Television Tuesdays: The Good Place

The Good Place isn’t trying to be another Parks & Recreation, though both shows share a creator. It’s happy to be a weirder, more surreal cousin. It’s easy to see how the two are related, but they are also fiercely independent. What they have in common: both are beacons of warmth and humor on days when you can’t remember what it feels like to laugh. The Good Place just finished its first season on NBC.


The premise alone – the eternal afterlife in which you exist after your death – might not seem like it’s for you. But the show has so many layers, there’s something in it for you, I promise.

At times the show can seem too surreal, too fantastical, especially in the first few episodes as the it finds its footing. The overly-fake CGI and preposterousness were a little off-putting but are definitely worth enduring. Hold on. Keep watching. Because before you know it you’ll be thinking about existentialism and ethics. What kind of good are you doing in your life? Are you living life to the fullest? What, exactly, would your version of The Good Place look like and how would your perfect house be decorated?

Maybe you don’t want to consider the ethics of your daily life. I know I don’t. But the show doesn’t force introspection, it’s too busy making you laugh. You feel good because you’re probably a better person than Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) was when she was on Earth. Or you think, “If Tahani made it into The Good Place, I definitely will. At least my altruism isn’t done just so I can brag”.

Despite making it into The Good Place, the main characters that populate it are all beautifully flawed in such relatable ways. Chidi can’t make a decision to save his after-life. Tahani’s kindness is a performance. Eleanor is the voice in the back of your brain that speaks before you can censor yourself. And Jianyu, well, he’s something else entirely.

It’s a weird show, but it’s meaningful and it’s good. It’s hard to discuss without spoiling the show and the way that the season unfolds is worth watching on your own.  The character growth is gradual and the relationships built between the characters feel organic. It carefully balances on the line between providing an escape from the real world and forcing yourself to confront your own reality.

I could go on. I can’t stop thinking about the depth and layers of friendship between Eleanor and Chidi. I could, and someday might, write a thousand words on how The Good Place is one of the most brilliant takes on a dystopia I’ve ever seen. It will take a very long time before I stop picturing Adam Scott as his character, a representative from The Bad Place. The Good Place wasn’t brilliant right out of the gate, but it had a brilliant first season. It’s definitely worth giving a chance because it’s one of those rare shows that’s delightful to watch.

Advertisements

Television Tuesdays: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

I came to Crazy Ex-Girlfriend late. The first time I saw an episode I had heard some positive buzz from critics but it was my father that convinced me to watch an episode. He showed me 1×03, “I Hope Josh Comes to My Party!” It was… odd. One thing that immediately became apparent is that for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, context is very much necessary. If you don’t know the premise, the depth of character, the love and care that goes into the satire, then the show seems off-puttlingly bright and manic. But when I looked at CEG holistically, everything slotted together and I couldn’t help but respect, and like, what this small show is doing.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend just wrapped its sophomore season on the CW. Both seasons are available on Netflix.

Overview

When I gave Crazy Ex-Girlfriend a second chance I had just moved to California. I’m not saying that my relocation to the same area as main character Rebecca Bunch had that much of an effect on my perception of the show except, yeah, it probably did.

Rebecca Bunch was an up-and-coming lawyer in New York City, poised to make partner by the time she was 28. But when she ran into her high school crush / summer camp boyfriend Josh Chan wandering around the city, looking so happy and content about his decision to relocate back to the West Coast, she couldn’t help but think: maybe that’s what happiness is. Maybe the West Coast represented everything her life had lost – happiness, relaxation, sunlight. Sure, seeing Josh Chan sparked a reminder of her giddy teenage feelings for him, but he represented so much more. Seeing Josh again was hope.

Rebecca quits her lucrative job and moves across country on a whim. She arrives in California tense, and terrified, and so, so hopeful. The show cleverly uses dramatic irony as we, the audience, know that Rebecca is Not Okay. We watch her do some mental gymnastics to justify her move and lifestyle change. When you combine her forced optimism with her mentally performed musical numbers, things start to slot into place. This girl is barely holding it together. But you cheer for her regardless. That manic optimism is almost endearing, even as she makes some cringe-worthy decisions. You can forgive Rebecca lying to every new person that she meets, because you can’t help but be painfully aware that she’s also lying to herself.

