Thursday, July 05, 2012

July 4th Double Feature

Having spent all of last weekend doing as little as possible, I decided to use the odd mid-week holiday yesterday to get out of the house...and sit in a movie theater. The two films I most wanted to see were Brave and Magic Mike, which made for a very odd double feature, with two very different audience reactions to bare male asses. But it seemed like spending the day with Pixar and Matthew McConaughey was a pretty decent way to celebrate America.

There are a lot of reasons why I don't go to the movies very often. They're expensive, I'd rather go to live theater (which is more expensive, of course, but there's also much less of it), I have lots of entertainment to keep me busy in the comfort of my own home, I'm lazy, one of my regular theaters had bedbugs last summer, I'm a control freak. But the main reason I rarely see movies in the theater is that I hate people. This is the kind of hyperbolic, curmodgeonly statement I make all the time and don't really mean, but with no exaggeration I am really so frequently astonished by the kinds of assholes movie theaters seem to attract. Like the people who "Ooooohhhh"ed like the Saved by the Bell laugh track when Jack and Ennis kissed in Brokeback Mountain. Did you not know what the movie was about???

Now, I realize it was foolish to go to a kids' movie at 1:30 pm on the 4th of July. I take responsibility for that. But you guys, there was so much bad parenting on display at Brave yesterday...we are not teaching the children well and letting them lead the way. (Or, I guess we are letting them lead the way when really an adult should.) I get that parenting is hard and sometimes you just need to get out of the house, but when I was a kid, my mother (who I never thought of as particularly strict or mean or anti-fun) would use such outings as teaching opportunities for how to behave in public. We simply never would have shown up to a movie 20 minutes late and make a commotion about it. And did that same family of six need to all go to the bathroom at the same time, as noisily as possible? 

Also, for some reason, the movie was being shown with subtitles. English subtitles. Maybe there were some hearing impaired people in the audience who'd requested them, or maybe it was just a wrong setting on the computer, but it was even more distracting to me than the squirming two-year-olds. My eye is just drawn to words on the screen, which made it hard to truly enjoy the beautiful animation. Also dialogue in the captions shows up sometimes before anyone actually speaks, blowing the timing, and the really lovely sound design was entirely described to me, again often before the sounds actually happened. Strangest of all was the presense of unspoken "dialogue" in the captions. It must have been taken directly from the script, because, for example, there'd be text like, "(MONKEY SQUEALS) Don't go in there!" (There is no monkey; I'm trying to avoid spoilers.) So apparently the hearing impaired don't appreciate subtlety and can't read facial expressions?

All of this is to say that I didn't see Brave under the best conditions, and I'm sad about that because I really liked it. It's certainly more conventional than a lot of Pixar movies, but I liked it much more than Up (apart from the opening sequence, I'm in that tiny minority that sort of hated Up, so take that as you will) or Tangled (which I know isn't Pixar). I have only two complaints about the film's structure. One is that it's extremely predictable. There are a couple of "twists" that are so heavily telegraphed...I mean, I know it's a kids' movie, but one of the great things about Pixar is that you can usually watch their films as an adult and still be surprised now and then. My other issue is that I never felt like there were any real stakes. You know that really intense scene in Toy Story 3 where you know intellectually that it's a kids' movie and they're not going to kill anyone but you think "Holy shit, are they going to kill someone???" anyway? There was none of that here. You just know everything's going to work out. (Uh...spoiler?) This kept me from being fully engaged, which surely led to some of my irritated distraction at the theater. Also, not a structural problem, but there's a lot more slapstick than I expected, and a handful of anachronistic or lowest-common-denomonator jokes that seemed like they'd be more at home in a Shrek movie than here.

But, as I mentioned in the midst of my complaining, the animation is lovely, the voice performances are terrific, and the sound design goes a long way to creating a world (that's one reason I'm glad I saw it in the theater). There's been so much talk about Merida's hair, which is truly impressive, but I was even more taken with the animation on some animals that feature prominently. They're just slightly anthropomorphised, but not in that old-school Disney way, so they convey human emotion while still feeling like real animals. Their movement was beautiful.

I really, really don't understand all the feminist hand-wringing over Brave. Yes, she's a princess (maybe there should be some 99% hand-wringing about why these stories are never about the working class!), but she's unlike any Disney princess I've ever seen before. And I don't think enough credit is being given to the Queen, both in how the character is written and in Emma Thompson's delightful performance. This is a strong, powerful woman! Her role is more traditional, yes (and again, why always with the royalty?), but she's very much in charge. Each woman learns about the other, but it's not like "why corsets are important" is one of the lessons. As much as Brave is about a girl who can fight and shoot, it's also about a woman who can rule, and soothe, and be a cunning diplomat. Meanwhile the men and boys in the film are largely ineffectual or sidelined. I just don't get how that's "not feminist enough."

Which is as good a segue as any to Magic Mike, which I managed to enjoy while also sort of hating.  (And which I'm going to make less of an effort not to spoil, because it really doesn't matter.) Maybe it's just because strippers don't really do it for me, but I was shocked at how completely unsexy this movie was. Yes, there are some hot bodies on display, but I can see that (in fact, these very same) on the internet. But also, not just unsexy, but outright sex-negative. It's a movie about strippers!! I don't really know anything about Channing Tatum's personal story, except that this movie is based on it, and he seems totally unashamed of, even proud of his stripper history, so this was not the outlook I expected.

Olivia Munn has some lively scenes as the one character in the movie who isn't somehow runined by having a healthy, non-conservative sex life or being around strippers. She has fun, she's adventurous, she's safe (as far as we see) and she seems to be completely guilt-free about it. This is what I expected from "the stripper movie." And one of these scenes opens the film so it seemed like where we were going. But no. Everyone else who enters this world -- including, eventually, Mike himself to some degree -- is ruined by it. Look, I don't know any strippers myself, but isn't it possible for someone to just enjoy stripping? It seems like pretty easy money if you have the skills and the...assets. Certainly as portrayed in this movie, the world of men stripping for women is kind of a non-stop party, with very little if any of the risk and skeeviness involved in being a woman stripping for men. But the film can't be just that. This movie wants us to know that it's afterschool special bad. Matt Bomer's character is married! Look how cute he and his wife are! They have a healthy-seeming open relationship! Yay sex! Yay naked Matt Bomer! Oh...he's a drug dealer? They both are? With drug problems themselves? Okay, then. And that's pretty much the least of it.

It doesn't help that the supporting characters are so thinly drawn as to be nonexistent, but that's where they put the decent actors for some reason! I've enjoyed Channing Tatum and Alex Pettyfer elsewhere (SNL and Beastly, respectively, so the bar is admittedly low), but neither of them is able to carry this movie. In Pettyfer's case I'm not sure it's his fault. I just never once bought him as a wide-eyed 19-year-old in a way that feels more like a failure of casting than of acting. And also of a script that makes him kind of a dick right from the start, so that it's unclear why Mike would be so into him (in a bro way, of course, because there are no gay people anywhere near this story). A better actor might have been able to work around these obstacles, but Pettyfer isn't that actor.

And then there's the girl. I hope it says more about the role of women in this movie than it does about me that I don't know her name and think of her as "the girl" not even "the woman." Sorry, women. Truthfully, I spent the whole movie thinking of her as "Bitchface." I think she laughs twice, but mostly she just makes this face:

I get that she doesn't have the best life, but she's so sour and unfun (not in a "be more responsible" way, just in a "I hate fun" way) and has such disdain for what Mike does (when Mike is, for most of the movie, someone who just has a good time at his job, so it's not like she's down on him because of drugs or anything) and plus has nothing in common with him that I never saw how she could be a viable love interest, except for the fact that Mike clearly likes a challenge. The two actors have zero chemistry and the script didn't give me any reason to want them to be together for even a second.

