July 31, 2013
A new season of Under the Dome and the real meaning of “miniseries”

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Justin: We’ve apparently misinterpreted what the phrase mini-series means.

On CBS day at TV Industry Summer camp, executives from the eyeball network announced they would be renewing Under the Dome for another season.

Let me rephrase that. CBS says it has renewed the mini-series Under the Dome for another summer.

This is information that shouldn’t be entirely surprising to anyone, and, in fact, a number of critics say the mile-high ratings for the summer show pretty much ensured the Dome would rise again. That’s just straight economics; a mass of viewers and a salivating pack of advertisers means a show will always come back. (Not to mention the ingenious behind-the-scenes math CBS pulled off to fund Dome Adventures.)

A few weeks ago, had you told me the Dome was returning I would have cracked another beer, huffed some propane and chained myself in my doomsday bunker in anticipation of season 2. But now? The show suffers from such an immense thematic drag that the mystery, not to mention the initial threat of BEING SEVERED FROM HUMANITY, have kind of faded. Instead of being a dome shrouded in questions and intrigue, the Town of Chester’s Mills has become one of the most boring places on the planet. The writers and producers glommed onto one of the worst traits of serialized TV: Idling. It’s that uniquely American ability to not only throw a show into neutral, but to stall the progress of the story so much that a odd kind of bloat sets in. It’s that feeling you get when a show appears to be standing still in front of an industrial fan.

After putting the town in a strange bubble, the show’s spent 6 episode getting lost in the weeds of family drama, fake plagues, and ridiculous PG-13 torture fantasies.  Also, putting out a house fire.

Meanwhile there’s still this unexplainable dome somewhere in small town Maine that seems to inspire either madness or intense apathy towards the idea of survival. After 6 episode, and countless days if not weeks in dome hours (clearly there must be a new, independent, time zone inside the Dome, which we will now refer to as DST), the townsfolk are just now beginning to get concerned about their food and water rations. 

It’s not like I need to see the finer points of a municipal disaster response manual to enjoy Under the Dome. From the outset the show had the feeling of an above average SyFy movie of the week; breezy, cheesy, and just the smallest amount of commitment to make it enjoyable. For the first few Mondays you’d reliably find me with the rest of the Greek Chorus on Twitter punching holes in the show and generally being the show’s most catty, but strangely loving followers. But the Dome keeps getting bogged down in all the day-to-day contrivances of survival without giving the audience any hints as to why these people are trapped, let alone why we should continue to care about them.

For the show to seem so listless on the day it was renewed for another season (henceforth, “Under the Dome 2: The ReDomening”) is bad timing. It’s like giving a contract extension to your power-hitting first baseman right after he went into a slump.

It’s easy to be mad at a show that’s getting rewarded for having the creative cohesiveness of a frozen banana daiquiri. The bigger problem is that Under the Dome was billed as a limited engagement, a summer stock revival of Stephen King. CBS and the producers promised us a mini-series. It’s a TV format that has long been dormant in the US, particularly as cable has raised the stakes against broadcasters, and online entertainment options are forming a wedge between the two.

But TV networks want to be in the franchise business, because nothing succeeds like sustained success. And that doesn’t leave a lot of room for short-lived show. Which is incredibly sad.

Under the best circumstances a mini-series can offer a middle ground between the prolonged narrative of serialized TV with the limited investment of a movie. More than so much else on TV, mini-series offer the promise of an end. And endings means structure, motion, and direction. They’re explicitly designed to tell you "hey, trust me, we’re going somewhere."

Maybe the reason mini-series can no longer survive has less to do with the economics of TV and more with our appetites as readers and watchers. Broadcasters and the cable want franchises not just because they can endure, or because they can dive deep, but because the audience wants to spend time with what it knows it likes. It’s the same reason you’ll eat wings for dinner two nights in a row. It’s the reason we end up with 11 seasons of Two and a Half Men, and a sequel to Cars along with an aviation themed spin-off. 

And it’s now the reason why the tale of the Domespeople will continue past even what King originally wrote. Executive Producer Bryan K. Vaughn, (who gets a pass from me because of Y: The Last Man, and Runaways, among others in his career in comics), told reporters prior to the premiere of the Dome, “We pitched Stephen a far-out, big-swing idea for this to go several years — a different ending — and he was really excited by it.”

 

Goddamn. It’s true, isn’t it? You can’t nuke it. You can’t hug it. You can’t lock it up in your bomb shelter.  Nothing, NOTHING, can stop this goddamn dome. 

 

Dennis: Who, who will rid me of this troublesome Dome?!

Damn this Dome.

I really do not care for this Dome.

I think one of my main objections to life Under The Dome has hearkens back to my distaste for Lost. Especially after the first season, the people on that damned island just seemed to never learn anything. As my lovely wife put it at the time, “These are the least curious motherfuckers I’ve ever seen.” When faced with a series of insoluble, apparently supernatural phenomena which routinely imperil them and cut them off from the rest of the world, the Losties and the Domies squabble, they run around dealing with the house fire or smoke monster of the week, and then they seem to have forgotten all about it by the next episode. Major questions are asked, then forgotten (at least until they become pressing again). Petty internecine bickering and deeply uninteresting personal animosities and issues take up an inordinate amount of time, while, you know, there’s a freaking DOME, a damned POLAR BEAR!

Stupid dome.

I look at Under The Dome as a squandered opportunity in the same way as I do a movie with fast zombies—they’re both missing the point of their own premise. Zombie fiction isn’t scary because zombies can spring out at you like rabid Spider-Mans (Spiders-Man?), and the whole Dome thing isn’t compelling because now you’ve got to deal with everyone’s old grudges and teenagers who speak in tongues when they touch the dome and an evil Andy Samberg who chains up a chick in a basement. No, each premise holds dramatic potential in its disruption of human society and the way it forces suddenly isolated people to cope with that new paradigm. Plus cool supernatural weirdness!

