Category Archives: Television

Attested Development

After years of hype and speculation, Arrested Development is back thanks to the tireless work of Mitch Hurwitz and the show’s writers. Watching these characters again has been surreal. I had the same feeling when I saw Toy Story 3 and The Hobbit: I’d watched the previous installments (the LOTR trilogy in the case of The Hobbit) so many times that seeing the same characters in new situations was delightful yet a bit disorienting. Which is how I can best describe the new fourth season of Arrested. The narrative Hurwitz and his writers have created is so labyrinthine and arcane that it will certainly require repeated viewings to fully grasp, just like the show’s first three seasons.

After one run through the season, my main critique is that unlike the original run, the new season lacks a core. Instead of focusing on the family unit throughout the narrative, each episode centers on one main character, with the others coming and going while engaged in their own overlapping story. It’s hard to fall back in love with the family when we only see them in bits and pieces over fifteen episodes. When the story falters, it’s because it upended the show’s tried-and-true structure of Michael being the reliable straight-man, the eye of the Bluth storm. He held the show together — sometimes only barely — so that the rest of the ensemble could wig out. However, with this new season’s decentralized narrative and Michael’s uncharacteristic recklessness, there is no reliable foundation; the inmates are now running the asylum. Whenever we’re following a new wacky non-Bluth character (and there are many of them this season) instead of the family we’ve come to love (or at least be amused by), the show almost always lags. This, combined with the fact that episodes are now 30-35 minutes long instead of their network TV-sanctioned 22, makes for an Arrested Development that doesn’t quite feel like the Arrested Development of yore.

I realize this (lack of) structure was largely a logistical one; they had to film it in discrete pieces simply because it was so hard to get the full cast together at one time. But that challenge turned into a net positive for the show. Its brand of postmodern meta-comedy is perfectly equipped to handle the structureless vacuum season four has created, as NPR’s interactive guide of the show’s running gags illustrates. When so much of the show’s humor is derived from its interconnected meta-jokes, allusions (or illusions), and sight gags, the central storyline — if there even is one this season — is often irrelevant.

In fact, I sometimes found myself disengaging with the main story of each episode with the hope of catching the many in-jokes, callbacks, and other background tidbits that zoom by. One critic found this meta-humor distracting, saying the season “trades far too easily on callbacks to the early seasons, a sort of unpleasant fan service that is depressing to watch.” Indeed, there are a lot of callbacks, but that’s nothing unique to this season. As the aforementioned guide points out, even season one was making callbacks and allusions to itself on dozens of jokes. I’m sure the in-jokes this season felt like a fan service because the fans are essentially why this season exists at all, but they have been the show’s lifeblood since its infancy and almost always impress rather than depress.

And that’s why you always leave a note I’ve attested to the new season development and give a hearty Huzzah! to Mitch Hurwitz & Co. for giving in to the Internet’s collective conch call to bring the gang back together and for going all-out on it. Often I stared at Netflix in wonder, wanting to slow-clap the writers for what they have attempted with this season. While it might have a slightly lower batting average than in the first three, it was a swing for the fences. And like Maeby this season, I think they made it home.

Fox News’ Amazing Rage

About two years ago I stopped watching cable news all together. Regardless of the channel, there is rarely anything on worth the time and energy it takes getting frustrated by the mostly non-news news stories being covered like Access Hollywood fluff pieces. But late last night as I was channel-surfing before turning in, I was chagrined to see this on Fox News:

I am loath to respond to anything Fox News does because it simply plays into their game, but consider this bait taken. To sum up, commentator Bob Beckel is upset that in last Sunday’s episode set in Vietnam, The Amazing Race had a clue marker at the site of the B-52 Memorial that contains the wreckage of an American bomber plane that was shot down during the Vietnam War. Additionally, the racers’ task for that leg’s Roadblock was to watch a performance of a socialist Vietnamese anthem and remember key lyrics that would be used for another task.

b52

The B-52 Memorial in Hanoi, Vietnam.

