More screen time for Laverne Cox, please.

Considering how prominent she has been in the media, both for her own sake and to promote Orange is the New Black, I expected her to be all over Season 2. It wasn’t the case, and it was a real downer.

Actually, most of the season was, to be honest. The only bright spot was that we got to see more of Lauren Lapkus as timid-but-not-so-timid Fischer. And Samira Wiley as Poussey never fails to charm me with her sweetness. I hate to use the term “sophomore slump,” but it really rings true here. The complex sisterhood from Season 1 was reduced to a smattering of cheesy territorial disputes and an overload of character inconsistencies. Let’s break it down.

A ghost from Red’s (Kate Mulgrew) past appears in the form of Vee (Lorraine Toussaint). The two of them compete for other inmates’ business with smuggled goods, and it escalates quickly from petty to dangerous. Toussaint is magnificent and regal and impossible not to watch, but I began to resent her because her storyline seemed to take away screen time from the already-bursting-at-the-seams cast. Of course, it makes sense that her arc would be pretty lengthy; she’s got legitimate history with multiple inmates and it’s not like people hop in and out of jail for one or two episodes. Her presence just took over the show — maybe intentionally, since she took over the prison, too — and it felt like the writers were dangling a shiny new toy in front of the viewers because they couldn’t think of ways to flesh out the other characters, aside from their occasional “flashbacks” (which felt forced at times, too).

On the lighter but equally unnecessary side, Boo (Lea DeLaria) and Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) compete for pussy. It’d be funny if it didn’t bring out such shitty desperation from two otherwise lovable characters. This competition didn’t seem to be worth as much screen time as it got, either. In fact, it might have been more interesting if the other characters had talked about it in Boo and Nicky’s absence. Watching people brag about themselves is low on my list of life’s pleasures.

Taystee (Danielle Brooks), usually a calm, welcome diversion from the insanity of the prison, assumed the role of an unbearable flip-flopper. With the arrival of Vee — her guardian many years ago — her loyalty see-saws between her past and her present (Poussey) to such an annoying degree that it’s unwatchable. The choice is so clear — Poussey is the most lovable person in the prison, I’m sure — but Taystee is powerless before Vee, unable to recognize her own agency and power and instead reverting back to the child Vee assumes she still is.

Healy (Michael J. Harney) gets more time in the proverbial ring this season, a creative choice I agree with, because I think the prison’s administration is just as fascinating as its inmates. But he see-saws his way through the season too, splitting his time between lending an ear to inmates in need and lashing out at them for no apparent reason. It’s impossible to build trust in the guy — as a viewer, let alone a pawn in the fictional system — when his reaction to any one issue is unpredictable. The end result is an unlikable, icky mess — and a character that adds almost no value.

Daya (Dascha Polanco) used to be my favorite character, but Season 2’s yo-yo behavior moved her way down the list. Though her inconsistencies don’t result in high-stakes situations — she already had her A story moment in Season 1 — she’s still frustrating to watch. Maybe her emotional turbulence could be attributed to pregnancy hormones, but I don’t buy it. I think the writers were trying to manufacture drama where it didn’t exist; she and Bennett (Matt McGorry) should be way past the early-romance bullshit and working together to figure out their lives. They’re supposed to be adults.

Of course, I’m not done with this show. Not even close. I’m too invested in the stories of Alex (Laura Prepon), Lorna (Yael Stone), Nicky, Sophia and Poussey not to see this one all the way through. But my expectations for Season 3 are pretty high. They should be — the acting talent is too strong and the writing pool is deep. I’ll dive in eventually; I just hope they go for it, too.

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Diane Nguyen is my forever Halloween costume.

After living in the Bay Area for 10 years, and experiencing a disproportionate amount of peer pressure to dress up for this holiday — in San Francisco, Halloween is to costume stores what Christmas is to, uh, all other retail stores (great analogy, I know) — I’ve been over dressing up for quite some time. I love when other people do it, and I’ll be the first to commend a clever costume, but I just don’t have it in me anymore.

Enter amazingly-timed first viewing of Bojack Horseman. In the weeks leading up to that semi-dreaded last day of October, I tried out this excellent show and not only loved it, but also found my forever costume. Diane Nguyen, the ghostwriter hired to help Bojack write his memoir, also happens to be my sartorial (and spiritual) two-dimensional doppelganger.

diane

I, too, have (1) glasses, (2) shoulder-length dark hair, (3) a green jacket and (4) a last name that’s very common in Asia. She just gets me.