And now the prospect of this thing dragging out for another entire season bores me beyond even the idea of hate-tweeting it. It’s not that Under The Dome is terrible. I mean, it sort of is, but what really makes my eyes glaze over (apart from some seriously indifferent acting) is how comfortably mundane things are under that dome. The first episode got a pass due to premise introduction and some fun effects (cue bisected cow). But even there, and increasingly thereafter, the show has been awash with some of the dullest conflicts (and people) this side of, well, a really mediocre show that’s not trapped under a dome. It’s got Dean Norris, fine, but he is not not making the case here that Breaking Bad’s writing is doing most of his work for him. Literally everyone else is so nondescript as to see their words disappear into the dome-scented air, especially as those lines come saddled with humdrum motives and that patented Stephen King dialogue which, as ever, just sounds clunky and slightly off at all times. Mainer solidarity and all, but King’s lucrative gifts do not extend to writing dialogue for people you want to spend two seasons of TV with.

And that’s part of the problem. Like you said, J-man, this whole thing was pitched as a “TV EVENT,” capitalizing on King’s name and his book’s bestseller status to swoop in, wow us (or more easily entertained versions of us), and then bust open that dome in time for the real shows to premiere in the fall. With the promise of a limited run, maybe we could hang on through the mundanity and the prosaic, jargon-y dialogue.

Now the prospect of another year’s worth of this improbably bland potential-squandering promises a dome-sized boredom headache.

Damn this Dome.

June 4, 2013
What timeline is this? Dan Harmon is coming back to Community?

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“I find I’m so excited, I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it’s the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain…I hope.”- Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding

Dennis: What can this mean? Wha-? How?

I mean, it can’t be a thing…like a thing that is happening, right? [clicking about ten different links, cross-checking…]

Confirmed.

Dan Harmon is coming back to save Community.

And then the Internet exploded.

We’re back. Look, I know that the inter-webs is exploded and stuff, overwhelmed by the sound of a million blog posts, crying out in jubilation and then suddenly silenced. And the last thing anyone needs right now is another think-piece examining the million ways this whole thing could go wrong, so I’m just going to confine myself to the facts:

1. This has never happened before. I was standing poleaxed at work when I heard the news THAT DAN FREAKING HARMON HAS BEEN BROUGHT BACK TO SAVE COMMUNNITY (sorry- had to let that out there), and I started thinking if there had ever been a situation like this. Showrunner fired by the suits, then brought back by those same suits? I couldn’t think of one and I’m willing to bow to the confirmation that it has never happened from The AV Club’s Todd VanDerWerff. Unprecedented.

2. The cast made this happen. According to a tweet from the man himself, Harmon is returning because the cast wanted him back (he mentions Joel McHale, especially.) Apart from confirming that the cast of Community has working sensory apparatuses like the rest of us, the fact that the cast of the show clearly held some sway over the suits’ decision to eat crow (and no doubt quarts of their own bile) and rehire a man they unceremoniously shitcanned a year ago is likewise unprecedented. And sure, as much as I’d like to think they staged a quirky-but-determined study group-style sit-in in Sony’s corporate offices, even the more realistic prospect of Harmon’s friends and colleagues lobbying behind the scenes to bring back the one person they think can return the show to something like it once was fills me with all the feelings. These are not TV giants like a Cosby, Oprah, or the cast of Friends telling the powers how it is gonna be from a position of unassailable strength. Community is, at best, a cult hit coming off a very shaky season, and the ensemble star power they can muster isn’t the stuff that will keep exec’s up at night. Nope- I can’t see any other explanation other than the goddamn heartwarmingest one: going into its improbable fifth season, the cast of Community simply made an appeal that the execs begrudgingly accepted. Only Dan Harmon could make Community good (and perhaps even marginally profitable) again. (I’d also like to imagine that Yvette brought brownies, Allison made her Disney princess face, Gillian staged a disastrous protest in the lobby that started a small fire, Donald and Danny performed a nonsensical but charming rap, and McHale simply waited for the furor to die down and then made an inspirational speech that drove the point home. And Chevy sat at home grumbling in his underpants.)

3. Six Seasons and a Movie is now in play. For real. I was shocked (and then dismayed) when the show got a fourth season. And then genuinely sad when it got a fifth (a sentence that would have been unthinkable coming from me two years ago). Now—shit, I firmly believe anything is possible. I believe in leprechauns, magic bullets, and that the NBA doesn’t rig the playoff officiating. And now, with the Veronica Mars-led crowdsourcing thing in play? If it comes down to a fan referendum on whether or not a Community: The Movie ever happens, I firmly believe that it might have a budget as big as a Michael Bay second unit (estimate: $20 million).

4. I’m not really interested in any backlash, thank you. Screw you, inter-haters and web-doubters. Community is coming back. I’m just happy.

“Hope is a good thing. And no good thing ever dies.”

"You’re god-damn right."


Tell me you’re with me, J-man…

Justin: The word nonplussed springs to mind. 

I have the feeling I should be more overjoyed about this news, that I too should be praising the TV gods for this gift and strange bit of mercy. This kind of thing just doesn’t happen. It’s like finding a rare beast in the wild, watching it get run down by a bloated pack of photo safari enthusiasts, only to find that it survived, then have it nursed back to health by a one-eyed dental hygienist who didn’t finish school. And yet the beast endures.

We’re clearly in the middle of the era of TV resurrection, with TV shows once thought dead being returned to life, and now, TV show runners coming back from the brink.

Dan Harmon coming back to Community is indeed a good thing, it can help infuse some life back in the show and give it a comedic and emotional anchor it lacked this past season.