The things the panel of commentators say in the video about this non-troversy are so unbelievably asinine and uninformed. Their main point, as far as it can be ascertained, is that the Amazing Race producers are anti-American for showing a socialist song and insensitive toward Vietnam veterans and civilians for acknowledging the existence of a downed American plane. Beckel is so indignant that CBS hasn’t apologized, promising to “go after” CBS until they do. Dana Perino, former press secretary to George W. Bush, claims “of all the things people apologize for today, you would think this would be an obvious one, but they’re just being stubborn I guess.” Greg Gutfield adds with a supercilious smirk: “It’s called Fox News Syndrome. It’s that Fox News is covering it and no one else is.”

Fox News has some kind of syndrome, all right. Just not one that makes its latest ginned-up rage piece an actual story.

I’m about 98 percent certain none of these commentators have ever seen The Amazing Race, let alone this specific episode, because if they had they would know that the show has been all over the world, using hundreds of locations as backdrops for tasks and challenges that employ local customs, trades, and people of all kinds. They would also know that the show honors the cultural heritage of the locations they use, regardless of its nature. Using the socialist anthem in the show wasn’t an endorsement of socialism any more than using Stalin and Lenin impersonators in Russia on last season’s 8th leg was an endorsement of Bolshevism. The Race shows the host country’s history and culture for what it is, not for what the Greg Gutfields or Bob Beckels wish it would be.

As Lester at DryedMangoez points out, the show has been to Vietnam before: in season 3, when a Vietnam vet racer poignantly returned to the country for the first time; and in season 10, when the racers stopped by the Hanoi Hilton, where John McCain was held as a POW. They have also been to Auschwitz, the Berlin Wall, the USS Arizona memorial at Pearl Harbor, and the “House of Slaves” in Senegal, the embarkment of the Atlantic slave trade.

As much as the show seeks to respect its more serious stops, they plow through every task and location so quickly (it’s a race after all) that any attempt to honor the fallen comes off as rushed and ham-handed. But they still go to these places not to give in-depth history lessons, to make a political point, or to propagate Fox News’ brand of flag-waving American exceptionalism abroad, but because these places are interesting and so contestants can win money. I accept the superficial, TV-drama aspect of the show because it allows contestants and viewers like me to experience and enjoy faraway lands we wouldn’t be able to otherwise. I didn’t even know of the existence of the B-52 Memorial in Vietnam until I saw it on the Race, and I wouldn’t be surprised if these Fox commentators hadn’t either – at least until some producer looking to grease Fox’s manufactured-outrage machine alerted them.

The Amazing Race might be just a profit-driven reality show, but it does more to illuminate and celebrate world cultures, exotic locales, and peculiar customs than any other reality show does or than Fox News ever cares to. I hope CBS continues to refuse to apologize, because it has done nothing wrong.

To Binge Or Not To Binge?

There’s been some debate recently about whether binge-watching a TV show on DVD or online is good or bad. While I must confess I have gone on a few TV benders, usually with the intention of catching up on a series before its most recent season premiered, there’s something about watching a show live on TV, weekly wait and all, that is simultaneously frustrating and exciting.

For instance, watching the fifth season of Mad Men as it unfolded during this summer allowed me to engage in the speculative water cooler talk with my fellow Mad Hatters after each episode and during the following week that makes watching live television communal and fun. This approach fit conveniently with the series slow-burning style itself, so I didn’t feel like I needed to rush through it (even though that’s exactly what I did with seasons one through three on DVD two years ago).

Conversely, I plowed through all five seasons of The Wire in about three weeks on DVD – a common occurrence, I’d bet, given the series’ relative unpopularity during its run (and HBO’s prices). I couldn’t just watch one episode at a time, which is why watching TV on DVD can be so hazardous: find a gripping, well-written show like The Wire on DVD and then say goodbye to sleep, exercise, and any semblance of productivity. In high school the first two seasons of Lost consumed my nights so thoroughly it’s a wonder I passed classes that semester (good thing I was a second-semester senior).