I know this movie is all about the bromance, but for a film about men who please women for a living, it just seemed really woman-free. Sure, there's the entire audience of extras in the club, and some sex partners who literally have no lines, but it fails the Bechdel Test spectacularly. Not that I expected Magic Mike to be, well, Brave, just that it felt like a very incomplete world. These guys would have friends. The girl would have friends probably, even though she's a miserable human being.

I've seen very little Soderbergh, but I know that he likes naturalistic dialogue and occasional improvisation, which I imagine is great when you're watching some of the actors he's worked with in the past. The actors in Magic Mike, though (at least the ones in these scenes), can't pull it off. At all. A couple of scenes were just painful to watch.

But Adam, what about the damn stripping?? Well, having already stipulated that strippers don't do much for me, the dance sequences were pretty delightful, actually. They're pure fantasy, with much higher production values than I suspect are realistic, and thank goodness for that because they're great fun. The over-the-top choreography was actually nicely tempered by the cast's uneven dancing ability. Some of them are there for their other assets, and watching them work the choreography to varying degrees was both fun and a good balance. But also...I've never been to this type of club, obviously, but is it really so, well, rapey? They make it very clear that the women are willing participants and enjoying everything that's happening, but some of the positions they got themselves into made me uncomfortable. Am I being sex-negative? Or were some lines crossed?

I did really like some of what the movie had to say about the economy, without being heavy handed about it (considering how heavy handed they are elsewhere, this is surprising). The fantasy of the club and its easy money are contrasted nicely with the challenge of finding other work, mediocre living conditions, credit issues, and how trapped Bitchface seems to feel. The production design is also fantastic, both at conveying how Tampa can be pretty great, with the beach and all, but also pretty depressing, with the shitty houses and third-rate clubs. There were some great little details, like how the dancers' dressing room is the kitchen from what must be the space's former life as a restaurant.

But that attempt to be serious is exactly what ruined Magic Mike for me. If it had been Burlesque it would have been a light-hearted summer romp with hot naked-ish guys and fun dancing. (I mean, really, every movie should be more like Burlesque.) But they tried to have it both ways and failed spectacularly on both fronts, committing a sin that nothing widely known as "that stripper movie" ever should: It was boring.

ETA: I really liked this review of Magic Mike by my friend Mildly Bitter, who actually went to film school and stuff, so I wanted to share. Also, I've realized in listening to other people praise the movie (not MB, for sure) that my big problem with it was one of marketing. I went in expecting summer fun and got preachy downer. Bummer.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Time Enough At Last

At some point, I stopped reading books.

I've never been a huge reader. I started reading fairly early but I was never all that fast at it. I had friends who could read an entire novel in one sitting in 7th grade, but that was never me. In high school and college (where I was almost an English major — I switched to Drama and was just one or two courses shy of a double) I often didn't quite make it to the end of an assigned book, both because I wasn't fast enough and because I was more interested in other things, like spending my time in rehearsal. Or napping.

So I guess it's natural that my book-reading started to fall off. I keep making a point to specify "books" and not just "reading," because the thing is, thanks to the internet, I actually read much more than I used to. I've never been a fan of newspapers (the format, not the content) and magazines tended to pile up, but Google Reader is my friend. It's made content so easy to get, and a well curated RSS feed can bring me things from sections of a site or a paper I might not find on my own (like a theatre-related article from the Real Estate section of the Times). It still piles up but it's a virtual pileup, which I can handle much more easily. I find myself reading a lot of it in front of the TV. Some of it is pictures of kittens but a lot of it is newsy stuff I never would have been reading 10 years ago, and it makes me smarter. But it's not a novel, and I quite like novels.

My real downfall, books-wise, was podcasts. I spend an hour or so on the subway each day, which used to be my book time. It became my podcasts and Angry Birds time. Or sometimes my Twitter or Google Reader on my iPhone time.

So late last fall I declared that subway time would henceforth be Non-Internet Reading Time. I break the rule now and then, but I've mostly been pretty good about it. And hey, shocker, I really like books still. (Of course this now means I'm behind on podcasts and everything else, but I actually think it's a decent trade.)

Also this is hardly a ground-breaking statement at this point but I love love love my Kindle. I'd figured I didn't need one for my low-volume reading and since I already have so many devices, but I love the e-paper and my easily distracted attention span loves that it's a dedicated device. One of the first books in this new endeavor was Carrie, and it turned out my copy from 1988 was crumbly and in no state to read. So I grabbed the e-book and brought my iPad on the subway. As much as I travel with it, it didn't work for me on a rush hour commute. It was just a bit too heavy, a bit too big for the tight space, and since most of my commute is above ground, a bit too sunny. I finished the book on my phone, which was a bit like reading a Little Golden children's book version of Stephen King, with one paragraph on each "page," but it got the job done and worked in a crowd. When I was done I attacked my pile of paper books until getting a Kindle Touch for Chanukah.

I've never been a bookstore person. Unless I know exactly what I want, it's hard to, well, judge a book by its cover, and being a slow reader I'm not one to stand there in the aisle and read a chapter. Similarly, I've never been a fan of libraries and their deadlines. So my favorite thing about the Kindle is the ability to sample anything. If I hear about a book I might even slightly be interested in, I grab the sample for when I eventually get around to it. I've both dodged some bullets and found some great stuff this way. And I always have multiple books with me now. (I've even got TWO library cards again, for the first time in years; the due dates don't bother me so much when everything can be magically zapped back and forth.)

I don't get the hold "real" books have over some of my friends - including (in fact mostly) people much younger than me. It's funny too, because I'm a fairly acquisitive person. In college I had a few books that traveled with me from dorm to dorm, ostensibly in case I wanted to refer to them but in reality just so they could be on the shelf. My living room now has an entire wall of bookshelves and I love them but they're more decorative than anything. It turns out the convenience of getting almost any book I want the instant I want it, and carrying this tiny thing around trumps my love of shiny objects and showing off. (I've still got plenty of "real" books to read too, and of course I'm always sure to have one with me on airplanes for take off and landing.)

Anyway, I was going to post a bit about some stuff I've read, but I've prattled on too long about the device instead of the content, so I'll save that for later. More reading! More writing!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

That hotel incident with the Cool Whip and the baby llama

I'm probably going to lose any credibility I may have with a lot of you when I say this, but I have (willingly and happily) seen the stage version of Rock of Ages three times. Yes, Rock of Ages. The show that did this on the Tony Awards:

As a serious-minded theater professional, I'm not "supposed" to like jukebox musicals. And yes, of course I'd like to see as much original music on Broadway (and elsewhere) as possible. And maybe even original stories! But I also, first and foremost, want to be entertained when I go to the theater, so if you can manage to show me a good time using recycled music, well, please do! Obviously I believe in the power of music to help tell a story and manipulate an audience (even if you don't like musicals, this applies to background songs and scores in movies and TV too), and songs you already know can do that not just on their own musical terms, but by using their place in the culture and your memory.

Now, I'm not suggesting the show is good in any critical sense, but if you like 80s rock and a particularly silly sense of humor that comes as much from clever vocal arrangements as from actual jokes, then this is the show for you. The songs are great (or sometimes "great") and, every time I've seen it, expertly sung by a mix of Broadway and rock voices. A lot of these songs (the power ballads especially) are already theatrical, already telling a story. "Harden My Heart" and "Here I Go Again" and "Oh Sherrie" don't feel remotely out of place. Obviously if you don't like this music then you will never like this show.

If you do like the songs, though, it all works remarkably well on stage. Live, the show has a rock concert atmosphere (the band is center stage and featured periodically, drinks are delivered to your seat), and is performed with a slightly heightened stage sensibility that allows the actors to walk a fine line between winking and playing real people. Everything is 100% in on the joke, lovingly poking fun at musicals, 80s style, and absurd "We have to save the theater/school/animal shelter/karate dojo and fall in love" 80s movies. It's nostalgic about something I don't think anyone thinks was really very good in the first place. The idea that the whole thing is on Broadway is part of the joke, and that the creators seem to love musicals and MTV in equal measure is all part of the package. It is, as they say, nothin' but a good time.

