Better Things Is; The Good Place, not so much

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BETTER THINGS “Sam/Pilot.” CR: Colleen Hayes/FX

The gap between network TV and what’s on FX just gets wider all the time. Streaming and pay TV we expect to be fresh and edgy, but my hands-down favorite writing at the moment is happening on FX.

I have already raved endlessly about “You’re the Worst” (starting off strong in their 3rd season) but FX’s two new well-reviewed dramedies (we have to come up with a better name for this!), “Better Things,” and “Atlanta” are both extraordinary, interesting shows that walk the tough tonal line between hilarious and touching, manage to reflect real life in a way that is much more meaningful than so-called “reality” shows, and uplift with their brilliance.

“Better Things” stars Pamela Adlon, a veteran of Louis C.K.’s show. He produces her in this similar vehicle, a riff on what appears to be Adlon’s actual life as a struggling actress and single parent, created and helmed by Adlon herself. I wasn’t a fan of her abrasive character on Louis’ show and I’m not sure I like her on this show either, but frankly, it doesn’t matter. The writing is so sharp that I’m already hooked. My favorite scene so far is Adlon sitting on a bench in a mall, patiently waiting out her 7-year-old-ish daughter’s tantrum. Another woman sits on the other end of the bench, judging her.  Adlon: “She’s crying because I won’t buy her a pair of earrings that she already has at home. She’s crying because she wants to wear them right now.” The woman keeps judging. Adlon: “Do you want to buy her the earrings?”

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Lakeith Stanfield as Darius on “Atlanta”

And if you’re thinking, “She just likes ‘Better Things’ because it deals with middle aged lady concerns,” please explain why I’m so nuts about “Atlanta.” Donald Glover, late of “Community,” plays another earnest character, this time one with the actual name Earnest, or Earn for short. Like “Louis” and “Better Things,” “Atlanta” is a passion project for Glover who also produce and directs, although I have no idea how closely it hews to his actual life. Earn is a Princeton dropout who has returned to his working class roots in Atlanta. Lacking a plan B, he decides he needs to manage the career of his cousin Alfred, a local rapper who is having a moment. The beauty of “Atlanta” is in its throwaway lines and occasional lyrical moments, such as when what appears to be the ghost of Malcolm X. makes Earn a peanut butter sandwich on the bus. Earn’s character can be tiresome — it’s tough to watch someone sabotage themselves over and over and still feel sympathy — but I can’t get enough of the other two main characters, Earn’s cousin Alfred (aka Paperboy) and his insane sidekick Darius. At one point Darius postulates a world in which we could use rats as cellphones (and makes it make sense). In another great scene, Alfred and Darius are cleaning their guns and end up musing on the psycho-sexual ramifications of women who want to call you “daddy” in bed. The only flaw so far in the four episodes I have watched (and it’s a big one) are the cartoonishly evil female characters. Particularly disturbing is Earn’s bougie baby mama, a one-dimensional, materialistic nag with no redeeming qualities. I’m praying that he will develop the character of Earn’s mother, for instance, who seems to have quite a bit of potential.

Let’s contrast, if we must, with the two new network shows I watched this week. “The Good Place” just seemed like an awful idea. The premise that someone has been sent to heaven by accident in place of an actually good person is so thin that I couldn’t begin to imagine where they were going to go in the second half of the pilot. I will never know. As soon as Ted Danson killed a small fluffy dog, I turned it off. Other than a cute gag about how much frozen yogurt there is in heaven, there wasn’t an original or interesting line in the half that I saw. Kristen Bell and Ted Danson should have run screaming from this script.

Bull

And then there’s “Bull.” Didn’t you always want to know what it would be like if Dr. Phil tried to write a TV show? Me neither. The result was worse than my wildest fears. This derivative show about a genius jury consultant stars Michael Weatherly who is Robert Wagner-lite, pleasantly attractive without being magnetic enough to anchor a show. This is important. I watched many seasons of the almost equally banal “Castle” simply for the pleasure of Nathan Fillion. “Bull” is so bad it literally made no sense. It’s my fault for watching a show that had the tagline, “Bull. He’ll Get You Off.”

 

 

 

 

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London Spy: Yes!

ben_whishaw6I started this blog so I could keep my friend Alex updated on shows he needed to see on TV because he has a really busy life. And then almost immediately, my life got busy(ish) for the first time in forever.

But now that I’ve started this blog, it must go on! And then I saw London Spy on BBC America (on demand without commercials — crazy civilized) and I felt compelled to share my excitement.

