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Monthly Archives: April 2009

History is going to look back kindly on Arrested Development not only for its incessant quality and its creation of comedic stars, but also for its influence over the rest of television comedy, a genre that had seemed to become stale and formulaic until its debut in 2003. But it’s not just the winking, complex, meta-joke style that AD ushered in which has become so prevalent in a plethora of shows that have come out in its wake (and has now become de rigeur shorthand for “quality comedy”); it’s also in the need that viewers have felt to fill the void of AD‘s absence. Because the show was so mistreated and unwatched, we as an audience now feel the need to overstate our allegiances to these great but ratings-challenged shows in order to keep them both relevant and on air.

The immediate beneficiary of this was The Office, which is now a bonafide hit after limping through a critically and commercially unsuccessful first season. When its charms and quality wore off (in a disturbingly quick manner), we moved on to 30 Rock, whose cultural capital is approaching a stranglehold. To its detriment, I find; this third season has been wildly uneven and even stilted, and though the last few episodes have been a return to form, they are still sometimes filled with easy jokes so desperate to become internet memes that the jokes can seem more quotation-mark “clever” than actually funny. A similar problem seemed to handcuff AD in the middle of season two–the confidence that they could do no wrong–though 30 Rock has received far less criticism than AD ever did for its flaws, possibly because its audience doesn’t want a repeat of fate, and possibly because it doesn’t want to realize that the emperor is sometimes only half-dressed.

Two new comedies that seem to be jockeying for the mantle of Next Best Comedy have much in common with some, if not all, of the three aforementioned shows, and like them deserve our attention as promising but ratings-challenged freshman comedies. Better Off Ted has AD‘s winking style down pat, though all too often in the first few episodes it dangerously approached cutesy Scrubs territory, while also indulging in the workplace zaniness that 30 Rock has basically honed to an artform. The cast is uniformly terrific; Jay Harrington is possibly the most problematic in that he has to do the long-suffering straight-man center thing that Jason Bateman did so well in AD (and to a lesser extent, John Krasinski in The Office), and often seems stuck in the same interest-vacuum that Jon Hamm finds himself so often in Mad Men, though because this is a comedy Harrington is at least allowed to have some fun and express joy at the more pleasurable characters that surround him. This discussion begins with Portia de Rossi, who is so much better here than she was in AD, if only because she’s given a substantive role and some actual lines (Lindsay Funke was always the least-realized character on AD). Andrea Anders has quickly graduated from put-upon beta female to neurotic, hapless mess (in some ways not unlike Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon). But the two real stars of the show are Malcolm Bennett and Jonathan Slavin as the dumbest brilliant scientists ever created; their rapport is so well-timed it seems  flawlessly second-nature, like Tracy and Hepburn or Nichols and May. It was this show’s fourth episode, centering on racist technology, that really elevated it into a comedy worth watching, and much of that had to do with Bennett and Slavin playing off each other’s harried incomprehension until it reached sublimity. This has only continued in the two episodes following that, with one of their better moments occuring in the most recent episode when they are represented by salt and pepper shakers (don’t ask). “Which one am I?” asks Bennett. “Oh pepper, because I’m spicy.” If this were AD or 3o Rock, this joke would seem laden with smarm, as both shows always had an edge of meanness in (and towards) its characters. But here it is instead played for dumb, sweet naivete (which more than anything portrays the show’s exceptional big-heartedness), and to compound an already hilarious delivery, Slavin responds, “I’m like a pirate, I’m salty.”

