Thursday, January 31, 2013

TV Series Finales: Goodbye, 30 Rock & Fringe

ML- Believe it or not, former Emmy darling 30 Rock and sic-fi redheaded stepchild Fringe share many of the same attributes. Both were low-rated, and probably survived due to NBC and FOX's desire to stay in Tina Fey and J.J. Abrams' good graces, respectfully. More than that, both were unapologetically absurd critical darlings with tight, dynamite core casts. They took risks, most notably with episodes that defied the norm -- Fringe had the musical episode, the cartoon episode and the Monty Python-esque "Black Umbrella" from this season, while 30 Rock cranked out reality show parodies and two stellar live shows (the second of which Dual co-host Dave and I were in the audience for!), but almost every episode of either show appeared out-of-the-box when compared to any other show on TV.

Above all, both will be terribly missed.

30 Rock deserved every award it ever won, which is an honor it's Emmy successor Modern Family doesn't share. It deserves many it didn't win, as well -- Jane Krakowski and her portrayal of Jenna should be commemorated in a museum somewhere, somehow. Every facet of Tina Fey's brainchild worked in near-mint condition from start to finish, due to the perfect combination of writers and actors. I can't imagine anyone but Alec Baldwin reading Jack Donaghy's lines, and frankly I don't want to. The same goes for Tracy Morgan, and Jack MacBrayer, and obviously Tina Fey.

The recurring characters -- Pete, Frank, Cerie, Lutz, Twofer, Grizz and Dot Com -- served their purpose, but they never reached the same level of hilarity as the leads, or as the show's other ace-in-the-hole: a plethora of unforgettable guest stars. Elaine Stritch, Dean Winters, Will Arnett, Jon Hamm, Will Forte, Sherri Shepherd, Chris Parnell, Megan Mullally, Alan Alda, Jason Sudeikis, Rachel Dratch, Brian Williams, Michael Sheen, Matt Damon, James Marsden, Oprah Winfrey, Jim Carrey, Edie Falco, Penelope Cruz, Carrie Fisher, David Schwimmer... I could literally go on for an hour, listing out the comedic greats who landed their talents into this big ol' NBC potluck.

Fringe may not have had an endless vault of guest stars (though Leonard Nemoy and Peter Weller are nothing to sneeze at), but made up for it by utilizing its stars as much as possible. At one time Anna Torv was playing three different iterations of Olivia Dunham, spread across multiple universes and timelines, each with her own distinct personality. John Noble, Jasika Nicole, Lance Reddick, Blair Brown and Seth Gabel also took up the task of exploring different versions of their own characters, no doubt confusing the hell out of casual viewers and sending them, God forbid, out on Friday nights.

The best Fringe seasons -- because yes, there were bad ones -- were those that maximized on the complexities of the alternate universes without getting too bogged-down in the confusing, ultimately rather meaningless mythologies of the show. Some twists were head-scratching in a good way, where you spent hours wrapping you head around plot points like Walter's voyage back in time, across universes to save his son's alternate persona. Others never really ended up anywhere, like "The Pattern" from early on in the series. Like Lost, this show proved the most satisfactory way to watch sic-fi shows is to focus on the characters' relationships and let the mythologies entertain you, but not consume your thinking.

Neither show allowed itself to become stagnant. Fringe flip-flopped formulas frequently (sorry about all that alliteration), balancing the serialized and the episodic with as much grace as can be expected from such shifts in storytelling styles. 30 Rock kept the jokes and pop-culture references fresh, while still maintaing the break-neck speed at which they were delivered.

I'm not sure what legacy these shows will leave. Both are already in syndication, with Fringe limited to Science Channel and 30 Rock available on Comedy Central and WGN. While 30 Rock may attract more eyes on TV and on Netflix, -- where all past episodes currently reside -- I'm not sure the references will hold up for future generations, especially if NBC's recent success continues to build. I've watched the show with those less immersed in Hollywood gossip and pop culture references, and common reactions include blank stares and asking for jokes to be repeated and/or explained. The show was for pop culture nerds, by pop culture nerds, and hopefully will be treasured by the rabid fans for years to come.

