Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Summer 2015 TV Season

I didn't get caught up in a ton of shows this summer, but this will still somehow manage to be an overlong post, I'm sure.

Another Period: I'll have to get myself in a position to binge this show at some point, because it had an amusing premise (a reality show about snobby rich girls, only it takes place a hundred years ago) and a strong cast (I adore Riki Lindhome, and Natasha Leggero is one of my favorite comics working today), but it was hard to get enthusiastic about watching it every week. I feel like it's the kind of thing that works better in large helpings, and I didn't finish the whole season. What I saw is a B.

The Astronaut Wives Club: Never as strong as it could have been, but certainly never as weak as the critics felt. It had a truly stupid advertising campaign (never stop trying to insist that each and every show about women be Desperate Housewives, ABC) that was a real turn-off, but the show itself ended up being more or less what I hoped for: a somewhat serious but breezy historical drama about the wives of America's astronauts. It was perhaps too breezy and too pat sometimes, but there were interesting stories to tell, especially in an episode about how the space program was very nearly opened up to women pilots (who actually seemed better-suited to being astronauts, seeing how they outperformed men in nearly every category). I can never explore the space program enough through pop culture, and there were some very good performances that highlighted some under-represented events in space history. B-

Ballers: I stopped watching it after two or three episodes. Entourage, but with the Rock. Which is exactly as disappointing as it sounds.

The Brink: Very smart, very funny political comedy about narrowly avoiding World War III. I don't know if I want to see more seasons of it, but political satire is a balancing act and the fact that this show pulled it off so deftly for multiple episodes is something of a minor miracle. A-

Cutthroat Kitchen: I particularly enjoyed this summer's "Camp Cutthroat" tournament. Wow, a fun cooking competition. Remember when Gordon Ramsey used to do those? Been a long time, right? A

Dance Moms: Sometimes it can just be so goddamn frustrating. The personality clashes are getting in the way here, and it really affected the team itself this year, and it became pretty damn hard to watch. Pull it together. C

Defiance: Really interesting year for this show; the season started with two main cast members getting killed off, introduced an intriguing new species, ramped all of the interpersonal family squabbles up to 11, made the surrounding dangers larger than ever, and decided, what the hell, if we really need to blow things up, let's just kill characters without warning. And then it had a beautiful ending... I haven't heard if this got renewed. I'm fascinated to see how they could come back, but if it ends here, what a way to go out. B+

Devious Maids: Still stupid-fun, and I'm amazed how well they pulled together all of the disparate plotlines this season in the finale, but I cannot believe they're going full soap opera with an amnesia ending. Come on, man. Hasn't Spence suffered enough? B-

Game of Thrones: Quite a season, and not knowing where everything is going has made it very exciting. A

Hannibal: Well... I'm sorry it got canceled, but also not. After the first two episodes, I found the first half of the season tedious and over-indulgent. Everything that had been a strength about the show's style somehow dragged it down into a real slog. And all the focus on Mason Verger broke the show for me, taking the show's pitched operatic quality and turning it into something really, truly dumb. Recasting the role didn't help. Michael Pitt was alive in the role; Joe Anderson was playing Mason Verger as Jim Carrey as the Grinch with practically the same makeup. Some of the stuff in Europe was very good, I just wish it had been shortened down. The second half of the season was much better for me, because it was mostly Red Dragon and I thought Richard Armitage and Rutina Wesley were quite good, and it felt more like the show had a purpose and plot line again. Great final moments; I'm sorry they won't get to go on and do more, but if it means there's not a half-season of dreamy board-resetting that's fitfully interesting and then basically becomes watching Bryan Fuller masturbate for six episodes, I can make the sacrifice. C+

Humans: Started it, but didn't stick with it very long.

Inside Amy Schumer: Brilliant. A+

Key & Peele: The best sketch show on TV finished airing its final season this summer. It was a great ride while it lasted, and hopefully we'll get some specials in the future. A+

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Continues to be essential viewing. A+

MasterChef: This show really needs to drop 3 or 4 episodes. It goes on forever, and the judges become more and more insufferable every year, just as the mechanics of the show and the producer interference become more obvious. (New judge Christina Tosi somehow came in pre-insufferable, as though she'd already been on the show the last five years.) I'll give them this: as obvious as the executive meddling was this year (who got cut each episode was never a surprise), this is the first time since season 2 when I didn't predict the winner. The insufferably smug Derek seemed to be getting the winner's edit this year, but he lost in the finale. I really hated this show last year, and I still have a lot of problems with it, but I do think it's funny that when they did the returning winner's episode this year, they brought back the last several winners instead of just Courtney. That's because no one has even thought of Courtney since last year's phony baloney finale, but people still love Luca and Christine, so let's bring them back, too, and have them do most of the talking, since Courtney has less than nothing interesting to say about food. An interminable, insufferable slog, and with Cutthroat Kitchen being so fun, it just highlights all of the ludicrousness. D+

