Making a (Somewhat) Brief Case for The Leftovers

In the summer of 2014, when The Leftovers premiered, there was immediate chatter of how bleak this show was. That’s because the basic premise of the show is that 2% of the world’s population suddenly disappears out of thin air, and we watch what happens from there. So yeah, it sounded pretty bleak. But since Damon Lindelof was involved as a co-creator (and writer and producer), I wasn’t deterred by this opinion that was seeping into the pop culture zeitgeist. I was an avid viewer and genuine fan of Lost, after all, which Lindelof was a writer and producer for.

I watched two episodes, and did not dislike it. I got what ‘everyone’ was meaning by the bleakness, but I don’t scare away from something because it’s bleak. Instead, it simply became a victim of “wrong time, wrong place,” as that summer I was just starting a new job and I was already maxed out on a number of shows to keep up with. For the sake of television and this world of Peak TV we live in, I really do wish there were more hours in a day.

That meant I got carried away with other things, and so did a lot of other people. Critics and viewers seemed to like The Leftovers, but not necessarily love it. Then, when the second season was well under way a year later, I heard more and more positive things and pleas from the few people I knew who watched: “Season two is so much better and not nearly as depressing,” they said. Well, cut to two years after that to present day—I finished all three seasons of The Leftovers as of last night. Yes, sometimes (read: most of the time) I prefer to stay in on Saturday nights and watch fictional television shows about the apocalypse—I swear I’m fun at parties (when I go to them).

As someone who loves to be part of the bigger conversation, even if that conversation is reading recaps or listening to podcasts by writers and hosts that I don’t know personally, I was finding it hard to not be a part of the discussion around not just the third season of The Leftovers, but its final season. I might be two months behind the airing of the series finale, but better late than never, right? And anyone reading this who has already watched the series will know what I’m hinting at.

So, here’s my pitch for why this is a show worth watching, and I apologize already for how pretentious this all may sound. The Leftovers, as I’m learning just a day after finishing it, is a show that will sit and stay with you. If it doesn’t, then maybe it’s just not your bag. For me, I have found more insight and new questions about this story in the past 24 hours than maybe any other show in recent memory. More than anything, this story is about what it means to be human (cue the pretentiousness). The show explores themes of loss, grief, belief, non-belief, love, anger, the absurd, and mystery. Season one, which I loved in its own way, could stand alone as its own show. It’s a bit more straightforward in its storytelling and is very contained to one town and its populous. Without revealing any plot points, season two and three go in a different direction that one might not expect, but that’s what keeps you on your toes. The Leftovers managed to cover some heavy subject matters, but it also managed to be so bizarre (in a good way) and even really funny (sometimes in a laugh-out-loud kind of way). I don’t know what’s more representative than ‘the journey of life’ than that.

That’s not much to go off, but more reasons for why you should give this show a chance are its surprising and often gut-wrenching musical choices, and of course its superb performances by a compelling cast of actors. Let’s start with the music. If you like a musical score or pop standard to gut punch you, then this is the show for you, my friend. The masterful score by Max Richter is simultaneously haunting and heartbreakingly beautiful. The main musical theme that’s carried throughout the series is used a lot in the first season, and more sparingly in the following seasons. But when they decide to throw it in there, prepare for the waterworks. The show’s use of pop (and classical and hip hop and religious) music makes for both tender and darkly funny moments.

But what you really want to come here for are the characters and the actors who play them. Everyone is worth watching here, including: the mesmerizing Amy Brenneman, the incomparable Ann Dowd, the always-amazing Regina King, the unexpected yet impressive Justin Theroux, the compelling Scott Glen (a personal favorite of mine), and of course the effortless and unwavering Carrie Coon.

The best thing to do at this point, following three years of almost being completely shut out of Emmy conversation and nominations, is to let HBO know that you’re watching, to let them and the creators and the cast and crew know that this show hasn’t been forgotten—that we remember.

Is Spider-Man: Homecoming the most patriotic movie of the year? Yes, yes it is.