While I often felt smart watching 30 Rock, it wasn't uncommon for me to be dumbfounded and glazed-over during denser episodes of FringeFringe appeals to a different breed of nerd, one inspired by the scientific and technological possibilities the show presents. Science Channel is obviously the perfect outlet, where it can exist as it always had; beloved by the small few who fully respected its worth to television and society at large. A fitting resting place for a gem of a show.

Let's let the clamoring for spinoffs, movies and reboots end before they begin. Both shows lasted longer than Hollywood conventions would normally allow, a victory in itself. These shows, these stories, these characters and their relationships and their quirks have entertained us for years, but now is the time to let them go. Tina Fey already has a deal with NBC for more comedy; if there's any justice to this world, Jane and Tracy will find their "dumb gay Batman" roles by fall. I know Anna Torv and Joshua Jackson are taking time off to let Olivia and Peter out of their systems, but both will make stellar additions to casts, and possibly leads of their own vehicles. The sky is the limit for the talented casts, much deserved after all their hard work.

When I lie down to sleep tonight, after probably crying like a baby to the 30 Rock finale (8:00PM on NBC!), I'll imagine myself submerged in Walter Bishop's dream tank. There, the magic and the mayhem will still be real, still inspire me and what I watch and write and live. The most important things these shows taught me: nothing is impossible, be it crossing between universes or putting on a long-running comedy series.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

TV Recap: Girls 2x01: "It's About Time" & 2x02: "I Get Ideas"

ML- I first wrote about Girls for a school publication before the first episode even aired. In my article I spoke up on behalf of the modern television woman, but inaccurately anticipated Girls to be muted in it's depiction of sex and nudity.

Boy (or should I say "Girl"), was I wrong. The second episode -- my favorite, titled "Vagina Panic" --  dealt with a blasé abortion, sexual harassment and one of the most hilariously vulgar sex scenes ever recorded. Lena Dunham didn't set out to undermine the sexual renaissance trumpeted by Whitney Cummings and Chelsea Handler, she set out to carve out her own sphere.

I understand why this show is so divisive. Many people just don't understand the appeal of watching a show with unlikable characters. Not in a Seinfeld kind of way, where everyone is a cynical bastard but the laugh track and their uppity tone reels you in. The characters speak their minds with so much self-assurance you sometimes fail to remember how little self-awareness they each possess. They talk like real people I know, people like myself, who writes blog posts about TV shows a week late under the assumption anyone actually cares about my lowly opinion. But I do it anyway, as Hannah and Marnie and Shosh and Jessa all do what they do when they do it because they're young and self-absorbed and have obviously got it all figured out.

This is a show tailored to our generation, though don't assume Lena Dunham takes any real credit for the pedestal we've thrust her on. The amount of times I've ranted in the comments section of Deadline Hollywood articles over Hannah's "voice of my generation" line is embarrassing. For the last time -- Lena is not Hannah. But countless people still miss the irony of it all, judging the characters and the creative team for all the wrong reasons. Is the show funny? To me, yes, often painfully so. That's what matters.

This season premiere was not a painfully funny one, but solid nonetheless. It was exposition heavy, relying on a centralized party to get most of the cast into one place so we could see what's changed since Jessa's wedding. Speaking of Jessa, her scene felt so out of place with everything else revolving around the party/Hannah's different boyfriends. I wasn't a huge fan of the "Crackcident" episode either, so maybe I just don't dig party-themed bottle episodes.

There are different ways to interpret the title- "It's About Time." One of my favorite quotes (my senior yearbook quote in high school, actually) comes from Six Feet Under's Brenda, who mused on life: "I think it's all about timing. I think timing is everything." Another cliched maxim- time heals all wounds. For Adam, that's still not exactly true, especially as he realized over all this time that he and Hannah should give their relationship another shot, given what a doting presence she's been after his accident. Hannah obviously wants to get back with him, too, but the timing just isn't right; she's been seeing Sandy (Donald Glover, aka Troy from Community, aka Childish Gambino, aka Dual Redundancy's Man of the Millennium), and really taking the time to evaluate their relationship as beneficial to her state of being. Adam didn't always respect her, and she believes she needs a boyfriend who does in order to fully respect herself. While she's absolutely correct, it's clear she's just covering her feelings for Adam in a radical attempt at change. Of all people on this show, Hannah is going to be the toughest to change.