It’s nice to think that executives at NBC and Sony were blinded by the unerring light of reason, or kissed by the gods of sanity and sensibility. I really want to think that. (I’m imagining a board room of guys in Marc Ecko suits weeping uncontrollably into their coconut water.)

And yet. I can’t shake this creeping wariness about the news. Maybe it’s because I had come to peace with Season 4 and was ready to see the show sail off into Greendale’s parking lot.

Or maybe I had just grown tired of putting up with the reliably frustrating brilliance of Dan Harmon. He has an unmatched comedic mind and a gift for seeing stories that are somehow askew and utterly heartwarming. But it was hard to root for him during the most tumulteous points during his tenure as Community’s Mad Man-in-Chief. Dan, you’re crazy, I love you, but try to color inside the lines this time.

But mostly, it’s the cynic in me that says the execs looked at the Risk-like board game of TV programing laid before them, and, given their options, decided to roll once more with Community. NBC made exceedingly bad bets on comedy this last season, and even the stuff they thought could survive (Hi yet another failed Matthew Perry vehicle), eventually drowned. Community, as unlikely as it seems, was a steady, albeit minor, constant in an otherwise broken schedule that has one more whole thanks to The Office retiring. And let’s not forget that the suits had additional incentive because the show is achingly close to that magical 100th episode, which will guarantee a syndication payday for a show they were ready to take a loss on just two years ago.

I know, I know. I’m a cold bastard that way.

It’s an odd reversal of fortune from just one year ago, when we were lamenting what a Harmon-less future meant for the show. I suppose I should probably take my own advice from the past

"Community created a place I want to reliably check-in with each week, and Harmon laid out a pretty solid playbook for the new guys to follow. Maybe I’m being optimistic or just a damn fool, but I’m gonna believe everything is streets ahead until season 4 premieres.”

Then, and now, the only thing we can do is wait to see what emerges on screen in the fall (or, let’s be honest, at mid-season in place of a failed multi-cam family-friendly mess. I’m looking at you Mike O’Malley.)

May 30, 2013
Arrested Development is back, but will Dennis take a ride in the Netflix staircar?

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“It was like (if you’ll allow me a few anguished similes): - The Red Sox announcing, after a disastrous 2011 season, they’d swung can’t-miss, major free agent signings… for A-Rod, Roger Clemens, an un-retiring Barry Bonds and the resurrected ghost of Ty Cobb…and were building a new domed stadium called Halliburton Field. - Someone uncovering a cache of long-lost Shakespeare plays… and finding out they are all about the adventures of a group of teenaged vampires and werewolves falling in love in high school. - Dennis Perkins

Justin: I remember the day when Arrested Development’s return was announced to the world. I heard an unmistakable wailing, a primal scream not unlike when Alderaan exploded. Except it came from beneath the earth in Portland, Maine, in a beloved indie video store that has been the beating heart of the city’s movie culture for a long time. And there, clutching his chest, his lungs exhausted, and his voice demolished, lay Dennis Perkins.

This week’s return of Arrested Development is a joyous day for TV fans everywhere. It marks the return of one of the most unique, and unjustly slaughtered TV series in recent memory. It’s also a vital moment in the re-invention of TV, something that has potential to resurrect loved and departed franchises, not to mention upend the business model for television. And yet, of all the people celebrating, of all the frozen banana parties, all the juice boxes being toasted, you, Dennis Perkins, must be the most conflicted Bluther in all the land. How do you reconcile your love of Arrested Development, not to mention the fact that shows can be brought back to life, with your hatred of Netflix? Is it even possible to do that? Back in 2011 you wrote:

Look, I know I should be happy that one of my favorite shows of all time is coming back. And I am. I’d be happy if we had to travel to a landfill in New Jersey and watch the show projected on the side of an abandoned Wal Mart truck as long as I got some new episodes. And maybe my tortuously-constructed analogies don’t hold water since I’m, again, guardedly optimistic that the show itself (and the promised movies afterwards- squeeee!) aren’t going to be anything but hilarious. But I cannot overestimate how much of a soul-jerking, sudden-reversal-of-joie-de-vivre that announcement was. Heeeeere’s everything you’ve been hoping for…and here’s the complete scumbag you have to thank for it.

We’ve been down this road before, and I am not an unsympathetic man when it comes to the plight of Videoport and its indie brethren. Without Videoport, and MySpace (we’re old kids, look it up) we would not likely be friends today. But as I said before while trying to console you: Even a chicken dance with the devil can produce something good. And, despite all the things Netflix has done, and what the represent, they took a chance on producing more episodes of a show that never had a large audience, but a small and loyal one. They’re investing money in actors and writers who we love and giving us a window back into a the model home we all miss.

You’re a principled man, whose loyalties run deep. The Red Sox fan in you would no sooner provide shelter for someone from the Bronx than you would allow Netflix in your home. And yet, behind that veil of evil lies such great promise. So much of what you wanted, all you have to do is click the tiny box for the devil’s terms of service. All of this is a long-winded way for me to get to one question: Dennis, will you be watching season 4 of Arrested Development?

Dennis: [deep breath] Okay, here we go. I…

[slight gagging noise, several more deep breaths] I got this. Concerning the retur…NOPE.

[taking a knee, barely audible murmuring] Okay, godDAMMIT!! [leaps to feet, does a few quick jumping jacks] Look, I’m going to watch the fourth season of Arrested Development. Of course I am. This is one of the best shows in the history of TV. It just is. To not watch it out of some pigheaded grudge just because it has aligned itself with a soulless corporation responsible for the utter annihilation of the independent video store industry to which I have dedicated the most of my adult life, hurting my friends, and making the world about 7% worse in the process. I mean, who would I be if I did that—some sort of, I don’t know, person with principles or something? Ha. Hahahahaha—FUCK!

