say "That works too."

Songco's excellent analysis notes that the real, radical message of the ad comes through not in the inclusion of the male reinvented couch, but in the guy's nonchalant reaction to it: "It's amazing to see Toyota's "It's Reinvented," not because it showed gay sex, but because it showed a reaction to gay sex as oh, cool, OK. In other words, the gay sex in "It's Reinvented" is a big deal because it isn't a big deal.

Songco's piece clarified, for me, why I liked this ad so much. It also clarified what I found so refreshing about last night's episode of Happy Endings, not to mention the series as a whole. Last night's episode, "The St. Valentine's Day Maxssacre," ended with the show's resident gay bro, Max, reuniting with his ex-boyfriend Grant in romantic scene that was the site of one incredibly hot kiss.

The great thing about the moment wasn't really the kiss itself - although it was an awesome kiss - but the fact that the kiss wasn't treated as anything more than a kiss. It wasn't endlessly hyped or controversial or the subject of self-aggrandizing promotion, and by being none of those things, it was more progressive than any other show on television.

That kind of quiet radicalism is par for the course for Happy Endings. The best element of the show is Max, and the best thing about Max is that he's, as Hulu said when they named him the best character of 2011, "just one of the guys - who happens to be one of the gays." Max is just a regular, well-rounded character. He's not a gay man, but a man who happens to be gay, which is a very important distinction. Unlike, say, Glee's Kurt Hummel, or even Modern Family's Mitch and Cam, Max's sexual orientation is not his entire identity. It doesn't define him.

The very fact that the show doesn't draw attention to Max's sexual orientation, instead treating him just like everyone else, makes Max Blum revolutionary. (Similarly, the show never draws attention to the relationship between Brad, who is black, and Jane, who is white. If you think that's not boundary-breaking, read this and think again.) Instead of celebrating Max for being different, the show just lets him be Max, just like the guy in "It's Reinvented" nonchalantly accepted the male version of the reinvented couch. So let's be more like Happy Endings and Toyota, and just give an oh, it's cool shrug to gay sex. After all, if Max doesn't define himself by his sexuality, why should anyone else?

Sunday, February 5, 2012

NBC's casts band together in a fantastic Super Bowl Promo

Suppose you're an actor from a show on a network whose ratings are tanking faster than the GOP's enthusiasm for Newt Gingrich. Suppose that your network has one property - NFL Football - that's keeping it afloat enough that your show can continue, even though there are less people in your audience than cast members on your show. You would want to celebrate that event, wouldn't you? Well, if you are on an NBC series, you would, and you would do it with song and dance.

This promo, like so many NBC productions, is weird, fantastic, and totally alienating to its target demographic. I'm prepared to assume that there is not a huge overlap between people who enjoy sharp, self-deprecating parodies of famous Broadway numbers and people who want to watch Tom Brady either crush or get crushed by the Giants. (And no, liking the Family Guy "Shipoopie" number doesn't put you in the first category.) There are moments when NBC seems more like a niche cable network than a big four station, and at this point they should probably just embrace that.

It's also a little puzzling that the cast of Community plays such a prominent role, given the show's recent disappearance from the primetime lineup. Maybe the screen time given to the adorable, talented cast, in combination with a brief, listless shot of the leads from Are You There, Chelsea? and Whitney (seriously, the gang from SVU was having more fun), is a sign that the study group is poised to return to the airwaves. Oh, and did anyone else find it weird that the only people who didn't sing were the successful, chart-topping singers on The Voice's judges panel? And that, right after Jenna Maroney and Jack Donaghy sang their lines celebrating mediocrity, the cast of Smash was introduced?

Besides a few perplexing bits, however, the ad was great fun. The stars of Up All Night and Parks and Recreation were almost as charming as the Community cast, and it was nice to see the hosts of Today perform with their late-night antithesis, the cast of Saturday Night Live. I'm hoping that Katrina Bowden's appearance as the scantily-clad Cerie is a sign of her imminent return to 30 Rock, because I was just wondering where she had gone. And the tag, starring a tap-dancing Jimmy Fallon, was a lovely ending. Here's hoping that next year he'll make it in time.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

How I Met Your Mother's ratings are increasing, drawing bizarre comparisons to Lost

Photos courtesy of and

According to Entertainment Weekly, How I Met Your Mother has risen 19(!) percent in ratings over the last season and, in addition to just crushing every show that I love in terms of viewership, is also the youngest-skewing show on CBS. That second part shouldn't really be a surprise, given that the median viewer age for that network is somewhere between "old enough to join AARP" and "older than the combined ages of the entire HIMYM cast," but the incredible ratings increase is somewhat more surprising. It is also drawing comparisons to Lost.

