LAST WEEK WE LOVED…

Last Week We Loved… Salem, Bad Teacher, The Trip To Italy, Vampire Academy And More! 0

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Salem

There is officially too much TV. And most of it is on Sunday night. You know the list: Mad Men,Game of Thrones, Veep, Silicon Valley, The Good Wife. Showtime’s Gothic monstrosity, Penny Dreadful, lurks right around the corner. But before it shows up, there’s another new addition to the already-groaning Sunday night must-watch list. Scripted programming is the new reality. Channels that once boasted about the shoddiness of their dirt-cheap product are digging deep into the coffers and splashing out on original drama. AMC blazed the trail. History followed. Now NatGeo, E! and Bravo are launching their own drama productions. And so is WGN. For you, like me, it’s a name you sped past as you were flipping channels. Maybe you stopped at it and watched a bit of a “How I Met Your Mother” rerun on a plane. But this Chicago station that hitherto existed and flourished on an exclusive diet of syndicated sitcoms is gearing up to be a big player in the original programming field. And if you want to get noticed in a crowded market, you put on something like Salem. You put on a show where naked witches torture their captive husbands by shoving live, bloodsucking frogs down their throat. You put on a show where a naked–notice a pattern here?– scenery-chewing Cotton Mather rants about ridding Salem of it’s insidious witch population while banging a town whore. You put on a show where a victim of witchcraft is compelled to chomp off her own finger rather than identify the main member of the coven. You also put on a show where the wig department is probably having to make do with ragged leftovers from an old Xena:Warrior Princess episode. The main victim here is male lead Shane West, who glowers and snarls under a hairpiece that looks like a small slumbering dog( and his first lines of dialogue contained a reference to “the local bigwigs”). Not only does West support the worst wig, he alone among the cast members refuses to get into the hammy, declamatory spirit of Salem. While everyone else is shrieking and accusing, he’s narrowing his eyes, pursing his lips and attempting to summon up the spirit of a contemporary cool dude. His complete failure to do so just makes Salem more fun. Sunday night has an overabundance of quality shows. Salem is not one of them. But that doesn’t mean you won’t want to watch it.

Bad Teacher

Right here, we see the difference between network and cable. WGN clearly encouraged the makers of Salem to go all out within the parameters of basic cable and make something as outrageous as possible. CBS, home of every laugh-track-aided, highly-rated sitcom in the nation, took all the things that worked about the Bad Teacher movie and minimized them to the point of invisibility. To the point where the main character isn’t particularly a bad teacher. I’m going to say what everyone who’s seen this show has already said: Ari Graynor is great. She’s really great, a huge ebullient, quirky-but adorable scene-stealer who deserves a better vehicle than this. The weird thing about “Not Bad Teacher” is that CBS’s sitcoms are, by and large, abhorrent. “2 Broke Girls”, “Mom”, “The Millers”,”Two And A Half Men”: they’re a belching, farting, ball-scratching assembly-line of cocaine and anal sex gags. And yet, Ari Graynor’s gold-digging, kid-hating title character is defanged and sweetened up within seconds of flouncing onto the screen. What’s worse, sitcoms, in their infancy, have amnesia imposed upon them. The network thinking is that the audience for the second and third episodes either missed or won’t remember the pilot. This means, Graynor’s character will go through the hoops of being a badass who turns sappily sincere many more times until this show’s done and she moves on to something more deserving of her many talents.

The Trip To Italy

Once again, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s semi-improvised gastronomic tour around a delightful part of the world premieres as a six-part BBC sitcom before being released as a movie in the US. Last time, Coogan and Brydon toured the UK, this time, as the title suggests, they’re driving around the most eye-watering beautiful regions of Italy in a black Mini with a copy of “Jagged Little Pill” for company. Once again, Coogan is aloof and Brydon affable. Once again, they battle over their Michael Caine and Al Pacino impressions, this time adding Tom Hardy, Robert de Niro and Marlon Brando into the mix. Once again, the subtle undermining between the two–based on Coogan’s mild degree of Hollywood success and Brydon’s UK roles as voice-over artist, talk show host and game show regular–verges on the uncomfortable. This time, though, noted cocksman Coogan keeps it in his pants and faithful family man Brydon fumbles uncomfortably through unexpected vacation temptation.