Yes, I will watch the hell out of this season of Arrested Development—when it comes out on DVD.

I’ll buy it immediately, watch it obsessively, blog about it alongside my brilliant and insightful pal, Justin, and shelve it in a place of honor next to its Bluth-y brethren.

On DVD.

I can wait. I urge all right-thinking people to wait. Certainly, I urge no one to actually join Netflix if they don’t already suckle at that particular rancid entertainment teat. I suppose I should be grateful for the N-word (I recognize that I may have to rethink that term) for providing Mitch Hurwitz and company a venue to continue the show at all. And I am. No seriously.

The whole new broadcasting paradigm, with internet concerns like Netsux, Amazon, Google and others getting into original programming is going to mean that some very talented-but-neglected people are going to have more opportunities. (Of course, they’ll mostly suck, as most TV does, but still—kudos.)

But I’m not joining any of their voodoo internet nonsense to get it at their rates and on their timetable. I’m going to wait and watch what I want to see on DVD, when I want to. I’m not going to contribute any more to the demise of great local video stores and to the corporate blandification of the entertainment industry.

Sure I’m self-interested—I love my store and I’m pissed that Netdix seems to have gone out of its way to develop yet another way to kick it (and by extension, me) right in the nuts. But I’m also appalled from a consumer standpoint: Apart from Netcrax’s storied history of corporate malfeasance and outright dishonorableness, I’m a sucker for a blatant carrot-and-stick marketing ploys, aren’t you? Yeah, thought so. So, if you’re reading this and there’s a local video store hanging on by its anxiety-gnawed fingertips within a 20-mile radius, then do what all right-thinking people are doing. Take a breath, rewatch the old seasons (hey! you can even rent them from that same video store!), and then watch season 4 on DVD.

We can wait.

May 24, 2013
Saturday Night Live Survivor, or, Lorne Michaels will be just fine, thank you

Justin: When Ben Affleck took to the main stage to give his thanks, the familiar hand clapping and lonely piano riff rising in the background, it brought the curtain down on yet another season of Saturday Night Live.

And, just like a phantom lingering in the post celebratory glow of seasons past, there were questions in the air about the show. Not about it’s future, or whether it would return. Those questions haven’t been asked with any seriousness since the 90s (maybe.). But instead, it’s the familiar worry of "Can SNL survive a cast change," or “Can a new cast maintain SNL’s momentum,” or “How soon until this show slides into the doomed pit pf sketch show doom?

Is there another TV franchise that inspires as much Kremlinology as Saturday Night Life?

The noises seems especially loud this year as SNL is parting ways with Bill Hader, Fred Armisen, Jason Sudeikis (maybe), and Seth Meyers (kinda). That’s a hefty amount of talent, not to mention a kind of comedic muscle memory that helps keep a show like SNL moving along during even the most botched sketches.

But the breakup, and the hand-wringing, seems especially hollow this year, partially because we heard the same thing last year when Kristin Wiig and Andy Samberg decided to split.

OK. I’m not stupid. Armisen, Sudeikis, Hader, and Meyers are as close as SNL gets to bankable household names today. Together that group represents a handful of movie and TV projects of varying success, and losing them could take a toll on the show.

But isn’t that just part of the cycle of life with SNL? The rise, fall, and rise of the Lorne Michaels Talent Complex?

Even beyond the cyclical nature of the not ready for prime-time players, this year’s fresh panic of a talent drought feels like a false panic because I think SNL has one of the strongest, and woefully underutilized casts its had in a long time. Here’s a few reasons why:

Taran Killiam - If you were looking for an heir to the Sudeikis everyman throne, hand it to this guy, who has a great handle on impressions (his Paul Ryan, Brad Pitt, and Michael Cera are fantastic), and is also a utility player capable of playing the announcer, waiter, and business man roles Sudeikis was often handed. Plus, the guy can dance.

Kate McKinnon - McKinnon is like a rookie of the year candidate that surprises you by effortlessly keeping up brain-cracking stats after their first season. It’s one of the reason’s she’s become an instant favorite and has quickly progressed to a kind of go-to role on the cast. It’s the impressions that have gotten her the most attention, but it’s her manic energy and “eff it let’s try that” spirit that I like the most. Some people are calling her the next Kristin Wiig, but I’m more interested in seeing what she develops on her own. And without the big guns for writers to fall back on, let’s hope Kate gets more shine time.

Vanessa Bayer - Oh sweet mercy I heart you Vanessa Bayer. As a cast member sometimes I wonder if Bayer feels like the extra shooting guard on the bench, or a under utilized infielder who’s great at 3rd base. She’s got a great attitude and, when given a feature role in a sketch, can keep up with the bests hosts. That unbelievable "It’s a Date" game show sketch featuring Justin Timberlake, Andy Samberg, Dan Akroyd, and Steve Martin? Vanessa Bayer scored as the lucky lady in question. She’s also part of the duo (along with Cecily Strong), behind one of the more bizarre, (and one of my new favorite) recurring sketches in the 10-to-1 gambit, the ex-porn star commercials/Moet & Chandon/Swarovski Crystals sketches. But too often she’s relegated to the one-off maid/angry girlfriend/waitress roles.

Who’s on your list? What do you think?


Dennis: “Comedic muscle memory” is the best concept ever conceived. Patent it.

