Archive | August 2012

Fall 2012: NBC’s The New Normal

Easily the show garnering the most controversy this season, The New Normal is not-so-shockingly a very Ryan Murphy show. And unfortunately, it is all the things I currently hate about Glee condensed into a half-hour comedy. Is there room to grow? Absolutely. And the show benefits from Justin Bartha and Andrew Rannells, who are both excellent. I have to root for any show that is pushing a “new normal” agenda, but when it makes the agenda so clear, it doesn’t seem like real life. It seems like an after school special about everyone deserving love.

I think it was Ryan Murphy that joked to the One Million Moms group that they should be happy with the show because they are also represented, in the form of Ellen Barkin’s bigot character. While this is technically true, her character suffers from being defined by that and nothing else. She seems like a vacant vessel whose only function is to spew out vitriol aimed at anyone who is not white and straight. More caricature than character. And at the end, when we find out the source of her homophobia (her husband was carrying on an affair with a man), it doesn’t really explain why she is horrible to other groups as well. I thought it would be better if she were a representative of an older generation’s outlook but I guess this story will provide more melodrama.

Besides that, my only other major criticism is that the pilot moves at breakneck speed, almost like no one told Ryan Murphy how to write for a half hour. The storyline wants to pull at your emotional heartstrings by the end, but we simply haven’t spent enough time with these characters to care all that much. In that short time, we see two parallel stories converge: Bryan (Andrew Rannells) realizes he wants to have a baby, and he goes home to convince David, his partner; since becoming a parent is a serious discussion for any couple, this is surprisingly glossed over. And being a comedy, I guess all of the issues that could have been discussed about a gay couple deciding to have kids is too boring. It’s the new normal, but just barely. Meanwhile, Goldie (Georgia King) discovers her husband is cheating and takes her daughter on a spontaneous road trip to California where she divulges that her secret desire is to become a lawyer. She decides to become a surrogate to help fund her dream. At the same time, Bryan and David have already had a terrible surrogate experience. When they meet with Goldie, we get to hear her spiel about how love is love…herself becoming a blanket caricature of what we are told should be the case. At the end, we do get a great scene with Goldie and David, and it may be worth watching the pilot solely for this moment. Ellen Barkin’s character barges in and attempts to stop Goldie; we hear her traumatic history, and NeNe Leakes shows up for what was envisioned as comic relief but is really an awkward distraction. By the end, Bryan and David want to help make Goldie’s dreams come true and they are all one big family. In a half hour.

So far I like the idea of the show much more than the actual execution. My advice: give this show a few episodes to see if it evens out and in the meantime, watch Husbands!

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Fall 2012: FOX’s Ben and Kate & The Mindy Project

Ben and Kate and The Mindy Project are two of the most buzzed about shows of the new fall season. Out of the comedy pilots I have seen so far, Ben and Kate was the first to actually make me laugh out loud numerous times; it seemed very in tune with my sense of humor. In other words, I LOVED it. Can’t wait for more. The Mindy Project was more conventional, but Mindy Kaling’s voice is very fresh and I think she speaks to contemporary women in a way that is appealing.

Ben and Kate

The titular Ben and Kate are siblings that grew up close, and stayed that way, even though Ben pops in and out of Kate’s life. Ben rushes into Kate’s life this time because the girl he loves is getting married and he wants to stop the wedding. Meanwhile, Kate is worried her brother’s antics will spoil her first real relationship (with Jon Foster) since the birth of her daughter. Ben realizes things are not right with Kate’s boyfriend and comes to Kate’s rescue. Ben and Kate come equipped with best friends that are equally as hilarious and endearing: Lucy Punch and Echo Kellum. By the end of the pilot, Ben decides to move back home to help Kate with her five year old daughter Maddie (the cutest kid ever). Because my notes on this show read only “Love this! Yay!” and a string of quotes, here are some great Nat Faxon-isms and other quotes from the pilot, sans context:

  • “I high-fived him…I did not like it.”
  • “You’re so naive…you’re only five, but you’re very naive.”
  • “Why are you so young right now?!”
  • Kate: “Aww man, what are you going to do?” Ben: “I’m thinking about, like, starting on the roof and then rappelling down the the side of the building, and then maybe like knocking through an AC duct and then crawling, like elbows, like this, and then like dropping down into an electrical closet like throw a couple smoke bombs in, and then just kidnapping Darcy, taking her out the back, and maybe like renting a Jeep Wrangler or something and just popping down to Mexico — but, I don’t know. It’s all a little bit up in the air.”
  • Ben: “Tommy, what did you think?” Tommy: “I thought it was amazing.”
  • “Come on Maddie, this is really important to me. Quit phoning it in.”
  • “This is too soon! The bow is a surprise!”
  • BJ: “Wait, what’s the fish?” Tommy: “It’s a tilapia. Or sal-mon. I’m not sure exactly which one.” Ben: “Salmon.”


The Mindy Project

“…who I have been is not who I am going to be”

When I say that The Mindy Project is more conventional, I mean it in the sense that the whole show seemed to be laid out in the first 22 minutes: we will get to see Mindy trying to better herself while also (probably) discovering that the caustic frenemy across the office is actually her true love. Clearly Mindy has her priorities a little skewed from the beginning — she looks past the hot Brit doctor and pegs Bill Hader as her rom-com soul mate. I love Bill Hader, but lets be honest, in that situation who would be looking his way? Things follow in the classic rom-com fashion that Mindy has modeled her life after (she gets stuck in the elevator with Hader, they move in together two months later…except in the show’s present time he has now left her for the Serbian merchant who works downstairs). Side note: Thanks to watching the film Blackout on Netflix, I’ve decided getting stuck in an elevator with an attractive man (hello, Aidan Gillen) can actually be the worst event of your life. Anyways, after attending Hader’s wedding, she drunkenly rides her bike into a pool and realizes things need to change. She wants less drama. Cue a date with Ed Helms (awesome) that she has to leave for a patient and a flirty-bonding session with the jackass doctor, Danny Castellano (Chris Messina).

Random thoughts:

  • One critic cited that a potential problem is the amount of pop culture references in the pilot alone and that they instantly date the show. I honestly wouldn’t have thought much of them. I think 30 Rock is great perpetrator of this to the point where I don’t see how many of their jokes will function in a few years. But off the top of my head, The Mindy Project references Downton Abbey (glad Chris Messina gets to be the voice of greater America by being snarky and asking why people keep mentioning it), Michael Fassbender (in particular his penis–honestly, I think this joke’s expiration is way past), Eat Pray Love (a bit I really liked) and Bruce Springsteen/John Mellencamp. It also shows a lot of clips from older romantic comedies like When Harry Met Sally. Unless these mentions get egregious, I think they help the image and comedy of the show.
  • This may be the lover of Eastern European history in me, but I thought Mindy’s crack about Bill Hader’s new bride potentially being a Serbian war criminal was off the mark. I grimaced.
  • I get that Chris Messina is a cynical divorced singleton, but I think his character really needs work. They layered on his abrasive personality a little thickly and I found it very unappealing. Who really wants to be friends with someone that calls you ignorant for saying “Springsteen concert” instead of “Springsteen show”? Eh…They tone him down at the end of the episode to establish some romantic sparks, but I found myself remembering how annoying he had behaved for the better part of the episode.
  • Anna Camp plays Mindy’s best friend. For someone who appears in everything, maybe she will finally plant some roots in this show.

