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My love for The Affair is passionate and tempestuous and closely guarded, an embarrassingly thematically-appropriate way to love The Affair. It’s the show I’m most likely to tweet about rhapsodically at two in the morning after a few drinks, marveling at its sharp sexiness and sophistication as if I’m impetuously blurting out a secret to my fellow night-owls and barflies. These tweets are often shot through with bafflement and contempt for the show’s detractors: Why, goddammit why, does no one love The Affair like I do?Don’t they know how good they could have it? I feel like I’ve discovered the best thing in the world and it’s a thing only I can see.
Which is an exaggeration, of course, but only slightly. Even many of the show’s initial, vocal supporters appear to have cooled on the bifurcated saga of Noah Holloway and Alison Lockhart; on HitFix’s annual critics’ poll it ranked a lowly 24th, below such scintillating fare as The Walking Dead, Gotham, and season four of Homeland. At moments like this, I worry that TV criticism’s sensible refusal to conflate “serious” with good may have become a reflexive zeal to conflate “serious” with “bad.”
But the worry is slight compared to my deep, deep delight in the show itself, which is one of the best on television. It’s just so smart, and so specific, about so many things that are hard for TV to do without getting all, you know, teevee about them.
The season finale of The Affair aired last night, so me and my fellow critic Eric Thurm got all he-said/he-said about it and debated the show for the New York Observer.
I talked about the season finales of Homeland and The Affair and the penultimate episode of The Comeback on HuffPost Live’s Spoiler Alert show today. Watch it here!
…that’s the thing about Valerie that separates her from the Larry Davids and David Brents of the world: People care about her, and she cares about them in return. Think back to how much the cast of Room and Bored, especially Juna, liked her back in Season One, and how she went to bat for them too. Look at Mickey or Esperanza, employees whose affection for Valerie is totally genuine. Even her nemeses respect her on some level: Jane’s dead-eyed “anything for the story” careerism often dissolves when confronted with some display of confidence or vulnerability on Valerie’s part. And the elevator scene at the end of the episode is the strongest evidence yet that Paulie G. recognizes how lucky he is to have landed Valerie for a project that otherwise would have floundered, and how easy she can be to talk to if he just lets it happen.
Valerie Cherish is much more than just the sitcom-structure equivalent of a Christmas tree, on which you can hang funny scenes like ornaments. (Though there were plenty of those this week: Mickey’s all-nude revue, the dead-on parade of new-media stereotypes at Val’s junket, Val having enough chutzpah to work the audience on The Talk and bust Jane’s chops with off-color jokes back home.) She’s as close as this kind of comedy has ever gotten to a real character, existing not just as a joke-delivery mechanism but as a person whose behavior has lasting moral and emotional consequences on herself and the people she loves. It hurts when love breaks down.
The most terrifying television show of 2014 debuted without fanfare at four in the morning the other day, and like the dead lady in The Shining’s Room 237, you had to pass through layers of comforting illusion to uncover the horror within.
Unedited Footage of a Bear starts out as just that: a static shot of a big brown bear, soundtracked by the cameraman’s whispered enthusiasm about the critter’s size (and, for some reason, his ears). After thirty unassuming seconds, an equally innocuous ad for what looks like a prescription allergy medication starts up, with all the usual tropes. A loving but harried mom in a bucolic suburban setting lives in an adenoidal fog, unable to attend to her plucky rugrats, until some pharmaceutical magic wipes away the haze. It’s soon clear this isn’t the real deal — the kids are too shrill, the mom too sickly, and the side effects too numerous for this to be anything but a parody. After all, this is Adult Swim, Cartoon Network’s nighttime block of largely bite-sized shows for adult audiences with the audiovisual munchies. Riffing on commercial culture is what they do.
But before you can say “Happy Fun Ball,” the music slowly fades out, the mother’s smile cracks and fades, the yellow police tape of a crime scene looms into view, and the nightmare begins. What follows is eight minutes of pure dread, involving menacing phone calls, crazed doppelgangers, terrified children, attempted vehicular homicide, an ear-splitting soundtrack, and the most harrowing portrayal of psychosis this side of Titicut Follies.
