Friday, May 30, 2014

Time for a Creedence Clearwater Revival Revival

If I can offer you only one tip to make your life a little better this weekend, it will be to listen to some Creedence Clearwater Revival. The weather's getting nice, you'll probably be outside. I feel like now is absolutely the appropriate time to crank the Best of CCR. You can do so without fear of irritating the neighbors because I can assure you they will be into it. I can think of few bands that so neatly put you in a relaxed state of mind, yet don't fail to drum up your emotions and keep you rocking out. This is rock that rolls.

From the righteous outrage of "Fortunate Son" to the raw come-on of their cover of "Suzie Q,," from the down-home jangle of "Down on the Corner" to their more pastoral efforts like "Proud Mary" or the downright hymnal "Long As I Can See The Light," I think we should make every weekend in the summer a CCR weekend. This is a band with nothing but upsides, and I'm starting to think, in the shuffle of classic rock bands, we're starting to take them for granted. Luckily, they're not going anywhere. That's what classic rock is.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Zod Comes To Town: How I Would Write a Superman Movie

I realize I'm late to the party about this, but I watched Man of Steel last week, and I must say: every single negative review I read of it, including Chris Sims' absolutely scathing one and Mark Waid's heartbroken blow-by-blow, failed to prepare me for exactly how much I would hate it. I had a year of thinking "Whenever I end up seeing this movie, I'm probably going to hate it" so I went in prepared, and there have been times when I've managed to enjoy movies on that level, but this was one where I just sat there, for two and a half hours, thinking "Shit, this is worse than they let on."

And while those reviews are primarily concerned with the idea of Superman, and Man of Steel's poor way of reflecting the source material, I will say as someone who is not overly invested in Superman as a character (compared to Batman or Spider-Man) that this is a Bad Movie. I don't think it comes down to Superman killing Zod, since Superman always seems to kill Zod. The masses are fine with that. My brother, who is not a comic fan and watches these movies as a curious outsider with a better-than-average understanding of storytelling, pointed out that the moment where Supes kills Zod isn't "earned." As powerful as Zod is, the killing doesn't feel as much like Superman's hand being forced as taking the easy way out with some reluctance. But the problems started a lot sooner. It is a poorly-constructed misadventure featuring barely-sketched characters with too much power and not enough to do with it, and yeah, a lot more destruction than there ought to be. Made me yearn for the days just post-9/11 when you wouldn't think of knocking down even one building in a movie.

And as I write this, I think about how rarely I bother registering my feelings when I hate something, because who cares. Besides, it's a year-old movie that's probably vanished from everyone's mind by now. But this was just such an egregious waste of everyone's time and money, I had to take to the blog and do a thing.