Fall 2012: NBC’s Animal Practice

I think the secret to approaching this pilot season is low expectations. For me. this outlook is working surprisingly well. At least for NBC. The end of the Olympics furnished us with a glimpse at a commercial-free Animal Practice, and I didn’t actively dislike it. If you like Andy on Weeds, then just imagine he ditches Nancy for veterinary school, and loses his people skills while retaining his ladykiller nature and you have his character, Dr. George Coleman, on Animal Practice. Like Go On, it didn’t cause me to burst into laughter but it also didn’t cause me to roll my eyes.

What I liked: Justin Kirk, of course. This role had his name all over it and is definitely in his wheelhouse. I also liked Joanna Garcia Swisher. I haven’t seen the original pilot where her role was portrayed by Amy Huberman but by all accounts, Swisher improves upon the part. Tyler Labine also seems at home with his character. Dr. Yamamoto (Bobby Lee) for me, has the most amusing character in that he is a people-pleasing, wimpy, downtrodden, yet quip monster with moxy. He is a mess of contradictions and it works for me. This episode also gets points for using my favorite song from Cats, “Magical Mr. Mistoffelees.” It gets double points for making an Arby’s a joke that also implies it is delicious. Which it is.

What I liked less: The balance between humans and their animal counterparts. The animals never failed to steal the thunder from the humans, even when the scene was working for the actors. I found myself thinking that this show would benefit from a truncated season rather than a traditional 22-episode season. Stretching this theme over 6-7 episodes would yield stronger material, I think. I can’t help but imagine how many of these jokes will be recycled ad nauseam by the time we reach February sweeps. I was also not a fan of the Nurse Angela character, who came close to ruining every scene she was included in. My greatest hope for this show revolves around greatly re-evaluating this character.

My first impression is that this is a quasi-Scrubs with animals and without the Bill Lawrence stamp of humor. I am just not as convinced that this formula can work without some sort of tangible quirk (and not just a stable of misfit characters), which Scrubs had in spades.

Fall 2012: NBC’s Go On

NBC is officially on red alert: the execs wants more comedy, but not the quirky, niche audience it currently has with the likes of Parks and Recreation and Community. In an interesting move, both Go On and Animal Practice will be showcased during the Olympics, hopefully to drum up some viewers for when the season officially starts this September. If you saw any of the sizzle reels during the network upfronts a few months ago, you know that we are about to be hit with an inordinate amount of network drudge (hey, Guys with Kids and The Neighbors, I am looking at you). Tonight, we got a glimpse at the new Matthew Perry vehicle, Go On, and overall I was more impressed than I expected to be. My bottom line: the show has a lot of built-in promise; it can either realize that promise or fall on its face. I think I might stick it out for a while and see what we get.

As has been pointed out in a few outlets, the pilot for Go On is shockingly similar to Community’s pilot. We have a cynical wiseguy who wants to get back to what he does best in a hurry (for Joel McHale it is lawyering, for Matthew Perry it is his sports radio show) and these guys are presented with obstacles in the form of a hodge-podge group of people. By episode’s end, both guys realize that this group of people could be beneficial to them and they elect to become a part of it.

What I liked: definitely the diversity. Like Community, the group seems more true to life with its inclusion of females, different ethnic groups, and sexual preferences. I think the biggest hurdle we have overcome in the past few seasons of television is presenting these diverse groups as common place (which they are, but television lived in its own bubble for too long) and not as a carefully drawn out storyline. One character is in grief counseling because her partner died suddenly and she is so depressed she doesn’t get off the couch, much to her kids’ chagrin. Her partner was a female, they had kids together, she is grieving = accepted and treated like any other character’s revelation. Brilliant. However, just like Community, these characters seem to live in some heightened form of reality where some of the most outrageous and diverse ways a person can grieve have all been carefully selected for one group, thus is still the nature of television.

I also liked the treatment of grief in general. It is a tightrope walk to deal with such sensitive issues, especially when your audience must have experienced something similar in their lives. A comedy about grief is possible, but one careless joke could alienate a chunk of people. Luckily, I feel like the show can find a balance between the comedy and the sadness, and make poignant comments on their characters in the process (if it fulfills that promise!).