Now here's the part where I lose credibility with the rest of you: I liked the movie. And I'm pretty much the only person I know who did (of the handful who even saw it). There's no question that I liked the show much much better, but, I mean, it's Rock of Ages. You were expecting Carousel here?

The ad campaign for the movie is absolutely horrible, hiding the fact that the movie is pretty faithful to the show. (One subplot and its set of characters was entirely replaced, and as much as I enjoyed the original version I have to admit the new one kinda makes more sense. The original is by far the silliest thing in the show, and I'm not sure it would have worked on film.) Like many stage-to-film translations, there's a tone problem: The realness of film doesn't allow for the broadness the show has in the theater, which makes everything a little heavier than the material can sustain (or makes the silliness seem like a bad MAD TV sketch) but on the whole all the things I enjoyed about the show were there and enjoyable in the movie.

The ads also had me dreading the cast, none of whom is shown to advantage in the commercials. Alec Baldwin is, to me, the most egregiously miscast, but he didn't bother me much. Though when he sings (or even reacts to music) he seems deeply uncomfortable, like a robot unfamiliar with the human concept of rhythm. Meanwhile, Russell Brand - who I not only hate, I have an inexplicable physical revulsion to - is so perfectly cast that I forgot to loathe him and actually enjoyed his performance. Julianne Hough is very pretty, and has the look of a small town girl trying to make it in Hollywood, if not the charisma of someone who will (spoiler!) ultimately become a star...except she is a semi-star, so what do I know? She sings well, if not exactly on par with the Broadway belters who've played the part before her, but I think it's bizarre that she basically doesn't dance at all, since that's what she's famous for. Diego Boneta is very pretty in a bland way; I fully believed him in the puppy dog love story scenes, and not so much in the "I wanna rock!!" scenes. (These two are the real leads, which makes the ads' focus on the stars all the more misleading.)

And then there's Tom Cruise. Here's the thing: I don't like Tom Cruise. I don't think he's a good actor, and he seems like a pretty reprehensible real life human being. But that's exactly why he's sort of perfect as an insane, creepy superstar: His baggage gives the role a satisfying meta-ness. He's either in on the joke and willing to poke fun at his image, or he's completely clueless, either of which I find satisfying. But the flip side of using Cruise's stardom is that it makes Stacey into a lead, which he's not (this is also kind of the problem with Alec Baldwin, who at this point can't not be Alec Baldwin). In the show, Stacey steals every scene he's in, but he's unquestionably a supporting character. We spend far too much time with him in the movie — and worse, with him not singing. Not that Cruise's heavily processed singing is something to look forward to, but if you know the show and you know the songs are coming, the long book scenes feel interminable. It's a structural problem, not a performance one.

This overall is my biggest problem with the movie, as well as some other recent movie musicals which shall remain nameless. At times it seems like they forgot they were making a musical. Or were afraid that too much singing might scare off audiences. Book scenes are inexplicably expanded, sucking the energy out of the room. The new Catherine Zeta-Jones plot is extremely tight (much more so that the arc it replaced), but for some reason the time gained is taken up by an endless parody of boy bands, which in the show is basically a throwaway joke about a costume.

They've also shied away from the theatricality of the music: making the arrangements less Broadway, using fewer mash-ups (the vocal jokes and the incongruous mash-ups are some of the funniest things in the show in my opinion, playing with then audience's expectations of the familiar songs), but also not letting very many numbers really rock. It's all very American Idol. They've pretty much eliminated the chorus (sorry, Karen Cartwright, ensemble!) and maybe it's just because I know the show so well but I missed them. In the structure of a musical, some numbers just feel like they should be big, and I wanted some random people dancing on the street. The lack of dancing is notable for a film directed by Adam Shankman and starring a SYTYCD alumna. When there's finally a big pole-dancing number (seriously) I was thrilled (seriously), not just because it's impressive (seriously!) but because I was missing that really fun and sexy element of the show. (Also I'm still not over the fact that they cut "Oh Sherrie," which I assume was because of some sort of rights issue, but come on, solve that problem because why else would her name be Sherrie??)

Okay, so none of this sounds like I liked this movie very much, but I'm nitpicking, which is my wont. It's Rock of Ages. Anyone who goes to this movie expecting high art is severely misguided. It's a stupid, fluffy summer comedy, a bizzare tribute to 80s music and movies, and if you like those things I think you'll like this movie. As Dana Stevens, one of the few critics I know of who liked it said, "Once you accept the utter and profound inconsequentiality of Rock of Ages, there’s much to enjoy in it." (Though Dana, all chaps are backless, otherwise they'd be pants.)

This is a much longer review than I usually write here but clearly I'm feeling a little defensive! (Clearly a running theme here lately.) Look, I'm not going to convince anyone to like - or even to see - this movie. But for all its flaws, I had a great fucking time, and that's all I ask of a movie - or a show - like this. Go to a cheap matinee if they still have those where you live, or grab it on Netflix. Have a few drinks. Skip to the songs you like best. Enjoy the monkey. And seriously, don't miss the big strip club scene.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Netflix Queue Challenge: A whole bunch of stuff

Well, the Netflix Queue Challenge failed in one of its goals, which was to get me to write. But I have been pretty good about watching stuff! So for the sake of completion, some capsule reviews of varying quality (of movies of varying quality).

Rise of the Planet of the Apes
I was really looking forward to this movie, especially after the great reviews and word of mouth it got. So of course I hated it. To be fair, I watched it on a plane - not even on a seat-back screen, but an old-school, projected on the bulkhead in-flight movie. So the video quality surely hurt the effects, and there were some super awkward cuts where I assume some violence was edited out. But it would've taken more than an ideal viewing environment for me to like this movie. I realize that a Planet of the Apes movie doesn't have to make the most sense, but I couldn't deal with James Franco being the worst scientist ever. The downfall of humanity can pretty much be blamed on his poor choices. And not in a "man's hubris" way, just in a "I'm a dumbass" way. I mean, plus he's James Franco, who I always find supremely creepy. Everything was so heavy handed and none of it made much sense. I also just love the original Apes and didn't really want that origin story messed with, or its famous lines awkwardly shoehorned in here. The motion capture of Andy Serkis is absolutely as good as everyone said it was, and whenever the film didn't have humans around I was at least interested. I'll definitely watch a sequel if they make one just to see where they go with that.

Four Weddings and a Funeral
One on the long list of movies I really should have seen before now. I'm not even sure what to say about it. I liked it? No, I really did. I was wrapped up enough in it to be completely surprised when a character died, even though "and a funeral" is right there in the title (wrapped up or maybe just dumb). It's funny, it's sweet, and the cast has great chemistry. Speaking of chemistry...about Andie MacDowell... I have to say I don't really understand the hatred people have for her in this movie. She's stiff, yes, but that's kind of her character. The worst thing is the way the movie tries to convince us she's a good choice for Hugh Grant, but that feels more like a failure of writing to me than of her performance. And after years of hearing "Is it raining? I hadn't noticed." held up as an example of bad acting, I was surprised to finally see it in context and discover that it's a joke. I mean, it is, isn't it? She's kidding, right? I assumed she was, so the flatness is a deliberate sarcasm. I mean, it's not a great line reading, but I didn't find it nearly as egregious as the rest of the world seems to.

Okay, so, here comes the contrarian for real. I wasn't wild about Weekend. I wanted to be, and there's certainly a lot to like, and I get why other people loved it so much, but it wasn't for me. The realism of the film is its big selling point, and that's lovely, but real people are kinda dull. And they mumble a lot. I had the TV turned up literally all the way and still could barely understand a word anyone said (it wasn't the accents, it was the sound mix), and then music would play and blow my eardrums out. Why does "indie" have to so often equal "sounds bad?"