Monday, May 12, 2014

[dot dot dot] TV Thoughts for May 12, 2014

Man, I'm watching more late night TV lately than it seems like I should have time for. Funny how this little patch of TV real estate seems to have so much to offer, both in entertainment and idle speculation! Here's some thoughts.
  • Larry Wilmore will make a great host of his own show, taking over from Stephen Colbert at 11:30. It seemed like a given that the slot would go to someone affiliated with the Daily Show, and Wilmore is a natural choice. The show being called "The Minority Report" brings an added dimension of representation that is otherwise lacking both in late night comedy and actual news coverage. It seems like a specific answer to the question that has grown louder with every late night appointment so far in this changing-of-the-guard: "Where are the people who aren't white guys?" Let's face it. People who look like me are not in danger of being absent form the TV screen. I'm very happy to see more Wilmore.
  • Speaking of white dudes behind desks, Colbert's a proven commodity who will hopefully make the CBS Late Show his own, albeit at the expense of one of the most powerful agents of satire in a generation. It might prove to be, oddly enough, the most classically-formatted talk show on the landscape. Time will tell exactly how "showbizzy" Colbert will go.
  • It's also hard to fault John Oliver for getting his own HBO show. While the market is flooded with comedic takes on the news, Oliver seems to have an even sharper mind for calling out bullshit than Stewart does, a bit more bombast. Being on HBO means fewer restrictions, and having no guest segment means it's a solid half-hour of straight-up material. It can get heady sometimes (he was good enough to acknowledge this when he did an extended bit on the death penalty, but it surely won't be the last time,) but it's a welcome addition to the canon, if you can take one more "funny news" program. Beats the shit out of CNN and Fox, anyway
  • I don't watch Jimmys Fallon or Kimmel, but they seem to have both carved out their niches as internet-savvy class clowns. Fallon in particular is interested in making his show a playdate that bucks the "sit next to a desk and give an interview about your latest project" tradition of Leno and Letterman, the format that has worked well for generations. That works for a lot of people, and it's not my flavour, but I get the appeal. It's honest fun. It's a place where you can tune in and see what wacky thing he's going to do with Julie Bowen or Justin Timberlake
  • I have regularly watched the beginning of Seth Meyers' show, but rarely stay to the end because I'm usually just too bushed and need to get up at a respectable hour. There are things I like about it - his banter with Fred Armisen, his anecdotes that lend a personal touch. The monologues tend to fall flat with me, because by that time I've usually sat through Stewart, Colbert, a bit of Conan and @midnight. It doesn't feel as subversively "12:30" as Conan did back in the day, but it's true to the SNL that produced him. In fact, it feels like an extension of that brand, probably more than Fallon's Late Night did. Meyers is a friendly guy who is friends with a lot popular, talented people, so his guests tend to have this angle of "Let's talk about how we know each other and things we've done together." At its best, it's quite nice and warm and he gets something out of these folks that a more straightforward format might not. I think in general we like watching late night TV interviews because these celebrities come on to let their hair down, and we like it better when it seems genuinely comfortable.
  • Speaking of SNL, what a year of ups and downs. Not as many downs as I might have thought, actually, as far as the actual show goes. They ran into the same diversity void as the overall late night landscape when they hired like five or six white dudes and one white girl. And while SNL has rarely been great for minority comedy (here's a show that didn't manage to get much memorable out of Chris Rock) there's no reason not to have made an effort to find a woman who could play Michelle Obama or Beyonce or Oprah. They corrected this midway through by finding Sasheer Zamata, who seems to be working well. In fact she's become something of a clutch player, not just a token.
    • The show is probably less individually-based than it has been in years, leading to a lot of interesting, weird sketches... the Louis C.K. episode seemed to have a large number of sketches that would have merely been the "10-to-1" sketch in other years, to make room for a Target Lady or a Gilly. It's got a strong female roster - perhaps too strong (where are you, Nasim Pedrad?) and a cast of really game newcomers - maybe we don't need them all, but it will be interesting to see which one becomes the Will Ferrell or Bill Hader. Even Taran Killem, an early favourite as breakout star, seems more comfortable as part of an ensemble. An easy comparison would be Kyle Mooney as Andy Samberg: he plays youngish roles and seems to have carved out his own version of the digital shorts (that high school president ad from the Louis C.K. episode killed me even in repeat.)
  • Lastly, @midnight has firmly become part of my end-of-evening routine. Surprisingly given its panel format, it remains consistently entertaining thanks to a dependable roster of guests. Although I've cooled somewhat on the interactive component (lately the hashtag wars topics they've selected haven't been my thing) it's a real winner.

Friday, May 9, 2014

At Least It Was Here: Thoughts on the Cancellation of Community

One of the saddest I can ever remember feeling - although I may be downplaying every other sad moment of my life for the benefit of this story - was Christmas 1998. I was 11 and it was one of those weird transitional years where I was still young enough to wake up at 5 AM absolutely psyched for Christmas, and mature enough that my gifts were starting to change in scope beyond mere toys. The big ticket item that year was a TV/VCR that was in use for more than a decade, (although after 2003 it was a sure way to get tapes chewed.)

Anyway, it was a thrilling day, but I felt one of the most crushingly, existential spells of sadness late that night, around midnight, as I lay in bed and realized... it's over. Christmas was fucking over. All the chaos and family gathering and gift-giving and pure kinetic motion of the day was done and now I was just lying around trying to go to sleep like some fucking schnook. Suddenly, it didn't matter that I had gotten gifts that I could continue to enjoy for a long time. The thrill of getting them was what I was after, and it wouldn't be back until my birthday, and even then what I really wanted was for it to be Christmas again tomorrow. I wanted that with every muscle in my body, I literally remember shaking with panic that it wasn't.

