Posts Tagged ‘TV’

The Horror of Adult Swim

Friday, December 19th, 2014

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.

I wrote about Unedited Footage of a Bear (the scariest TV show of 2014), Too Many Cooks, Tim and Eric, and the new wave of Adult Swim horror for the New York Observer.

Works cited: Twin PeaksMarble HornetsThe Philosophy of Horror by Noël Carroll, Pim & Francie by Al Columbia, and Sam Peckinpah’s Salad Days.

“The Wire” Wednesdays, Part Two

Wednesday, December 17th, 2014

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.

“The Comeback” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Six: “Valerie Cooks in the Desert”

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014

“You have arrived at your destination.”—Valerie’s GPS

“Have I?”—Valerie

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?”

I reviewed this week’s typically great episode of The Comeback for the New York Observer.

HuffPost Living

Monday, December 15th, 2014

I’ll be talking about the Newsroom finale, The Comeback, The Affair, and Homeland on @huffpostlive at 5:30pm—tune in:

“The Wire” Wednesdays, Part One: “We’re Building Something Here” (Season One, Episodes 1-6)

Wednesday, December 10th, 2014

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.

“The Comeback” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Five: “Valerie Is Taken Seriously”

Wednesday, December 10th, 2014

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.


Monday, December 8th, 2014

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!

“The Comeback” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Four: “Valerie Saves the Show”

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014

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 reviewed this week’s episode of The Comeback for the New York Observer.

The HuffRoom

Monday, December 1st, 2014

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!

“Gotham” thoughts, Season One, Episode Ten: “LoveCraft”

Tuesday, November 25th, 2014

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.

I reviewed last night’s Gotham for Rolling Stone.

HuffPost Livin’

Monday, November 24th, 2014

I’ll be talking The Comeback, The Newsroom, The Affair, and Homeland on @HuffPostLive today at 5pm. Tune in here!

“The Comeback” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Three: “Valerie Is Brought to Her Knees”

Monday, November 24th, 2014

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!

The HuffPost Comeback

Monday, November 17th, 2014

I’ll be talking The Newsroom, The Comeback, The Affair, and Homeland on @HuffPostLive at 4:50pm. Tune in here!

HuffPost Empire

Monday, October 27th, 2014

I’ll be talking the Boardwalk Empire finale, Homeland, & The Affair on @HuffPostLive today at 4:55pm. Watch it here.

Q&A: Terence Winter on the end of “Boardwalk Empire”

Thursday, October 23rd, 2014

Nucky started the series as a crooked politician, but as Prohibition continued he became more of the traditional gangster. Was it the law that unleashed the criminal in him?

People were made millionaires overnight by Prohibition. If you were willing to traffic in illegal alcohol and run the risk of getting arrested or hijacked by other gangsters, you had to be prepared to do things you hadn’t done before — like murdering people. That’s what Jimmy was warning Nucky about.

You know, there was no shame about it. People had been drinking beer their whole lives, and suddenly it’s illegal? It was pretty hard to convince anybody other than the temperance movement that alcohol was this bad thing. It was just illegal, not morally wrong. Your average man on the street had no intention of giving up his daily beer or scotch — he just had to figure out how to do it. So these guys weren’t looked down upon. It’s not like they were heroin dealers or murderers. They were providing a service, a commodity, that most people found innocuous.

There was also a collision of historic events that not only made the gangster world possible, but were tailor-made for it. You had a generation of young men coming back from World War I who spent the last two years in trenches killing people for free. Now, suddenly, all you have to do is guard a truck and maybe shoot somebody, and you could make a fortune. Guys lined up all the way around the block to do that, since they’d basically been doing exactly that for nothing. You had all these disenfranchised, disillusioned young men who were perfectly willing and able to get into that business.

There’s a character on the show who says: “The premise of fiction is that people have some sort of connection to each other. But they don’t.” Is that your conclusion as well?

I think it’s a matter of perspective. I’ve always thought that when they say ignorance is bliss, the converse to that is that knowledge is hell. The more you know, the bleaker things can get. Jimmy once said that all you have to worry about is when you’re alone at night. You run out of booze and you run out of company, and [then] you’re really alone with your thoughts.

I interviewed Boardwalk Empire creator Terence Winter about the upcoming finale, and his next project with Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger, and Bobby Cannavale, for Rolling Stone.

The HuffPost Affair

Monday, October 20th, 2014

I’ll be talking The Affair, Boardwalk Empire, and Homeland on HuffPost Live’s Spoiler Alert at 5pm today. Turn on tune in!

“Boardwalk Empire” thoughts, Season Five, Episode Seven: “Friendless Child”

Monday, October 20th, 2014

“You probably don’t even hear it when it happens, right?”—Bobby Bacala, The Sopranos

“You tell yourself it’s quick, but you don’t know. You can’t know, until it’s you, and then you can’t tell anyone.”—Nucky Thompson, Boardwalk Empire

In an echo of the New Jersey gangster masterpiece that spawned it, Boardwalk Empire‘s penultimate episode ever — “Friendless Child” — walked Nucky Thompson right up to the edge of the great unknown. He’s lost everything now, or close enough not to make much of a difference. His unlikely right-hand man Mickey Doyle and ruthless, loyal bodyguard Archie were tossed on the pile of bodies that’s been mounting around him for years — a levee of corpses designed to protect his kingdom by the sea. But that empire, too, has fallen, traded away for the life of a nephew who wants nothing to do with him to a trio of crime lords who couldn’t possibly intend to honor the agreement. When they break it, they’ll break it with a bullet.

But now that Nucky is alone – now that there are no more plans to hatch, deals to make, wars to fight – what does he see in his isolation? A letter from Gillian Darmody, and the sight of her face staring back, begging for help. Her plea and her gaze are an indictment of the terrible crime Nucky committed by bringing her to theCommodore in order to begin his long road to power. (A decision, we learn tonight, he made knowing full well the fate that awaited her.) By having her direct them not just at Nucky but at everyone watching the show, Boardwalk makes this act’s importance clear in no uncertain terms. That final shot puts young Gillian at the center not only of the frame, but by extension the episode. It suggests that the suffering of the series’ greatest female character is no less important than the moves and machinations of the men fighting for control of the empire she eked out an existence within. It shows that that empire would not exist without the suffering of Gillian and countless other people like her. It’s the series’ gutsiest, and most moral, move to date.

I reviewed tonight’s penultimate Boardwalk Empire for Rolling Stone. I cannot stress enough that if this show were the vapid, self-serious shoot ‘em up it’s made out to be, Gillian Darmody would not be where she is in this episode.

HuffPost Dead

Monday, October 13th, 2014

I’ll be talking Boardwalk Empire, Homeland, and (god help me) The Walking Dead on HuffPost Live’s Spoiler Alert show at 4:40pm today. Click here to tune in!

And if you missed last week’s show, watch it here!

“Boardwalk Empire” thoughts, Season Five, Episode Six: “The Devil You Know”

Sunday, October 12th, 2014

I can’t really excerpt anything from my review of tonight’s Boardwalk Empire without ruining it for someone. If you’ve seen it, though, please read the review.