Sorry, I don't mean to nitpick the technical stuff. It's a lovely little film that I'm glad exists even though it wasn't for me. I liked seeing such a matter-of-fact story about two gay guys. The sex scenes were surprisingly realistic without being porny (in a way that I'm not sure I've ever fully believed in any straight sex scenes I've seen, with their bras and strangely cut sheets), and were pretty damn hot. I wanted to like the movie so much more than I did. I hate to cop out with "it wasn't for me" but apart from the mumbly sound I can't really point to anything that's wrong with it, its aimlessness just didn't appeal to me. (I also watched it, like most of these, months ago, which is maybe a flaw in trying to catch up here - I remember my disappointment in it more than the real why.)

Take Me Home Tonight
Speaking of which, this movie was so forgettable I almost forgot I'd watched it until I saw it in my Netflix history. It's also not very good. I like the 80s, I like Topher Grace, I was fully prepared to enjoy this movie. And...meh. But truthfully I barely remember what it's about. What stuck with me most was something I remember seeing in reviews, which is that it's just set in "the 80s." There's no specificity to anything, and the pop culture references are a big mish-mosh. That's fine in something broader like The Wedding Singer but Take Me Home Tonight seems to take itself a little more seriously so I wished its setting had had more to say.

Rabbit Hole
I deeply regret not seeing Rabbit Hole on Broadway, so I'm glad this film exists, even if it didn't 100% grab me. I suspect it worked better on stage, and I also suspect I would have preferred that cast. But the film is very good - small and intimate and heartbreaking. I've always liked Nicole Kidman and have been sad about her face, so it was nice to see her looking more natural (and sporting a convincing American accent). Her performance is lovely and her sadness is palpable. Liking Kidman strangely made me wish even more that I'd seen Cynthia Nixon on stage, just because of how different (but equally appropriate) I assume she was.

What's stuck with me most is the production design. The houses were so specific and told you everything you needed to know about the characters. I don't know if they were locations or sets, but I fully believed they were real. And I totally want Nicole Kidman's kitchen.

Rosemary's Baby
It's weird to watch a movie this ingrained in the culture so late. Even weirder is that I hadn't really been spoiled. I mean, I knew Rosemary was going to have an evil baby, but none of the details at all. In fact, I think I had it partly confused with The Omen (which I also haven't seen), because I spent a lot of time thinking, "Have the fucking baby already!" Once I realized both that it wasn't about that, and that I really hadn't known that, it was a nice surprise. What I had taken for "old movie slow pacing" was actually sort of the exact right speed.

I love old movies shot on location in NYC, and I grew up 3 blocks from the Dakota so I was happiest whenever Rosemary went outside. Her world is so specific and also fairly banal, which makes everything feel real and so much creepier when it goes off the rails. I absolutely loved the busybody next door neighbors, especially Ruth Gordon. They felt completely like old people I grew up around in that neighborhood. And I just loved that their demeanor never changed even as they were revealed to be eeeeeevil. If you told me one of the Upper East Side doctors I went to as a kid were a Satan worshipper I would totally believe you. That final party scene is the best. Everyone's so cheerful!

Jennifer's Body
I wasn't sure what to expect from this. I liked Juno but beyond that don't really have an opinion about Diablo Cody one way or another. But I do like this kind of arch horror movie, and Amanda Seyfried and Adam Brody, and none disappointed. Megan Fox was...fine? Better than fine, actually. True she mostly just had to look pretty but she actually turned out a pretty good performance and handled some twisty dialogue really well. So that was a nice surprise. It wasn't deep but it was thoroughly enjoyable. And while it definitely has plenty of Cody-isms, they didn't feel as prominent as they did in Juno.

Really, what can I possibly add at this point to the conversation about Bridesmaids?? But this one I actually wrote a bit about right after I watched it, so I'm actually a little coherent. Short version: I liked it a lot, and I hadn't really expected to.

I'm not a big fan of the comedy of discomfort, and I pretty much spent the entire movie feeling bad for Kristin Wiig and dreading whatever awful thing was going to happen to her next. Knowing the food poisoning scene was coming didn't help that. And yet somehow it worked on me. It felt very real, and incredibly sweet, which tempered the poop jokes. I never felt like the filmmakers were abusing the characters just for laughs; Even in more over-the-top moments I still believed in these people, which made it work for me.

I kind of hated Melissa McCarthy's character. Not her performance, mind you, which was completely and wonderfully committed. With all the talk about amazing and gorgeous she is (she is), I was really disappointed that the "big girl" was such a cartoon in the movie, and a sort of awful one at that. The airplane scene didn't make me laugh, it just made me intensely uncomfortable.

I've always liked Wiig on SNL so it was nice to see actually acting and not playing one of her annoying recurring characters. And Mya Rudolph is just the best. That moment when she slowly sinks into her dress is maybe my favorite thing I've seen in a movie all year.

SO GOOD. I don't even want to say anything else. Again, because I feel like I have nothing to add this late in the game, but also because I don't want to spoil anything. Not in the traditional spoiler sense, just because I loved experiencing it mostly fresh myself. It's beautifully made and very original (even as it plays with well known tropes) and go rent it right now.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


In honor of Tony night (not really, I started writing this weeks ago), I thought I'd revisit Smash now that the season is over. And you know what? I still fucking love it. It's easy to nitpick, especially working in the business, but I am consistently entertained by it more than almost anything else on TV this season (certainly more than any other drama). And even for the things it gets wrong (and it's not a documentary, so whatever), I'm happy to see a show set in "my" world. Slings and Arrows has plenty of unrealistic moments too, but I guess it seems more highbrow so it gets a pass? When I complain about Smash it's not because I hate it, it's because I love it and I want to love it more. I want it to be better, and I tend to think telling a more truthful story about working in the theater might do that (something great about Slings and Arrows is that it feels right, even when it's not). But also for all I know about making plays, I know very little about making television, so who am I to judge?

Not that I won't.

One thing that does drive me crazy is the timeline, not because it's unrealistic (though it is) but because it's sloppy storytelling. Real rehearsals for a Broadway show would last at least three weeks (probably more but Bombshell doesn't have much money so I can buy them cutting it short), but Smash's took two episodes. So, okay, they're skipping ahead, that's fine; they have 13 episodes. But no one's relationships seem to have progressed three weeks' worth. I keep thinking of Grey's Anatomy, where I don't actually know what year it's supposed to be anymore. It was in the interest of the show to keep the original leads as interns for longer than a TV season, so they did. A week of story needn't pass in a week of TV, and I wish Smash would linger a bit longer over the details of both the world and the people in it (even if the short season means they have to skip ahead with a line of clunky exposition), because that's what makes it, you know, interesting.

(Speaking of which, why hasn't there been a Broadway reality show?? I'm looking at you, Logo! I can see how a creative team and producers might not want to let a camera crew into the room (to say nothing of the cast, possibly containing stars), but it would be great publicity for a show and potentially fantastic television. The closest I think we have are the documentary films Show Business and Every Little Step (about a very atypical but still fascinating process), which if you haven't seen and you're at all interested in this world, you should watch immediately.)

But okay, let's just judge the show on its own terms. I'll still defend Katharine McPhee, whose performance really doesn't bother me the way it bothers so many others, but Karen (the character) is getting pretty indefensible. It doesn't help that the writers can't seem to figure out who she is. How much of a neophyte she is seems to change from week to week, in some cases making her actions seem either beyond stupid or just plain mean. Like I said I don't want to ding the show too badly for realism, and I realize this is nitpicking a practically throwaway line, but it is not her "first tech." You don't just move to New York to be a chorus girl out of the blue. You at least do shows in high school and college. Given Karen's sense of entitlement and inflated ego, I'm guessing she went to a conservatory. I mean, you can tell the story of someone being green without her being an idiot. In fact, someone who went from being a big fish in the small pond of college or a small summer stock company or whatever would have just as many problems adjusting to being a nobody in New York as Karen has, for less insufferable reasons.