But enough about us. Bojack is great, and I’m not the first person to tell you that. I’m also pretty over stories about Hollywood up-and-comers, has-beens, currently-ares, you name it. TV and film can get pretty self-congratulatory when they’re not kept in check. But this show’s phenomenal cast — Will Arnett as Bojack, Alison Brie as Diane, Paul F. Tompkins as Mr. Peanut Butter, Aaron Paul as Todd and Amy Sedaris as Princess Carolyn — and straight-up hilariously weird visual jokes put it so far ahead of any other show or movie that might share a similar premise.

Bojack is a washed-up star trying to figure his shit out. He’s got an agent (Carolyn), a roommate (Todd) and a nemesis (Mr. PB). That stuff’s all pretty standard. But the brilliance — and again, no news here — is that he’s a horse. Carolyn is a cat. Mr. PB is a dog. And any number of other beings everyone interacts with in this alt-Hollywood are also animals. It’s the best, and it enhances every single scene with something subtle, unexpected and hysterical.

I recall one scene in which Bojack was hitting on some girls at a bar. Two human, one chicken. In a moment of surprise, the chicken drops an egg, and I lost my shit.

egg

And another, in which Carolyn is at the gym, running on the treadmill next to a sloth, who is not.

treadmill

Equally brilliant is how the animal qualities are ignored completely in other scenes. This one in particular made me laugh, mostly because I was imagining the conversation creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg must have had with Wallace Shawn to get him to do the bit.

I also love the pace, exemplified above. Carolyn and Diane are sharp as hell, whereas all the men are at various points on the nincompoop spectrum. Bojack’s self-loathing, Mr. PB’s completely shameless and Todd’s wholly lazy. It makes for very empowering conversations, at least from the female side of things. And the patter feels so snappily human, which is a credit to the actors. If they were playing apples and pears, you’d still have no doubt they were sentient.

Arnett, especially, found a winner here. He’s not that easy to cast — Arrested Development‘s Gob is by far the best role he’ll ever get, and I think he knows it, and I mean that as much of a compliment as it can be — because he’s not incredibly believable as a guy who can garner sympathy. Bojack, then, is probably the second-best thing he’s ever done. He plays another cocky man, but that’s where the similarities end. The washed-up aspect of Bojack is so nuanced and tragic, and Arnett somehow digs into that, despite Bojack being almost completely unlikable on paper.

I want to know what else B-W has up his sleeve. This seems to be his first major project, so we should be in for an entertaining as hell career. Or, at the very least, a shit-ton more Bojack, which would be just fine.

We’re living through the Melamedassance.

You can’t throw a stone or turn on an indie movie or TV show without hearing the silky, booming voice (and then seeing the flecked, impeccably groomed beard) of one Fred Melamed. Ever since In A World… came out a few years ago, the alt-comedy community has been casting him as Stern, Overpowering Male Figure in everything. New Girl and Casual stand out to me, since I watch those shows regularly, but his IMDb page is bursting at its electronic seams. He’s cornered the market.

Which is why his role in Lady Dynamite is so refreshing. He’s a Male Figure, sure, but he’s neither Stern nor Overpowering. In fact, the show plays with the implicit gravitas of his voice and forces him into a role you wouldn’t expect. He is Bruce-Ben Bacharach, agent and fanboy to Maria Bamford, and it’s utterly delightful. The dignity he oozes in literally every other part he’s done is completely erased here, and what’s left is a nervous, bumbling, obsequious, occasionally high-pitched (read: tenor) man who’s still figuring out his shit. He’s a terrible agent.

Melamed is also my favorite part of Lady Dynamite, which I hate to say I found both hit and miss. I love Bamford deeply, and I echo nearly every comedian’s sentiments when I say that she’s one of the most brilliant standups alive — seriously, go see her, it’ll change your life and your perception of how vocal chords work — but as I’ve said about other brilliant standups, sometimes the stage is their best medium for a reason. Bamford knows herself incredibly well, and knows what she’s capable of handling — which is actually something she addresses really poignantly in the show, about how it’s okay to say no to gigs — and I completely get why she took this opportunity to make a show. But the way her mind works is almost too complex, too multi-dimensional, too far-reaching to fit within the confines of a TV series. There’s nothing that can do justice to her comedic genius besides standup.