The first season unpacks Rebecca’s decision to move to California and drastically change her life. She chases and idolizes Josh Chan, ingratiating herself into his circle of friends and attempting to befriend his girlfriend. She dates his best friend, even as she fixates on Josh. To Rebecca, the key to becoming as simplistically happy as Josh Chan is to be with Josh Chan. The second season delves further into Rebecca’s supposition that Josh is the key to her problems and also the strains that ‘true love’ can put on friendships.

Musical Numbers

Because the musical numbers of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend take place in the minds of the characters, they have the freedom to be ambitious and outlandish. Generally not more than two to an episode, the songs, like in all musicals, work to further the plot. They do double-duty, giving key insight to the characters while also providing scathing commentary or parody.

Some songs are better than others, which is only natural, but the ones that are good are amazing. “West Covina” gets stuck in my head regularly, and my roommate and I will sing it to one another. “The Sexy Getting Ready Song” flits through my head when I’m putting on make-up for a night out. And every time I think of the “Sexy French Depression” song I marvel at how well it nails perceived depression versus the reality. I’m constantly amazed by how thoughtful, creative, and stuffed with social commentary these songs manage to be.

Representation

The show has a fairly diverse cast and, at times it’s easy to let this fade into the background (which, in many cases, is how diversity should be implemented. Reflecting reality to the point that it’s odd when that reality of diversity isn’t represented) but the depth and richness of characters represented is worth talking about.

In season two we’re introduced to a new character at Rebecca’s law firm (played by Scott Michael Foster aka Cappie from Greek). In a meta song, “Who’s the New Guy?”, the characters ask, “Why should we root for someone male, straight, and white?”:

Rebecca, the heroine, is Jewish and the show explores her culture in different ways. Her love interest, Josh Chan, is Phillipino. It goes on and on. Daryl, Rebecca’s boss, has a wonderful storyline in which he comes out as bisexual (his song, “Gettin’ Bi,” is annoyingly catchy). In an interview, creator Rachel Bloom said that she cast Josh Chan purposefully as an Asian bro, instead of his race being the byproduct of blind casting. Why? Because she grew up in SoCal surrounded by fratty Asian bros. It was her reality growing up and, to her, it was strange to not see that represented on screen.

At every turn, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend dismantles the trope of the crazy ex-girlfriend and puts out some scathing social commentary. Rebecca can be annoying and hard to root for, but she’s interesting, smart, and fun to watch. It’s not a perfect show, but it’s a good one, all while being a musical and a very funny comedy.

Television Tuesdays: Sweet/Vicious

Image result for sweet vicious logo gif

Sweet/Vicious just wrapped its first season on MTV, but it only took half an episode for me to become incredibly invested. A cross between Veronica Mars and Jessica Jones, Sweet/Vicious is a vigilante show that focuses on campus assault.

There’s a scene about 20 minutes into the pilot in which the two girls, Jules and Ophelia, still strangers, drive away from a crime scene. They have a a body in the trunk of Ophelia’s car and they need to dump it, fast. To decrease the tension, Ophelia turns on some music. Defying Gravity comes on and there’s a slight hesitation where Ophelia may change the song but she lets it play. Ever so tentatively, the girls begin to sing along. Then, suddenly, they’re singing at the top of their lungs and you know instinctively, “oh shit, they’re friends now.” It’s rare to see a show establish friendship and camaraderie so quickly and easily but the show manages with that one pure moment of female bonding.

Overview

Jules Thomas is a beautiful blonde sorority sister who moonlights as a vigilante on the fictional Darlington University campus. After being assaulted at a frat party, fearful the administration won’t give her justice, she takes matters into her own hands. Jules takes it upon herself to strike the fear of God into any man on campus who has gotten away with assaulting a female student. Her hit list comes from the graffiti in a campus women’s room that tells others which men to avoid.