*This commentary contains minor plot spoilers

I wasn’t particularly pumped, or even ready, for a new Spider-Man film. Heck, I didn’t even care one bit to see the Andrew Garfield/Marc Webb films, as I felt those were simply too soon for a reboot of our web-slinging friend. The first two Tobey Maguire/Sam Raimi-helmed Spider-Man films set the tone and standard for our modern-day superhero blockbusters, and then everything just felt too soon in an onslaught of superhero movies to follow (except for Spider-Man 3…it was never too soon to move on from and forget that calamity). But funnily enough, it’s already (only?) been 10 years since Tobey Maguire last donned the Spidey suit and here we are with a second reboot. It’s as if we can pretend the Garfield/Webb films never existed at all (sorry, Andrew).

All of this is to say, when the production of this film was announced, albeit now officially a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I was underwhelmed. Then I saw Captain America: Civil War, and thoroughly enjoyed the tease of this new Peter Parker, played with charisma and a youthful energy by Tom Holland. Yet, I still wasn’t entirely convinced. I mostly enjoy the MCU movies, but as someone who never read about these superheroes’ escapades in comic book form growing up, I don’t go running to the theater with every release. It definitely took seeing the positive reviews flowing in that changed my mind. Fine, I’ll go check this one out.

Cut to sitting in the theater and enjoying every minute. I could elaborate on the spot-on casting of Tom Holland or the subtle layers of villainy behind Michael Keaton’s Vulture, or even how much I loved seeing the faces of Hannibal Buress, Martin Starr, and Martha Kelly in smaller roles. No, what struck me most was how relevant the film felt, and yes, even how patriotic it is. It’s a politically tumultuous time in America, where it can be challenging to feel proud of the country’s image and reception abroad, so it was extremely satisfying to see a story, even if fictional, that showcases some of the great and even messy things about this country.

Usually Spider-Man is such a staple for representing New York City, specifically Queens. I can’t admit to knowing much about Queens, having never been to that borough, but I hear that this movie does the borough and its accompanying community justice. I’ll go a step further and say that it’s utterly patriotic to boot (but not in a, you know, Nationalistic sort of way, thank goodness). Let’s consider the content:

The diverse cast. Like I mentioned before, Peter Parker lives in Queens and his neighborhood and high school reflect how diverse any major city (and even suburbs) is in today’s America. And even though diversity is something to celebrate, it’s handled here as a non-issue—as it should be.

Peter is smart and so are his friends. So many American kids are smart and talented, yet often in pop culture it’s looked down on and characters are labeled as geeks and nerds. Here, these kids’ brains are touted (one plot point revolves around an academic decathlon!) and even the guy who is somewhat the stand-in as “the bully” character is just as smart and goofy as the rest of Peter’s gang thanks to his side hustle as a DJ.

That whole Washington Monument set piece. What’s more patriotic than high school students going on a field trip to Washington, D.C.?

“Protesting is patriotic.” Martin Starr delivers this line as the academic team’s teacher, and boy is this something we’ve heard a lot lately in the American zeitgeist. There’s nothing quite more American than this country’s history of activism and protecting the right to free speech.

Themes of capitalism and class struggles. Michael Keaton gives us a powerful monologue that explains his grievances and the background for why he’s become a villain (in our eyes). He essentially bemoans the structures of capitalism and the American workforce, how he gave and gave and got nothing in return while the ‘bigger guy’ (aka Stark Industries) profited. So he took matters into his own hands to provide for his family. All about that American Dream, baby.

We don’t know if we should root for or against Tony Stark and Stark Industries. What’s more American than supporting big box companies while simultaneously despising them? We live in a world where it’s hard to avoid the largest corporations yet they structure our lives in subtle and not-so-subtle ways (see note about capitalism above). We support Tony Stark because the narrative of these MCU movies constructs that perspective for us, yet Stark Industries and even the Avengers have created a lot of collateral damage and have ruined people’s lives in the process.