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical

I was in New York last week for the roaringly successful launch party for Mad World:The Book. While I was in town, I took my life in my hands and rolled the dice on seeing a Broadway musical. “Beautiful” was a pricey impulse but but the Brill Building period of American pop is one of my favorites, so how badly wrong could I go? The answer is: not horribly badly, but… Here’s my problem with a show like this: there’a difference between a pop voice and a Broadway voice. Jessie Mueller, who plays Carole King as kind of an early-days Peggy Olson, has a fairly individual delivery but whenever a scene cuts skillfully between her composing a song and the subsequent hit version, the actors pretending to be The Shirelles, Little Eva, The Drifters and The Four Pennies don’t cut through. The way they tread carefully through these standards you wonder if they would have been hits in the first place. The other problem with musicals of this nature: the acting. The last musical I saw on Broadway was “American Idiot” which had, maybe, six lines of dialogue in the entire production. “Beautiful” has a lot, lot more. It has to tell the story of how Carole King got up the nerve to take her first songs to the Brill Building, how she met and became professionally and romantically partnered with Gerry Goffin, how he turned out to be unfaithful and borderline unstable, how they established a competitive but friendly relationship with Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, and, finally, how King got up the nerve to become a performer in her own right and create “Tapestry”. That’s a lot of plot for a show that derives it’s pacing and rhythms from an old “Dick Van Dyke Show”. Maybe I should have gone to the Heathers musical instead. Speaking of which…

Vampire Academy

When I saw the trailer to this YA adaptation that was written by Heathers screenwriter Daniel Waters and directed by his brother, Mean Girls helmer, Mark Waters, my head exploded. Of course, I didn’t go and see it. Neither did anyone else. Such is the dilemma facing movie studios on a desperate scramble to snatch up any available YA properties. How do you know your Twilight won’t turn out to be a Beautiful Creatures or an Ender’s Game or a Mortal Instruments: City of Bones? What makes one spunky heroine caught in the middle of a love triangle a heroine and another a dud? If I knew that, my own YA books wouldn’t currently be available on Amazon for the princely sum of a single cent. One thing even I was able to figure out from Vampire Academy’s trailer was that this movie was going for a smirky, sarcastic, wise-cracking tone. Which is not what YA movie audiences want. They want the source material treated with absolute reverence. I finally belatedly saw the VA movie and time has not withered Daniel Waters’ demented way with dialogue. However, adapting the Vampire Academy mythology for audiences not raised on the seven-volume book series–there’a a three-tiered caste system, none of them are called vampires, they’ve all got specific abilities, I can’t remember anything more–inevitably results in a film creaking under the weight of exposition. Despite everything being carefully explained, I understood maybe a third of the plot. but leads Zoey Deutch and Lucy Fry were engaging and capable enough with a quip that I didn’t really care. Vampire Academy has the look and feel of a decent TV pilot. Maybe it’ll do enough VOD and DVD business that someone will step in and make it the series it should have been in the first place. How about you, WGN?

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Last Week We Loved…Mad Men, Game Of Thrones, Stephen Colbert, Inside Amy Schumer and more! 0

Mad Men

Dread, decay, mortality, disillusionment, repetition, obsolescence and lies. Yes, Mad Men is back with all it’s themes intact. Remember the theory floating around last year that Megan was going out like Sharon Tate? I totally got that vibe from the way she was introduced last night to her big house in the hills with only the howl of coyotes to keep her company. Even if the Manson family doesn’t make a house call, I don’t feel like the whole cast is going to make it into the seventies. Don’s a bicoastal ghost. Roger’s a hedonist who hates sharing his hippie chick. Peggy’s back to being ignored and underestimated. Only Pete enjoys life as a evangelistic Angeleno.

Game Of Thrones

Blackwater”. The Red Wedding. Now the Joffrey Choke. When this show drops it’s bombs, it drops them hard. I was legit shocked by Josh Charles’ Good Wife exit a few weeks back but that’s not a show with a heavy internet presence so I get how they managed to keep it under wraps. Game of Thrones is a hugely tweeted-about series whose literary fans are obsessed with spoiling it for fairweather fans like myself so I’m amazed the demise of Joffrey didn’t get out sooner. What an incredible final showcase for Jack Gleeson: one of TV’s greatest ever Little Shits at his absolute vilest for a twenty-minute stretch of ever-tightening tension. I started binge-watching shows because coming back week after week made me feel like a chump. When a TV series ups it’s stakes the way Game of Thrones just did, I don’t have to worry about feeling like a chump. Well, no more than usual.