Ophelia Mayer is the green-haired stoner who becomes Jules’ literal partner in crime after accidentally discovering her secret identity. Ophelia is a genius who slacks off, secure in her hacking skills and her parents’ wealth. She sells pot out of the record store she lives above and in which her best friend works.

My favorite thing about this show is undoubtedly the way it portrays friendship. For as much as Jules and Ophelia are partners at times, they don’t actually know that much about one another. They’re radically different people brought together over this one set of circumstances and the show takes its time to befriend one another. They fight. They apologize. They care, they just don’t always know how to express it in terms the other can understand or accept. Ophelia works to relate to Jules, who is at her most vulnerable. The two are an unlikely pair but they’re obviously ride-or-die.

Harris, Ophelia’s best friend, is a gift. Played by Brandon Mychal Smith (Sam on You’re the Worst), he’s a law student who’s trying to discover the truth about the campus vigilante. He’s a driven, thoughtful person and a wonderful balance to Ophelia. Their friendship brings me joy, especially when they have their friendship anniversary celebration or he lets her sit on his shoulders to take a hit from her 6-foot bong.

Vigilante Justice

Sweet/Vicious can be hard to watch. Many of the ten episodes that make up the first season have a warning for viewer discretion attached as the show doesn’t shy away from depicting sexual assault. The show is unflinching as it depicts many ways that assault can happen – quietly, drunkenly, violently, between friends – but it never victim blames. We see Jules on the path to recovery and as she really comes to terms with what happened to her. The show obviously cares about its subject matter; nothing is done purely for shock factor.

I don’t necessarily know how to talk intelligently about all the ways in which the show handles sexual assault. But I do know that the show is thoughtful and it’s important. There hasn’t been any news yet about whether the show will be picked up for a second season, but do yourself a favor and watch it. The subject matter is serious, sure, but that doesn’t stop the show from being charming as hell. The show has a beautiful tone; it’s funny and absurd and smart. It may be hard to watch at times, but never at the risk of being good, entertaining television.

Sweet/Vicious is available to stream and on demand with MTV.

Television Tuesdays: Atlanta

tumblr_og2vrcmONU1tby57oo1_1280.png

Atlanta is the brainchild of Donald Glover. You may know him as Troy on Community or his rap-persona, Childish Gambino. I don’t know what, exactly, put Donald Glover on my radar seven years ago, but I’ve been lowkey obsessed with him for about that long. When FX announced its collaboration with Glover, I was excited. And seeing his show come into fruition, that excitement remains. I wasn’t sure what, precisely, to expect of this show. It’s nothing like 30 Rock, for which he wrote when he was still a student at NYU. Nor is it like his Derrick Comedy sketches. Instead, it’s something unique and new. Atlanta just finished its first season on FXX.

Overview

Donald Glover plays Earn, a broke guy living in Atlanta. He’s struggling to support his toddler daughter and bounces between staying with his girlfriend, his cousin, or at the house of whatever party he attended the night before. So much of Earn’s story revolves around the fact that he’s broke, but the show never pities him for it. Instead, it depicts the reality of trying to make ends meet.

When Earn needs a new job, he turns to his cousin, up-and-coming rapper Paper Boi. Paper Boi is wary about giving his cousin a job, especially since it’s been a hot second since they last talked. But he acquiesces and makes Earn his manager.

One of the things that I really loved about this season and I think worked well was the tendency to take one topic or situation and examine it closely. It happens again and again, from “Value”, to “B.A.N.” to “Juneteenth”. The examination and exploration of different themes gives the show a certain depth and perspective that most half-hour comedies don’t get the time or breathing room to play with.