Orange Is the New Black: It was a slow starter this year, but ultimately I liked it very much. They got rid of some of the extraneous cast members (won't miss you, Larry) and had some interesting things to say about corporate prison structure, and I particularly loved the ending. Now if we could just get rid of the single most boring aspect of the show: Alex and Piper... A-

Pretty Little Liars: After fucking the continuity so bad last year, it was refreshing to get an end to the entire A plotline this season. (I thought they walked the tightrope in a non-offensive way, though I see others disagree.) It did end, as I always thought it would, with the characters basically standing there while A filled in all of the plot holes. Boy, now someone needs to make me a chart showing all of the incidents that occurred and who actually was behind each one. Which was Melissa, which was Mona, which was Ezra, which was Jessica, which was actually A, etc. etc. etc. etc. I'm ready for the time jump (those girls are not convincing high schoolers anymore). B+

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll: Inessential, but amusing. Not much to say about it. C+

Storage Wars: There is nothing wrong in the world that wouldn't seem a little better if Dave Hester were no longer on TV. B-

True Detective: I'm one of the people who didn't like it. A tremendous slog; eight episodes never felt so goddamn long. Tedious and needlessly intricate with no pay-off, high on its own convoluted nothingness while every actor tries to be the McConaughey of season two. (And no one even came close; in fact, Vince Vaughn may have proved definitively that while he has a persona that can be pleasing, he's not an actor.) Morning After captured the feeling of watching the show perfectly: "Each time a new scene begins, you think to yourself: If I miss a word, am I going to be OK? Is this one of the plot-driving conversations that will leave me behind like a tenth-grader in calculus class if I start daydreaming? Or is it more fluff about Ani’s one-dimensional relationship with her father or Ray’s one-dimensional relationship with his son? Can I safely ignore it?" The characters literally limped to its incredibly unsatisfying conclusion. You can usually expect a dip in quality in a second season, but this was a plunge, and only the quality of the first season kept me here for the whole thing. D-

UnREAL: I didn't honestly expect a behind-the-scenes-of-a-reality-dating-competition to go full psychological thriller, but it sure did. This was an excellent show. I saved the whole thing up and watched it all in a day, which really kept the momentum tight, and the way the show would just go for it with its amplified producer machinations... Constance Zimmer was excellent, especially. A+

Wayward Pines: I watched the first episode and thought it was compelling, and I heard it kept getting better, but when I heard it was renewed for another season, I decided to wait and check it out when I can binge it. With a plot like that, I always feel like giving it more seasons just invites filler, and with the mystery aspect... I don't know, it's like they have enough interesting stuff, but you know they have to drag it out, and I'm not interested in that. Everyone wants another Lost, but I'm just gonna wait it out.

Why? with Hannibal Buress: Cute show, and I like Buress, but it didn't keep my attention.

And that was summer.

Friday, September 18, 2015

This Week in Neat-O

:: The great Richard Williams talks about his next film, Prologue, which he is animating entirely by himself. Here's a video about it (which includes a tiny preview of the animation) and here's a print interview.

:: Found the art print I want for Christmas. The Kwisatz Haderach abides.

:: I missed John Oliver's back to school video.

:: The trailer for Michael Dougherty's Krampus is so good I wish I was watching the movie right now. His Trick 'r Treat is fantastic, and I hope this is a great holiday follow-up.

:: Other intrigueresting flicks: Todd Haynes' Carol, About Ray, The 5th Wave, Jon Favreau's surprisingly good-looking The Jungle Book, and the Rocky quasi-sequel Creed, which I'm very excited about, being a Rocky fan.

:: Great piece on Steve Whitmire, the Muppet performer who took over Kermit the Frog when Jim Henson died.

:: Kimberly Peirce's Remake of Carrie Struggled With Vagina-Phobic Execs Who Couldn't Say "Vagina"

:: Behold the Completely Absurd Insanity of Marvel Comics' 1990s "Cool-O-Meters". I remember these from when I was a teenager. Absurd, but I thought they were funny. (Sidenote: I wish hack click-bait headline writers would stop throwing words like "insane" around like it just means "unusual.")

Thursday, September 17, 2015


Evolution explained in two minutes by Eugene Ng and Anita Yen

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this past week.