If that bait-and-switch sounds familiar, you’re likely one of the millions of people who caught Too Many Cooks fever a few weeks back. Like Unedited Footage and saccharine drug commercials, TMC took an overfamiliar airtime-filler, in this case the opening credits of a late-‘80s sitcom, and slowly skinned it alive. Lurking within the corny comedy is a machete-wielding killer who stalks his countless castmates through their credit sequences, and eventually remakes TMC’s tv-reality in his own dark image, as if his evil is strong enough to warp the videotape used to capture it.
Too Many Cooks became a viral sensation, and put Adult Swim’s “Infomercials” initiative — an entire series of satirical stand-alone short films by a variety of AS-associated writers and directors, all of them dropped on unsuspecting viewers in the small hours without so much as an official slot on the schedule — on the map. And it cut to the heart of one of TV’s strangest secrets: Adult Swim, Cartoon Network’s live-action stoner-comedy block, is making great horror on the regular.
Works cited: Twin Peaks, Marble Hornets, The Philosophy of Horror by Noël Carroll, Pim & Francie by Al Columbia, and Sam Peckinpah’s Salad Days.
[LEAH WISHNIA:] I honestly don’t really think too much about how my own comic work fits into the over-arching canon of alternative comics and such. I’m just trying to do work that I enjoy and that others might appreciate as well. Although I like to think of my own comics style and vision as being unique, I don’t feel that it’s necessarily at odds with other alternative comics that are being produced and distributed right now—in fact, there’s quite a few contemporary cartoonists whose output of work I totally “get,” work that seems rooted in a similar place as my own.
Indeed, though, many of my comics have featured characters that act and react quite dramatically, a kind of exaggeration of some negative attributes I see in both myself and in others. I think there’s a lot of chaos and pain and greed present in our culture right now that often goes unnoticed or unaddressed, so I like to take those negative things and amplify them until they reach absurd proportions, beating people over the head with it all until someone takes notice.
The Best Comics of 2015
Towering, intimidating, with a voice like carved granite, Lieutenant Cedric Daniels is the (mostly) benevolent Darth Vader of the Baltimore Police Department, and in Season One’s back half he serves up a summary of the show as dualistic as the Force’s Light and Dark Sides. “The wire is what gives us Barksdale,” he tells Deputy Burrell when the half-stepping brass tries to shut it down. “It gives us the whole crew. Day by day. Piece by piece.” Orderly, methodical, unrelenting. But this is only after he offered a very different spin on the investigation to his wife. “You follow the drugs, you get a drug case,” he tells her. “You follow the money, you don’t know where you’re going.” Every new lead followed, every new piece of evidence gathered is a potential first step on a journey into the unknown. Or as Lester Freamon, the Obi-Wan of the Barksdale detail, more profanely puts it: “You follow drugs, you get drug addicts and drug dealers, but you start to follow the money, and you don’t know where the fuck it’s gonna take you.”
As below, so above. As The Wire’s first season builds to its anticlimax — McNulty, Daniels, Freamon and company bust Avon Barksdale and much of his gang, but on relatively penny-ante charges that leave his consigliere Stringer Bell free, and at the cost of lives and livelihoods on both sides — it repeatedly reveals surprising new depths. The crime and corruption are bigger, the cost sadder, the cops and criminals alike more complex than anyone had any reason to suspect. But it also functions exactly as a great cop show should, delivering top-notch genre-based suspense and barreling forward from plot point to plot point with the narrative inevitability of a freight train. It epitomizes the very form of storytelling it subverts.
I rewatched and reviewed the second half of The Wire Season One — which contains one of the greatest scenes in the history of television — for the New York Observer.
“You have arrived at your destination.”—Valerie’s GPS
Valerie Cherish got a rave review in The New York Times. The show she’s on, Seeing Red? Not so much. But still! “Valerie Cherish,” “rave review,” and “New York Times” were surely three phrases not even perpetually loyal Mickey ever expected to see in the same sentence, maybe not even on the same page. Yet there they are, sticking Valerie alongside the likes of Bryan Cranston and Claire Danes in the “‘90s network TV stars kicking ass on prestige cable dramas” club. It’s the kind of success she’d dreamed of for a decade—an actual, honest-to-god comeback. The question that “Valerie Cooks in the Desert,” last night’s episode, asks: “Now what?”