At times, the show struggles as it moves from broad episodes about Earn and Paper Boi’s lives to these highly specialized episodes. If I had one wish for the show it would be for it to find a better way to integrate these two types of episodes because they are so radically different at times (especially “B.A.N.”) that they are hard to parse in the scheme of the show. Glover excels at creating these deep, interesting scenarios, so I hope they don’t disappear, but in the instance of “B.A.N.”, playing a little bit with the characters outside the scope of the fake show may have worked better in the Atlanta‘s favor.

I will be the first to admit that I’m not fully equipped to talk about the nuance of race on this show. But as an audience member, it’s riveting. Atlanta is rarely laugh-out-loud funny, preferring instead to play with perception. It delves deep into race and sexuality, especially how they’re viewed in the black community. In an early episode, Paper Boi shoots a man in a parking lot. Throughout the season, he must then ascertain if that’s how he’d like to be known. “Juneteenth,” the penultimate episode, is also an interesting look at black culture, shown from the perspective of a Afro-studies obsessed white man. Earn’s increasing alarm and disbelief with the tone deafness of this man is relatable and well-executed.

The episode “Value” deftly examines female friendships, especially when you’ve known someone for years but have grown in opposite ways. Earn’s girlfriend, Van, deals with trying to balance that familiarity and loyalty to your old self with new responsibilities. Van is a great character, overall. She’s a foil to Earn, in a lot of ways, but she’s always her own person apart from him. I think one of the reasons I like her, and the show, so much is because the show took the time to pay attention to her as a character, apart from her relationship to Earn.

Atlanta is still finding its feet, but it had a promising first season. The writing was phenomenal and the direction was well done. You can stream the first season on FXX now.

Television Tuesdays: Pitch

Image result for "pitch" fox

Premise

Pitch centers on Ginny Baker, the first woman to ever become a Major League Baseball player. She’s called up from the minor leagues to pitch for the San Diego Padres. Suddenly, she’s thrust into the spotlight as she garners attention from her new teammates, fans, and critics alike. Pitch airs Thursdays, at 8:59 EST on Fox.

Overview

Pitch is, of course, about baseball. Or rather, it exists in the world of baseball, but it’s about personal goals and the struggles and sacrifices that must be made to live the dream. Ginny isn’t just a celebrity, she’s a new celebrity and a professional athlete and must therefore learn to carefully navigate the sometimes-thin line between her public and private self. News reporters want her comment and  young girls clamor for her autograph, leaving Ginny to learn how to be in demand.

Not all of her time is spent surrounded by adoring fans and curious media. Her new teammates are, at best, skeptical. At their worst they are sexist and chauvinistic, forcing Ginny to raise her hackles and fight extra hard to prove herself. She gets to practice early and puts in extra training while balancing media requests and being the sole player on her team asked to give public comments about difficult topics, like the rape of collegiate female athlete.

I’ve been told by friends who know professional baseball better than myself that the MLB games portrayed on Pitch accurately reflect reality. For baseball fans tuning in, that may be an important factor, but even people who don’t follow baseball or even care about sports can find something to root for in Pitch. The show is full of heart and humor. I’m insanely happy to see a professional female athlete being portrayed on TV. Not only that, but we have a woman of color leading the show. This representation is a step in the right direction, but there are some limitations: male characters still significantly outnumber the female. This is, to an extent, expected in a show about professional baseball and the female characters we’ve met so far seem to be fully realized with their own ambitions and personalities.

Pitch is one of the rare shows that makes me genuinely happy to watch. It has dramatic moments and an interesting plot, but what really keeps me invested in shows are the characters. I like Ginny Baker. I, like the fans in the show, cheer for her. Her attempts to forge genuine connections with her teammates is relatable. And, let’s not forget, the show has Zack Morris. Zack Morris was my first TV crush and Mark-Paul Gosselaar is just as captivating and fun to watch on Pitch as he was on Saved By The Bell.