Punk rock reigns supreme. Speaking of capitalism, the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Pop” plays not once but twice in Spider-Man: Homecoming. Thanks to punk’s anti-mainstream undertones (albeit a bit ironic to be placed in a big-budget blockbuster), the American punk rock movement is as essential to American music as any other genre and lends voices to those who feel sidelined and undervalued by mass culture and politics.

No matter which way you spin it, Spider-Man: Homecoming IS patriotic: it deals with messy, complicated facets of American society, showing not only the diverse faces that make up the American populous, but also the diversity of thought and opinion. All the while, a teenage boy is full of hope and determination to make the world a better place with his own American Dream in mind, rejecting a job offer to join the Avengers. Let’s just see how he feels when he hits 30 and if he peddles back on those ideals of his.

Survivor’s Most Troubling, Yet Beautiful Moment Ever

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Still processing what happened on Survivor this past Wednesday. What happened transcended the game, and one castaway crossed a line that couldn’t be un-crossed, doing something awful that had nothing to do with gameplay: he outed someone as transgender that wasn’t wanting or asking to be outed. Sometimes Survivor brings out the worst in people, albeit usually within the confines of gameplay with the result of being entertaining TV for those watching (case in point: Johnny Fairplay’s lie about a dead grandma who wasn’t really dead! It was wickedly epic.). This was something different altogether. But then, as we see in the other tribemates’ reactions and Zeke’s courage and grace under unthinkable circumstances, Survivor brings out the best in people too. The Tribal Council was upsetting, repulsive, and moving all at once. There’s much to learn here about how such an act can hurt someone (and in some cases put them in physical danger or worse). Just as there are plenty of moral dilemmas that arise on whether CBS should have aired this in the first place. But I think they made the right choice—this is a real thing that happened, and it has consequences for real people. Props to Probst for handling this how he did and being an ally for Zeke. You can read Zeke’s powerful essay to get his perspective and learn how growing up watching Survivor, and now playing Survivor, has impacted his life for the better…and hopefully continues to do so!

Zeke in his own words: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/…/survivor-zeke-smith-oute…

Wednesday night’s Tribal Council: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5BXqrOSNKn0

Resource for being a better ally of transgender people: http://www.glaad.org/transgender/allies

 

Ranking the 2016 Best Picture Oscar Nominees Based on My Tears

This year, instead of ranking the Best Picture Oscar nominees based on my bachelor’s degree in film studies (such a useful degree Mom, I promise!), I’ve decided to do a fun little ranking game based on how much I cried during each screening of the following nine films nominated, and maybe even how much I cried immediately AFTER the movie (I can tell that the suspense is killing you already). The ranking does not necessarily reflect the order of best to worst, but I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying Hacksaw Ridge was most certainly the worst movie on this list (Sorry, Mel! JKJK NOT SORRY). Without further ado, I bring you the first edition of “Ranking the 2016 Best Picture Oscar Nominees Based on Lauren’s Tears.”

 

  1. Hacksaw Ridge

NO TEARS! I almost cried because of how old and terrifying Hugo Weaving (aka the ageless Elrond) looked in this film, but then, not even five minutes into this war movie you witness some of the most atrocious green screen that has ever been committed to the big screen. Like, it is seriously terrible. It’s also hits ALL of the most stereotypical moments that you would expect from a war movie, yet there are so many better war movies! And then there’s the religion. The religious aspect of this story, that Andrew Garfield’s character is a pacifist and therefore won’t kill on the battlefield—because he hit his brother with a brick when he was younger I guess?—is SO heavy-handed (Thanks, Mel!) that it becomes eye-roll worthy. On paper, this is an amazing story. But again, the green screen is so horrendous at times that it really takes you out of it. That alone almost made me cry. Almost. Don’t even get me started on the gratuitous, exploitative violence. Good luck next time, Mel, because apparently Hollywood has forgiven you. 0/10 Cries for Lauren.

 

  1. Hell or High Water

Admittedly, I spent most of the film wondering about the life of Ben Foster (Is he this crazy in real life? What’s it like dating Robin Wright??) and thinking Chris Pine’s eyebrows were just too perfectly shaped for this role. But there was one scene with Jeff Bridges and his cop partner that made me a bit teary-eyed, but no spoilers here! 1/10 Cries.