As you know, no one is a bigger mark for SNL than I am—I see all its flaws and yet I will never, ever not watch it as long as it, or I exist. It’s just too hard-wired into my comic DNA. Sure, we’re in for another serious cast turnover, but we’ve seen those before (and before the before.) The biggest loss, of course, will be Hader who is on every all-time SNL all-star team list I’ve made since he’s been on the show. (And if you know anything about me, you will not be surprised that I make such lists– but that’s for another article.) Armisen? I’m ready for a change. He’s not untalented, certainly, but his penchant for self-satisfied caricatures and weirdness seemingly for its own sake has already found a (pretty damned funny) home in Portlandia. As for Sudekis, it seems a disservice to say he won’t be hard to replace, but he won’t. I’m gonna miss the hell out of him, don’t get me wrong—while not the impressionist Phil Hartman was, I’d compare Sudekis’ utterly reliable everyman presence to Hartman’s. He was just solid in everything he was ever asked to do, and I brightened up whenever he appeared. (Seth Meyers is my dark horse pick for one of the best Update hosts ever, which presents a whole other problem, but we’ll get to that.)

Going forward? I’m with you in my complete confidence that the show will be just fine. It’s natural to look at the remaining cast members/new kids and think they’re not up to the challenge, but that’s just a function of us being afraid of change, plus what I like to call the JV/Varsity syndrome. Coming up through the ranks in high school football, the guys ahead always seemed way more grown-up than we understudies did. They were bigger, stronger, more competent—they all just exuded the confidence that they weren’t going to step out on the field, look over the opposing team, and then wet themselves or have a Mark Sanchez-esque butt-fumble incident. But then, guess what? We found out when the ball was put in our hands that we were the big kids now. Sure, we weren’t very good (my high school had about a 7-to-1 girls-to-boys ratio), but we’d spent our time learning the moves and we played up to the level of our expectations. The cast’ll be fine, in the following order:

Taran Killam: The obvious anointed one, Killam’s been steadily increasing his presence on the show for the last two years. He’s got some impressions in his satchel (remember him as Jimmy the overly touchy orderly on Scrubs?), can fill the Sudekis everyman/Hader game show host roles, and has the added benefit of the crazy eyes.

Kate McKinnon: Poised to be the break out star of the new season, says I, McKinnon’s got the crazy eyes to even greater degree, plus an electric specificity which allows her to inhabit character after character with a loony momentum I can’t take my eyes off of. I’m a little surprised she didn’t get the Amy Poehler mid-season promotion to full-time cast member, but the new season should move her front and center. Deservedly.

Bobby Moynihan: I think he’s underrated and is about to show that he can do more than he’s been given. Gradually (and quietly) amassing some memorable characters (I like Anthony Crispino, Drunk Uncle hasn’t worn out his welcome for me, that “kitty cat” character on the Daniel Craig episode has never come back but still haunts my dreams, and the Fox and Friends idiot makes me laugh every time). Plus, he’s doing something guaranteed to prolong his life on the show, developing a meta character as himself (“put upon guy”) that plays well to his underdog comic persona. Also, I’d like to add that I may be the only one who was sad his best man character never returned on Girls. Introduced as the prototypical “fat guy trying too hard to be funny” guy, he had a quiet little scene bonding with the willowy Alison Williams over the abandoned wedding cake where he revealed an appealingly melancholy self awareness. I think the guy’s got depths.

Jay Pharoah: Sigh. I couldn’t have been more excited when Pharoah was plucked from internet obscurity, since I was already in awe of his Will Smith vs. Denzel bit on Funny Or Die. I was especially happy when he supplanted Armisen’s deadly Obama slot, since Jay had an infinitely better impression and was, you know, black and stuff. Unfortunately, apart from the presidential sinecure he’s settled into, Pharoah hasn’t made the most of his opportunity, revealing himself to be an unsettlingly insecure sketch performer on occasion. Add to that SNL’s traditional inability to write for the black man, and I’m still looking for Jay to prove his mettle. (I will say I’m a big fan of his hilariously accurate Stephen A. Smith, even if the SNL audience never seems to have any idea who that is.)

Cecily Strong & Vanessa Bayer: Both making their mark nicely, I look for them to see a lot more screen time in the new season. (And the more they can keep their ex-porn star/pitchwomen sketch going is okay with me.) There was a time when SNL, against all history and odds,became a bastion of female comic greatness (Fey, Poehler, Wiig, Rudolph)- with the openings available for next year, I’m hoping for another renaissance.

Keenan: Keenan, Keenan, Keenan. Workmanlike? Stalwart? Entrenched? Dennis doesn’t get you? Let’s move on.

SNL will be fine, like you said, J-man. Lorne is still here, and the machinery is still in place. Sketch groups and standups around the country have a collective boner, even more tumescent thanusual. The featured players will be slotted, the news will provide stored-up fodder, and the JV will try out their new offices, strap on the big boy/girl uniforms, and get to work.

As ever, I look forward to it.

May 17, 2013
Dennis’s Grand Baseball Theory of Fall TV Scheduling, or, why NBC is below the Mendoza Line

image(Mike O’Malley, NBC’s new DH.)

How bad do things have to get for a network to take a damn chance?

Of course I’m talking about NBC here, the net’ whose former sinecure as one of the Big Three was recently and humiliatingly usurped as it fell to fifth place behind Spanish-language Univision in the 2013 February sweeps period. (Count me among those who, um, may have been unaware that such an outcome was even remotely possible.) Of course, the fortunes of any TV network are cyclical, and while it seems inconceivable that anyone will ever topple CBS’ current domination with its easily-digestible lineup of broad comedies, reality shows, and the CSI/NCIS juggernaut, its day will come. You know, as its elder-skewing viewership, shall we say, gradually…stops watching.

But since it’s currently NBC’s turn as TV punchline, I have a few questions.