This week has seen a flurry of cancellations in TV world, in advance of the new season scheduling. A few comedies that my friends liked, like Trophy Wife, Surviving Jack, and Enlisted, didn't make the cut. (I liked what I had heard about Trophy Wife and Surviving Jack but sadly never made time for them. I saw the pilot of Enlisted and admitted it was better than most pilots.) The big one, of course, is Community.

Community. What an unlikely success story. And make no mistake, that series getting to five seasons, including its final season with the return of Dan Harmon as showrunner, was a success. I watched from the beginning and thought "Okay, this could make a good show," but it was just something to mark time until The Office was on. The first hint of its future greatness came after the midseason break, when the group dealt with a mysterious interloper named Buddy, played by Jack Black, who had always been in their Spanish class, they just never noticed him. It was the show's first tentative dip into post-modern, self-aware humour about TV formats. An episode laid over the vague framework of a buddy cop movie ("The Science of Illusion") and the gangster movie ("Contemporary American Poultry") showed how deeply the show was willing to invest in its genre studies, before the turning point, "Modern Warfare."

Suddenly it became clear that this was not just a pretty good show about the trials and tribulations of going to a comedically inept community college. This was a work of modern brilliance, a mirror to forms of entertainment we regularly consume, bound and determined to slot its characters - deep, functioning individuals disguised as archetypes - into the trappings of any and every genre that had ever existed, whether it outwardly made sense to do in a community college setting or not (and to be fair, the justifications were usually pretty solid.) At various times, the study group played out the plots of Apollo 13, a zombie film, a western, Star Wars, and somewhat implausibly, Run Lola Run and My Dinner with Andre. There were bottle episodes, clip shows, a video game adventure, conspiracy theories, one Christmas special in full claymation and one that took Glee down by using original songs.

Is it really a wonder this show didn't have the biggest audience? The fact that it was usually aired against the most popular current sitcom seems like an unnecessary extra kick.

Formula experiments don't sell a ton of sponsorships, I reckon. Self-examination and complex inner-lives are not considered ratings dynamite. You can be good, even great, and be successful in television, even if it's increasingly rare. Community was never going to be that kind of great. Community was "scare away the normals, don't let them ruin our little club" great. It was the kind of show where they did a Subway product placement in the form of a human being whose identity was subsumed by the corporation, who was forbidden from feeling love. Nice that they could be good sports about it.

I said years ago, when Community already felt precarious, that getting three full seasons of Community was a damn miracle, because it was more than we got of Arrested Development at the time. That a show could exist on Network Television, and remain determined not to budge on its vow to be a shrine to postmodernism, for three years, let alone five, is impressive. I spent all my tears on AD's cancellation back in '06, and I vowed never to feel that pointless frustration again.

There were times in season 3 I thought they took their conceits a little too far. There were parts in season 4 when I really missed Dan Harmon (though it wasn't without its moments) and there were bits of season 5 that missed Donald Glover. But it never wasn't funny, and never wavered from its determination to keep challenging the viewers willing to join it on this ride. "Challenge" feels like the right word. People don't like to be challenged, but it makes us better.

As much as I want to get furious and indignant that NBC couldn't find a way to extend the life of this show that I have enjoyed and was prepared to continue enjoying... I get it. To rail against the heavens on this one would feel as selfish and ill-deserved as crying at the sight of 12:01 AM on December 26. I got plenty, and more than I expected, and I ought to be happy. I've got it on DVD, Netflix and syndication, so I can continue to enjoy it for years to come.

I'm not simply throwing up my hands and saying "You win, only terrible shows allowed," though. Network TV is a tricky place littered with noble failures that didn't even become the cult hits Community was, but the overall TV landscape is such an amazing thing to behold. The world is still full of great cable comedies like Louie, It's Always Sunny, Archer, Broad City and others. Brooklyn Nine-Nine still exists, as do the New Girl, Parks and Recreation for the time being, and Bob's Burgers. Maybe there's not a ton else to get excited about, and looking at this list of canceled shows the network TV landscape is a little bleak. But with all that free real estate, they've got to fill it with something. Who knows, next season might bring your new favourite show.

I just wish next season started tomorrow. I hate waiting.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

[dot dot dot] Music Thoughts for May 6, 2014

Too many thoughts to tweet, too little time to review. I have neglected this aspect of my blog for far too long. Here's your musical to-do list from the first chunk of 2014.