Jeremy Renner plays Gary Webb, the journalist who in the 1990s published a series of articles alleging that the CIA was importing crack cocaine into the US and flooding the inner cities with it in order to fund Nicaraguan contras. He publishes his findings without verifying his sources or facts (no one wants to go on the record), and as a result experiences a smear campaign orchestrated by the CIA that puts him on the defensive and ruins his professional reputation. It's not a great film, but there's a passion and fury to it that keep it compelling, even as the facts and purported facts become murky. Renner is quite good. ***

David Oyelowo gives a very potent performance as a vlogger who has (this is giving nothing away) just killed his mother and is attempting to turn his life around. He is obsessed with an old Army buddy and becomes very focused on having the man over for a nice dinner, even as the Army buddy's wife has been trying to keep them apart. There's an intimacy to the film that's very disturbing, but something keeps it from really soaring. I think it's because the film is directed like a thriller, but doesn't really lead anywhere thrilling. I mean, we already know from the first scene that he's killed his mother, so why try and make it a thriller? What does hold the film together is Oyelowo's excellent performance, which perhaps surpasses his performance in Selma, but which is at the service of a lesser film. The tagline for this movie is "There's no escaping your own mind." I wish the film had lived up to this concept of a disturbing personal journey, but it's so literal-minded that it becomes tedious in spots. But Oyelowo is worth it, at least once. ***

One of the last silent films and one of the first color features, telling the story of Leif Erickson (Donald Crisp) as he journeys to the New World. It's melodramatic and arch, but I really liked it. Pauline Starke is quite a sight as Helga, a Viking warrior in love with a slave, and her over-the-top, horned costumes are kind of thrilling. It's silly, but I loved its sensibilities. ***1/2

Horror flick by Tobe Hooper about four dumbass teens who think it'll just be hilarious to try and spend the night in the funhouse of the traveling carnival they're groping each other at. Then they witness a murder committed by a deformed kid and start being hunted. It's hard to root for the kids when they bring everything upon themselves with their selfish jackassery, but I like a lot of the imagery and the Rick Baker makeup. I love it when movies remember that carnivals have something dark and creepy underneath, and the funhouse sets are pretty spectacular. ***

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Ranking Al: #5-1

Here we are: the final installment of my increasingly esoteric ranking of "Weird Al" Yankovic's songs. If you feel like catching up, here are the previous installments:

I've been doing this since the end of February, so considering how much blogging I don't do in my usual summer depression period, ranking Weird Al has more or less defined 2015 for this blog. Huh. Didn't expect to do that, but there's a part of me inside that's feeling very, very vindicated getting this months-long chance to celebrate something that people teased me terribly about liking as a kid. I feel a little more... over it. Like, able to put some of that stuff in the past and stop letting it affect me today.
So, without further meandering, my (current, at least) top 5 "Weird Al" Yankovic songs.

5. "One More Minute"
(Original; from Dare to Be Stupid, 1985)
Al wrote this song to get over a breakup, and I think he pulled out the most perfect musical genre he could have for a funny, exaggerated song about heartbreak: doo wop. Doo wop is always appropriate for either teenage unrequited love, or the tragedy of suffering through a bad breakup. But Al, of course, takes it to the extreme, taking that weird, passionate anger you feel when it's ended badly and lists an increasingly gross and over-the-top list of all the things he'd rather do than still be with this person who's made him feel the way he's feeling now. This always sounded to me like the inevitable flip-side of "Tears on My Pillow" by Little Anthony & the Imperials. When you have one of those times where you just can't crawl out of your own emotional spiral, these are the kinds of songs that seem to know on a deep level exactly how you feel. If you can turn it into something you can laugh at and exorcise it away, that's plain genius.

4. "Jackson Park Express"
(Style parody of Cat Stevens; from Mandatory Fun, 2014)
I can understand if you're skeptical of this song being so high; I do kind of hate it when people make lists of the greatest whatever of all time and then they have something from the past six months up in the top 10, and you're just like, "Ugh, I get it, you're enthusiastic about something new, but come on, calm down." The new album did only come out a year ago, but it's been an ample amount of time for me to internalize this song. Even making this list helped; every time I went to add it, I'd listen to it, and it just kept climbing higher and higher and higher up over the months it took to get here.

