Television

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.

Advertisements

Survivor’s Most Troubling, Yet Beautiful Moment Ever

Screen Shot 2017-04-14 at 12.25.13 PM

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

 

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

Baskets

1453505419014

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

the-americans-season-4-2016-fx-poster

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.

 

The Influence of David Bowie in Pop Culture

There’s no doubt that the late David Bowie was an innovative, influential, genre-bending artist. And who didn’t love him, at least in some capacity? From the casual listeners to the fanatics, Bowie had an impact on all of us thanks to his presence in the pop culture zeitgeist—and a unique presence at that. I grew up getting into movies and television at an early age—probably too early—thanks to my parents’ interests. But I can’t say the same for music. Music for me was something that I later had to discover for myself, and a lot of that started in middle and high school as I became more and more in tune with my personality and growing tastes. Movies and TV were a gateway for me in learning more about music, and I was certainly someone who loved buying movie soundtracks (I still have the Batman Forever soundtrack, on cassette tape, because…you know…”Kiss from a Rose”). I’m pretty sure I knew who David Bowie was, and was aware of this guy called Ziggy Stardust, as a young child, but it wasn’t until he started popping up on soundtracks of movies that I got into in middle school that I actually started listening to him. Below I’ve rounded up just a few of the movie scenes that either play his music or reference him in some way, plus television shows that either feature Bowie or are dedications to him. I’m sure there are plenty more that I’m forgetting here, or just am not aware of, but that just goes to show how influential he was, and will remain to be.

2001’s A Knight’s Tale has to the real first time I remember hearing a David Bowie song and thinking, “What song is this? I love it!” The characters of this medieval set piece dance to “Golden Years,” and it’s a funky and hypnotic affair. Plus, I always think of Heath Ledger dancing when I hear it now. And I don’t think that’s such a bad thing.

About a month after A Knight’s Tale was released, here comes Moulin Rouge (a movie I was certifiably obsessed with), which features three Bowie songs. You have his cover of “Nature Boy,” then Beck covers his “Diamond Dogs,” and then of course the Elephant Love Medley, which samples and adapts the lyrics of “Heroes.”

 

Adam Sandler must be a big Bowie fan, because at least two of his movies reference the songs “China Girl” and “Space Oddity.”

The Wedding Singer

Mr. Deeds

 

And maybe Drew Barrymore has a thing for him too, because in the sequel Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle we get a short scene of her character having an alter ego, Lady Insane, complete with Bowie’s Aladdin Sane makeup, at the :50 second mark. Get it??

 

This is so random, but I saw the movie Bandslam on a bus in South America. It was a very long ride, so I had no real choice but to watch it. I somehow remember the plot, that the teenage protagonist’s music idol was David Bowie. Here’s an awkward scene where he tries to make some moves on Vanessa Hudgens, while voice-overing a letter to Bowie.

Who can forget this scene in Inglourious Basterds, leading to the climactic burning down of the theater? You’ve got your lady in red, and set along to “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” this montage is moody and quintessentially Tarantino and Bowie.

I can’t find the right clip, but “Moonage Daydream” pops up in Guardians of the Galaxy, as our heroes travel through space. Perfectly fitting for our Ziggy.

Another one where the clip just isn’t out there, but I wrote in my post about my favorite pop culture moments of 2015 that I loved the montage in The Martian when “Starman” graces our ears. This fan-made video gives you the idea of how those iconic guitar riffs set to outer space, and the moving, human story of The Martian, gel together so well.

My favorite Kiwi folk duo are also Bowie super fans. The sixth episode of Flight of the Conchords, aptly named “Bowie,” features not only their own song in the style of Bowie, but also features Jemaine Clement doing several specific Bowie impersonations.

“Bowies in Space”

 

For some reason a couple of years ago, Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly decided to remake, nearly word for word, the “Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy” video that featured David Bowie and Bing Crosby. It ends with a classic proclamation from Bowie (aka Ferrell), yelling, “I’m David fuckin’ Bowie!” Indeed.

And then there’s Bowie’s cameo on Extras. To think that Bowie himself did this speaks to his sense of humor. And it somehow turns the lyric “little fat man” into a catchy tune.

Why We Need Jon Stewart #JonVoyage

It’s not often that I’ve found myself yelling at the television, “Yes! That’s exactly it!” or joyously agreeing with flailing arms—except for when I’m watching The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Jon Stewart was always the guy you knew you could count on when you needed someone to be on your side. I’ll miss his brilliant way of mixing the serious with the lofty, poignancy with the idiosyncrasies, and ultimately how much gravitas he brought to a late night talk show on cable—often more gravitas to any real news program. And that’s why I’ll really miss him: he’s a voice we desperately need among the loud, yelling, convoluted chatter that unfortunately takes precedent in our news media. Jon, I hope you grace our television screens real soon, in some form or another, because you’ll truly be missed.

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.

Amy Schumer: A Funny, F**kable Feminist

I have to admit something. It’s something that’s weighed heavy on me in recent weeks. Okay, here it goes…I’m late to the Amy Schumer train. Yes, I’ve been aware of who she is since her Comedy Central show Inside Amy Schumer has been on the air and I had seen the occasional clip of popular sketches/bits that made the rounds on the Internet. It was the great “A Very Realistic Military Game” that really caught my attention from last year’s season two, in which Amy’s female avatar in a military-set video game gets sexually assaulted and must go through piles of paperwork just to be told from her boyfriend that she must have done something wrong. It is poignant on so many levels. That sketch set something off in me, that I needed to make time to go back and binge all of her episodes before last month’s season three premiere. For every bit that is extraneous, albeit funny (such as Cat Park), there are two sketches so on-the-nose about social/gender issues, which is where she (and her team of writers) really excel. Whether she intended it or not, Amy Schumer is the feminist icon we so desperately need(ed) – not that there are not feminist icons in the world (there are countless important women doing good work in many different sectors of our lives). But when it comes to someone in pop culture that can have a lot of sway and influence, Amy Schumer’s edge is that she’s so accessible. She’s simultaneously smart, funny, and easy-going and has mass appeal for a younger generation that could use such a relatable voice. She’s hilarious, shocking, but most importantly in-tune with what’s trending online and what issues need to be discussed, especially those that are important to young people.

So far, season three’s first two episodes have not disappointed. The premiere in particular was magical and feminist in every way. From the instant classics “Football Town Nights” (about the rape culture epidemic in sports/schools – and an A+ impression of Tami Taylor) and “Last F**kable Day” (three prominent ladies of Hollywood criticizing the misogyny of the entertainment industry) to possibly the biggest jab at Congress in the sketch where Amy struggles to get a prescription for birth control (with a not-so-subtle but fantastic rip at gun control), Inside Amy Schumer packs a lot of punch towards the right targets. Plus, she’s really funny with every swing. Here’s hoping that her show will do more than just make us laugh – but also make us think and cause some good change in this world.