Marnie seems to have been struggling with time as well. Since her fallout with Hannah she's been fired from her job and still hasn't found a boyfriend to replace Charlie. At the party she quietly asks Hannah if they're okay. Marnie is floating in a sea of uncertainty, and despite being the most gorgeous of all Girls' girls, is clearly the most self-conscious. That's definitely attributed to her mother, who reminded me of the aforementioned Brenda's mom Margaret on Six Feet Under. We see Marnie's elitist personality springs from persistent nitpicking and even sexual competition from her mother. Eventually she and Hannah reconnect, but Hannah's responsibilities as Elijah's roommate force her to deal with a boy situation.

Marnie and Elijah have been shown as bitter rivals for Hannah's affection in the past, and with Elijah now ruling the roost (and doing a better job of keeping it chic than Marnie ever did, if Shosh's compliments hold any weight) Marnie is firmly behind him in all aspects. He's got a man. He's got Hannah. She accepts his come-on cautiously at first (until she feels his chest) but ultimately gives in. I don't think she wants Elijah, I think she wants to be Elijah, or to maybe beat Elijah, and either way sex is a release of such energy. He can't perform, and Marnie is left to wallow in her own misery once again, calling upon Charlie to platonically sleep in his bed for comfort.

I feel sorry for Marnie, but also I don't at all. She brings all the grief upon herself because of the choices she makes. She's the one who overreacted at Hannah. She broke up with Charlie twice. Yet once he gets a new girlfriend she laments over how unfortunate her life is. She's the classic dissatisfied beauty, a persistent trope that Allison Williams pulls off brilliantly. Is she likable? Not especially, but why, then do I have friends that behave in exactly the same ways? That's what I mean about judging these characters -- they're realer than you may want to believe.

Just look at Shoshanna and Ray. She keeps babbling on about how over him she is, yet she flaunts herself in front of him all night at the party, sings karaoke with a bizarre message, and eventually falls back into his arms. People do this every day. I found Ray's predicament to be particularly realistic as well: Shosh's constant texting with superfluous emoji characters turned him off to her, but in person he can see past her "virtual self", if you will, to her adorable real self. There are kernels of insane likability buried in all these characters, even Adam, as long as you're not too judgmental to take a look.

Episode Grade: B+
Episode MVP: Zosia Mamet
Original Airdate: 1/13/2013


"I Get Ideas" was a dramatic upswing from the premiere. The script, written solely by Girls EP Jenni Konner, gave every member of the cast moments of awkward, side-splitting glory, and a last-act twist marked this as one of the most plot-heavy episodes thus far -- a change possibly foreshadowed in the episode's most stellar scene, Hannah and Sandy's break-up.

Hannah had little-to-no problem with Sandy as a republican, as nearly everything out of her mouth was a praise of his sexuality. Elijah tried instigating a fight in the bathroom, but Hannah was quick to defend her boy-toy (who seemingly swallowed his toothpaste, disgustingly) and likened his political beliefs to George's Hotmail account. She's obviously no political activist, as Jessa blew her mind with a rant against both republicans and democrats and a plea for Hannah to "read the newspaper. Just read one newspaper." In the midst of the argument itself, Hannah's knowledge of the republican cause was limited to an aversion to Elijah's ability to have a Say Yes to the Dress-style wedding and an affinity for owning guns. "It's more complicated than that", Sandy explained. "Is it?" Hannah countered. Yes, Hannah, it is, but she, like most of her progressive, liberal cohorts (myself included) has an uninformed understanding of the nitty-gritty details of political goings-on. She can quote a Missy Elliot lyric without even noticing, however.

It wasn't that their political beliefs were too different, as Hannah claimed, but rather their beliefs in Hannah's artistry. According to Hannah, everybody else loved her essay on a girl's sexual change, but Sandy thought it seemed more like the stream of consciousness that goes through your head while killing time in line somewhere. And just like that, Sandy was no more. Dunham pulled off the subtly unhinged nature of a criticized writer as if she'd experienced such opposition before (spoiler alert: she has), and apparently much of her and Donald Glover's argument was improvised, leaving room for off-the-cuff comments like "Maybe you see me as one big blobby white mass of stupid ideas."