So, I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter how I consume television as long as the show itself is good. James Poniewozik of Time magazine says as much in his pro-binge post:

[A good story is] resilient. It will take whatever viewing (or reading, or listening) conditions you throw at it. And if its effect depends on ‘maintaining a timeline,’ or waiting a year to find out how Jack and Kate go back, or even reading morning-after reviews by idiots like me—it was probably never worth bingeing on to begin with.

So if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go rent Deadwood on DVD and then watch the season premiere of Breaking Bad on TV.

Thank You, Kristen Wiig

Last night, Saturday Night Live bade farewell to Kristen Wiig, one of the show’s most talented and versatile performers in its history. I wrote about her back in 2008, and those sentiments hold today.

It’s fitting they sent her off to the Rolling Stones’ “She’s a Rainbow” given the spectrum of colorful characters she brought to the show: The way she could smoothly swing from an absurd wacko to high-strung neurotic to singing Santa girlfriend within the span of one show was remarkable, as was the fact that all of her characters – even the afro-ed psychopath Gilly – were lovable despite their hyper-idiosyncrasy.

Add to this her performance in Bridesmaids, which showed off her dramatic chops and ability to carry a movie – a skill that will come in handy for her inevitable post-SNL movie career.

I’m sad to see her go. She has brought great joy to me and a joyful energy to the show. But I know that, like every other time a major star left SNL, the show will be able to move on as it always has.

Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop

Watching Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop made me realize something I’ve suspected for a long time: I don’t ever want to be famous.

There’s a scene in this documentary about the “Legally Prohibited From Being Funny On Television” stage tour Conan created immediately after his inauspicious exit from The Tonight Show in 2010 where Conan does a meet-and-greet after one of the New York City shows outside of the venue. Before this moment we’ve seen Conan, despite his insatiable need to perform, get slowly and painfully worn down by the unending demands of life on the road as a folk-hero celebrity, the meet-and-greets being an especially draining post-show ritual the erstwhile talk-show host openly bemoaned to his staff. And yet, out he goes into the alley packed with euphoric fans cordoned off behind a barrier that Conan nearly straddles in his earnest attempt to sign anything and everything his acolytes present to him.

He does his duty as the accommodating star, making chit-chat and signing posters, t-shirts, beer cans, and even someone’s back (“so I can get a tattoo of it,” she says). But after awhile he’s had enough, bids farewell to the fawning phalanx, and retreats to a waiting car. He hops in, clearly agitated, and waits for someone to close the door. “Someone close the f***ing door,” he says to no one in particular. The attention he had just received, willingly or otherwise, was his life-blood, and the reason he did the tour in the first place, but he still can’t help being completely obliterated by it night after night, only to jump on stage and fulfill the “buffoon” role he readily affixes to himself.

That whole sequence to me illustrated the paradox of celebrity, and why I hope never to experience it. To be so in need of something, like Conan is of the act of performing for an audience, yet to be rendered nearly incapacitated by it after a certain point is a tough way to live life. To be sure, we all have this something in our lives we feel we need yet drags us down – the approval of our peers, alcohol, crappy reality shows, you name it – but seeing it play out on camera in the life of a public figure like Conan (one whom I greatly admire and enjoy as a performer) shows me specifically the perils of doing what you want even when it’s killing you.

Kevin Costner said in his tribute to the late Whitney Houston that the singer’s immense talents were at once “the burden that made her great and the part that caused her to stumble.” While Conan does not (hopefully) struggle with the same drug problems that led to Houston’s sad death, the principles between them are the same: it doesn’t have to be drugs that kill you. Whatever our own That Thing is, it may prop us up for a time, but it can also kill us if we let it. Conan probably won’t be killed by his fame, but if for example he continues, as he says caustically in the film, to “give away part of [his] soul” through the meet-and-greets for the sake of That Thing, he’ll soon discover than physical death and pneumatic death aren’t all that dissimilar.