Admittedly, the subject matter she chose to cover didn’t make it easy. She decided to explore her own journey with mental illness, an incredibly brave and important selection, and aspects of the show were incredibly enlightening. I loved, for example, how the lighting, tone and wardrobe of the show changed according to which stage of her life she was in. Back in Minnesota, going through her lowest bouts of mania, the screen and her pajamas were every shade of grey. In LA, in her high points of mania, the colors seemed exaggerated, as did her smiles and her hair and even the enthusiasm with which she spoke. In present-day LA, everything evened out. But switching between these three timelines got confusing very quickly, especially because Bamford played herself in all three scenarios. I’m glad she did, but because she’s got this incredibly youthful face and presence, it was difficult to tell which storylines preceded the other, and therefore if she was still experiencing a manic episode.

Netflix also didn’t bestow the show with a huge budget, which is unfortunate because I think it would have been beneficial to have a little more money, especially considering the scope of the storytelling. A lot of scenes fell flat because of bad CGI, giving the show an undeserved campy feel. Bamford deserves better than that, as evidenced by the huge number of guest stars who obviously weren’t doing the work for money — Mary Kay Place and Ed Begley, Jr. played her parents, Ana Gasteyer played another agent, Lennon Parham and Bridget Everett played her “friends,” Jason Mantzoukas and Jenny Slate played therapists, Mo Collins played her sister, Dean Cain and Ólafur Darri Ólafsson played love interests. The list goes on. I think she also deserved to give some of the good lines to herself. On stage, she has such a singular presence, but on the show she’s basically a straight woman to the zany antics of those around her. Ólafsson, as her boyfriend, seems to be the only one who’s more grounded than she is, which is maybe why they’re perfect for each other. He lets her be the funny one.

“Loaf Coach” is my favorite episode of the lot, since it contains appearances from the very precious Mantzoukas and Slate. It also made me laugh aloud more than other installments, which is unfortunate. Bamford live makes you laugh and gasp on a loop — it’s a visceral experience. I wanted more of that from her TV show, but most of what I got was a few chuckles and sighs. Maybe Season 2 will be better.

Hi. I’m a Rory.

I’ve been called a Miranda before. I’ve admitted to disliking Hannah the least. I’ve fantasized about growing up to be Ilana. But the truth is, I am a bona fide Rory.

Given the direction of 2016 Rory’s life in “Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life,” this admission isn’t exactly something I’m proud of. In talking with friends about the four new Netflix episodes, I found their opinions (and those of the internet) were almost unanimous — the whiny-but-tolerable qualities Rory possessed in the original series (2000-07) have been comically magnified over the past nine years, and she’s mutated into an insufferable adult.

I don’t disagree. 32-year-old Rory claims to be a journalist, but she’s coasting on praise from one New Yorker byline. She takes a stab at a thinkpiece for GQ, but she backs out after missing the point of the piece entirely and fumbling her way into a one-night stand. She asks for a meeting with the eponymous head of Sandee Says (a clickbait media outlet that’s been pursuing her), expecting it to be an ego boost and a sure thing, but she can’t generate a single pitch for the site. Oh, and she’s also stringing along some guy, Paul, who deserves much better than a woman who keeps forgetting to break up with him and is still involved with her engaged, overseas ex. She’s a spoiled brat.

All this after being raised with supportive friends and family and financial privilege, graduating Valedictorian from Chilton, ascending to Editor-in-Chief of the Yale Daily News and reporting on Barack Obama’s Presidential campaign trail immediately after college. Rory had so much potential. You’d think she would have made something of herself.

You’d think I would have, too.

Growing up, I made friends that I’m still close to and had parents that put my needs before theirs. I was Valedictorian of my middle school class and attended a prestigious college prep high school. I double-majored in Mass Communications and Linguistics and was the Arts and Entertainment Editor of my college paper. My first job out of college was as a TV critic. There was a path, somehow, and I was following it.

And then, I don’t know … I wasn’t. The recession happened, a layoff happened, a tech job emerged, said tech job with a salary and benefits was taken, and five years later I found myself restless. Or, rather, I had been restless the whole time, but I finally admitted it. I decided to leave the Bay Area and move to New York, hoping the restlessness would morph into productivity.

