Television

‘Wild Wild Country’ Is Truly Wild

Netflix’s new documentary series, Wild Wild Country, explores a wild era in the 1980s when an Indian guru named Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh asks his inner circle of followers to create a new community in rural Oregon. What happens next is unprecedented and unpredictable, as the followers of Rajneesh (called Rajneeshees) buy land and start building their perceived utopia next to a retirement town of only dozens of mostly older, socially conservative Oregonians. But perhaps the most surprising part of all for me was that I had never heard any of this before—and I’m guessing I’m not alone. After finishing the six hour-plus episodes, I have some thoughts on both craft and content. Minor spoilers ahead.

Topics of intrigue:

Contradictions galore. I’m fascinated by the contradictory nature of the Rajneesh movement, which was about free love and finding spiritual nirvana, among other things. Yet, Bhagwan and his followers encourage commerce and therefore materialism, are willing to physically harm non-followers and intimidate them with weapons, and even criticize many aspects of the U.S. government while also using and finding loopholes for political gain and to commit marriage fraud (!). And that’s only some of it. Color me shocked.

This guy. A man after my own heart for going through the town’s trash in hopes of discovering cult secrets. I’m all in.

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My personal hero  (Netflix

Outdated media terms. Flabbergasted by the fact that the media seemed to have an official term for people living in poverty in the 80s and that term was “street people.” Seriously. Every time I heard it used I shuddered in embarrassment. That makes it sound, you know, as if the people chose to live on the street.

What defines a cult? Several Rajneeshees ask this question, wondering why the locals and media were so quick to label them as a cult. They bring up a good point of asking why some religions like Catholicism and the Mormon Church aren’t considered cults. Something to leave us thinking about.

Pain points:

The unreadable font. Come on, producers! Yes, Jay and Mark Duplass, I’m talking to you two. Viewers have to be able to read your font! I’m fine with this font choice for the main title card of ‘Wild Wild Country,’ but using this hard-to-read script font for people’s names and names of towns just doesn’t work in the short time you have text on screen. This is especially tricky when so many people are using their Rajneeshee name, and thus names that are unfamiliar to many viewers and harder to guess.

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Wait, who is this?  (Netflix)

Whodunit? There’s a turning point between the locals in Oregon and the Rajneeshees that escalates matters—a bomb goes off in a Portland hotel that the Rajneeshees have bought and operate. The documentary goes on making us think that perhaps a local had set it off (luckily no one was seriously injured), but it doesn’t confirm either way who had done it. From internet confirmation, I now know that it was carried out by an Islamic terrorist group instead. I suppose that wasn’t convenient for the narrative of the Rajneeshees’ point of view in this fight or for the documentary. Oh well.

What’s your name, again? For the uninitiated, all the different names and terms for Bhagwan and his followers are confusing. Is it Bhagwan, Rajneesh, or Osho? People in present day refer to him as Osho from the start of the documentary, but it isn’t until toward the end of his life does he ask his followers to call him Osho. Others have Rajneeshee names in front of their given name, like Ma Anand and Ma Shanti. Still waiting for them to tell us what that means.

Give me more background. I wish the series delved into more of the actual teachings of Bhagwan. It jumps too quickly into the story of what happens in Oregon before having a better grasp of what was really driving the Rajneeshees to be so enamored with him in the first place and then be prepared to plan malicious acts in his name.

All in all, Wild Wild Country is so wild you have to say it twice.

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Take It From Me: You Don’t Have to Be Religious to Appreciate Jesus Christ Superstar

I’ll admit, I’m not a religious person so sometimes just hearing the words “Jesus Christ Superstar” together isn’t necessarily going to grab my attention in a positive way. However, I am a person peripherally aware of a lot of culturally relevant works of art, so hearing those words in that order is something different altogether. Even though I’ve never seen the play or original film, created by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, I’ve definitely heard the “Superstar” song because it’s one of the greats (or so I’ve been told) among musical numbers, and I was also really into Cats as a child. Therefore, I listened to a lot of Andrew Lloyd Webber compilation CDs in the 90s and you can’t forget those goose bump-inducing chords and chants at the beginning of that song. Yet, as a church-going but skeptical child (and an even more skeptical and non-church-going adult), I didn’t fully delve into this musical because I assumed it would be preachy, and even at a young age I was not about being preached to.

Obviously, I was wrong. The rock opera isn’t so much about “religion” or “Jesus” but about a story of people, relationships, points of view, choices, consequences, guilt, and acceptance. You know, a story about life. But even if you’re not interested in the morals of it all, you can still come for the fantastical musical set pieces and softly sung, yet deeply human melodies. My curiosity for turning on NBC’s live rendition of Jesus Christ Superstar really fell into the latter category—and I wasn’t disappointed. Granted, I had it on more for the sake of checking in to see how this live production stacked up against the others (perhaps only Grease and Hairspray beat it for me) and of course the fear of missing out on Chrissy Teigen’s live tweets (what I’m officially deeming FOMOOCTLT…rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?).