There were really two types of Lost fans when the show was on the air: The ones who were there from day one and hung onto every clue, determined until the bitter end to unearth the island’s mysteries, and the ones who, despite enjoying the show at the beginning, simply couldn’t take on another unanswered question or Kate’s constant stream of awful ideas. I count myself in the former category, because no matter how many times the show had left me frustrated, disappointed, or utterly confused, I always had a place in my heart for it. That and I had to know how the damn thing was going to end.
So, why is [the ratings increase] so interesting? Well, for one, unlike Lost, we actually knew from the get-go that there’b s a happy ending in store on HIMYM. (Ted, in spite of being an insufferable goon, eventually finds the mother of his future children.) Which brings up another interesting thing about the rise of HIMYM‘s popularity: Are people tuning in for all the clues (we meet again, yellow umbrella) and drama (there’s been plenty over the past few seasons), or is it simply because it’s a dependable, no-frills sitcom? It wouldn’t be surprising if the answer is both: HIMYM has no doubt grown in popularity thanks to syndication and word of mouth, but there’s just as much can’t-miss cliff-hanger drama as there is TV equivalent of comfort food in every episode. (The rise in popularity of stars Neil Patrick Harris and Jason Segel throughout the course of the show probably hasn’t hurt much, either.)
via EW.

The comparison between Lost, one of the great dramatic works of the history of television (if you ignore the ending, to which I say, "What ending? I don't remember that happening") and HIMYM, a fun show known mostly for making a womanizer out of Doogie Howser, strikes me as somewhat facile. It also doesn't explain the ratings rise, because if people were watching that show for the same reasons they watched Lost, there would have been a steady loss of viewers parallel to that experienced over the last three seasons of the Island-set head trip. And while there are probably people who watch HIMYM because they desperately want to know who the mother is (and if those kids are going to starve to death listening to Ted tell the longest story since the Odyssey), there were not, at least based on my experiences as a Lost fan, a lot of people who watched that show just to hang out with the characters. We wanted answers, dammit! And we never got any. (To your inevitable puzzled query, I repeat again: "What ending? I don't remember that happening. Ever.)

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Game Change trailer: Julianne Moore takes on Sarah Palin (and Tina Fey)

The full-length trailer for the HBO movie Game Change, which follows the quixotic McCain/Palin campaign over the course of the 2008 presidential race, is here. The film, directed by Jay Roach, features Ed Harris as McCain, Woody Harrelson as campaign manager Steve Schmidt and, of course, Julianne Moore as Palin.

The first thing I noticed about the trailer is the fact that Moore appears to be playing Palin less as a Tina Fey-type caricature and more as an actual human being. That wouldn't come as so much of a surprise - after all, this is HBO, a network with a reputation for artistry to uphold - were it not for the fact that, outside of Moore's performance, the trailer doesn't do much in the way of going beyond the same tropes. We see Palin's triumphant "hockey mom" speech at the Republican National Convention; her much publicized shopping spree; the disastrous Katie Couric interview. We even see the quote about the proximity of Russia and Alaska that, as a result of Fey's impression, became the widely parodied "I can see Russia from my house" meme.

There are intriguing glimpses here; a shot of Palin, exhausted and broken, curled up in a robe after lamenting that she misses her baby, holds promise, as does the steely resolve Moore's Palin displays in the final shot, when she hisses "I so don't want to go back to Alaska." That moment, when her naked ambition comes to the fore, is a refreshing change of pace from the conventional narrative of an air-headed, unprepared woman who was thrust into the spotlight as a bid for buzz and subsequently sunk McCain's presidential hopes. Moore's apparent respect for the character is also promising, because an actor's disdain for a character tends to come through in bad ways in a performance (just ask the cast of W.). And maybe it's just the memory of Moore's bahston accent on 30 Rock, but I appreciate the lighter touch she takes with Palin's folksy dialect.

Overall, though, this trailer doesn't hold the promise of adding much new to the Palin narrative. Let's hope that the film spends more time looking at Palin's ruthless side - the side that has come out more in the wake of the failed McCain/Palin candidacy - and less time mocking her ignorance and vapidity. We already have Tina Fey to do that.