London Spy is the first show since Mr. Robot that I KNOW Alex will flip for. This elegantly shot mini with endless references to Hitchcock films is enchantingly, spine-tinglingly creepy yet touching at the same time. With an amazing cast, intriguing locations, and a compelling plot, it’s like a spy thriller you can’t put down — plus character stuff which is typically missing from this genre. John le Carré novels never grabbed me because nobody I cared about had anything at stake. London Spy turns that on its head and the combination of emotion and slick spycraft is explosive.

And Ben Whishaw above? Never has such a pretty face also been so interesting to watch.

 

TV and Depression

Photo by Mark Seliger/ABC via Getty Images
Photo by Mark Seliger/ABC via Getty Images

Creative people are often depressives — depression and inspiration go hand-in-hand. It is therefore surprising that in the history of TV, so few shows have had depressed characters. Or maybe it’s not surprising, given how many TV writers and executives have been Jewish yet only in recent years has it become OK to have characters who are MOT (Members of the Tribe) because of sponsor squeamishness, perhaps married with a touch of self-hate.

The first show that had an unhappy heroine who reminded me of myself was My So-Called Life, the short-lived, darkly lit drama that launched Clair Danes’ career. Danes’ character wasn’t identified as depressed per se, but her grim frame of mind was echoed in the gloomy look and feel of the entire show. Jared Leto was also launched here, playing the ultimate desirable bad boy, the perfectly named Jordan Catalano (see them together, above). Everyone knows that the inside of your mind when you are teenager is vast wasteland of despair. Hardly anyone gets through those years like the Beaves’ big brother Wally or Happy Days’ Joanie, who gets to love and be loved by Chachi. This was the first time television admitted it.

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Peter Krause in Six Feet Under

Six Feet Under came next. This hilarious and alarming show about a family who ran a funeral home arguably launched the “dramedy” genre. Some people credit the Sopranos with pioneering the modern age of bitingly literary television, but even though the Sopranos lined up with my personal experience of a certain strata of people in New Jersey, to me the tone danced a little too closely to the great crime movies of the 1970s and ’80s — albeit with a more humorous bent.

By contrast, Six Feet Under was something completely different —  a show that felt real to me as no other show had ever felt before. The dysfunctional, funeral-home dwelling Fisher family was laid bare for our horror and delight. Everyone in the family was depressed, as were most of the people they came into contact with (it was a funeral home, after all). The wry, angry tone made a sharp contrast with the sunny Southern California location, reminding me of my own bouts of depression when I felt mocked by the overwhelming beauty of the Bay Area. This was the first ever television show that was “appointment” television for me as an adult. I would get goosebumps on Sunday nights as soon as I heard the distinctive static signature of the HBO musical intro. SixFeetUnder

This brings me to the present and the brave choice made by the writers of one of my favorite comedy shows of all time, You’re the Worst. Instead of recycling typical comedy fodder (Crazy situations! Nutty characters!), they opted to have the leading female character fall into a severe, realistic depression last season. The resulting shows were so original and eye-opening to actually qualify as revolutionary. Astonishingly, while all of the episodes dealing with Gretchen’s depression were moving, none of them even flirted with sanctimoniousness or felt like a “very special episode.” See below for a photo. Yes, Aya Cash (as Gretchen) is still wearing eye-liner with her sweats (I would have gone for a make up-free face in this case) but her portrayal of clinical depression is as authentic as it gets. What started as a show about how difficult it is for two narcissists to find love has added a level that is both deep and satisfying. I can’t wait to see where they will go next.

CR: Byron Cohen/FX
CR: Byron Cohen/FX

 

My TV Heroes: Characters Who Lift My Mood

Have I mentioned that television is my drug of choice?

Sometimes a character on TV can make me feel as if there really is a point after all. A writer thought of the words, but I give full credit to the actors too for bringing the words alive. I’ve seen what truly gifted actors do with the lines they are given and it’s not trivial.

Here are some portrayals that make me happy.