 

  1. Fences

How dare you, Denzel. How dare you make Viola Davis cry. And when Viola Davis cries, we all cry. OK, I didn’t really cry. But I did well up during that pivotal scene in the backyard. She had snot coming out of her whatever for crying out loud! The rest of the movie almost made me cry, but only because I wanted to cry out of frustration of watching almost two and a half hours of unrealistic dialogue, Denzel being a major dick, and waiting for that goddamn fence to be built. If I could have jumped into the screen I would’ve built that fence myself. I did not particularly enjoy this play, er, movie. 2/10 Cries. I’m sure the play is great.

 

  1. Hidden Figures

This movie is a bit more “by the books,” but I thoroughly enjoyed it. I teared up at Janelle Monáe’s speech to the judge as she tries to attend an all-white school so that she can be an engineer, and of course during Taraji P. Henson’s dramatic speech about having to walk all the way to the other side of the NASA campus to use the colored bathroom. That said, no actual tears fell, just teary-eyed. I was honestly distracted by having to take Jim Parsons seriously. 3/10 Cries.

 

  1. La La Land

If you have a 10-minute finale of beautiful music, fun dancing, and colorful sets à la An American in Paris, and add in handsome Ryan Gosling and charming Emma Stone, and then end it in an unexpected way à la Sliding Doors (Yes I did just reference an underrated Gwyneth rom-com), then yeah, you’re gonna make Lauren cry. 5/10 Cries.

 

  1. Manchester by the Sea

My god this moving is depressing. You think you know what this movie is going to be about thanks to the trailer: A man returns to his hometown to care for his nephew after his older brother suddenly passes away, and apparently that man has some old beef with Michelle Williams. But no, it gets WAY more depressing than that, just you wait. I will say, in all seriousness, the moment that truly choked me up was a scene with the man (Casey Affleck) and the nephew (Lucas Hedges), when the nephew breaks down while looking through the freezer. That was tough, but felt so realistic for how someone might deal with grief. The tears fell. Then you get extremely emotional moments between Casey and Michelle, and there I go again with the tears. 6/10 Cries. (This could have earned more, but it loses some since Casey allegedly harasses women in real life. So there’s that.)

 

  1. Moonlight

Moonlight provided a steady stream of tears from start to finish for me, but it was really Act II of the film, when our protagonist is a teenager, that got the heavier, full-bodied cries. The young actor playing teenage Chiron was able to emote so much in his face and body that I was moved to tears. So heartbreaking, yet so beautiful. Everyone in this film was superb. Please give more acting roles to all of these actors, including Janelle Monáe (That’s right, she’s in TWO of the Best Picture nominees. You go, girl!). 8/10 Cries.

 

  1. Lion

The first true tears, two perfect drops on either side, came as tears also streamed down Dev Patel’s beautiful face during a pivotal moment in the middle of the film. But oh man, the mother load of tears to end all tears came at the end of the film. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know how a true story of a young man finding his biological mother (in an entirely different continent!) is going to end. Hint: If it’s a true story and they’ve decided to make a movie about it, it probably is going to have a joyously happy (and yes, melancholy) conclusion. SO MANY HAPPY TEARS. 9/10 Cries.

 

  1. Arrival

I’m pretty sure this movie wrecked me. This was a flood of tears. But the real flood hit in the moments (read: hours) after walking out of the theater. I didn’t see the “twist” coming, and when I started putting two and two together, forget it. I was a goner. Amy Adams got robbed for the Best Actress nominee. Never would I have suspected that a movie about faceless heptapod aliens and Jeremy “Hawkeye” Renner would make me cry so goddamn much. For sake if spoilers, I’ll just say that if anything tragic has happened in your life, this movie will make you confront all the hard philosophical questions and dilemmas head on that come with grief and loss. You can have my boyfriend verify that I basically ruined a Friday night because I just. Kept. Crying. 11/10 Cries.

