Ren Recommends

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.

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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.

 

Ren Recommends: Catastrophe

Catastrophe is the modern-day adult rom-com we’ve been waiting for. It’s the breeziest three hours you’ll spend this summer, with only six half-hour episodes streaming on Amazon (originally aired on British television screens at the start of the year). It’s smart, funny, and yes, even sexy. There’s something so refreshing about a story that revolves around a simple plot (man meets woman, man and woman have a lot of sex, man and woman have an unplanned pregnancy, and man moves to London to be with woman) involving two forty-something, charming leads. This man (Rob Delaney) and woman (Sharon Horgan) are completely at ease in their own skin, which makes their budding relationship so compelling. They’re both unapologetically themselves – and luckily for them, for the most part, they like that about the other person. Luckily for us, their chemistry is palpable but doesn’t feel at all forced. Add in their raucous humor, plus some miserable but terrifically executed side characters – not to mention the fabulous Carrie Fisher as Delaney’s mom – and you’ve got one of the best shows to debut this year. And after your three-hour binge goes by in a flash, just like that, you’ll be taken aback by how much you thoroughly enjoyed it, and you’ll curse the TV gods that there aren’t more episodes (yet) to devour.

Ren Recommends: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

With Parks and Recreation off the air now, it’s time for a new comedy to take its place in our hearts and minds. Although Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt follows 30 Rock in its absurdist tendencies (which I mean in the most complimentary way), its ridiculousness is paired off with charm, thanks in large part to the amazing Ellie Kemper. If you love the brand of humor in 30 Rock, then you’ll love Kimmy Schmidt, whose creators are Tina Fey and Robert Carlock (creator/writer and writer for 30 Rock, respectively). Plus, Fey and Carlock manage to make a horribly depressing scenario (four women, including Kimmy, trapped in an underground bunker against their will by an egomaniac who has falsely predicted the apocalypse are finally found and have to rebuild their lives) into something hilarious and even poignant. Just like 30 Rock, some of the most on-point jokes aimed at the social/political/racial/etc. constructs of our society are subtle and mumbled under characters’ breaths. But to balance the ‘truth-ness’ embedded throughout, there are equal parts outlandish and side-splitting gags that run throughout this series (blink and you just might miss them). And lucky for us, due to the timing of when Kimmy gets kidnapped as a young teenager in the mid 90s, we get tons of hilarious references to great and obscure pop culture artifacts from the 80s and 90s and many moments of Kimmy coming to terms with the technological and social media developments that she’s luckily missed out on for the past 15 years. To showcase a microcosm of what you’ll find on this show, here are four instances of what makes this show unbreakable.

UKS_1UKS_2UKS_3UKS_4Season two could not come fast enough!