It doesn't help that Dev is pretty much equally awful. Am I supposed to care about this relationship? He made some good points in his impassioned speech to Karen in "Tech," but the truth is he's been withholding information and then getting upset with her for not being sympathetic to something she can't possibly know about because he didn't tell her! And not even telling her that he's upset! Yes, she's a little self-involved but you can't ask her how her day is and then get upset with her for answering you, and then pout when she asks about you and not tell her. And if you think what she does is so frivolous and stupid then why were you dating an actress in the first place?? This has always been the least healthy relationship on the show all along, and that's really saying something.

Maybe I'm charitable towards Karen because I'm particularly annoyed at how the show has made me hate Ivy. Anyone who's gotten to where she has knows (and her mother helpfully reminded her, in a speech that I thought was the truest thing about the business the show has ever done) that show business is hard and unfair. And if you love it and want to do it you suck it the fuck up! She has every right to be upset about not getting Marilyn, but then she has to pick herself up and move on and remember that she's getting a nice paycheck in a Broadway show. She has to know the drill by now. (What I love most about the supporting chorus characters is how they take everything in stride and seem to be always enjoying themselves, even when the show seems like a disaster.) Megan Hilty is so great that it kind of works, but it's starting to wear thin. They set Ivy up early as a classic hardworking actress, frustrated at not getting her big break yet but plugging along, and I don't like seeing her spiraling down the drain. It's one place where I think the less soapy realities of the life she's chosen actually make for a more interesting story, but maybe that's my bias talking.

Okay, that's three long paragraphs of complaining about show I said I love. But the thing is I don't remember the last time I felt this invested in a soap. I care about these characters enough to yell at them! I love (most of) the cast, most of whom are theater pros. I love that it shoots in New York for real. I love that it has at least one original song each week, and I love most of those songs. I'd see Bombshell -- it looks pretty good! I love that it's beautifully shot. Mostly, I love that it celebrates musical theater, and occasionally behaves like a real musical itself ("Don't Forget Me" was totally a finale of Smash more than it was a finale of Bombshell).

I read more recaps and episode reviews of Smash than anything else. After declaring it was in my professional self-interest to not say much about it publicly, I find myself tweeting about it with other fans (or hate-watchers, I suppose) every week, and here I am writing my second blog post about it when I've barely blogged at all in months. I don't remember the last time I was so engaged with a show. Buffy? This is a practice others reserve for better shows, but I don't care. Smash is my Mad Men.

It's a soap. It's a little trashy by design (just like Marilyn! ...kidding) and it's about something I love and I'm going to watch it for as long as NBC will let me.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Here I Go Again

Well, I guess it's time for my annual "oops I said I was going to get back to blogging regularly but I failed but now I'm going to try again this time I mean it" post.

I am behind on everything. I struggle to stay within 30 days current with Google Reader (after which time unread items disappear), I have hours of un-listened-to podcasts, the DVR is at a steady 65% or so, and my Netflix queue continues to push its upper limit. My attempt to read more books is going well, but slowly, and every week my list of Kindle samples grows. And then there's that job I get paid for.

I'm not complaining. I make choices about what I read and watch and Listen to, and I feel lucky to live in a time with so much great TV (or terrible TV that I enjoy thoroughly), so many people writing such great things online, smart and funny podcasts, the ability to watch almost any movie I want almost whenever I want, and the computer in my pocket to take it all with me. I make sure to keep up on Google Reader because I want to read that stuff. It's not all Smash recaps and pictures of kittens -- I consume more news now than I ever have, and I feel informed and connected.

So the writing is what falls behind. The worst habit I've gotten into with it is starting a post (or getting an idea for a paragraph or two) and not finishing it, resulting in the whole thing feeling sort of like homework I have to finish. And since I'm just doing this for fun, with no illusions that more than a few people are reading this, those deadlines don't amount to much. But I seem to go through phases, so here I am trying again. I'm going to try to set aside time to write more just as I've been trying to read more. I'll probably start with those unfinished posts...prepare for some internet time travel!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Yes, yes you can be my star.

In a way, writing about Smash violates my "no blogging about work" policy, since it's not just a TV show about theatre, it's shot in New York and filled with actual theatre people both in front of and behind the camera, some of whom I have worked with and may work with again. So the reasons I have for not talking much here about my job or plays in general totally apply. But I'm going to do it anyway, because I'm starting to get pretty defensive.

See, in the circles I travel in (and especially the circles my Twitter feed travels in) Smash has become pretty unpopular, in a way that makes me wonder why all these theatre people who i thought were pretty generally steeped in pop culture are pretending that they've never watched TV before. It's so soapy! Um, yes. It's a prime time soap. That's actually its job. It's not realistic! Did you actually think it was going to be? I'm pretty sure real doctors don't all sleep with each other like they do on Grey's Anatomy either. And my favorite: I'd stop watching it but I feel like I have to. You know, for work. Look, I've been in abusive relationships with plenty of shows, sometimes for years. I'm not saying you shouldn't hate-watch it. Just stop making excuses for it.

Even more en vogue than hating on the show among theatre peeps? Hating on Katharine McPhee. And I'm sorry, I'm just not having it. You know she and Megan Hilty aren't actually in competition, right? Yes, Megan is fantastic, and a real live Broadway semi-star. And yes, Katharine/Karen is entirely wrong for Marilyn and it would never really be considered. But I, who didn't watch her season of American Idol and so had no frame of reference for her at all (they really did introduce her to me!) was completely and totally into her from moment one.

Karen is annoying. Well, yes, she's new. You can't slam the show for being unrealistic on the one hand and then slam this pretty perfect characterization of the girl who was the star in all her high school plays suddenly being the smallest fish in the ocean. You know this girl. You've been this girl! (Though, I do agree: would she really be this green? She has an agent, and presumably an Equity card. I would assume she's worked regionally — contrary to what the show would have you believe, there is excellent professional theatre in Kansas Iowa whatever.) Watching her get smacked down a little and taught a valuable lesson by her new friends in episode 4 was completely satisfying. Watching her get used to heartbreak and learn to suck it up and do her job is about as real as the show gets. I'm actually much more annoyed with Ivy's constant whining about being in the chorus...of a giant Broadway hit. Fuck you, do you know how many people would kill for that job? And now you're going to act like a diva in your first big lead a workshop? I mean, that's the show, that's the drama, and I enjoy the drama. But it seems weird to hate on Karen while not reserving some for Ivy too, if we're going to go there.

Also, sidebar, can we stop using "autotuned" as a synonym for "processed?" Yes, "Let Me Be Your Star" was recorded in a studio and mixed within an inch of its life (and PS, most Broadway musicals nowadays are also mixed within inches of their lives) but that doesn't mean those girls aren't belting the fuck out of it and hitting the notes on their own. I've listened to McPhee's recording of "Beautiful" a lot (shut up) and she definitely has a lot of vocal fry on the low notes but I'm really not hearing the autotune blip there. Creating a pop sound doesn't equal not being able to sing. (That said, maybe a scene that's actually about how someone in the ensemble is too loud shouldn't be perfectly mixed?)