The Wire returns to screens of all kinds in 16 days, but it never really went away. More than any other show from the New Golden Age of Television, it has remained a part of the conversation long after the last notes of its final musical montage played out, seven years ago this coming March. The Sopranos started it all, but the cultural currency of its genre — the mafia saga — ended with it. Deadwood was the Baltimore crime drama’s contemporary, and like The Wire it mapped the intersection of criminality and community, but its truncated run, designed to lead to a fourth season that never saw the light of day, leaves it as much of a question mark as an exclamation point. Sex and the City eventually got the props it deserves as a forerunner for idiosyncratic cable programming, but its status as a sitcom, its fixation on status symbols, and, sadly, the gender of the characters doing the fixating preserve its marginalization. But this Baltimore cops-and-crooks drama — with its go-for-broke serialized storytelling, its prescient placement of American political problems at its structural center, its cross-cultural cast, and its endlessly quotable writing — has only increased in both praise and prominence since its initial six-year, five-season run, during which it was already being hailed as the greatest television show ever to air. HBO may have remastered it for its HD rerelease on December 26, but that’s simply technology catching up to the minds of the viewing public, where it’s been high definition and state of the art all along.
I’m very proud to present The Wire Wednesdays, a new weekly column for the New York Observer in which I’ll be rewatching and reviewing the show. The plan is to cover half a season at a time, so this installment covers Season One, Episodes 1-6. I have complicated opinions about this complicated show and it’s a great pleasure to be able to write about it at length.
Sitcoms are boring to look at. You ever think about that? How one of only two fictional-entertainment teams on TV throws the visual game before it even reaches the playing field? You get sitcoms that are cleverly edited, sure, where the comic timing depends on the cuts; Arrested Development takes top honors here.. You get sitcoms that do convincing pastiches of other genres of TV (Community), or of the documentary/reality format (too many to list, but you’re reading about one right now). And if you look down memory lane you can find shows that had a visual tone that made them memorable and unmistakable, like the Gordon Willis golds and browns of the bar set in Cheers. But in much the same way that mainstream movie comedy appears content to leave “I dunno gang, maybe we should make the thing look good too” in the hands of the Coen Brothers, the situation comedy has pretty much tossed the visual-innovation baton to Adult Swim and called it a race.
Bless its black heart: The Comeback tries harder. “Valerie Is Taken Seriously,” last night’s killer episode (a welcome return to form after last week’s suicidal one), has the mockumentary thing down cold. It also nails not one but two genre spoofs: the grim’n’gritty, dimly lit world of HBO dramas, and the day-glo gibberish of children’s television. (As the father of a three year old, I assure you that far greater horrors than Nicky Nicky Nack Nack lurk in the kids’ section of channel guide.) It could easily have coasted. Instead, it staged its two lynchpin scenes — Valerie’s transformation into a literal monster via green screen, and her eye-opening conversation about her performance with the New York Times reporter — to look as memorable as they felt.
I reviewed this week’s excellent episode of The Comeback for the New York Observer/comedies are boring-looking most of the time for some reason.
I’ll be talking about last night’s execrable episode of The Newsroom (as well as Homeland, which was also very bad, and The Comeback, which was very good) on HuffPost Live’s Spoiler Alert at 4:30pm. Tune in here!
It’s an irony literally no character on the show possesses the self-awareness required to appreciate, but here it is: It took an act of literal self-destruction for a show about the slow-motion, largely self-inflicted crushing of a human spirit to hit a serious wall.