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The pilot for Parks & Recreation was roundly panned for its similarity in tone to The Office, unsurprising considering they share producers. Not only does the style seem played-out (the episodes of The Office that have actually worked in the past few season have been stellar, but are far more the exception than the rule), but too often it seemed that Amy Poehler was doing a variation of Steve Carell’s Michael Scott. The difference being that Carell has always been the best aspect of The Office, which has not been the case with P&R. Poehler is too gifted a comedian to not correct this, and as the show has shown increasing potential in its two past episodes, so has Poehler, showing a depth and inherent goodness in her character’s Michael Scott-esque bumbling lack of awareness. Much like in Better Off Ted, though, the lead is less a source of laughs than the supporting characters. Aziz Ansari has already gotten a lot of mileage out of his characterization of Tom Haverford, full of douche hubris, which seems a natural extension for someone so ensconced in the world of New York alternative comedy (which so often, when done wrong–and it generally is–seems more “alternative to comedy,” lolzamirite?!). As Poehler’s superior, Nick Offerman has shined as a right-wing anti-government blowhard, and Aubrey Plaza has showcased the right amount of youthful apathy befitting an intern. While Rashida Jones has seemed less a source of laughs than a catalyst for them (much like de Rossi in AD), the two biggest surprises have come in the form of two actors not previously known for their comedic chops. Roger Federer lookalike Paul Schneider, previously only known to me as the lovesick protagonist of All The Real Girls, displays immense charm in what appears to the role of romantic foil to Poehler. But the biggest and best surprise has been Chris Pratt, as playing Jones’ injured boyfriend. Pratt’s ludicrously chiseled all-American good looks were incomprehensibly irritating in Everwood, so I’m glad he’s put on a few pounds and grown a beard. And his character, in the very few scenes he’s been alloted, has already seem to come out fully-formed with some well-delivered lines that perfectly capture this kind of hipster douche lunkhead manboy, further reasserting that The Hipster has now become just a different shade of Frat Boy. I mean, how many dudes do you know who are exactly like this? I know TOO MANY, and for some puppyish reason I love them.

Both shows have had some early stumbling blocks; Better Off Ted with its terrible name and its somewhat mannered storytelling, and Parks & Recreation with its too-obvious tonal debt to The Office. But both shows have shown remarkable promise–Better Off Ted is just about on the cusp of becoming something wonderful, and Parks & Recreation is building towards the point where Better Off Ted started as–that I hope they get the same kind of attention that has been lavished on 30 Rock and The Office. Because remember, neither of those two shows started off too hot in the beginning either. I suppose this is one thing that any prospective Next Best Comedy could stand to learn from Arrested Development: how to get out of the gates fully formed, leaving the rest of the competition far behind.

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After seeing Neko Case at the Nokia Theatre this week, she has tied Sleater-Kinney as the live act I’ve seen the most. If you count her appearances with the New Pornographers, then Case takes a commanding lead that she will never relinquish, considering Sleater-Kinney is sadly no longer around and, strangely enough, the next acts on the list are the unprolific Breeders and the increasingly bland Liz Phair, who I’ve still managed to see four times. Clearly I’m not counting any of the terrible bands my friends were in, aged 15-24, because if I were it would be embarrassing.

After the third or fourth time I saw Case, I remarked to a friend that I thought she’d never really put on a Great Show, but would always be worth watching. I still feel that this is true; Case lacks both the particular intensity as well as the oeuvre of a band like Sleater-Kinney, who seemed dedicated to melting your face off every time they set foot on stage. Some of the difference lies in genre, to be sure, but part of it seems a reflection of personality. Because Case would never want to melt your face off like Sleater-Kinney or PJ Harvey, or make you feel like partying like the Breeders, or have you be privy to her psychosis like Cat Power or Courtney Love. She just wants you to have a good time, and even if she can’t sequence a setlist worth a damn, you’ll know that every song on the list will be lovely, and who needs sequencing when she and backup singer extraordinaire Kelly Hogan are doing stand-up when they aren’t singing.

And then there’s Case’s voice itself; after seeing her with the New Pornographers the second time, I felt as if it filled up the entire room, only to ricochet like a wave from the very back of the venue to smack you upside the head. There is something so thrilling about hearing that big voice in person, how uncommonly rich and full it is, on and off record.