Stephen Colbert

Last week I brilliantly advanced Vince Vaughn as my dark horse Letterman replacement candidate and I don’t feel like I’ve been conclusively proven wrong yet. (It’s a long game. Just because it hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean it won’t ever happen) CBS went with the choice that was so obvious I didn’t want to embarrass myself by bringing it up. And I think it’s the right choice. Late night has increasingly become a variety format. It’s not enough anymore to man– and I do mean man– the desk, it’s not enough to deliver the monologue and stay on top of the interview segments. The late night host now also has to be a high-energy purveyor of song and dance. He has to display decent acting skills, be a lightning-fast improviser and show proficiency on more than one instrument. None of the current incumbents have all of these attributes in equal measures. Jimmy Fallon comes closest but he fumbles and guffaws his way through interviews like he used to just barely get through sketches on SNL. Stephen Colbert ticks every box. He’s steeped in singing and dancing. Comedically, he’s a lethal weapon. He’s able to hold up his end of a conversation and, obviously, he’s declaring war on the heartland. He also provides perhaps the ultimate example of the launchpad The Daily Show has become: Steve Carell, John Oliver, Rob Corddry, Rob Riggle, Aasif Mandvi. Whoever comes for Vince Vaughn’s late-night crown a few years down the road (I’m not backing down on this: it’ll happen), chances are they served their apprenticeship under Jon Stewart.

Britain’s Got Talent

I make no bones about the fact that since the day I arrived in America I’ve barely missed a Howard Stern show. I think I’ve also been vocal about what a one-note drag I find Simon Cowell to be both as a personality and a producer. However, America’s Got Talent is a terrible show and Stern does himself no favors on it. It’s not like his participation is some contrived masterplan to make him more palatable to mainstream audience. He loved and praised the show long before he joined it’s chemistry-free judging panel and failed to find anything approaching a star. Britain’s Got Talent, which just juddered back on the air in my home country, has the same production values, the same contempt for the viewers and the same seven words coming out of Simon Cowell’s mouth. And because the annual demands of BGT and the other arm of Cowell’s empire, The X Factor, have exerted such a drain on the UK’s ankle-deep talent pool, the show has taken to trafficking winners of European talent shows onto it’s stage and passing them off as wide-eyed amateurs, blinking nervously in the spotlight, hoping they don’t choke in front of the vast, unforgiving British audience. But it works. For all the cynicism involved in Britain’s Got Talent, it’s a well-oiled machine built to create highlights and low points. This is something the producers of the just-ended UK Voice never learned. In Cowell world, acts are either the best or worst thing ever, there’s no in-between, The Voice, in all it’s iterations, is nothing but in-between. It also helps that Cowell allows another BGT judge to steal his spotlight and reduce him to a comedy punchbag. Like the US show, the two female judges are employed for strictly decorative purposes. But David Walliams, basically repurposing his Sebastian character from Little Britain, acts aggressively besotted with Cowell, a dynamic reminiscent of the camp chemistry that used or exist between Cowell and Ryan Seacrest on Idol, before Seacrest chickened out. Neither Cowell nor Walliams shows any inclination to chicken out and this Saturday night show with the huge family audience continues to air with it’s barely-veiled references to fist-fucking unscathed. Below, evidence of typical BGT chicanery,a doddering granny stammers like she’s new to performing before displaying the act that won her the Spanish version of the show.

Inside Amy Schumer

I wonder if the way Anthony Jeselnik’s Comedy Central show turned out had any bearing on why Amy Schumer’s works so well. Jeselnik, Schumer’s occasional boyfriend, had this show that completely capsized his standup persona under endless overproduced segments.Rather than blunting her edge, “Inside Amy Schumer” expands the elements of her act, emphasizing how smart and versatile she’s capable of being while interviewing porn stars and stopping people on the street to ask about the size and weight of objects they’ve had stuck up them. We’re so accustomed to watching SNL sketches fizzle out, it’s startling to see the majority of Schumer’s skits have a point of view– either that she’s an asshole, or her friends are assholes, or the patriarchy makes us all into assholes, whatever our intentions– and that they all arrive at a satisfactory climax.

That Ed Sheeran Song

I’ve heard a lot of people talk about this new record, “Sing” by Ed Sheeran and they all say variations of the same thing:”I can’t believe I like this new Ed Sheeran song, but…” And me, too. I hadn’t heard a ton of his previous material but I’d heard enough to confidently denounce it as cloying and unexciting. Plus, I didn’t cotton to his ginger muppet face. Pretty much everyone I went to school with looked exactly like that. This song, though, you can attribute it to Pharrell’s current midas touch, you can say it performs a blatant smash and grab on “Like I Love You”-era Timberlake. Me, I’m sucker for someone, whether or not I previously found anything of merit about them, having their Big Pop Moment. It’s a thing that happened a lot on the eighties–there’s a book you might want to read on the subject, comes out on Tuesday, I believe– but it doesn’t happen so often now. I don’t know if I could make it through a whole album but all the things I didn’t like about Ed Sheeran before are entirely missing from “Sing”. I can’t believe I like it.