Not that death should be off limits for The Comeback, or for any other cringe comedy. Untimely demises have been a part of the genre going back to Spinal Tap’s countless dead drummers. (“The official explanation was he choked on vomit….Well, they can’t really prove whose vomit it was.” “You can’t really dust for vomit.”) The Comeback’s own HBO antecedent, Curb Your Enthusiasm, went to the mortality well most memorably when Larry David’s dad told him he hadn’t been informed of his own mother’s funeral because “she told me not to bother you.” Both of the examples illustrate the central conceit of their respective stories: Spinal Tap chronicles a world of moronic debauchery, while Curb obsesses over the millions of minute rules that govern human interaction. So if a drummer is murdered by puke in the former, or a son misses his mom’s funeral because his dad didn’t want to impose in the latter, the pieces fit.
But the suicide that serves as a climax for “Valerie Saves the Show” is a hearse of a different color.
I find the idea of Star Wars without George Lucas singularly unappealing, even troubling. Turning Star Wars into a depersonalized, committee-driven content factory divorced from its creator in perpetuity, like the major superhero franchises, is a tremendous regression in any number of ways. Whatever his faults, Lucas is a real filmmaker, and these were his original ideas. J.J. Abrams, by contrast, is a facilitator, a babysitter for the ideas of others —Mission: Impossible, Star Trek, Star Wars, the Spielberg gestalt (Super 8). His involvement with Lost was minimal — the germinative idea was brought to him by the network, and other than his admittedly fine work co-writing and directing the excellent pilot, 95% of that show, good bad and ugly, was Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse. Alias is a sexy female spy series. Honestly, his greatest claim to originality is Felicity. In other words, he is Hollywood’s first “auteur” in the mold of the countless superhero-comics writers and artists who’ve been content to labor with the tools made for them by actual visionaries decades ago, spending entire careers creating nothing new, ideal employees for a system that has wholly conflated art and product. Moreover, his visual style is capable of being parodied in its entirety with a five-second montage of a shaky-cam shot and lens flare. That he’s apparently pouring Star Wars into his bog-standard garden-variety postmillennial action-blockbuster directorial mold (shaky-cam stormtroopers) instead of adjusting for the material is crass and sad. I’m sure the movies will have entertaining moments performed by state-of-the-art special effects technicians and likeable, talented actors, and have all the soul, guts, and idiosyncracy of a superhero movie, which is to say none at all.
Also the lightsaber makes no sense. “Check out my sword. It’s extra good because it has two little swords sticking out from the hilt of the big sword, in case I need to stab someone standing immediately to my right. Or to my left, even — the possibilities are endless, really.”
I’ll be talking The Newsroom, The Comeback, The Walking Dead, and the best shows for a holiday-break binge on HuffPost Live’s Spoiler Alert today at 5:05pm. Tune in here!
Celebrate Cyber Monday the old-fashioned way: in boiled leather! The Boiled Leather Audio Hour is back for our second episode in one week, and once again it’s our biggest to date. Since no one episode, and no two hosts, could contain The World of Ice and Fire, Stefan and I have tapped Race for the Iron Throne’s Steven Attewell and A Podcast of Ice and Fire’s Amin Javadi to join in the discussion of George R.R. Martin, Elio M. García Jr., and Linda Antonsson’s seemingly inexhaustible world book. We tackle many of the topics we missed in our first episode on the book, and double back on a few besides.
One more note and then it’s on with the show: Thank you so much for your generous donations to BLAH’s emergency tech-crisis fund. Your support has done a great deal to help defray the cost of the new computer and software I needed to continue recording the podcast. If you haven’t already, and you’re still in a spending mood after all those hot online deals, and if you enjoy the show or the blogs enough to warrant it, you can donate via paypal here. Any amount is extraordinarily appreciated.
Alright, that concludes our message from the Iron Bank. Check the links below for a host of posts and podcasts this fearsome foursome has already done on the book, then listen and enjoy!
Any superhero story requires a certain suspension of disbelief. We’re not even talking about the secret origins and incredible powers here, mind you — a culture that can accept Matthew McConaughey as an astronaut can handle a few radioactive spiders, green power rings, and super-soldier serums with no problem. The real storytelling stretch that superhero stories ask their audiences to accept is one of basic human behavior. After all, no billionaire has ever spent their ducats to become a masked, armored vigilante, fighting crime in a gaudy costume under a nickname ending in “-man.” A good caped-crusader story — even one like Gotham, which several crusaders but no actual capes — convinces you that “well, yeah, no one acts like that…but what if they did?” is a question worth asking.