  • Rayna James, played by Connie Britton on Nashville. Rayna isn’t just a powerhouse legendary country singer, she’s also a great mom, a fantastic mentor, and a sensitive partner to her man of the moment. She’s handled everything from cancelling her own multi-million dollar wedding on the day of, to managing to make her ex-husband feel OK about being in Federal Prison, to taming high strung young singers in seemingly every episode. There is no emotional emergency that Rayna James can’t fix. I would kill to have her in my corner.
  • Silas Weir Mitchell as Monroe the Vegan Werewolf on Grimm. Until now, this actor usually played rapists or psycho killers. Thank goodnsilas-weir-mitchell-325ess Grimm came along to cast him in a role where he gets to show his sensitive side. There would be something really comforting about having a guy who could fix your antique watch and then morph into a creature who can rip the throat out of anyone who gets on your nerves. It’s possible Grimm might be running out of steam but I’m still watching so I can spend time with Monroe.
  • Lindsay Jillian by Kether Donohue on You’re the Worst on FXX. Her whiny, helpless dim bulb character could so easily be annoying or pitiful. Instead, she’s like a breath of fresh air. This season’s Halloween episode included one of my favorite scenes of all time, featuring Donohue in a Silence of the Lambs pit, in nothing but her underwear. No spoilers, but if the scene were longer and I were still acting, I would want to use this speech as my audition monologue. Needless to say, I would never be able to match her artistry. Watch this episode (Season 2, ep. 8) even if you have to pay for it. It’s one of the best Halloween episodes of all time. Donohue is big part of that.
  • Amy Schumer, as played by Amy Schumer. Her latest stand up show on HBO, Amy Schumer: Live at the Apollo, made me laugh in a way I haven’t laughed in years. Schumer says this is some of her best work to date because she’s not trying to play a character. Instead, she’s being herself. And I like her. A lot. Yes, it’s graphic and she uses the “P” word a ton, but I can’t ever remember a woman on television telling the truth like this before. If you have Comcast and can’t afford HBO (like me), call the sales department and remind them how often your TV tiles. Then demand free HBO for 3 months. It works.

The CW’s Crazy Tiny Nose Jew, Kill iZombie, Boyz 4 Now!

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This is NOT the Ex-GF with the BF — rather it’s the Ex-BF’s current GF. D’uh.

While it’s clear that I’m not this CBS/Time Warner-owned network’s classic target audience, I often find myself enjoying the CW’s slightly-quirky-while-mostly-mainstream fare.

That said, I was sure I was going to hate one of their best reviewed new shows: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

  • There’s that sexist title (something the show addresses itself in a song), that they share with a terrible, misogynistic Luke Wilson movie.
  • The Felicity-like premise of a successful woman giving up everything for a crush also felt lame to me in this day-and-age (though Felicity was fun, the first few seasons).
  • Plus, songs. Musical TV shows have such a bad track record, I don’t have to even name any of them. You know who they are! I think Disney movies have too much music. Not a fan of people suddenly bursting into song.

    Crazy Ex-Girlfriend -- Eddy Chen/The CW -- © 2015 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
    Crazy Ex-Girlfriend — Eddy Chen/The CW — © 2015 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

But shockingly, I’m loving Crazy Ex-GF. Just when I think I’m going lose my mind with annoyance, they reel me right back in with their true-to-life (if you’re slightly bipolar), witty story. I even like the songs.

Here’s the video of my favorite song so far, the West Covina Song. It’s a hummable show tune, but subsequent numbers have embraced other genres.

And forgive me if I have turned into my grandfather who went to his grave believing that Christopher Columbus and FDR were Jewish, but I love that this is the first show I have ever seen make hilariously tasteless jokes about Jewish noses and legal acumen.

I’m worried though, that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend will run out of story. I wish  American TV  comedies would consider limited UK-style runs, the way we have started to do for dramas. I also worry that men will hate it. It feels so specifically female.

Photo: Carole Segal/The CW -- © 2015 The CW Network, LLC. All rights reserved.
I fired this! Photo: Carole Segal/The CW — © 2015 The CW Network, LLC. All rights reserved.

Deleted From My DVR

Speaking of hate, I’m sad to report that iZombie must die. Only three episodes into their second season, they have violated the rules of good TV writing, concocting bizarre situations to maintain the status quo on the one hand, while changing everything fundamental about another principal character on the other, presumably to “spice” things up. Since they have decided they are locked into having the main character assume the personality of a different dead person each episode, I assume they want to keep the B stories wildly unpredictable. But are they locked in? “Based” on a comic book means just that. They have to make it their own.

I get it. TV writers have a difficult task in this post-Sopranos/Six Feet Under era, with audiences demanding character development and ever more exciting plot lines, but other supernatural shows have managed to keep it fresh without spoiling what was good about their show in the first place. Supernatural, arguably the crown jewel of the CW is one, but there are multiple examples. It pains me even more to have to delete iZombie because I was a big fan of Veronica Mars, which the iZombie creators were responsible for. I even liked the Veronica Mars movie.

They also violated my rule about dogs. It takes a lot for me to delete something from my DVR but it’s done.

BTW, why do they call it “the” CW? I have Wiki’ed this question and have yet to receive satisfaction.  I know what it stands for, but why “the” the? Is it a freeway?

Boyz 4 Now: I Heart You!