Episode three was pretty bad. I grant that. (It also featured the only bit of unreality that's really bugged me so far in the entire series: This workshop is not a $200 a week job. A reading, where everyone just stands at music stands with scripts for no more than 29 hours for just one week, pays $200. This is clearly a full Broadway workshop; they're working full days, dancing full out, with props and costumes and no scripts to be seen. They're making good money. (And especially given the contrast in the episode to "the Bruno Mars musical at La Mama," a bit that bothered a lot of people but that I thought was delivered tongue in cheek as knowingly absurd (and maybe a knock on Glee), but that would be a $200 a week job, if not less.) What kills me about this is that I think the reality is actually a far more interesting story to tell. The "starving artist doing it for love" trope is easy. The truth is more complicated. "I got this amazing job! It's a great opportunity and it pays $1,000 a week! ...and it lasts for a month. ...and when it's over I'll be unemployed again. ...and I'll have to go audition and do this all over again for god knows how long, god knows how many times." Let that be what the bitter waitress tells Karen to burst her bubble.)

But I digress. Episode three was also the soapiest so far (last week's is a contender), It's a soap. Even the undisputed great works of fiction about theatre get things wrong, or make things up for dramatic effect, or cut corners because those corners are boring. And I sort of love that we've reached a point (and this show is set in a world) where a charatcer's heterosexuality is a big dramatic reveal.

I'm not saying the show is perfect, but I find its flaws interesting. Maybe I'm just in the tank for it because it depicts something I care about and know intimately, but I also really believe its one of the most interesting shows I've seen in years. I appreciate that they're trying something daring within what's ultimately a very traditional TV structure. The pilot grabbed me completely (I may have watched it three times) and that affection hasn't worn off. The show is ambitious, which is rare enough. It's also a musical? I want to see where this goes. These first few episodes were finished before any had aired. Theatre people need feedback, and these episodes are like previews.

Plus, it's a musical. Musicals are manipulative in the best possible ways, and I'm a total sucker for them. As Joe said in his excellent recap of the pilot: "But this closing number, tying up all the aspirations and insecurities of its two protagonists in the same rousing belter is something no other show on TV is equipped to handle (sorry, Glee, you need actual characters first). By the time both Ivy and Karen stride into that Army/Navy surplus store, I've been totally sold." Joe and I are both less sold than we were then but every week Smash has the chance to do the equivalent of a great first act finale that sends you out into intermission wanting more.

Look, I'm not saying there's not stuff to snark about, and I've been enjoying some wonderful, bitchy recaps. But I love this thing, I really do. I find the entire cast charming and likable even when they're doing dumb things and the songs are mostly catchy and uniformly well-sung. It's bold and over-dramatic and sometimes silly and gee, what/who does that sound like? I can't wait to see where it goes.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Netflix Queue Challenge: The Help

I tend not to give much of a shit about the Oscars, etc., not because I have anything against award shows but because I usually haven't seen the majority of nominated movies. That's partly because I don't go to the movies all that much and have an impossible Netflix queue and a full DVR, but it's partly because I'm frequently not that interested in the sorts of movies that get the most nominations. And, as I've written about here before, I often react badly to hype. I like the idea of an Oscar Death Race; I think it's a cool project and a good way to give structure to movie fandom, but the fact is that even if I had time I have no interest in seeing Tree of Life or Iron Lady and no amount of awards is going to change that.

Which is a really roundabout way of saying I can't believe I've actually seen two of this year's big nominees before the Oscars.

What's even weirder is that they're both movies I didn't actually think I would like, but was interested in anyway. That's the sort of thing that could easily sit at the bottom of my Netflix queue for years, but I wanted to see The Artist in the theater (Hugo too, which I also don't expect to like, but I haven't gotten to that one yet). And one day shortly after the DVD release of The Help it seemed like every one of my Facebook friends was talking about it so I was inspired to move it up in my queue.

I'm not sure why I even wanted to see it, since I expected an Oscar-baity, schmaltzy, kinda racist movie with terrible exaggerated accents and stereotypical characters. And it was exactly that. But also, somehow, entirely delightful. The performances completely won me over. Is Hilly a ridiculous character? Yes. But I could watch Bryce Dallas Howard play her all day. My predisposition to adoring Allison Janney meant that I didn't really care what she did, I just wanted her to have more screen time. She had some of the most ridiculous lines in the movie but managed to make them all work. Jessica Chastain (for all the movies she's been in this year, this was the first one I'd ever seen her in…though according to IMDB she was on two TV shows I watched a while back), Octavia Spencer, Emma Stone, and Viola Davis are all just as good as "everyone" says they are, especially given how much they're doing to make pretty thinly drawn characters feel real. They bring their real life charisma to their roles in a way that helps you understand why these people are drawn to each other beyond professional obligation, which the script doesn't entirely provide for them. And Sissy Spacek simply steals every scene she's in, like a southern Maggie Smith.

My biggest criticism is that for all the talk of danger and consequences, the stakes felt awfully low. In part because we know things got better...but not that much better, really. The movie seems to want to use our knowledge of the future, Mad Men style, to let us shake our heads and be glad that this isn't the way the world works anymore. But that's not entirely true, and it makes the whole thing feel a little pat, and a little privileged. I was very aware that I was a white person (and an urban yankee at that) watching a multi-million dollar movie made by other white people about solving racism. The happy ending felt unearned, especially since (as is so often the case) it wasn't really the end of anything. Not that the movie should have been any longer, nor would I want a sequel, but we really don't know what happens to these people down the road, and there's a high chance that the answer is nothing good. To get me to care about them and then lie to me about how it turns out seems a little unfair.

But, like many others I found The Help unhateable. And it's a great movie to watch at home. It's painted in such broad strokes, it's sort of perfect for background viewing on a lazy weekend afternoon. I look forward to it becoming a TNT staple.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Shut up, silent movie!

When I say that the dog was my favorite thing about The Artist, it doesn't actually mean that I thought the dog was so fucking great.

I didn't like the movie, is what I'm saying.

I was interested in The Artist from the start, since it seemed like a cool idea, and definitely something that wanted to be seen in the theater, but I didn't actually think I was going to like it. As Couch Baron wrote in his brilliant review, "if going in, you worry that it’s going to annoy you? You’re probably right." And I can't say this any better than he did, so: "The film is so up its own ass that it seems to think it’s above mundane considerations such as story and editing, and as a result I found it far too clich├ęd, too overwrought, and too indulgent."

As a piece of filmmaking in the most literal sense (separating out that pesky storytelling part), it is unquestionably well made. It's beautifully shot and well acted, and I appreciate the experiment of it and the homage to old Hollywood. There were some moments that I loved, particularly the use of silence — which sounds like a silly thing to say about a silent movie, but I mean real silence, when the score (more on that later) dropped out and there was no sound at all.

But admiring a movie and enjoying a movie, sadly, are not the same thing, and I don't remember the last time I wanted so desperately to look at my watch during a film (I need a new battery so the light doesn't work so I couldn't and it was like time had stopped, not in a good way). At one point I actually thought, If I were here alone I would leave. I was so bored! Is that a symptom of my modernness? Am I unable to engage in a story told without words? Maybe? But I think it was that I just didn't care about this story. Or more importantly, that this very slight story was dragged out to a horribly paced hour and forty minutes during which not a whole lot really happened and I certainly wasn't made to care about any of the people it wasn't happening to.

For as much as I respected the visuals, I hated the score. Which is tough, cause, y'know, silent movie; there is literally no other sound besides this awful awful music. I get that they were going for a period thing and I don't mind the music being heavy handed necessarily - it has to carry a lot of the weight of the storytelling (such as it is) - but I just thought it was terrible. This is not music I would ever choose to listen to and it is ever present and so oppressive.

Also? George is a dick. He starts the film being a giant asshole to everyone, and his fall from grace doesn't really do anything to change that. He's sullen and whiny and completely ungrateful to the people who try to help him. It's never explained why he can't move to talkies. I know in reality lots of silent film actors had terrible-sounding voices, or couldn't transition to a more natural style (which feels really relative by today's standards), but it seems like George just doesn't want to? Why the hell not? And are we meant to believe that this dipshit also trained this dog? Rag on the dog all you want (you're not wrong) but training animal "actors" is hard, and George is a fucking idiot.