Hannah is fragile. Elijah pointed it out himself, calling her "thin skinned, like a baby." She is constantly looking around for validation and for clues at how to live in the right. Her first scene showed her mimicking dance moves (terribly) to a work-out video online; the last began with her following along to a YouTube tutorial on haircutting. Watching Marnie tip-toe around making the point that Hannah's "disposition" wasn't right for the hostessing job was painful, but compassionate.

While it can be hard to separate Hannah from Lena, as usually should be the case, it seemed here Konner tried to make a statement on Dunham and her response to criticism. The character Hannah thinks she's tough and capable of hearing the criticism and growing from it, but those that know her best believe she's vulnerable and needs more nurturing. This episode could be viewed as Konner's commentary on all the criticism of Dunham, her writing, her lack of African-American characters, et al. It's a friend and colleague speaking out on behalf of the berated, addressing her faults but urging everyone to calm the hell down.

The scene with Adam at the end showed how strong Hannah really could be. She made it clear she didn't want him coming around anymore, but Adam knew Hannah's cried wolf so many times in the past, but always crawled back into bed. The beleaguered shouts of "Get out of here!" with the exasperated pushes resonated with Adam, whose face dropped. Driver acts the hell out of this complex part every week, coming off as creepy in the video but adorable while chugging milk. I have to question his stupidity while addressing the cops, shouting out his name while having so many legal asterisks that could backfire on him. He's unpredictable, though, so there's that.

Here again, I feel this episode represents a direct reaction to criticism. Sandy chimed in that Hannah's essays didn't go anywhere (despite being really, really well-written!), and then the episode ends with a bang of an arrest. This isn't just twenty-somethings running around having abortions and smoking crack  all willy-nilly anymore -- Adam's past is catching up with him. He's got a consequence, a plot event to tie his and Hannah's stories around more substantial than the amorphous cloud of "relationship drama." Again props to Konner for taking all the hits and churning out such a quality episode of comedy.

This review has gone on long enough, but I can't help but acknowledge some of that comedy from the Marnie, Elijah, Shoshanna/Ray and Jessa/Thomas John storylines. Here are some of my favorite quotes, the true testament of an amazing Girls episode.

-"At least Adam is speaking to you. George won't return any of my texts or Facebook messages." It's insane how we think of such electronic forms of communication as "speaking" nowadays

-"She's not good at... living." Marnie's interview was awkward but felt true-to-life, based on my limited experience around creative executives, if such a thing isn't an oxymoron. The tea-bag dipping was also top-notch.

-"You'd be really great at bathing a pig."Shoshannah is a shining star and Ray is the perfect foil. Their pillow talk was so endearing and entertaining, I could have watched them all day. Zosia Mamet is a treasure, making lines like "It's not like pop stars, you don't need a milllllion of them" pop.

-"I'm personally not attracted to you... because I know you." Ray is so brutally honest it's refreshing and, again, endearing.

-"I'm so impressed by what you do with what you've got." Thomas John grew on me more here, in his attempt to compliment Hannah's style without actually appreciating it.

-"Thomas John looks at my paintings the moment I show them to him." Kirke delivers lines about Jessa's happiness so well. Does she mean the nice things she says, or is she fooling herself? I'm fascinated trying to figure it out. Also -- much love to Garbage, Fucker and Hanukah.

-"Lay this thing down, flip it and reverse it." The best, ever.

Episode Grade: A
Episode MVP: Jenni Konner (Writer)
Original Airdate: 1/20/2013

NOTE: Girls airs next Saturday as opposed to Sunday, probably to avoid the Superbowl. Plan accordingly!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

TV Catch-Up: Parenthood Season 4

ML- I've gotten several worried texts and tweets about Tuesday's Parenthood finale -- specifically, people are worried the show wrapped itself up too tightly, too well, and is headed for the cancellation we all feared NBC would bring down upon it years ago. Based on everything I've read, both from interviews with creator Jason Katims and sites specializing in predicting renewals and cancellations, the show is a safe bet to return in the Fall (or perhaps in the spring, given NBC's erratic and shortened programming history for the modestly performing family drama).