Relationships

ginny_and_mike_gif.gif

Ginny and Mark – Ginny’s closest teammate is her captain and catcher, Mike Lawson. From the start, they struggle to find footing with one another–Mark is about to age out of the game, he has to keep Ginny positive and his teammates in line, and Ginny idolized him as a child (but sure doesn’t want him to know that). It certainly feels as though the pair will maintain a will they/won’t they sexual chemistry, but honestly Mark is an amazing mentor for Ginny. It’s heartening to watch him come to grips with the fact that this girl who’s shaking up the game he’s devoted his life to will be his legacy.

Blip and Evelyn (and Ginny)-  Ginny came up through the minor leagues with Blip and they remain genuine friends. With Blip comes his truly wonderful wife, Evelyn. Evelyn provides a necessary balance for Ginny, a rare female friend that doesn’t work for her. Ginny’s home-away-from-home is in the folds of Blip and Evelyn’s family, from acting big-sister to their 7-year-old twin boys to or little sister to Evelyn. Evelyn genuinely cares about both Blip, Ginny, and the game. Their marriage is something to root for.

Ginny and Amelia – Before becoming Ginny’s agent, Amelia worked as a high-powered Hollywood agent to the stars. She sought out Ginny and forms a fiercely protective way of championing Ginny.

There are plenty more combinations of characters that form relationships of varying importance. The Padres don’t quite know how to incorporate her into their ranks, from the players on through to the team manager. Through flashbacks we learn about Ginny’s fraught relationship with her parents, transient friends and boyfriends she had as she grew up in the world of baseball. They are all interesting and thoughtfully portrayed and serve Ginny’s characterization well.

Television Tuesdays: Preacher

Overview

Based on a graphic novel, Preacher is about a West Texas preacher who gains a celestial power, then goes on a quest for God. It’s about more than that, of course. It’s about faith, and relationships, and how brutal humanity can be. It’s about redemption, and betrayal. It’s an interesting portrait of the lengths people will go to in order to believe in a higher power, the faith they put in a man of god, and how that belief can be swayed.

Of course, that’s all putting things way too simply. The show is violent, and takes glee in enacting that violence (at one point, a character’s arm is cut off by a chainsaw, and then the chainsaw drags the dismembered arm down the aisle of a church). I would argue, though, that it’s done well. That the imagination and cleverness that goes into those acts of aggression make it something more than senseless. The audience doesn’t always know why it’s happening, but it feels appropriate. Despite the show taking almost until the end of the first season (which just ended) to get to the real thesis of the show, it’s well worth the wild ride.

It was my favorite show this summer, hitting all of the check boxes that turn shows into my favorite: attractive men (Dominic Cooper wearing all black with a Southern accent 🔥🔥🔥) , mythology, violence, kick-ass women, and interesting conflict. The show also has some of the best cinematography I’ve seen in either movies or television. It’s absolutely stunning. I’m not entirely sure how to write about Preacher without spoiling everything or doing it a disservice. There’s no way I’ll manage to tell you everything about it, but I hope this is enough to encourage you to give it a try.

Characters

tumblr_inline_o8scwj2e5R1qgp297_500

Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper) is the titular preacher. He inherited his small church from his late father and feels compelled to act as a shepherd of god because, as a child, he witnessed his father’s murder and it was his father’s last wish that Jesse “be good.” Based on flashbacks and allusions, we can gather that Jesse hasn’t always been a good person. Hell, he isn’t for most of the show. Instead, he’s conflicted, and power-mad, and wanting. When Jesse gains the power of Genesis, which allows him to command any living thing to follow his will, he abuses it. He plays god and people get hurt, some vindictively. He relishes the power and refuses to relinquish it, not until his sins are erased and he has spoken to God. When he tries, things don’t quite go according to plan.

Tulip O’Hare (Ruth Negga) is Jesse’s ex-girlfriend who’s on a quest for revenge. She bursts back into town in attempts to win Jesse back and have him join her as she sets out to ruin the man who wronged them both. Sharp and violent, Tulip refuses to put up with anyone’s shit. She’s proud, commanding, and unapologetic. Like Jesse, she’s not a good person, but that underlying frisson of danger keeps her getting out of bed in the morning. She’s captivating.