From a newcomer’s perspective, the show was energetic, heartfelt, and had Alice Cooper in it. What’s not to like?! All kidding aside, I actually came away from it with much more appreciation for the show, its cast (talking about you, Brandon Victor Dixon!), and the fact that it’s great to see live musicals on television in this age. But the most important moral lesson for me, because I suppose it doesn’t hurt to have some sort of moral takeaway on Easter Sunday, was that I shouldn’t have ever judged this show by its name alone. So, I’m glad that a modern production of a 70s musical starring John Legend wearing an extremely deep-v shirt helped me realize that you have to give everything a real chance before you can judge it. Plus, Chrissy Teigen’s tweets were pretty entertaining, too.

The New Queer Eye is Absolutely Fab (And the Perfect Family Affair)

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Queer Eye (Netflix, 2018)

The first time I saw a billboard in Los Angeles for the new Netflix reboot of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (now more aptly called just Queer Eye), I was skeptical. I was also tired, for this seemed like the 1,456th old show to be brought back to life—I’m worn out on that trend. But then I heard the conversations swirling around in person and online who had watched it and said it was actually really good, and earnest, and groundbreaking in its own way. Fine, I’ll watch!

And yeah, it was pretty great. It’s actually really fabulous and I loved nearly every moment (more on that later). I was in high school when the original series debuted and it was something that my mom, sister, and I loved to watch together. Perhaps that was my hesitation, that I was worried it would somehow mar my experience with the previous Fab Five. Well, I should have had more faith in Netflix because it didn’t.

The new Fab Five are equally fun-spirited as the OGs, but the new show has found five men that reflect an even more global and diverse world, being more inclusive and reflective of how people from all sorts of backgrounds (religion, race, nationality) can also be gay too (gasp!). Antoni, Bobby, Jonathan, Karamo, and Tan also bring earnestness to the show that is so welcome in 2018. The men that they makeover are also a diverse bunch, including a gay African-American man struggling to come out to his stepmother, all within the city and suburbs of Atlanta. This aspect is perhaps the most contrived part of the series, as it’s clear the producers tried to find makeover subjects that might have political and social differences from the Fab Five (yes, we see a MAGA hat in the third episode) as a means to create meaningful conversations. But most of the time when you can tell this is the case, it pays off. I say most because there’s one moment that still feels a bit off-kilter, and that is also in the third episode when the guys are pulled over by a cop while the one black castmate, Karamo, is driving. Of course, this immediately puts the Fab Five and viewers on edge due to recent incidents of police violence against black men and women as well as the Black Lives Matter movement. Lucky for them, this cop is the best friend of the man (and cop) they’re about to make over, so it’s just a joke and no one gets hurt! Ugh, that was extremely awkward. Now, the episode does lead to Karamo and the makeover subject talking about police brutality from both perspectives, and the two do seem to have a sincere conversation and appreciation for each other’s openness in that moment—so although it felt a little weird and warrants some side-eye toward the producers, this time it ultimately seemed to do more good than harm.

I think the great improvement to this show is the Fab Five’s genuine focus on self-care and building the confidence to be the best version of yourself. It’s not just about cutting off some hair or rearranging the furniture in your living room—these guys are here to help the subjects find something that’s already there, to bring it out and improve their well-being (which oftentimes means improving the well-being of those around them). Whether it’s something as simple as giving a stand-up comedian who lives with his parents a better space at home where he can feel more independent or encouraging a husband and dad of two to take his family out on the town more often, they’re really all about helping some strangers out. However, it’s not always so serious—they find plenty of time to have lots of laughs along the way (hello, Jonathan!). But that’s not to say that you won’t need some tissues handy, because every episode got to me at some point.

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Jonathan! Queer Eye (Netflix, 2018)

Once I was one episode in and knew that this was indeed a great show, I knew I had to get in touch with my mom and sister and let them know (none of us live in the same city at the moment). Well, my mom happened to be visiting my sister and they watched an episode together. Then the following weekend I was back in my hometown with my mom, and we watched two episodes together. And THEN, the weekend after that I was with my sister and we watched three more. Somehow, after nearly fifteen years of watching the original together, either coincidence or serendipity (whichever you prefer) brought us together to share this new version. I can’t quite express how lovely that was, except to say thank you to the Fab Five for being a part of it.

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Queer Eye (Netflix, 2018)

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.

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

 

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.

 

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.