I admit, a key part of it for me is that I love Cat Stevens. When I was in grade school, my Mom saw a copy of Cat Stevens' Greatest Hits at a music store and bought it in a fit of nostalgia, having loved Stevens when she was a kid. It struck a chord with me right off, and I soon realized that we still had her old Cat Stevens records and a couple of 8-tracks, so I just immersed myself in the man's work. To this day, I absolutely love his music. Tea for the Tillerman is one of the albums I'd call perfect. And Weird Al does such a great mimicking of his style here, especially of longer pieces like "Foreigner Suite" or the album Numbers. I've come to really love the way Weird Al does a longer parody at the end of his albums now; I look forward to them more than I do the polkas, because I know they're going to be brilliant. And for the new one to be Cat Stevens is just kinda mind-blowing for me.

But I think my favorite thing about this song is that Weird Al has gone from celebrating the mundane, then past making a miniature epic of our selfish frustrations, to finally just creating a dramatic epic out of something that, more or less, only exists in our minds. This song is told from the point of view of a man sitting on the bus who sees a girl, immediately falls in love with her, creates a whole life for them, thinks earnest/creepy thoughts of poetic horror about how beautiful she is and what he wants to do with her (like, say, never teaching their kids math and starting a mobile pet-grooming service), and then loses his dream as she gets off at her stop. Over the course of nine minutes of hilariously bizarre lyrics (my personal favorite: "I would sacrifice anything for your love--goat, chicken, whatever") detailing the disgusting ways he wants to express his love for her (french-kissing her internal organs and wearing her skin "but not in a creepy way"), the narrator only interacts with his object of infatuation a single time, signaling her that she has some food in the corner of her mouth.

The whole thing takes place in his head, so he doesn't realize that his declarations of love sound incredibly horrific. It's pretty brilliant, because Al is taking the style of a singer known for writing about love and spinning tales of understanding, and turning it into the obsessive thinking of a man who barely understands himself, much less love and how human interaction works. It's... well, it's 21st Century America. It's one of the finest, funniest songs Weird Al's ever written.

3. "Trapped in the Drive-Thru"
(Parody of "Trapped in the Closet" by R. Kelly; from Straight Outta Lynwood, 2006)
I have a weird relationship with R. Kelly's "Trapped in the Closet." I mean... it's the stupidest thing ever, but in a strangely compelling and delightful way. I've said this before, but R. Kelly is the Stravinsky of Stupid, an accidental master in the art of complete and total dumbassery. Kelly thinks he's writing some kind of rap opera, and he's doing what opera composers have done for hundreds of years--taking a situation charged with human passion and pitching it to a grand level. Except his version is just stereotypes screaming at each other over... not music, but a sort of atonal holding pattern that's reminiscent of music. It's all misogyny and infidelity and drugs and gun standoffs and talk shows and little people shitting themselves written by a guy who thinks he's writing something poetic about human passion which comes across like it was actually written by an alien who learned about humanity by watching Jerry Springer. It's amazing. It's one of the greatest things ever, but not for the reasons it was intended. It is sublime. It is a grand achievement in the history of dumb. It takes itself so seriously, and is approached with such naive earnestness, that it transcends normal badness and becomes... amazing.

(Aside: this is why I hate movies like Sharknado so much; you can't do so-bad-it's-good on purpose. Like Troll 2, it is a combination of good intentions, a lack of self-awareness, a severely misguided taste, and ineptitude.)

In a way, Al's epic can't quite compare to "Trapped in the Closet," and even he admits that. His original approach to the song was to make the original storyline even more convoluted, but it didn't work. Instead, he came up with the brilliant approach he used: take the most banal thing he could think of (getting dinner at the drive-thru), and told the story in tense, excruciating detail. And it works perfectly. Have you ever had those stupid arguments with your significant other about what to eat for dinner? I have. We used to have them all the freaking time. And this song captures it so perfectly... the tension at having no opinions on this basic-yet-kinda-disgusting life routine, the anticipation as something you can put in your mouth get nearer, and the way forgetting something, or not getting what you want the way you want it, can be a cosmic injustice.

2. "The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota"
(Style parody of Harry Chapin; from UHF, 1989)
We used to drive to Iowa a lot as a kid to visit relatives--three or four times a year--but that's only a five hour drive. I've only made a really long family car trip once in my life, and that was in 1987, when we drove to, oddly enough, Minnesota. My Dad used to tell me about the time he and the family (and remember, he's one of seven kids) drove to California when he was about 16. So even though many of the references are really about Al's generation's childhood, I could really appreciate this song when I was a teenager. The specificity of the details (hairnets, Slim Whitman tapes, window decals for roadside attractions, pickled wieners) just help make this song what it is. What it is, is a folk ballad (he seems to have used Chapin's "30,000 Pounds of Bananas" as the clothesline for this one) about a family road trip to see the title attraction. What I like so much about this song is just the narrator's genuine enthusiasm for this trip, a dad taking his family to see something unusual; he sounds like this is one of the biggest things he'll ever do in his life. I love the music flourishes as Al contemplates why one man would wind up 21,140 pounds of string, as though this roadside attraction stands as a monument to the human spirit itself... or at least the human ingenuity to find ways to waste time. And the way someone will always find a way to make money off such things.