CteuVk6

Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun) is an Irish vampire. Yup, cue the absurdist. However, unless he is actively pursuing some vampiric behavior (such as using a broken champagne bottle as a tap to turn a man into a blood dispenser), it’s easy to forget that particular trait of his. It’s much easier, in fact, to remember his disdain for The Big Lebowski. He is Jesse’s best friend and a wonderful foil – Cassidy, more than anyone else, is the one to challenge Jesse’s humanity and the rationale behind his actions.

Mythology

tumblr_o921rqLDxq1uuucb7o1_540
Aside from Cassidy’s vampirism, the show delves close to Supernatural territory with some of its mythology. Genesis, the aforementioned power that inhabits Jesse, is a power created by the coupling of an angel and a demon. It’s storied to be a power that rivals only that of God. Early in the show, we see Genesis try and inhabit bodies other than Jesse’s but they can’t handle it. We don’t know why Jesse is an appropriate vessel for Genesis yet, but I’m excited to find out.

Jesse is not supposed to have Genesis’ power, so missionaries from Heaven, the guardians of Genesis, seek it out so that they may return it safely to its vessel. The vessel isn’t anything exciting, only an old coffee can, and its lured out of Jesse with song. I’m still not entirely clear as to why.

The two men pictured above, Fiore and DeBlanc, are Heaven’s missionaries. They seek Jesse out and do everything in their power to return Genesis to its rightful vessel. Their antagonist is a soccer mom-looking woman, a seraphim (powerful angel) whose job is to return the two angels from their unauthorized visit Earth-side. There’s a lot to unpack, and at points in the show it’s unclear exactly what’s going on, but it’s a hell of a ride.

Television Tuesdays: Great British Baking Show

Overview

You may know it as The Great British Bake-Off, but either way, this show is sheer perfection. Twelve contestants are assembled and each week, one is crowned Star Baker, and one is sent home. There is currently three seasons available on Netflix. Each summer, PBS airs a new (to America) season.

Set-Up

Each episode has a theme: pastries, pies, cakes, biscuits, etc. And then, according to the theme, the bakers are given three distinct challenges: the Signature Bake, the Technical Challenge, and the Showstopper. The rounds are all judged by Mary Barry (cook book writer and a delight) and Paul Hollywood (less shout-y, bread obsessed Gordon Ramsey).

First up is the signature bake, in which each contestant must make their own version of the week’s theme. This challenge is to show off their taste and style.

In the technical, all of the contestants are given the same bare-bones recipes and instructed to make identical bakes. Usually, none of the contestants have ever made whatever they’re being challenged to bake in this round. Their bakes are all judged blindly by Paul and Mary, and then ranked from worst to best.

The showstopper is exactly what it sounds like, the contestants have to make something really cool, and usually some kind of baked structure.

tumblr_nurxbxuceu1s5v14qo1_500The Hook

I can hear you sitting there, asking what the appeal of this show is. What differentiates it between any other cooking show on TV? Unlike most reality competition shows, this show doesn’t foster rivalry and hostility, but that doesn’t mean there’s no tension. I have gasped, cried, yelled, and laughed in the course of watching this show. Probably over the course of a single episode. There is no greater drama than that of a cake dropping onto the floor.

I think the show’s real power is in its editing. Viewers are given enough time with the contestants to learn their personalities without having to know their whole life story. It’s easy to pick favorites, and nice to have someone to cheer for. It feels rewarding when we see quiet moments of contestants rushing to help each other when they have a moment to spare or one is in dire need of assistance. Occasionally one of the hosts (British comedy duo Mel & Sue) will accidentally ruin a contestant’s bake by eating some of their ingredients. The time we spend with the judges and hosts is relatively minimal, and the interspersal of gorgeous shots of baked goods sure does help. In the end, the show has high tension with relatively low stakes and the camaraderie makes it more soothing to watch than most other competition shows. Great British Baking Show is the perfect show to watch after a bad day or when you’re in need of a break from reality.