NBC is losing or has lost some of its flagship series (The Office, 30 Rock), and its recently announced lineup of new shows looks singularly unadventurous, with remakes (Ironsides), movie adaptations (About A Boy), spinoffs (Chicago PD), yet another doctor show (who cares), and Mike O’Malley. At the same time, the Peacock has passed on a number of pilots, among them an autobiographical sitcom from SNL writer and standup John Mulaney. I haven’t had the opportunity to see Mulaney’s show, but by all accounts it was a hip, funny autobiographical showcase for a talented, up-and-coming comic. (I mean, it’s not like that Louie show is a commercial and critical success or anything, right?) And while the decision to not to pick up one show isn’t itself proof of anything, NBC’s current predicament and programming decisions indicate that the prevailing philosophy remains steadfastly conservative, even in the face of undeniable, and ongoing, futility.

Which leads me to repeat-What, exactly, would be lost if a floundering network took a flier on the unexpected for one TV season?
Now, I’m not talking about some irrational Tunnel Vision/The Groove Tube/Videodrome experiment in broadcasting anarchy here. Network television isn’t being disassembled and recast in the image of a million tweeting fanboys. Or TV critics, for that matter. It’s simply a matter of taking a chance and playing some Moneyball.

First, instead of swinging for the fences with high-priced approximations of what’s worked before, or, you know, what’s currently working really well for its competitors, NBC signs innovative but unproven creators to much cheaper deals. (Like, oh I don’t know…John Mulaney!? C’monnn…) More shows are always going to fail than succeed, and often with shocking abruptness, leaving behind nothing but wasted money and a very annoyed David Alan Grier. So why not minimize the financial risk by fielding a lineup of more inexpensive shows/creators? The initial investment will be less, those involved will be hungry (and talented), and there’s at least an equal chance of ratings success. (Or at least the same sort of ratings failure but at less cost.) I suppose it could get worse for NBC theoretically. What’s in sixth place anyway? ABC Family? ESPN Deportes?

In addition, the inevitable critical buzz (in the event that the gamble pays off creatively) and internet/fan buzz (even if the shows don’t work, there’s good press to be had for trying) will be an improvement over the press involved in getting beaten by a network many viewers remain happily ignorant of while they watch CBS.

Second is a plan that NBC is, accidentally, sort of enacting right now. With Hannibal and Bryan Fuller, the network greenlit a show by an idiosyncratic showrunner with a small but incredibly devoted fan base. See where I’m going here? And while Hannibal (even with the seemingly sure-fire Lecter factor) hasn’t pulled great ratings, critical praise and a small but incredibly devoted fan base have won the show a second season (THIS SEEMED CERTAIN WHEN WRITING THIS- STAY TUNED) with which, one hopes, to build a larger audience. In the meantime, fans of Fuller’s Wonderfalls, Pushing Daisies, and Dead Like Me are out there tweeting, creating fansites, building momentum and putting fresh eyes on the show. The primacy of Nielsen ratings is being increasingly challenged by the myriad ways of measuring viewer enthusiasm for a TV series, and luring in creators whose fans are going to follow him or her to the gates of cancellation hell and beyond is just smart baseball. Some suggestions of currently homeless television auteurs who’d deliver a such a built-in audience: Barbara Hall (Joan of Arcadia), Amy Sherman-Palladino (The Gilmore Girls, possibly Bunheads depending on the breaks), Rob Thomas (Party Down, Veronica Mars, once the movie and its inevitable crowdfunded sequels wrap up), Dana Fox (Ben and Kate), Mike White (Enlightened), or Ted Griffin (Terriers). Add your own neglected geniuses in the comments.

(Also, at this point, I would like to put out there that a third option “bring back the cancelled shows from these creators” was rejected outright, proving once and for all that this is not some raving, woefully impractical fanboy dream about reuniting the cast from Firefly, but a well-reasoned programming theory.)

Will NBC turn into the Yankees with this philosophy in place? Well, no, probably not. Big ratings generally do come from big, proven stars. But big television stars are made and not born, and if, say, a major network were to make itself a haven for inventive new (or established but neglected) talent, then that sounds like a good place for such stars to be discovered and nurtured. However, and with apologies to readers in Chicago, NBC is the broadcasting equivalent of the Cubs at this point, placing all its frustrated hopes on former stars (Sean Hayes? Him?) in the service of inflated contracts and hoping, in the manner of the deluded ever, that repeated application of the same formula will produce, somehow, a more positive result.

The secret of moneyball is deploying your assets according to unique criteria your opponents have undervalued. Sure, you have to hope that you catch a few breaks along the way, but you’re gonna win more than you lose, and pick up (or regain) some respect (and paying customers) in the process.

At least you’ll beat Univision.

Image courtesy of Collider.com

April 21, 2013
The Magic of Jackie Robinson

Justin: We both have a deep and abiding love for Key & Peele because they have this frightening precision in their comedy. What I mean by that is they accomplish a lot in the small window of their show. It’s slapstick, it’s societal commentary, it’s BOTH!
One of the best examples of this in their short history is the “Dueling Magical Negro” sketch, which rises the popular trope of the wise, life-changing black man to the level of legitimate sorcery.

I’ve been thinking about that sketch a lot recently whenever I see the commercials or trailers for 42, the Jackie Robinson biopic. Why? Because I have this creeping fear that the movie will reduce one of the greatest, and most important, baseball players in history into a Wizard who ran the base paths and enchanted the world. I’m worried Jackie Robinson will become just another magical black man in movies.

Am I crazy? Am I overreacting?