Anyway, my three favorite moments from the show are as follows:

1. “Star Witness”
Since I first heard it, this has been my favorite Neko Case song, a perfect synthesis of storytelling and mood and poetic images and unfurling melodies and harmonies. But the first four times I’ve seen it performed live, it has never completely worked. Part of it are the bobbing and weaving harmonies of the chorus, which Martha Wainwright once completely destroyed, sounding like a dying cat. This time, armed not only with Hogan but also Nora O’Connor, Lucy Roche, and Rachel Flotard, this song’s inherent, hefty, melodramatic girl group-ness was finally brought to fruition, so beautiful and daunting and nostalgic. I’ve been waiting two years for this song to sound perfect, and it finally did.

2. “Red Tide”
Talk about a dark horse. This is a great, appropriately tumultuous closer after the consistent shake-ups that occur throughout Middle Cyclone, and in person all its latent garage rock stomp was brought to life by drummer Barry Mirochnick and guitarists Tom V. Ray and Jon Rauhouse. Just a barreling behemoth of a song that Case, who introduced it as a break-up ode to Seattle, performs with incredible force.

3. “This Tornado Loves You”
This song, much like, “Star Witness,” I think is going to need some time to perfect. Because I think there are intricacies in the guitar playing that I don’t think they’ve found yet, and instead of the monster it sounds like on record–perfectly a force of nature–it sounds disappointingly thin in comparison when played live. “Thin in comparison,” yet still swirling and powerful, barreling through until the vocals nearly break at the end. This is rapidly becoming my favorite Case song; I wish I had thought of this conceit, more than almost any other piece of writing. Just a perfect, fully-drawn lyric, with the most appropriate musical execution to back it up.

How many indie nerd sadsacks are weeping right now because of this, do you think?

Like the cancer that is that Darjeeling guy… what’s his name?

AVC: Wes Anderson?

WO: Yeah. His completely cancerous approach to using music is basically, “Here’s my iPod on shuffle, and here’s my movie.” The two are just thrown together. People are constantly contacting me saying, “I’ve been editing my movie, and I’ve been using your song in the editing process. What would it take to license the song?” And for me it’s like, “Regardless of what you’ve been doing, my song doesn’t belong in your movie.” That’s where the conversation should end. Music should be made for movies, you know?

Team Oldham, even if I don’t care for his music, because I care even less for Wes Anderson’s movies (yeah, even the first three, suck on it, have you tried watching those recently? YEESH!). And at least Oldham was in Old Joy and Wendy & Lucy.

…occurs at the end of Friday Night Lights‘ season three finale. I can safely say that I’ve never seen so perfect a sustained setpiece on television than these fifteen minutes, one that mixes incredible grace, emotional investment, a languidly free-form pace, and complex performances to approach something nearing visual poetry.

The wedding of Billy Riggins and Mindy Collette begins, appropriately, with a hilariously off-kilter acoustic performance of Peter Frampton’s “Baby I Love Your Way” as the various participants of the wedding party march down the aisle. Before Mindy comes down the aisle with her mother on her arm, Tami Taylor tip-toes into the church and clasps the hand of her husband Eric, informing him of the bad news that he’s been replaced as head coach of the Dillon Panthers. This scene, coupled with the preceding one (where Eric delivers a tremendously prideful, and ultimately disappointing, speech to the boosters and school board), so succinctly captures the brilliance of Kyle Chandler as an actor, underplaying his big moments in a manner that suggests they could never be played any other way. Other actors on this show get such great scenes where they really give a Performance (the fantastic Connie Britton being the best example), while Chandler prefers to internalize everything to give an embodiment instead. Chandler’s face when Eric finds out the news, only to then be told that he’s been offered the job as coach of the newly reformed East Dillon school, manages an impossible mixture of complex detail.