Why Baskets is the Show America Needs Right Now

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The most recent episode of Baskets (Thursdays at 10pm on FX) did something monumental. In the midst of political theater and chaos, at a time when many Americans feel lost and at a loss of words day in and day out, Baskets — a show branded as a story about a struggling, modern-day clown — showed what it meant to put partisanship aside for the sake of human decency. I’m of course talking about our favorite TV matriarch (I’ve decided for us all), Christine Baskets, played with such heart (and heartache) by Louie Anderson, and her journey to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

Although Chip Baskets (Zach Galifianakis) is our protagonist, and we’ve rarely glimpsed any sort of political leanings one way or another from the Baskets family in its first season, last week’s episode confirmed my suspicion that Christine is a proud Republican. We know this now because of her undying love of Ronald Reagan, as she proactively escapes the confines of her hotel room in Camarillo, a hotel she has to stay in thanks to Chip’s wandering ways and potential jail sentence on the line. Anywho, while killing time before her son’s sentence hearing, she decides they need to get out and visit the not-too-distant presidential library. But here’s the semi-twist: she brings her new acquaintance, a fellow baby boomer parent whose daughter is also up for a hearing, but who also happens to be a much bigger fan of Carter. Christine, a white woman, and her new friend, a black man, put aside their political affiliations for the sake of sharing some company for an afternoon.

Of course, it’s easier to let bygones be bygones when both presidencies are behind them, and they both offer slights to the other’s preferred president (Really, the peanut guy?! Really, the actor-turned-politician?!). But their seriousness of allegiance is met with equal fondness, amusing in the fact that they can be worlds apart in their political leanings and life experiences yet here they both are decades later in the same predicament tending to their adult children. And it’s in these moments that these two characters find such human similarities and a connection beyond party affiliation that felt so reassuring in today’s strange political times. Did it make me wonder what Christine Baskets would think of our current president? Yes. Not sure how that would make me feel. But this Christine-centric episode, plus Chip’s journey to deliver his late friend’s pan flute to a rightful new owner, proved why this show has become so much more than Zach Galifianakis being a goof in a clown costume (and it’s actually never really been that show, but a tease at the first season would make one think that was the case). Baskets has proved to be a show with a lot of heart while it showcases the many idiosyncrasies we encounter in daily life, and often in really bizarre but amusing ways. And sometimes those encounters are with people who we think are very different from ourselves, yet when you spend a little bit of time to get to know them, you just may be surprised of their character. And if you’re lucky enough, that stranger just may buy you a bracelet of little Reagan faces strung together and make you giddy with glee (if you’re a Reaganite, that is).

Catastrophe — Season 2

They’re baaaaack. Yes, Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney are back for seconds for season two of Amazon’s Catastrophe and I couldn’t be happier and sadder at the same time. Once I started the second season, I realized how much I had missed these two main characters and their collection of strange, bewildering secondary players. Just six episodes in, and approximately three hours later, BOOM. Season two is over. Ensue sadness. I want more more more.

A clever plot twist that I wasn’t expecting, however, was the time jump. Instead of picking up where we left off at season one’s “My water just broke” cliffhanger, we start here with a pregnancy (how tricky of them!) and birth of their second child. So we’re now about three years ahead from where we last saw them. Somehow Sharon and Rob have managed to not berate each other too badly and are thus still, sometimes barely, holding it together. It’s a smart way to keep the basic premise of this show from feeling stale, and luckily for the audience we reap all the benefits with bundles of laughs and TMI-worthy dialogue (but in a good way, of course).

Lastly, I do have a confession. I’m in love with something in this show. The first season I was too shy to admit it, but the second season solidified my feelings. I am in love with Sharon’s wardrobe. Unequivocally, utterly-obsessed with it. She pulls off that last-minute, but totally put together look that I completely envy (yes, I know, she didn’t actually just roll out of bed like that). She mixes bold patterns and textures, and has the confidence to do so. Plus, the show wisely reuses items. It’s just ALL so realistic that I am so in love. If anyone can tell me where I can get her purple (flowery? leopard?) sweater, I will love you too. Even more so if you tell me it won’t cost me my future first-born child.