By that standard, Fox’s year-one prequel to the Batman story not a good superhero story. Oh, it’s a fun romp, from time to time anyway. As it approaches the mid-season mark under showrunner Bruno Heller, it’s created a more visually entertaining Gotham City than Christopher Nolan’s dour concrete canyon, a place where buildings, bridges, burlesque clubs, even bathrooms are just a bit bigger than our workaday world’s. The score, by Graeme Revell and David E. Russo, is similarly souped up, swelling and humming and clanging and making everything feel, well, like a comic book. (That’s a compliment where I come from.) The setting looks and sounds like a world where a man who dresses up like a bat and punches evil clowns would fit right in.
But tonight’s episode, “LoveCraft,” reveals a fundamental problem with Gotham’s tone: Evil clowns, sure, bring ‘em on. Larger-than-life heroes who battle injustice in spectacular style? Not so much. With a lack of actual bona fide Batman built right into the premise, the show pitch-shifts real life up a few octaves, sure, but almost always in an unpleasant direction. What should feel camply thrilling, and often does in the moment, winds up leaving you feeling as dirty as Harvey Bullock looks.
We’re back, and a world awaits! Released with deserved fanfare a few weeks ago, The World of Ice and Fire, the long-awaited world book by George R.R. Martin and his co-authors Elio M. García Jr. and Linda Antonsson of Westeros.org, has proven to be an extraordinarily fecund source of information, speculation, and general wonderment. That’s a pretty fair characterization of this episode of The Boiled Leather Audio Hour, as a matter of fact: No muss, no fuss, just me and Stefan the best and most baffling moments of this extensive fake history in our biggest episode yet.
But before you begin, a quick housekeeping note: Stefan and I haven’t been able to record a podcast since July, as a series of professional, personal, and (most insurmountably) technical issues scuttled half a dozen different scheduled recording times. The resolution of these issues necessitated the purchase of a whole new computer and set of software, which I was happy to do, but which obviously took a hefty chunk out of the old Boiled Leather budget.
So if you enjoy The Boiled Leather Audio Hour, boiledleather.com, The Nerdstream Era, or any of our assorted projects, please consider clicking here to donate a few dollars to help offset the cost of the show via PayPal. (There’s also a Donate button at the top of boiledleather.com.) You all have been so tremendously complimentary and supportive, and we’re extraordinarily grateful that you listen!
My skin is crawling and I’ve never felt more alive.
This, verbatim, was my reaction the first time I watched The Comeback just two short weeks ago. Actually, it followed an all-caps rant on my twitter feed to the effect of OH MY GOD WHY DID NONE OF YOU TELL ME TO WATCH THE COMEBACK BEFORE. A mockumentary in which the protagonist occasionally realizes the joke is on her and visibly chokes back tears? Where have you been all my life?
As the kind of person who could only like This Is Spinal Tap more if the “Stonehenge” sequence had been followed by an unbroken two-minute shot of David St. Hubbins having a backstage breakdown upon realizing his entire life was a miserable failure, this was manna from heaven for me. Its trick is that by forcing you to experience the humiliations of Valerie Cherish asgenuinely humiliating, with all the barely tamped-down misery that entails, instead of just as joke fodder, the show is actually more empathetic to her suffering, and harsher on the sexist system of celebrity that inflicts it.
So you can keep your Liz Lemons and your Leslie Knopes and their adorkably heartwarming/heartwarmingly adorkable tumblr gifsets—I wear all black all the time, for god’s sake. Give me Valerie Cherish auditioning for a role designed to tear her to shreds because it’s the only role she can get. I want comedy that hurts. If it comes in a pastel track suit, so fucking be it. And from what I’ve managed to see so far (the three extant episodes of Season Two and about half of Season One, which I’m HBOGoing as fast as my internet service provider can handle it), few episodes of The Comeback have been quite this painful.
Hooray, I’m reviewing The Comeback for the New York Observer now! Thanks to Drew Grant for giving me this chance to SHINE!