To undercut the brilliance of Chandler’s face, we see the Riggins boys, in their terrible/amazing white suits and 10,o00-gallon cowboy hats as Mindy walks down the aisle. And then a cut to one of the most fun receptions that has ever been fictionalized, complete with a corny band performing “Car Wash,” the residents of Dillon dancing wildly with each other, including Buddy sheepishly asking Angela Collette to dance–such a minor detail, but a beautiful one, considering that their affair in season 1 led to Buddy’s downfall. The wedding band then segues into its succession of perfect song choices, starting with “Fooled Around and Fell In Love,” as Tim–for so long floundering about with a lack of purpose–approaches the one true concrete love of his life, Lyla, who had planned on going to Vanderbilt without telling Tim, but guiltily decided to forgo those dreams and attend San Antonio State with him, as they’d planned. What follows is such a lovely summation of both of these characters’ arcs: Lyla, who started the show defined by her relationship with a boy, making a decision based on what’s actually best for her, but doubting herself; and Tim, showcasing the exponential growth he’s experienced over the past three years, allowing her to put her needs before his. Though not without some inherent selfishness, as a bemused relief plays on his face–this is his ticket out of college, of responsibility, and of growth. He can now stay in Dillon and work at Riggins’ Rigs with his brother, he thinks, and this is all he wants.

The wedding band plays “Mustang Sally” as we cut to Lyla, now seemingly freed from her burdens, who twirls around on the dancefloor with her father. The jubilant music fades in the background as Julie attempts, against her wishes, to break up with college-bound Matt. He tells her “no,” and with a kiss assures her that they’ll be fine before Julie sighs, “Your grandma would’ve really loved this wedding.” Cut to Matt taking his grandmother out of the nursing home where he’d left her earlier, in a beautifully composed and heartwrenching scene that ended the the two of them separated in the frame by a wall. “You’re the only person that’s never left me. I’m not gonna leave you,” he says now, and while Matt’s escape from Dillon is now disappointingly a thing of the past, it is so perfectly in line with what this character has shown over the last three seasons–his self-sacrifice for the good of those who depend on him.

Cut back to the reception, and the band’s final Perfect Song Choice: “When A Man Loves A Woman,” while the men of Dillon dance with the women they love: Billy and Mindy, Tim and Lyla, Landry and Tyra, Eric and Tami (having a moment of dialogue that affirms their standing as the best husband and wife in the history of television)…and Julie, watching as Matt directs his grandmother to the dancefloor, giving her the dance he didn’t give his girlfriend.

The reception’s over, and Eric and Tami leave quietly before Billy and Mindy are pelted with rice. Before they can get in their limo, Tim excitedly relays the news that he’s going to stay in Dillon, figuring (per their roadside conversation earlier in the episode, as Billy wistfully pondered what it would be like to work side-by-side with his brother) that Billy would be elated. But Billy Riggins, tragicomic ne’er-do-well bad ideas doofus, surprises everyone by refusing to let this happen, and in the last words of this beautiful episode–this beautiful 15 minutes–gives FNL one of its three over-riding spoken theses (along with Tami’s speech to Eric in the bar, saying, “You are a molder of men”; and Matt’s “They needed me and I stepped up and I worked my ass and I did everything I could, but I guess it just wasn’t really enough,” all from earlier this season), in as poignant and moving a moment ever seen in this poignant and moving show (especially considering the source!):

You listen to me you little idiot. You are not going to wuss out on this. You’re going to go to college and you’re going to go get a degree. And I don’t care if it takes you seven years, alright? And when you start thinking that it’s too hard or that you can’t handle it I want you to remember one thing. I want you to think about the kids that you don’t have yet. And I want you to think about my kids. Me and Mindy’s kids that we don’t have yet. And you’re going to get the job done so that one of these days I can tell them that they don’t have to settle for second best. That they can be whoever the hell they want to be because their uncle Timmy went to college. God bless our mom and dad, wherever they are. But we gotta do better by our kids.