It kind of says everything about an America that's not quite there anymore. Except it is, but we've just moved it online and made them into Vines, because everything everyone does, says and farts now deserves preservation.

It's Al celebrating the mundane at both its stupidest and most innocent.

1. "Dare to Be Stupid"
(Style parody of Devo; from Dare to Be Stupid, 1985)
This video and song are, quite simply, the greatest accomplishments of human endeavor.

Okay, not really. They are, however, my favorite things Weird Al has done. Al's mission statement, certainly, and words I've tried with various success to live by in my life. This song is immersed in pop culture, made of reconstituted pop culture, in a way that I have always been, and even at 9 years old, this song just spoke to me and my sensibilities in a way that no other song ever has. Running from the discomfort of my real life interactions, I've always seen things through the prism of silliness, kitsch, pop culture, and a lack of seriousness. Maybe it's been an attempt to force the world to deal with a version of me that's not a hundred percent real, to remove myself to an ironic distance.

I've said it before, I'll say it again: it's more than just pop culture. What matters is how it makes you feel and figuring out why you put so much of yourself into it.

But that's my favorite Weird Al song, and I think his best creation. It's more than just a Devo parody (brilliant though it is on that level). It's a perfect pop song. It's a way of life. Don't take it too seriously. None of us get out alive. Try to make someone's day a little brighter just by being in it. Squeeze the Charmin. The future's up to you. Eat some fruit. Take a walk sometimes just because it's a nice day out. Truly dare to be stupid sometimes. Bah-weep-graaaaagnah wheep nini bong.

Thanks for sticking around on this journey. It's been a lot of fun for me, listening to 165 songs by one of my favorite musical artists. I hope you heard something you liked.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Muppet Monday

Some news this week: I was sad to hear that Joey Mazzarino has left Sesame Street. He's been with the show for over 25 years, and the show's head writer since season 40. Season 46 is mostly finished, so he'll still be in the cast for the upcoming season, but after that, no more Joey.

In a Facebook post, he said that "after almost a year of battling for what I believe is the heart and soul of the show, I lost the war. So I packed up my metaphorical bags and and my literal office and I parted ways with Sesame Street." A lot of people have speculated that must have something to do with the HBO deal. I'm sorry it didn't work out the way he wanted it to.

Where I'm especially disappointed is that Joey is the performer of Murray Monster. I don't watch Sesame Street every day, but I catch it at different points over the year when I'm flipping channels, particularly in the summer, and Murray is one of my favorite things about the current incarnation of the show.

For the past six seasons, Murray has been something like the unofficial host of Sesame Street, opening the show, hosting the Word of the Day segment, and appearing around New York City doing, er, Muppet on the street interviews. He never interacted with the main cast all that much, though he would appear sometimes and guest in celebrity segments. A few years ago they introduced one of my favorite segments on the show right now, "Murray Has a Little Lamb," which sees Murray and his pet lamb Ovejita (performed by Carmen Osbahr) going to different schools around New York, participating in them and finding out what they're all about. They go to art school, ice skating school, gardening school, magic school, cooking school, you name it. There's a lot of them on YouTube, and they're charming, especially if you have kids to show them to.

I don't know what happens with those characters now. Does Murray get recast? Retired? What does this mean for Ovejita? I love that little lamb. There have been some great moments on the show in the last six years, and it's too bad to lose Joey Mazzarino as head writer. I'm curious to see what he does next.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Song of the Week: "King of the Hill"

This is actually how I discovered the Byrds, weirdly enough. In 1991, when I was fourteen or so, this new single, from Roger McGuinn's new album, Back from Rio, hit VH1. At first, I thought maybe it was some kind of new Traveling Wilburys thing, but it was Tom Petty making a guest appearance (and co-writing) on McGuinn's album. I didn't know who Roger McGuinn was, so I looked him up in a book and found out he was in the band that did "Turn! Turn! Turn!" which I knew and liked. None of this is really my Mom's kind of music, so I had to get some Byrds stuff from the library, and some of it I knew from Dylan, and their whole sound kind of blew me away. Still does. And this song led me right into it.

I couldn't find the video on YouTube, but I remember seeing it a bit on VH1. It starred Charles Rocket. I had this song on cassingle. Gosh, remember those? I had a lot of them. But I still really dig this song.