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She’s concentrating hard because she knows how good she looks.

 

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Look how much fun she’s having because of that shirt she’s rockin’.

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She’s a grown-ass woman and can wear poppy-themed rompers whenever she pleases.

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It’s bold. It’s professional. It’s sexy. And she matches her glass of wine.

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She’s hungover and looks fan-freakin-tastic.

Winter/Spring 2016: What I’m Loving Thus Far

Baskets

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Baskets — Pictured: Louie Anderson as Christine Baskets. CR: Frank Ockenfels/FX

Two words: Louie Anderson. It’s enough reason to tune in to this comedy of errors, and enough reason to keep watching week to week as he plays mother to Zach Galifianakis’ Chip Baskets. Reminiscent in tone of Louis C.K.’s Louie, Baskets (also co-created by Louis C.K.) follows the mostly discouraging lives (at least to anyone not living in Bakersfield) of an aspiring clown and those who weave in and out of his life. Galifianakis as the titular character has his moments, but it’s Anderson and the adorably average Martha, played wonderfully by Martha Kelly, who steal the show. That and the overt Costco/Kirkland product placement that is so prominent in the show’s mis-en-scène that it’s a hilarious/depressing reminder how prevalent Costco is for middle-class America.

I give you Christine Baskets:

 

The People V. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story

At times campy, at times moving – the first seven episodes of The People V. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story, however, have been consistently riveting. With stellar performances from just about everyone (personal favorites include Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark, Sterling K. Brown as Christopher Darden, and Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran), this re-telling of the OJ Simpson murder trial is the perfect dramatization for someone like me. I say that because as someone who was 8-9 years old at the time of the trial, I have enough memory of the overall story and the important characters (albeit I was a rather mature pop culture watcher for my age, thanks to my night-owl parents, and was already aware of Saturday Night Live and other late night talk shows that made Marcia Clark and Lance Ito the butt of many jokes). I didn’t, however, pick up on the conversations on race and how that became a turning point in the case, nor did I fully understand the sexism and embarrassment that Clark faced in the tabloid culture of the time. So now with grown-up eyes and ears, this anthology is absolutely entertaining and feels fresh. While others may feel they are reliving the case, for me it’s an opportunity to learn more details on the trial of the twentieth century. A great companion has been Vanity Fair’s fact-checking summaries following every episode, and it seems that the FX production hasn’t taken too many liberties – because sometimes real life really is too crazy to make up.

Full Frontal with Samantha Bee

She has proved to be the voice that late night was missing. Not so much a “female” voice (whatever that really means), but a voice that has had enough of the insanity, the hypocrisy, and the injustices in our government, elections, politics, and news media that she’s not afraid to say how she feels. Samantha Bee was always one of the stronger correspondents during her tenure on The Daily Show, especially when it came to interviews with the inept. On her own show, she truly shines, while maintaining the importance of the role her gender does actually provide to this job:

The Americans

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In anticipation of the fourth season of The Americans, I’ve been binging the first three seasons. Since its debut in 2013, I’ve heard from entertainment outlets and friends alike that The Americans is a show that needs to be watched. Last summer I finally set aside time to start the binge, and I haven’t regretted a moment. Not only is the plot gripping (a married American couple are actually spies for the Soviet Union!) but the violence and sexual encounters are very provocative for a cable series on FX (read: it’s not on HBO or Showtime). Enter Keri Russell who always has the most amazing hair and 80s turtlenecks and Matthew Rhys, who sometimes has unfortunate disguises but is otherwise handsome, and you’ve got a dynamic leading pair that produce a lot of onscreen chemistry (and off-screen too!). Beyond the storytelling, which luckily deviated from what felt was going to start being a procedural-style show in season one, The Americans has done an incredible job of incorporating pop music into the series, but without overdoing it (I love hearing everything from Fleetwood Mac and Phil Collins to YAZ). I have no idea where this show is taking us (except, you know, the Wall does eventually come down), but I am happily along for the ride.