What I liked less: the sports. When it comes to sports, I usually hear white noise. Especially when it comes to football players (for example) that I am probably supposed to know by name as well as their whole backstory. I get it: that is Ryan’s occupation but I hope it doesn’t invade the show toooo much. In this episode, his interviewee helped him realize he needs the counseling, but the player got to utter a joke about fruit, that’s about it.

To conclude, I plan on watching this show for a while as the new fall schedules get underway. It is a 24 minute show so giving it a few episodes to breathe is no problem. I liked many of the quips, they landed even if they weren’t laugh out loud hilarious. It is sink or swim time for NBC; I am looking forward to seeing how all of these shows shake out come mid-season.

Next up is Animal Practice. I ADORE Justin Kirk. But the premise of this show frightens me. Til next time…I will try to have faith in Justin Kirk’s career choices.

Blogging The Hollow Crown: Henry V

But I will rise there with so full a glory

That I will dazzle all the eyes of France,

Yea, strike the Dauphin blind to look on us.

And tell the pleasant prince this mock of his

Hath turned his balls to gunstones, and his soul

Shall stand sore chargèd for the wasteful vengeance

That shall fly with them

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We have reached the end of The Hollow Crown saga, and the end is bittersweet. These plays have a lot to say about power, royalty, duty, war, betrayal, and justice. Familial duty, sovereignty, and divine right. These adaptations had some tough choices to make when they were envisioned, about what to emphasize and how to make these narratives a sweeping 4-part epic. Within the first fifteen minutes of Henry V, it struck me how great a project this undertaking was and how near to perfect it was realized on screen. I read somewhere that before embarking on watching The Wire, you have to keep in mind that you will not realize its greatness until you reach the third season, maybe even the fourth. It is then that all of the knowledge you have compiled, all the characters you have slowly come to know payoff and make you realize how wonderful the experience has become. While not as dramatic with The Hollow Crown (you can most assuredly enjoy the various parts as standalone), the experience of watching the four adaptations strung together as a continuing series gives the story a chance to breathe, and the audience gets comfortable in the time period. By watching the various parts, you come to appreciate the whole and in this case the meaning of The Hollow Crown series. Prince Hal is the primary link here: we go from Bolingbroke asking after his wayward son in Richard II, to his exploits in Henry IV Parts One and Two, and we get to follow into his role as King in Henry V. A fascinating trajectory.

I felt that before experiencing The Hollow Crown version, I should take a look at Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 version, just to do a bit of comparing. There are many differences (thankfully, as their should be) and in the end, watching both gives you an even greater picture of the play than the two alone. The first difference is the treatment of the Chorus. In Branagh’s treatment, we have Derek Jacobi dressed in modern garb acting as Chorus. In this version we have the disembodied voice of John Hurt (until he shows up to close out the series). First off, these guys are both greats. I was very pleased to hear and see John Hurt, as I was not expecting it. I did like this usage slightly better because without a physical Chorus forcing your attention on their speaking, a voice over allows more sweeping scenes of our characters as they go about their lives and tasks, according to what the Chorus is telling us.

The story begins with a funeral, Henry V’s to be exact. Here is where more bittersweet comes in. We are about to witness his greatest triumph, and yet, we know that it will be short lived. The final Chorus of the play makes it impossible to ignore the fact that this will happen, and soon, but Branagh’s version ends on the happier note of England and France united as the Chorus informs us. But the funeral gives not only further context to the ominous news of Henry’s death but it also gives us an epilogue to The Hollow Crown. We close out our Harry story fully told, thereby allowing us to see the ends of Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V.

I think the King is but a man, as

I am; the violet smells to him, as it doth to me; the

element shows to him, as it doth to me; all his

senses have but human conditions.