At least the dog is cute and provided some smiles. I think the fact that people seem so bizarrely fixated on what is just another gimmick in a film that's all gimmick suggests that maybe none of the humans were worth paying any attention to and the whole thing is wildly overrated?

Monday, February 20, 2012

Fall TV, Part, in February

"For the truly wronged, real satisfaction can only be found in one of two places. Absolute forgiveness, or mortal vindication. This is not a story about forgiveness."

And this isn't a post about how I can't seem to manage to keep up with this blog. Life is hard (it's not). But that is an explanation for why this post is the way it is. I started to follow up on my Fall TV preview post back in October when things were actually premiering. And in trying to get started writing again I find I don't like loose ends. So fair warning: This is not a very good post. And it's entirely too long. And it's taken me weeks to finish. But it seems to be an unfinished business hump I need to get over to get back to blogging, which is something I want to do, so here at mid-season-ish are some thoughts on the rest of the shows I said I'd be checking out in (relatively) brief and in the order the shows premiered.

First, updates from the last post: I dropped Ringer six or seven episodes in, because nothing really happened on it ever. The only character I liked was dead (or presumed dead, regardless she wasn't on the show for weeks) and the episode-ending twists almost always got reset the next week somehow. I wanted to like it because of SMG and it seemed like a cool premise, but it kept making me kind of angry at its stupidity. Reading recaps at The AV Club it seems that nothing has continued to happen, so I made the right choice.

Speaking of boring, I lasted all of 2 weeks with The Secret Circle. I know I throw around "boring" a lot, and often I just mean "slow," or even "not for me." The Walking Dead was pretty "boring" this season, but I'm still interested in the premise of a zombie show, so it's...borinteresting? You'd think I'd be totally into Dawson's Creek with witches but it made so little impression I barely even remember that I watched it.

The Playboy Club also feels like a distant memory. I stand by my enjoyment of it, but I can't say I was sorry when it got canceled, especially since it means Laura Benanti is now free to do other things (like maybe Smash?).

Anyway, next on the list is Glee but I have longer thoughts on that show than a capsule review so I'm going to skip over it for now. Suffice to say that I still watch it and I still enjoy it and it still infuriates me.

Speaking of infuriating, I don't know what to make of New Girl. I enjoyed the pilot, and I feel like I'm the only person in America without a strong opinion about Zooey Deschanel. I hadn't really seen her in much until now. She's fine, I guess. I neither find her anything special nor particularly annoying, but she's charming and funny. My problem is really with everyone else on the show. Based on the pilot I thought the premise of the show was going to be that Jess is weird and moves in with these relatively normal, relatively cool guys and that's where the friction would come from. But by episode two it had turned into Four Assholes Share An Apartment That For Some Reason Has A Locker Room In It. It really seems like every single character on this show has absolutely no social skills. Jess included, but she's become the most normal one! I've kept watching because there's always a handful of jokes that make me laugh enough to want to see where the show goes, because it does seem to be still evolving. I'm not sure how long I'll stick with it in the spring, but I do think it's a show that may find its feet. I'm still mad at them for ruining the word adorkable though. Adorkable means cute in a dorky way, or cute despite being also dorky looking. Seth Cohen is adorkable. Willow Rosenberg is adorkable. Zooey Deschanel is just kinda hot, and her character is many things but she's not a dork. Awkworable maybe? Adouchable? Cutechebag?

I had nothing to say about Modern Family before and I have nothing to say about it now. I like it very much. I don't think it's the best show on TV, but I do think it's very good and it makes me laugh very consistently. I don't get why some people seem to be mad at it for being popular. But also maybe someone else could win an award sometime. That's all I got.

Revenge is my new second favorite thing. It's delightful and ridiculous and ridiculously delightful. I liked the earlier episodes best, when it was basically a revenge procedural, but I appreciate that that was probably unsustainable, and it's evolved nicely into an insane, over-the-top soap. I think it says something that my two favorite new shows this season are slightly insane soaps that revel in their ridiculousness, in which the actors always appear to be having a great time. And the shows I've been most disappointed in (Ringer, Pan Am) looked like they'd be like this but turned out to be super dull. What's great about Revenge is it's silly but not disposable. I genuinely care about these characters, both the good guys and the bad guys, and that grounds the absurdity somewhat. The cast is charming enough that even the plotlines I'd just as soon see go away (everything involving the bar) are pretty watchable. They're treading the fine line between drama and farce exceptionally well. If you're not watching Revenge I highly recommend catching up from the beginning. It'll fly by.

Forgive me for this, as I know many of you are fans, but I just can't shed a tear for Community. I really liked the first season. I never fully loved it, but I found it reliably funny and occasionally inventive, which is a pretty decent bar to clear. I also had a DVR conflict which meant that not every episode recorded. When I missed something that had buzz, like the paintball episode, I'd go watch it on demand, but largely I think my feelings towards the show benefited from not actually watching every week. I pretty much hated the second season. It felt like it was trying too hard and I started to realize that I hated every single character. These just aren't people I wanted to spend time with. Yes, even Troy and Abed. They annoy the fuck out of me. The genre episodes, while sometimes funny, felt forced to me, like this is a thing that Community does now. I love a good meta gag and a good parody, so I should like this show but I just can't. I wonder if this is a show that would benefit from shorter seasons, so only the really great episodes get made and the characters don't wear out their welcome. Anyway, I gave season three a shot in spite of all this, because for some reason this was a show I wanted to like. I think we watched two episodes, maybe three, and simply didn't laugh. Everyone seemed either mean or stupid or both. Later on when some episodes got some buzz I tried watching them online and they just didn't do it for me. I understand why some people are so into it, but I can't get sad about its apparent passing, since I also know lots of people like me who wanted to like it and gave it up because, well, maybe it just isn't very good? I'd rather see it go and let the people involved in it use their talents elsewhere.

Like Modern Family I don't know what to say about Parks and Recreation that hasn't been said. (It turns out I think I'm not very good at writing about comedy, in part because what makes us laugh is so subjective.) Um, it's really really great? It is. It's my favorite live action comedy on TV right now (my favorite overall is Archer). Weirdly, the same praise I had for Revenge applies here: These people feel real and I care about them, which makes the comedy work. It has a great balance of snarky and sweet which feels very real to me (Modern Family tries to do this to, but for me it's only really the snark that works, while the moral of the week has me rolling my eyes, while Parks and Rec can totally make me cry if it wants to).

Yes, Grey's Anatomy is still on. And you know what, I still love it. It had a slump in the middle there, but they came back strong two seasons ago with an episode that managed to be incredibly tense and heartbreaking while also doing the show the great service of killing off most of the too-many new characters they'd added. And it's been solid ever since. Yes, it's totally predictable and formulaic and you know exactly how they're going to manipulate your emotions before it happens but that doesn't make the manipulation any less effective. It has some of the most interesting and complicated female characters on TV (and, yes, also at least one of the most irritating, Meredith) and I will watch Sandra Oh, Chandra Wilson, Sara Ramirez, Kim Raver and Jessica Capshaw act in anything forever. The show is starting to run into the ER problem where it's kind of hit all of the medical calamities it can think of, so it's getting a little repetitious and/or ridiculous (also what year is it supposed to be now? the seasons have never lined up to the show's timeline). I feel like they should probably wrap it up soon, but I'll keep watching until they do.

I didn't make it past two episodes of A Gifted Man, which made me sad given how much I like the actors involved. But I found it dull, and while I don't mind formula this one made me a little crazy. Also, while I like it when shows set in New York shoot in New York (and use lots of theatre actors!) this one tried so little they might as well have been in Vancouver. This super-wealthy, super-snobby, what's-a-poor-person doctor lives and runs an exclusive clinic in Brooklyn? Please. Mostly I just found it dull and completely unconvincing.