It’s been two years, and it still hasn’t. I’m 29. The only job I’ve been able to get here is the one I currently have — I’m a copy editor. I earn a very modest hourly wage that forces me to drain my savings in order to live comfortably, I work night and weekend shifts that almost completely negate my social life, and I’ve had to rely on Obamacare because I’m considered a seasonal (read: part-time) employee.

I’m not asking for pity here; I know if I did, my membership card to the Ungrateful Club would arrive yesterday in the mail. I’m grateful to be employed, grateful to live in this absurd metropolis and even more grateful to have the aforementioned savings. I’m not asking for help or advice, either; I’ve received plenty of it, mostly in the form of links to job listings and “informational interviews” that generations ahead of me have insisted upon over the years.

Watching Rory biff it in those meetings hit really close to home. I’ve been in that room, with those people, with that fear and insecurity. I, too, thought I could float along on my intelligence, my conversational charm and my handful of “impressive” Huffington Post bylines. But that shiny teenage cockiness dulls exponentially when you spend your twenties letting your resume gather dust. (Then again, I also spent my twenties being in my twenties. That’s not such a bad thing, considering I hardly spent my teens being a teen.)

I’m a Rory because I, too, marched blindly into the abstract “Plan A” of journalism. Except journalism wasn’t my “Plan A.” I didn’t even have a plan, lowercase, let alone an uppercase one with a letter affixed to it. Entering college, I was told I’d be good at journalism. I ended up being decent at it, but mostly I was just better at it than math or biology or clarinet or grilling meats or snowboarding, and it never occurred to me to just try something completely different. I liked the idea of being good at journalism, and I assumed I’d always be good at it because being good at stuff was what I was good at. “Being good at being good at stuff” isn’t a life skill, though; it’s a way to get A’s in high school.

I gravitated towards Arts writing in college because I liked movies and music more than politics, and those were my choices when I applied for the paper. Arts also allowed me to say what I thought without having to listen to what other people thought, i.e. “interview sources,” i.e. “avoid most phone conversations.” I churned out a couple of reviews that I’m still proud of, but I often felt like a fraud for getting free concert tickets while my fellow writers, editors and photographers were pulling all-nighters to cover City Council meetings and student government elections.

Honestly, I didn’t even think beyond the actual word “journalism.” I definitely had no “Plan B,” because I didn’t think I had to. I still don’t have one. I don’t think Rory did — or does — either. We’re both floating, unmotivated, unable to kick our own asses, unable to find creative fulfillment because we’d have to take a risk and be bad at something in order for the good to emerge. We’re also unqualified for a lot of the jobs that we’re trying to apply for now, because in college, we envisioned careers that don’t really exist anymore. As frustrating as Rory was for most “Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life” viewers to take in, I felt relieved knowing my true kindred spirit — albeit a fragile fictional one — is out there.

Of course, given that she’s fictional, she also comes with her own convenient plot twist and resolution: an unplanned pregnancy (which, ironically, could have been prevented with “Plan B”) and a book. I’m not in the market for a baby, but I have been mulling over the idea of a book. Maybe I can draw some inspiration from my soulless sister. We’ll see. (Don’t ask me about it.)

You might know a Rory. You might know me. You might feel the urge to give us help or advice because you’re nice and you think we have potential.

Thank you, but don’t. We’ve been hearing that word, potential, our whole lives, and we’re sick of the pressure that comes with it. If we ask for help, that means we trust you, and we will ask.

We need to know that we’re mediocre at most things, and we need to just be mediocre. We need to fuck up. No one has let us fuck up before. Fucking up is perfectly fine. Turns out we’re good at fucking up because we’re good at being good at stuff. How’s that for a plot twist?

Oh, and if you’re wondering, Team Jess ‘til I die.

Love (Season 1)

Judd Apatow shows and movies have always had a way of making me feel uneasy. Even the really great ones, like Freaks and Geeks. There’s something so piercingly real about everything he touches. It’s hard to purely enjoy his comedy because it’s rooted in something too accurate not to relate to.

I didn’t entirely identify with the characters in Love, but I did so enough to feel guilty about it. It’s the story of a really new relationship between Mickey (Gillian Jacobs) and Gus (Paul Rust), whose chemistry I didn’t really buy but whose individual performances I enjoyed thoroughly. Mickey is selfish and deeply unlikable (as was Britta on Community, for which she’s probably most known) but Jacobs really commits to it, clearly drawing from real experience with at least one genuine asshole. The character makes poor, immature decisions in almost every aspect of her life — doing drugs and dumb dudes, to name the obvious — so it’s hard to see why Gus even likes her.