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Last Week We Loved… Captain America, David Letterman, HBO Sunday Night, The Mindy Project…and more! 0

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

I’m a big fan of the giant interlocking Marvel universe and what they’ve been able to achieve without the participation of the X-Men, Spider-man and the Fantastic Four. But, at times I feel the actual movies are subordinate to the massive moving parts. This was especially true of the first Captain America which, for me at least, ended up being little more than a extended prelude intended to set up The Avengers. And that’s why everyone’s losing their shit over how good the sequel tuned out to be. No one expected the boy scout of the costumed ensemble to be the driving wheel behind Marvel’s best movie to date. Chris Evan’s uncynical straight arrow is the perfect hero for a scenario where everybody’s got an agenda and no one’s entirely untouched by corruption. Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, given a perfunctory introduction in the second Iron man and scarcely better served by The Avengers, emerges as a franchise-worthy character with a Lauren Bacall languor and a taunting chemistry with Captain A.The dismantling of the SHIELD universe was smart forward-planning and might even jolt a fraction of life into the rotting corpse of the TV show. That The Winter Soldier himself, with his inky goth locks and big metal arm, may have been one of the less memorable parts of the whole movie, is less a knock on the character’s killing capabilities, as it is testimony to how stuffed-full-of-high-points this sequel is as a whole.

David Letterman

I don’t think I’ve watched an entire Letterman episode since sometime in the mid-90s. If a guest or sketch from the previous night’s parade of talk shows goes over particularly well, there’s a smorgasbord of clips to pore through the following morning. But as dull and formulaic as I find all the shows– stop applauding everything, dumb audiences, you’ve made a generation of celebrities even more entitled than they already were–I’m inescapably drawn to the movements, the hirings, firings and general closed-door shenanigans. I don’t think I’m alone in that, either. I think there is an audience that eats up every fresh story filed by reporters specializing in the late-night beat but has rarely if ever made it through a monologue. The colossal late-night story last week was obviously David Letterman setting the stage for his 2015 exit. By an amazing coincidence, Julie Klausner, forever smarting at the proliferation of straight white late night guys, ran an interview this last Friday with Merrill Markoe, Letterman’s ex-girlfriend and collaborator. She gave unflinching testimony to his unknowability and his anxiety, forever fearing that each new show would be the one that ended his career. Hell as he might have been to be around, that anxiety and the way it manifested as self-loathing is one of the principal things Im going to miss about the presence of Letterman. Conan, Craig Ferguson, the Jimmys, Seth Meyers, even Jay Leno kissed his comedic ring. His influence is everywhere, not just in hosts, not just in stand-ups, but in the very cadences of people who think they’re a particular brand of funny. What no one else ever had and no one entering the late night arena will ever bring, is that particular brand of personality Letterman possessed. That’ I don’t want to be here’ demeanor. All the other late-night denizens are out gunning for your love. They want the audience to stick around and they want the guests to be comfortable. Letterman never seemed to want any of those things. He never bothered to hide his boredom or irritation. He maintained a younger man’s delight at being an irritant. Even with a year to go, the late-night beat is already buzzing to a deafening degree about his likely replacement(My dark horse unlikely-but-not-THAT-unlikely choice: Vince Vaughn) The ultimate heir whoever he or she(yeah, right) turns out to be will doubtless make the appropriate noises about being honored to carry on a hallowed tradition. That’s how you know it’s really the end of an era. Letterman may over the years have said he was honored by a particular guest or accolade but when he said it he let you know he hated himself for having to say it.