I don’t mean to portray Coco or this documentary as quite so sullen – in fact, they are the opposite. Sure, we bear witness to Conan’s biting, often vindictive jabs at NBC for their treatment of him during the late-night debacle and to his sardonic teasing of his assistants and staff. But Conan is a funny guy and gives a damn about others, if in his own way, and the film shows this dichotomy well.

But Conan’s “luck” – and this brings me back to my initial thought – is that the moments he’s most unlikeable and fallible (read: human) are recorded by a camera and spliced together into a wide-release documentary. While that was the point of this project, I’m sure glad I get to make my mistakes when only the people around me I know and love know about them. And that’s why I never have nor ever will desire the fame Conan and so many other public figures receive, willingly or otherwise.

So this is me giving thanks for the ability to go grocery shopping, read in a bookstore uninterrupted, take an evening walk alone, make dumb mistakes, and be human without flashing cameras and obsessive eyes finding me, or even wanting to. I’m sure Conan would like that too once in a while, but something keeps pulling him back into the fray that only he and God can understand.

All that said, watch the movie. It’s a gripping portrait of a curious man in transition. Also, I miss his beard.

Mad World

Looks like Mad Men is getting the LOST treatment, and I couldn’t be happier about it. The deal between Mad Men showrunner Matthew Weiner and AMC will end the series after the sixth season premieres. Like the deal that gave LOST a definitive end-date a few years ago, this new deal for Mad Men will be very beneficial, I think, to the show and the fans.

Though, Mad Men isn’t floundering in its storytelling at this point as LOST was at the end of season three. It’s only getting better.

I Approve Of Conan O’Brien

  1. He’ll be the first and only talk show host to rock a full beard on air. And a red one no less.

  2. His classy Tonight Show farewell speech.

  3. His inherent nerdiness. He jokes a lot about the archetypal nerds out there, but deep down he’s a nerd himself as a student of history, comedy, and pop culture.

  4. The “Small Talk Moment” sketches from Late Night. By far the best.

  5. His extreme self-deprecation. As a fellow tall, lanky, near-translucently-skinned redhead, I can relate.

  6. He’s back on TV! Finally. 11/10c on TBS. Be there.

The Ten Commandments Of Watching ‘LOST’ In A Group

1. Thou shalt be caught up.

2. Thou shalt hold all questions until commercial breaks.

3. Thou shalt not bring a friend who hath not seen Lost or hath not been caught up.

4. Thou shalt offer theories upon the conclusion of the episode.

5. Thou shalt not use the bathroom during the show and then ask thine friends what hath ocurreth.

6. Thou shalt not answer thy phone during the show.

7. Thou shalt make a claim as to thy favorite character and defend thy choice.

8. Thou shalt never attendeth a “Dress As Thy Favorite Lost Character” party. Thou art not a Harry Potter fan and therefore hath some self-respect.

9. Thou shalt pick between Sawyer and Jack.

10. Thou shalt have no other shows before Lost.

The War by Ken Burns

I’m still working my way through it, but I’ve already come to appreciate Ken Burns’ seven-part 2007 miniseries The War.

Burns explains in the making-of feature that he wanted to show the war not through historians but through average citizens, men and women and children from every corner of the country who endured the front lines abroad or did their part at home. He focuses on four towns—one in California, Minnesota, Alabama, and Connecticut—and uses interviews with the veterans and their families from those towns to make the enormous scope of World War II more intimate.

It’s a great historical record of the American involvement, delving deep into topics that are not often discussed like Japanese internment and the segregation of minorities in the Army. Burns employs his trademark use of photos, footage, and interviews in each scene. Some photos we’ve seen before, but most are new and show us a different view of what has become a very familiar war.

Norah Jones’ “American Anthem,” the series’ theme, is very good, though not as good as the theme for Burns’ The Civil War, called “Ashokan Farewell.” And while I really love David McCullough’s narration in The Civil War, actor Keith David’s here has quickly grown on me.

So if you have 15 hours to spare one these days, fill them with The War.