Dennis: Sadly, you maintain your streak of never overreacting about anything ever. (Vegetarian faux bacon nothwithstanding.)
I have been all over the trailers for this one since they started appearing, dissecting them like a starving man after a lasagna (I admit that the lack of baseball season may have contributed.) I scoured the limited images they gave us, looking for some indication that Jackie Robinson’s story wasn’t going to be smoothed out, dumbed down, and otherwise diluted with bland, cinematic milkiness. I like the look of this young guy with the completely unmemorable name they got to play Jackie (seriously- I’ll give anyone three dollars if they can remember it without hitting IMDb.com), but was alarmed at the noble looks and sound bites he got to deliver. The there was Harrison Ford’s Branch Rickey, growling his lines and chewing the scenery like Mister Magoo.
I was very, very concerned.
And now that the first reviews are in, it seems those concerns have been, well, confirmed. The phrases “well-meaning,” “earnest,” and “inspirational” come up a lot.
Ouch.
Look, I never saw Jackie Robinson play. (I’m old, but not that old.) I came to his story through second hand histories and newsreel footage. And, as the suburban white boy half of Brannigan’s Law, I feel silly laying any special claim to #42’s legacy.
But I know how much I love baseball. I know how readily I respond to it as a parallel history of the United States. And I know I simply cannot watch the Jackie Robinson episode (episode 6, “The National Pastime”) without, every time, sobbing like a little kid. Simply put- I had a lot invested on this film getting this story right.
And it looks like they didn’t.
Instead, it appears this will go down as another forgettable exercise in hagiography and, as all such stories must and do, it looks like it will reduce Robinson to a cliched cipher. A saintly black man, sent by the (white) screenwriting gods to reveal our (white, American) sins, and then absolve us of them. It’s thoroughly disheartening (and frankly inconceivable) that this is the tack the filmmakers seem to have taken.
There’s a story to be told here. A great, uniquely American story encompassing race, and baseball, filled with fascinating, often contradictory characters and complex roots.
I hope someone makes that film one day.

April 5, 2013
Roger Ebert, R.I.P.

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Dennis: When I first became aware of, and hopelessly besotted with movies as a lonely, isolated little kid I watched everything. Everything I could get a hand on in the land before cable, VCR movies, and films I was too young and timid to sneak into, I watched and tried to process. I was at sea, though-good movies, bad movies, movies I could not possibly hope to understand with my limited experience-I watched them all in a deep, overwhelmed state of confusion as to the nature of this new world I had discovered and become bewilderedly enraptured with.
Then I discovered Sneak Previews on PBS, and saw these two nerdy guys arguing, laughing, and doing this thing I gradually learned was called analyzing these things. Like the books at school, but, you know with a pair of teachers who, for all their balding pates and paunches and turtlenecks, seemed to love movies as much as I did. I started keeping a notebook carefully marking down the thumbs up/thumbs down verdict from each on each show’s movies, movies I for the most part had never heard of and wouldn’t have a chance to see for years. I suppose I liked them equally at that point but when I discovered that the fat one (sorry Roger) started writing books with his reviews in them?!
I simply devoured them. I bought a highlighter at the same bookstore I bought my first Ebert movie guide in and gradually marked off the films I was able to see. (Thankfully home video, cable and the rest of it appeared at my house- I may not be young.) And I realized that, as entertainingly chatty as this man was on TV, he was a damned good writer. Of course I was too young to know about things like that, but I was struck by how what he said, free of having to fit his opinions into a three minute catfight with that bald guy (sorry Gene) made so much sense.
Roger Ebert’s books taught me how to appreciate movies which I had heretofore just devoured, albeit lovingly. I remember his review of the entertainingly pedestrian 2010, and how he used ee cummings to explain the difference between a movie that got into your head and one you just enjoyed. I remember his review of Brazil and getting mad at how he deconstructed Terry Gilliam’s narrative weaknesses (I was a Python freak, too- shocker), even as I petulantly realized he had a point.
 And I remember how this guy, who’d seen more movies than the me I was could have ever dreamed of never seemed to get tired of talking about them. How he never tossed off a review with contempt. How he spent as much energy and creativity explaining why a movie sucked as he did when the film in question had truly engaged his heart.
Because Roger Ebert always, always had heart where movies were concerned. You could feel it in every sentence, in every damned word. He loved movies, and he loved his job, and he loved inviting you to share his enthusiasm.
And that’s what I responded to.
Of course I disagreed with him, and often. And I came to regard him as something of a cornball, prone to a certain provincial rube-iness, even as I, the snotty suburban white boy was succumbing to my own blind spots and sentimentality. I turned on Roger, pledging my allegiance to Pauline Kael (and Cult Movies maven Danny Peary, whose out of print books I heartily recommend).
But I always knew where I came from, and I always bought every successive Ebert guide, and I always brought my highlighter.
Roger Ebert taught me how to watch movies. And how to love them. Critically, sure. But always with love.
Because watching movies is one of the great joys in living.
Thank you Roger. I will never be able to repay what you gave me, but I’ll always remember that.

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March 14, 2013
Weekend Update: Justin Timberlake goes for 5 on SNL

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Justin: First, this week’s episode with Justin Timberlake was a predictable, and delightful, winner. And I’ll get back to that in a second. But before that…Maine Justice?

What was going on there? The joke, as someone put it best on Twitter, is that they’re Cajun in Maine? As former Maine resident, I had prepared myself for the worst (looking for evidence of bad Maine accents on SNL, go no further than "gay lobstermen in love"), but instead was just in a state of bewilderment. I think it has something to do with the word “Maine,” because otherwise the sketch was the kind of post-Weekend Update goofiness I fully endorse on SNL. You want to let Jason Sudeikis and Kate McKinnon go nuts on some funny accents? I am on board. Throw in shenanigans with an alligator and I’ll be giggling by the time we reach commercial. Instead I was just staring at my TV like a dog that had just been shown a card trick.