Speaking of formula, I do love The Good Wife. My same complaint about lazy location shooting applies (there's no Radio City Music Hall in Chicago, guys), but I can deal with NYC subbing for another city better than another city subbing for NYC, especially when it means every episode is packed with amazing theatre actors. I had a weird experience with this show where I watched the first episode, didn't like it, and didn't keep watching. After the first season, when the show had some buzz, I decided to try again and had a completely opposite reaction to the pilot. I've been hooked ever since. It doesn't hurt that I've had a crush on Josh Charles since Dead Poets Society. Like Grey's, the show's formula makes it fairly predictable but it's so well executed that I don't mind. Unlike Grey's, they seem to be treading water already in season three. I don't care at all about Will's problems this season (especially since there are no real stakes — he's not leaving the show, is he?), though I'm always happy to see a scene with him, Christine Baranski, and Carrie Preston.

I'm doing much better this season than in years past about giving shows up. Unless I completely loathe something right away, I try to give shows a chance after the pilot and that's often enough to hook me. Especially if it's something where I'm sold on the concept before it even airs, I'll give a show a good long chance to meet its potential. The problem is once I've invested that time, I'm less likely to stop watching even if that potential clearly isn't there. As with Ringer, I gave Pan Am a decent amount of time before accepting that it was actually getting worse. As appealing as setting a show back when air travel was glamourous seemed, it's not exactly a great environment for a workplace drama. I don't mean to in any way dismiss the work of real life pilots and flight attendants, which is difficult (I'm not sure what sounds harder: flying a plane or dealing with customers you can't get away from), but there's not the kind of variety that would naturally keep a TV show going. Flights aren't long enough for us to get to know passengers well (and the stewardesses don't have enough contact with them) and it's not like you can have a near-accident every week. The show's solution, in the episodes I saw, was to have this one plane and crew miraculously fly into famous historical events every week. Which is fine on Doctor Who or Quantum Leap, but really stains credulity on Pan Am. And then there was something about spies. And the French lady managed to have a breakdown in an embassy Berlin, which I suppose was understandable, but what was she doing there in the first place? And Christina Ricci stalked JFK, disturbingly successfully. It was bad is what I'm saying. It's too bad, too. I liked the cast and the show definitely looked stylish and great. But life's too short and there's too much TV.

And yet I'm still watching Gossip Girl. Or rather, I'm watching Gossip Girl again. It was in a tight timeslot in the fall and I gave it up, but with The Sing Off over and the big royal wedding coming up I foolishly started again. Clearly I like a good silly soap but GG has really gone downhill over the years. For starters, aren't these characters still supposed to be 19? As I've said before I need a smidgen of reality to ground these things and I feel like I don't know who these characters are anymore. They also keep doing this thing where they spend an entire episode running around trying to prevent something from happening or make something happen and then in the last minute they utterly fail. Which I guess is realistic? But it's lousy storytelling. It feels like they're just treading water to fill 22 episodes. But dammit, I'm hooked. Will Chuck and Blair finally end up together? Oh, those crazy kids!

Comedy "problem" again: I can't explain why I like Happy Endings but I really do. I suspect it maybe isn't very good? But I find the cast incredibly charming and their slightly troubled (but not so troubled that you don't know why they hang out) friendships really fun to watch. It just consistently makes me laugh. It treads a similar fine line that New Girl does where the characters could easily tip into unlikeability but they don't for me. They do stupid things but they know they're stupid, they're not socially inept imbeciles. Plus, a gay character who's neither a stereotype nor asexual, and nonchalant jokes about race. I wish neither of those things felt so subversive.

Almost last and definitely least, there are the two weirdo fairy tale shows. I don't have much to say about Grimm, because I only watched two episodes. Maybe three? It's all a blur. A dull, dull blur. For reasons unclear the DVR skipped recording a bunch of episodes after the pilot. Maybe it was protecting us from them. So I didn't watch in sequence, but I'm pretty sure it didn't matter. Certainly in terms of letting the show find its legs over a few weeks, I did that by accident. The premise is cute and the tone is sort of X-Files-y but I was just super bored. There's that word again, sorry! The cast is mostly terrible - wooden and charisma-free, and the one actor I really like was killed off early - and the premise was repetitive in just the few episodes I saw, so I don't really see how it can sustain itself. I wanted to like the modern twists on the fairy tales but they pretty much all come off as generic monsters. I started to write that it's humorless but I don't think that's exactly true. I think they're trying for humor and failing miserably, at least on me. Which is somehow worse.

And then there's Once Upon A Time, which certainly isn't a good show either, but I'm finding it to be an eminently watchable mess. Look, I can't explain my whims or why I stick with some things but not others. The acting is mostly terrible (Ginnifer Goodwin is a notable exception) and the writing is even worse. Even that's not as bad as their inability to light scenes on green screen sets so that the people don't look like they're floating (seriously, I know this isn't easy, but is it really thishard? the production design is actually beautiful and the CGI is pretty good, and then they just paste the actors in like colorforms? I don't get it). And nothing is as bad as that fucking kid, who is the absolute worst. The basic premise makes absolutely no sense. What good is this curse that sent these people to a beautiful small town in Maine? With no memories of anything that came before? How is that punishment? I guess the mayor remembers (maybe?) so she has the power she wanted, but to go from being a wicked witch with a castle to the petty mayor of a small town in Maine seems like a step down. And do they not age? Or have children? The plot is moving forward, so clearly they're not stuck in some sort of time loop. Except in the last episode I watched there was a lingering shot of Snow White's cell phone and it was a 10-year-old Nokia, and once I noticed that I started to notice other antiquated technology in town, so maybe they are? Outsiders can clearly enter the town so wouldn't someone notice all of that? There's no logic at all. But I don't know, it keeps me curious. As dumb as it is, it can be clever about how it twists the fairy tales, and connects the characters to the modern world and to each other, in an Into The Woods-ish sort of way. In these moments, as with any involving evil queens or gratuitously shirtless huntsmen, the silliness is what makes it so watchable. It is never boring. How could I not sort of love a show with lines like "I need my pain. It makes me who I am. It makes me Grumpy."?

Speaking of never boring, I went slightly out of order to save my favorite show of the fall for last: I couldn't be more in love with American Horror Story. Here is a show that's completely batshit and over-the-top yet has a clear set of rules and followed them closely (I only caught them break them once, and it was shocking to me because I'd been so lulled into the show making perfect sense within its fucked up premise). Never have so many great actors (Jessica Lange! Connie Britton! Frances Conroy! Denis O'Hare! Zachary Quinto!) been given such opportunities to chew so much scenery. It's the perfect Ryan Murphy show, since he doesn't have to sustain character consistency over multiple seasons, and in this world he can be as insane and nonsensical as he wants. But also? I actually thought it was really good. I genuinely cared about the characters. Sometimes "caring about" meant "hating," but the stakes were so high that that was okay too. I cared very much that a vengeful ghost would murder Ben. For all the craziness there was a real sadness too, with unhappy people who were literally trapped in their situations forever. It was genuinely scary and creepy and also frequently funny (spin-off with Christine Estabrook's realtor character please!) and there wasn't a single episode that didn't work for me (I'm sure it helped that there were only 13 of them). I get that it wasn't for everyone, but it was so so very much for me. As we were watching the finale I said, "I actually wish this hadn't been renewed because this was sort of a perfect season of television and a perfect way to end it." We didn't know at that point that they were hitting the reset button on the whole thing. I obviously think that's smart, since I would have been happy to just see it end, but I'm also not sure I want to watch them try again. Part of what I loved was how it wasn't like anything I'd ever seen on TV before. That can't possibly be true anymore.

And that's the fall TV season! In late February! Oops. I guess I should get right on the spring now if I'm to have any hopes of finishing by August. But I have some other catch up to do first. And I've been doing something crazy lately: Reading books.