As if that wasn’t enough, we end with the coda: We see that Eric and Tami have run off to the decrepit, unused patch of field of East Dillon, this loving and supportive couple holding each other as a guitar plucks melancholy chords, the two of them surveying where Eric will lead a whole new group of young boys in the unending, unforgiving, and unknowable process of trying to become men, disappointment and hope and struggle and triumph to be displayed on this rundown territory in the future while, in the present, our protagonists are drowned out by fading sun.

What a fifteen minutes that was.

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After oh, two months of sitting in its sad little red envelope, I finally watched Savage Grace last night. Why didn’t anyone tell me that Julianne Moore is some kind of hysterical amalgam of Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce/Bette Davis in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?/Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?…except, you know, human. The tremendous thing about Moore’s performance here is how it often seems to wildly veer towards camp (the scene pictured almost rising to the glorious potty-mouthed breakdown heights of her pharmacy scene in Magnolia; there is no other person who makes the word “cunt” sound so transcendent) before being pulled back my some incredibly minute detail (following said scene is a static shot of Moore shakily but triumphantly walking out of frame, her face gradually fading from post-outburst pride to heartbroken terror).

If only the rest of the film was up to her standards instead of actually seeming to get in her way (or rather being frightened of being in her way). The string-laden score and gorgeous visuals reminded me of Contempt, and the laconic pace managed to convey the decadence of these aristocratic bohemians. Unfortunately for the film, the pace conjured by director Tom Kalin becomes a detriment to its success; the film throughout feels amorphous and undefined, should rightly be called “sloppy” if every shot wasn’t so meticulously framed, and when it needs to build towards the climax it instead feels as if the film has meandered enough and needs to finally end.

This is the first film in a while where I’ve been struck by the budgetary limitations of independent film. The film is certainly based on tremendously episodic source material, and screenwriter Howard A. Rodman wisely chooses appropriate vignettes in order to condense the story. Unfortunately when filmed, the condensation reveals severe narrative holes that, instead of imbuing the dramaturgy with purpose, empties it of its juice and flair. Throughout it seems that the filmmakers are constrained by their own limitations, and work to create a story as good as possible, which effectively seems to gut the meaningfulness of this story’s peculiar tragedy. Savage Grace, in the end, has an epic performance in search of an epic movie; instead it has Julianne Moore standing in a kiddie pool, bigger than every other one or thing in the film (except, oddly enough, child actor Barney Clark). I suppose that’s one comforting thing to take out of this movie: that after a few years of The Forgotten and Laws of Attraction and Next (wtf?!), Moore has proven that, for the first time since 2002, she still knows how to own a screen.

Remember how I said that Levi Johnston didn’t seem like a famewhore and was being PESTERED by the media when he was just a sad broken-hearted kid?

WHOOPS, what a whore. A sexxxay whore, to be sure. But going on CBS and Tyra Banks and whatever the hell else to talk about this garbage when NO ONE WANTS TO HEAR IT (except for me, because this is my Us Weekly stories about, uh, people from The Hills?), well congratulations you guys, welcome to Joe the Plumber land. Though I still think Levi is less objectionable than the Palin clan as well as his horrible sister and his mother who is basically Angela Collette, considering Levi is Tim Riggins.

Best thing is the CBS anchor lady saying, “He says that he will either be an electrician like everyone else in his family, or maybe all this publicity will lead to a modeling or acting gig, which he is open to.”

GAYPORNGAYPORNGAYPORN *crosses fingers and then pukes on self*

So Russ Feingold likes Bon Iver. Great. Okay. The government should basically just become Pitchfork because who cares about anything else, and they are annoying and should just have iPhone ads plastered all over the place. I look forward to John Kerry waxing poetic about Vampire Weekend’s nostalgic properties, Dianne Feinstein’s breathless review (including pics) of Deerhoof’s show at the Bottom of the Hill, and Chuck Schumer interviewing Julian Casablancas and asking what the hell was up with that last record???? IT SUCKED.