Overall, I’m in favor of MORE of those “back 9” kind of sketches that get thrown in the last 30-40 minutes of the show. “Sober Caligula,” even though it didn’t fully land, was a good attempt, funny and crude, plus the benefit of using almost all of the cast. And then there was “Moet & Chandon,” or the “why does Justin Timberlake have on a filthy mustache and why am I laughing so hard” bit. I’m sure that’s just the kind of free publicity the people at Moet are looking for, SNL-ers playing former porn stars who survived tragic magic tricks and waking up covered in blood. Also, "It’s like nice champagne, but some of it’s Sprite."

But all of this was secondary, really, to a jam-packed, crying-because I’m laughing so hard, first half of the show. Aside from the Elton John cold open, it was largely predictable. If not for the fact that Timberlake is doing Jimmy Fallon all this week, I’d bet we would have seen another Barry Gibbs talk show bit.

If you have not just Timberlake, but Baldwin, Hanks, Martin, Chevy, and Andy Samberg in the wings, even the most overly telegraphed play can still be a riot. “It’s a Date,” was like the “Star Trek Generations” of SNL douchebags, and it was so wonderful. I screamed (in a manly way, of course) at the sight of Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd as the Festrunk Brothers. Guest-star power aside, the sketch really worked so well because of current cast like Vanessa Bayer, Bill Hader, and Bobby Moynihan.

So a very solid episode, helped largely by what I think is a new rule of comedy: Timberlake + costume + dancing = comedy gold. I’m not entirely sure why, but “Give it on up to Veganville” is just funny. 

Dennis: I am the world’s biggest fan of the 10-to-1 sketch concept. I know Lorne’s an expert at this point of paying the bills, giving the people what they want, etc, but I like to imagine that somewhere deep inside, he’s still the same 30 year old Canadian weirdo who green-lighted things like the Coneheads (before they became an institution), David Keochner and Madeline Kahn passive-aggressively trying to lay blame on each other as they’re being carried off in the claws of a giant bird, and Steve Martin and Bill Murray just spending five minutes asking, “What the hell is that?” on national TV. (I maintain that all of Portlandia represents Fred Armisen’s adoption of Lorne’s former freak flag.)

Maine Justice? Carrying on the 10-t0-1 tradition of puzzling oddity into the new generation. While the first iteration of the sketch explained at the end that Maine had become the resettlement home of choice for Southern caricatures after hurricane Katrina, I liked it better when Sudekis and then-host Jamie Foxx were just Maine rednecks without any explanation whatsoever: That’s the 10-to-1 spirit! This time, having established the premise previously, they just went ahead and let Maine Justice be the inexplicably weird last sketch of the night it was meant to be, and I heartily approve. Plus, Sudekis doing his thing and a random alligator puppet eating gumbo? Yes, please.

And while I agree that the whole Caligula thing didn’t land (hello-pacing…), the Moet & Chandon thing was as money as it was, again, in the Jamie Foxx episode. Is the joke that there are two numbly-dumb sex workers pitching off-brand champale while inadvertently letting slip the horrifying details of their boozy, sex-addled lives? (“One time I did a weird photo shoot in Mexico. Two of the girls disappeared but I’m alive. Thanks, champagne.”) Yes. Is it basically one long dumb-chick(s) joke? (I got banged into a sinkhole. But then a mole person banged me back up. I’ll drink to that.”) Ok, sure. But it’s also the sort of random, loony concept the 10-to-1 spot was made for and Cecily Strong, Vanessa Bayer, and host JT (with aforementioned porn ‘stache and a healthy dose of hilarious cluelessness) turn this one into a nonstop, awe-inspiring giggle machine. I will never, ever not think it’s the funniest thing ever when JT keeps gliding into frame asking, “Did somebody say celebrate?” It’s just not going to happen. The sort of completely un-commercial comic nonsense that the best last sketches  sketches are built upon. Freed from the need to create recurring characters and catchphrases, it’s this forgotten spot that seems to be the place that SNL writers let their comic imaginations out to play.

As for the rest of the show, I wouldn’t want to see this sort of thing every week, but seeing the show just go for it with cameos out the wazoo was a little present to the me that started watching this show when I was far, far too young and didn’t get 3/4 of the jokes. (I also may not be young.) And, apart from seeing how truly terribly Danny Aykroyd has aged, how Chevy is still way too pleased with himself and has no sense of live comic timing, and how I don’t need to see Martin Short do schtick again, ever - it was a pretty good night.

February 28, 2013
The AV Club says we're being too hard on Community. We say, "You've never had your heart broken!"

Very good think piece from the AV Club’s Joel Keller examining showrunner worship and the (over?)reaction of certain people to Season 4’s perceived lack of…something.  Of course, Dennis is humming loudly with his fingers in his ears, but should he ever read this, there’s some wisdom to be had…

Image courtesy of http://geek-news.mtv.com

February 18, 2013
Advanced Fear Economics: Community’s Second Episode and the Death of All You Love

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Dennis: Who’s dead inside - Community, season 4 or me?

This is a real question. I’m actually asking you, Justin.

I need some help here.

I’ve been through the wringer on this one. We both have. Back in the day, when things were simple and pure (you know, when all we had to do was worry incessantly that one of the best sitcoms in TV history would be cancelled at any moment- remember how great that was?), we could just love Community, look forward to each episode, and wait out the yearly hiatus. Good times. We worried about the suits pulling the plug and wrote our little articles and goaded our inter-pals into watching the show- but we always knew that the thing we loved, we loved. We’d love it no matter what happened. If the show went on, we knew that Dan Harmon would guide the ship to somewhere weird, and wonderful. If the plug got kicked out by the forces of evil and commerce and evil commerce, we’d have our precious DVDs and our righteous/self-righteous wrath at those philistine execs who deprived the world of something that made us happy as hell. Good times.

But the reality of this Community seems actually worse than if the axe had fallen. Instead, the governor called, the headsman was sent home for the year, and Community was given back to us. Like this.

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