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But before we get into the story, we see that for all intents and purposes, Harry has retained his joie de vivre. He rides on horseback, seemingly late for his meeting, just in time to grab his crown and saunter in. Unlike how we last saw him, in his coronation attire, he is wearing the same outfit from when he was merely a prince. Cinematic as always, the film allows Shakespeare to breathe, moving us from various scenes and shuffling bits of dialogue to suit its purpose.

Branagh’s version is more typical of what I consider a direct input from stage to screen. This is by no means knocking Kenneth Branagh. The guy is unparalleled when it comes to contemporary takes on Shakespeare. But The Hollow Crown had a different vision, and his film has been given a lot of room to breathe since 1989. And again, I feel like I have a stronger grasp on the character, as played by Tom Hiddleston, to know where certain moments in Branagh’s version wouldn’t necessarily work in the other incarnation. Thus The Hollow Crown’s Harry sounds more like how I envisioned his tone while I read the play, but that may be due to already seeing Tom Hiddleston’s version of the character. For instance, his speech to the ambassador is more as I imagined it (toying with him) than in Branagh’s slowly rising of his voice to the point of malice.

We must bear all. O hard condition,

Twin-born with greatness, subject to the breath

Of every fool, whose sense no more can feel

But his own wringing! What infinite heart’s-ease

Must kings neglect that private men enjoy!

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The adaptations differ in other ways than mere line deliveries. Branagh’s includes a scene where Harry confronts three traitors, THC does not. Instead, THC finds a way to incorporate a bit where (in disguise) the King challenges another soldier and they exchange gloves, whereas Branagh’s excludes it. Branagh’s highlights the boy (as played by Christian Bale, little cutie) and the slaughter of all the boys as the impetus for the King ordering that all of their French prisoners be killed. THC focuses on the death of York as the impetus for this action, and does not include the slaughter of the boys at all, and “the boy” is not killed. Most interesting, in Branagh’s we get all of Henry V’s famous speeches either from horseback or at some height, as he addresses his soldiers and the major of Harfleur. In THC, all of his speeches are more personal; he addresses select groups of his soldiers, only his brothers and aides, or only small gathered crowds. In my view, this gives the speeches more resonance and strips them of their typical battleground rally premise.

I loved one more thing from Tom Hiddleston’s performance and that was his scene with Kate, his bride-to-be. Branagh (so I have read) has said that the key to this scene is to play it as if these two are falling in love. And that is every bit as he played it in his film version, so although he was saying it was hard for him to woo ladies, he was imploring her for love all the while, obviously smitten. But he missed one aspect that was glaringly obvious to me as I read it: the start of this courtship is overwhelmingly awkward at first. The awkwardness pervaded my mind and made me squirm. And Tom Hiddleston played it like that at all of the necessary moments. It was brilliant.

Other observations:

  • In Branagh’s version, he makes the execution of Bardolph much more painful for the King: he is forced to look into his eyes as he is hanged. The Hollow Crown spares Harry from even seeing the execution, only the aftermath, leaving his feelings on the subject guarded.
  • I like the scenes that explicitly show how weary the English are becoming on their march across France. We see soldiers being carried, some sick, and some being left for dead (or already dead) on the road.
  • One scene that elevates this adaption belongs to the night before the Battle of Agincourt: both Harry and the Dauphin are looking up at the moon. The Dauphin is anxious for morning because he is ready to fight; Harry looks fearfully at it, knowing the morning could bring much bloodshed to his people.
  • Unfortunately, both versions excise a speech from the Queen of France that occurs at the end. Most scholars find it unnecessary, as she is a character that shows up only for a few lines. But they are either given away to Burgundy or excluded wholly. This is definitely a feminist take on it, but it is a shame that her character gets the short shrift, especially as she advocates peace and good will.
  • Finally, this version puts greater emphasis on the aspect of religion: the King crosses himself every time he mentions God. Crosses are prominently displayed on soldiers, shields, murals. And before the battle, Henry explicitly prays while he explains how he has attempted to rectify what was done to Richard II.