The worry, hopefully, will be assuaged, but we should really focus on the source of all our fears: the strength of the finale. Was it a perfect Parenthood episode? No. I'd argue the season's best episode was The Talk, or perhaps One More Weekend With You, but the finale dealt with the difficult task of paying off all the season's story lines, and I'd argue it did so brilliantly. Touching on Kristina/Adam, Julia/Victor, Crosby/Jasmine/Rene, Sarah/Hank/Mark and even Drew, everything was wrapped up neatly with a tear-stained bow. Some will dislike the finale for being so conclusive. Not me.

This Parenthood season was radiant, smaller in scope than all previous seasons and nearly every other show on TV. Though we only received 15 episodes, it allowed for less filler episodes and longer, more detailed arcs for our beloved Bravermen. 13-episodes is the standard for cable seasons, and I pray that the networks begin developing smarter shows with shorter seasons. That means more seasons needed for syndication rights, and more shows on the air means more risks. But while procedurals and comedies benefit from non-serialized scheduling and can run as many episodes as they wish, shows like Parenthood -- if there is another show quite like it currently on air -- need a smaller space within which to grow and flourish.

Fewer, tighter stories were one contributing factor to the understated magic of the season. The other: the unyielding nerve to bring out the best and the worst in the characters, when applicable. I'm shocked at how cyclical my appreciation of characters is on this show. In the beginning I despised Crosby, Max, Julia and Kristina; now, my frustrations lie more with Sarah, Camille, Jasmine and Adam. It's a testament to the actors and the writers never to let the characters become stagnant, and a great joy of watching the show to continually be surprised.

This was the year Kristina became vulnerable. Always the Bravest of the Braverman clan, she was forced to ask for help from Adam, Camille and even Haddie as her body began to fail. Monica Potter was obviously the MVP of the season and deserves serious Emmy attention. I knew she'd be fine, in the spirit of doing self-contained stories per season, but I'm sure the character will be fundamentally changed for the better. She'll hopefully be less judgmental and spend less time looking for busy work to fill her time and just relax. A more low-maintenance Kristina will be a sight for sore eyes, at least until Max descends further into puberty.

Conversely, this was the year Max became brave. He frequently stepped outside of his comfort zone, be it running for student council and giving a rousing speech, or going to the dance, or talking with Adam about his changing body. He still has a ways to go, but I appreciate how he knew the line of where he was comfortable talking about girls. Burkholder rocks this thankless role, but is rewarded with many of the show's comic relief moments -- like banging the judge's gavel obnoxiously. My only wish was that he'd have put more effort into getting the vending machine himself and not allowing Kristina to handle it all, but that might have been too unrealistic given his condition and less thematically satisfying given Kristina's hardships she fought to overcome.

This was the year Adam became calm. Prone to freak outs in past seasons, he rarely had to blow up as much. I guess that can be contributed to Crosby and Amber stepping up the plate at work, less Haddie stress and the need to be the rock in Kristina's life. Peter Krause has grown into such a benevolent force of acting greatness, still expressing the chops he showed off in Six Feet Under with a matured, genuine presence that ties the whole show together. That Hawaiian vacation was well-deserved (but damn, it must have been a FANTASTIC month at the Luncheonette in order for Haddie's college debt to be a thing of the past and Hawaiian vacations to be balanced along with medical bills).

This was the year Crosby became responsible. I'd always wait for him to screw up any and every task assigned to him, but aside from the parking situation and the dog incident, he really manned up, bit his tongue and got his head on straight this season. I'm not sure if he'll be able to keep it together once Jasmine's new baby arrives, but he's made great strides, and Dax Shephard has finally grown on me as an actor.