HBO Sunday Line-Up

If I was planning to overthrow the government, I think I would stage my coup on a Sunday night. The proliferation of Sunday TV is overwhelming. It’s also the one night that drives even the most DVR-hardened viewer to alter their time-shifting ways and succumb to live viewing because the prospect of spending the subsequent week avoiding spoilers is too daunting a prospect. HBO put it’s owners stamp on Sunday nights many moons ago but this new block of programming seems designed to ruin social lives and make other networks weep. The triple-punch of Game Of Thrones, Mike Judge’s new show Silicon Valley and the returning Veep seems counter-intuitive on paper. Don’t the two comedies ruin the mood established by the previous blood-soaked hour? As it turns out,, they do not. HBO’s Sunday line-up comprises three very distinct trips into three very distinct worlds. What else is there to say about Game of Thrones at this point except: Arya Stark! Silicon Valley is like the answer to the question raised by almost every artist I interviewed during the writing of Mad World: The Book. Why doesn’t music mean as much to this generation as it did to theirs? Because all the outcasts, the weirdos, the loners, the victims with something to prove: they all went into tech. But,of the three shows, Veep is the one I now look forward to the most. That wasn’t always the case. The first series I thought Armando Ianucci was too in love with the notion that the Vice President was a laughably powerless position. A whole season of Julia Louis-Dreyfuss being continually shat on and shut down proved a fairly joyless experience. Season Two made the crucial adjustment of giving her a few victories which made all the difference. The first episode of the new series was wall-to-wall highlights: Selina’s book-signing, her funeral eulogy, Mike’s wedding the phone bowl, the–probably brief–demise of Jonah. Nicely done, HBO. Too bad the looming shadow of The Newsroom is waiting to besmirch your perfect Sunday streak.

Two Rock Documentaries

I do not know the music of The Nation, even though a confluence of events has conspired to make them the new deserving long-timers having their big moment. However, last week, I watched Mistaken For Strangers, the documentary about the band directed by lead singer Matt Berninger’s brother, Tom. And yes, I kept thinking his name was Tom Berenger. I also kept thinking his film was an Andy Kaufman-esque put-on, in which he committed to playing the schlubby doofus brother who screwed up everything he touched, alienated everyone he encountered and embarrassed his rock star brother at every turn. Tom Not-Berenger, mysteriously hired by his sibling to join The National road crew, proved incapable even of buying cheese for the backstage food plate. His one-on-one interviews with the band members comprised of questions like “Do you carry a wallet?” When he attempted to screen an uncut version of the footage he’d shot for the band and an invited audience, the projector broke down within seconds. I’m still not entirely convinced what I saw wasn’t an improvised comedy of brotherly discomfort. But I do know that I sat through a whole movie peppered with songs by the The National and I can’t remember so much as a note of their music.

I also watched Broadway Idiot, a– and this is the loosest possible definition of the word–documentary about the genesis of the American Idiot musical and it’s journey to Broadway. I sat through this mainly because I saw American Idiot on Broadway( my verdict: wow, that’s a lot of Green Day songs). The accompanying movie is a total everyone’s-wonderful-and-talented gushfest that hints at no backstage squabbles, no ego eruptions, no audience walkouts. The band loved the show. The show was a hit. Everyone loved working on the show. There’s just this one bit where the musical director is noodling on the piano, as Billie Joe Armstrong and the show’s director, stand by, and he’s talking about the beauty and intricacies of Billie Joe’s melodies and how they’re part of a rich musical tradition. He plays a few bars of “Wake Me Up When September Comes”, one of the genuine highlights of the show, then he segues into “What I Did For Love” from “A Chorus Line” and points out the similarity between the two songs. At this point, Billie Joe, starts furiously rubbing his left eye, in a way that, the two theater guys take to mean he’s moved, but,as the scene and the rubbing continued, I chose to interpret as “I am dying of embarrassment. Please stop.” I also choose to believe that more moments like this existed but ended up on the cutting room floor, in order to create a picture of relentless positivity.

The Mindy Project

Last week, in reference to New Girl, I made the bold statement that consummated desire kills the momentum of sitcoms. I still believe that to be true. I believe The Mindy Project, which has already had a tough time maintaining any kind of momentum–the show’s solution: keep adding cast members!– will fare no differently from all the preceding shows that paired it’s leads then smashed into a creative wall. But in this instance, I’m going to keep watching because Mindy Kaling and Chris Messina are an inspired pairing and I’m genuinely fascinated to see what the show does with them. I mean, I know exactly what it’ll do with them; it’ll throw impediments in the way of their happiness; her insecurity and his stubbornness will lead to some sort of easily-avoided misunderstanding that will cause them to break up at the end of the season. Prove me wrong, show! But even armed with that knowledge, I’ll still watch because even though I know all the romantic-comedy pitfalls to come, I haven’t seen them played out with these particular characters. It’s obvious Mindy loves writing for Chris Messina–in fact, she loves writing for all the show’s many male characters; weeks go by without the few women left in the cast uttering a single sentence– and it’s equally obvious he relishes all the little eccentricities and vulnerable moments she gives him to play. I think I just talked myself into sticking around for Season Three.

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