Credit: Bob’s Burgers Wiki

Speaking of musical shows that don’t suck, animated shows (see South Park) can get away with bursting into song, as long as the songs are amazing. Bob’s Burgers has a long history of both cracking me up and delighting me with their songs. The Halloween Episode, the Hauntening introduces a new song from their fictitious boy band, Boyz 4 Now (see right) that I’d like to download to my iTunes. What’s the hold up, Fox? I’ll even pay for it. I like it so much, it’s scary.

 

 

Gigi Does It — So Must You!

gigis-bucket-listHere’s one of my “emergency” alerts. You must immediately set your device (Tivo, in Alex’s case) to record Gigi Does It on IFC.

This show sounds utterly unwatchable on paper:  A successful character actor, David Krumholtz, best known for NUM3ERS, impersonates his Grandmother, Gigi Rotblum, the terror of Boca.

Maybe it’s because I miss my own grandmother but I love this show so much it hurts. Sometimes, I feel as if I am hallucinating it. That’s how close it is to my heart.

Because just listening to a 76-year-old Jewish woman kvetch would only be funny to  me, they take Gigi (i.e., David Krumholtz in drag) out into the real world, Borat-style. The big difference is, you never feel as if the ordinary people are being mocked. You simply get to enjoy watching their reactions to the outrageous things Gigi says and does — in a way I never really did enjoy watching my own Grandmother, who could be pretty mean.

They opted for a mix of actors and real people (wisely) to keep things fresh and have more control.

images-2The other smart thing they did was to avoid turning Gigi into a stereotype. I love that they delve below the shtick to create a person you feel you know. My mother, who probably won’t appreciate my revealing that she has relatives who could play Mahjong with Gigi and match her tile-for-tile, was quick to defend Gigi’s intellect.

When I compared Gigi to a long dead dim Great Aunt my Mom replied: “Oh, Gigi’s not stupid — at all!”, as if Gigi were a distant cousin we had to do seder with every other year, instead of David Krumholz in a rubber prosthetic head.

That’s the mark of good writing, my friends.

Please watch and tell me what you think. Part of me wonders if gentiles (that’s non-Jews to you) will get it at all. The other part of me wonders if I am dreaming and this show doesn’t actually exist.

I await your verdict.

Best Show of the New Crop Plus More that Don’t (and Do) Stink

Credit Richard Cartwright/CBS
Credit Richard Cartwright/CBS

Life in Pieces gets my vote for best freshman series. People who complain that it’s too much like Modern Family must have forgotten that Modern Family is consistently really funny. Laughter is all I can ask of a TV comedy and Life in Pieces is bringing the goods. Who knew Betsy Brandt was so hilarious? She and Dan Bakkedahl are my favorite of the three interlinking couples whose lives the show follows. Of course, the entire cast is star-studded, including James Brolin, Dianne Wiest, Colin Hanks, and Zoe Lister-Jones. The only false note they have struck so far is having Jordan Peele holding a little fluffy dog to make him seem more endearing. Jordan Peele doesn’t need anything but his face to melt hearts and dogs pull focus.

Credit Justin Stephens/FOX
Credit Justin Stephens/FOX

In other comedy news, Grinder and Grandfathered, Fox’s new comedy line up, are basically the same show: Sexy 50-something man is a “fish out of water” in a regular family. Both shows are watchable but Grandfathered actually made me laugh a few times, mostly courtesy of Paget Brewster’s dry delivery.

MV5BMTEzNDQ4NzM4MjFeQTJeQWpwZ15BbWU4MDI4NjY0MDAx._V1_SX640_SY720_Speaking of smoking hot man meat, another new show I don’t hate is Blindspot. I was sure I was going to hate it, based on the opening scene, where a tattooed woman climbs out of a duffle bag in the middle of Times Square. She has lost her memory — and her clothes. But so far, I’ve been mostly impressed. I actually care about the female amnesiac who popped out of the duffle. And in the world’s cutest meet cute, she has the name of a hot FBI agent tattooed on her back and he’s the only one who can help her regain her identity. Somehow it doesn’t feel as sexist as it sounds because the female character is a total badass and (mostly) the writing is pretty sharp. See left for co-lead Sullivan Stapleton, one of those Australian actors we are forced to import when we want someone to play the strong, silent type that American actors used to own back in the day.

Hard Pass

  • Heroes Reborn. Tim Kring, the creator, said he was going to lose the whole wonderment/isn’t it amazing? vibe that made the first show so good. He promised the reboot would be much darker. While it is and he lost me. Three women were abducted in the pilot alone.
  • Minority Report. Violence against children? Check. Liked the movie, the TV show, not so much.
  • Bastard Executioner. Sons of Anarchy — only violent. Sorry Alex!