This was the year Julia became selfless. Her baby-mongering last season was heartbreaking, but the decision to take home Victor seemed rather rash and self-serving. I was impressed when she quit her high-paying job in order to focus on family. She stayed in that cat the whole afternoon while Victor was in school. She put up with the worst of his anger and his fear and his need for attention. She could have backed out and not gone through with the adoption, but that, too, would have been a selfish act fo the new and improved Julia. She proved herself to be a great mother to two different but exceptional kids, and I'm excited to see her back on the job market next year.

This was also the year Joel grew a backbone. He voiced his opinion more often this season, walking away from the conversation as Julia nearly abandoned Victor and laying down the law when Ryan screwed up at work. Still basically Superman, he managed to avoid being a push-over while still acting with his heart. I'd love a really big Joel story line next year- maybe introduce some of his family? It's time Sam Jaeger received some spotlight.

This was the year Victor became tortured. It was also the year we met Victor, but his struggle was one the show handled exceptionally well and led to an eventual love. I've never been in his shoes, but I know kids who have gone through his exact situation and how hard of an adjustment it was. The young actor Xolo Mariduena showed some great comedic and dramatic talent and is a welcome addition to the Braverman clan.

This was the year Sarah became selfish. Always a hard-working single mom, she now had a self-sufficient daughter and a son in the throes of manhood. Sarah took a hard look at her life with Mark and decided it wasn't right for her, and rather than settle down, she acted out. She went for it with Hank, despite what the family would think or how it would affect Drew's living arrangements, because she needed it. Do I respect her for that? Not fully, especially since I think she should have chosen Mark in the end over Hank. I figured she'd end up alone, just be her own choice, in a Bachelorette-style decision that neither man met her needs. By taking some "me" time, Sarah may have helped curb a mid-life crisis and gives her a better idea of the type of man she needs for the type of woman she wants to become.

This was the year Drew became an adult. He made adult decisions. Tired of being strung around by a mother with different priorities, Drew did what Amber never could and got into his dream college, seemingly all on his own. He also went through the trauma of Amy's abortion, again, almost all on his own. I hope we don't see him shipped off to school, all on his own, like Haddie, as Miles Heizer has made great strides in making the character likable and memorable. Never the most exciting Braverman, I've gained way more respect for him.

This was the year Amber and Ryan got to be stupid. Don't get me wrong, I love them together, but their Romeo & Juliet professions of love were so melodramatic and over the top that it seemed so unrealistic... and yet, so realistic of young lovers with nothing on their minds but each other. I'm sure Amber will be a great source of therapeutic and spiritual wellness for Ryan as he deals with all PTSD-related aftershocks, I just hope their relationship can withstand the stress it'll put on the both of them. I say let them be young, dumb, adorable kids and if next season ends in their wedding, Mazel Tov!

Hopefully, next year will be the year Jasmine and Jabbar get great stories dealing with the impending birth, and Zeek and Camille finally get some good screen time -- a death, perhaps? The show has covered just about everything else.

And I think that deserves to be mentioned. I never consider this show to be "soapy", but instead think of it as a voyeuristic peek into a real family. Ok, maybe they're nothing like your family, but I guarantee there's a family out there going through cancer, and adoption, and affairs, and pregnancy (wanted and unwanted), and Aspergers, and college, and anxiety disorders. The show handles all these with tact and respect and never cheapens the exploitation with half-heartedness.

Bravo to Jason Katims on the script, right in his wheelhouse of emotional, monologue-heavy scenes he perfected while on Friday Night Lights. In many ways, this episode reminded me of "Always", the aforementioned's series finale, or the finale from last season where Crosby and Jasmine got married. They all deal with important family events, though this episode may have suffered from having next-to-no "shocking" moments, save Jasmine's big reveal. Everything sorta worked out, which is not the harshest complaint one could have about a finale.

Thanks to all of you who read my reviews this year, especially when I strayed from covering on a weekly basis due to work and school and life. I was always watching, and analyzing and usually tearing up at the outstanding program NBC & Imagine Entertainment put forth. These characters, as you can see, have special places in my heart and their stories will follow me as I grow.

I know in my heart this won't be the last we see the Braverman bunch. Such a celebration of life, love and, above all, family needs to be on TV for years to come.

Finale Grade: A-
Season Grade: A-
Season MVP: Monica Potter
Original Finale Airdate: 1/22/2013