But where Mickey at least knows how to have a good time, Gus kind of doesn’t. He’s got cool friends, but he himself is very vanilla, very conflict-averse, very low-risk. Had he been played by a different actor, I probably wouldn’t have liked him, either, but Rust holds a special place in my heart, thanks to this occasional brilliant feature on Comedy Bang! Bang!

Anyway. Somehow, these two find each other and attempt to incorporate each other into their lives. It’s mostly unsuccessful, and because of that, I actually take issue with the title of the show itself. There’s a clear affection there, but it’s not love. It’s curiosity. I admire the show for eliminating the romantic idealism that runs rampant through non-Apatow shows and movies — something Apatow seems hell-bent on destroying — but I actually think there has to be some of that there for a relationship to work, on-screen or not. Mickey and Gus are annoyed with each other most of the time. They only marginally enjoy each other’s company. One or both of them is depressed. Their communication skills are appalling, though the show does address the newfound frustrations and challenges of when and how to text someone you’re interested in.

The undeniable bright spots are Mickey’s roommate, Bertie (Claudia O’Dougherty), and Gus’ silly group of friends. Most of these people are also CBB regulars, which is why I was so happy to see them — and disappointed not to see more of them. I haven’t yet made up my mind if I’ll check in on Season 2 of this show, because it didn’t give me enough to hook into. I wanted to love Love, but… you know.

Casual, Season 1

I am in love with this show. Or, the first two-thirds of it, anyway.

Casual, found on that Hulu thing we all have, is worth watching despite its shortcomings, because the list of ’em is relatively just that — short. Let me get to the good stuff first, though. At the top of that list is Michaela Watkins, just the loveliest person to watch on screen. She has such a dead-on “fed-up” face, one that evokes sympathy that you’ve actually felt for a real person, because everyone she portrays feels real precisely because she is playing them. (I loved her on Trophy Wife, too. And the new Wet Hot episodes. And everything else I should have seen her in by now but haven’t.) Her Val has this probably too-close relationship with her brother Alex (Tommy Dewey), but it’s so enviable and honest to watch that you push aside anything that seems gross about it for the sake of enjoying it more. They operate on cynicism and oversharing, but not in a petty way. They’re not only casual about dating (as the title refers to) but also casual about life. They complain, but only when they really need to. They judge, but they recognize the futility of it. They take themselves zero percent seriously, and for that reason, they’re not bad people at all. They — and the whole show, really — also know when to be silent. The patter is quick, but natural, too. Dewey’s portrayal of Alex is wonderful, too, especially because he’s an outwardly functional depressed person. That doesn’t happen often on TV, and it should. It’s not only more fascinating and better television, but it’s important for the sake of erasing stigmas and building awareness of depression, even in fiction.

The rest of the slate is solid, too — Frances Conroy as their mother is genius casting, of course, especially considering the resemblance between her and Watkins. Fred Melamed steals every scene as their father with his basso profundo. Nyasha Hatendi as Leon is… frankly, just better seen than explained. Eliza Coupe as Emmy, Alex’s love interest, oozes the same casual as he and Val, which makes her blend in perfectly. And Tara Lynne Barr as Laura, Val’s daughter, reminds me of a less vain version of Haley on Modern Family. She makes dumb teenage mistakes, but she’s a hell of a lot wiser than she acts.

However, Laura is the jumping-off point for the one-third of the show that I didn’t love. See, all the while, we follow these folks in their complicated lives, and they return to each other with their issues and sort them out (or not), but they all consider each other safe havens, especially Val, Laura and Alex, because they live under one roof. They’re united against Val and Alex’s parents, at least for a time, and they have each other’s backs. But when a love triangle emerges between Val, Laura and Laura’s teacher, it shatters the show’s already-fledgling sweetness. Yes, it’s a disruptive plot point, but it’s a cliche, unnecessary and unbelievable one. Val is a therapist, for shit’s sake, and she may not have it together enough to know how to date, but she sure as sheep should know to stay away from her daughter’s teacher no matter what. The show exacerbates the situation by having Val sleep with Emmy, too. By the end of the season’s run, I ended up hating Val and loving Alex — the reverse of the start — and felt let down by its promise. The point of it is their special sibling equilibrium, and without it, Casual becomes just like every other half-hour sitcom — predictable.

I’m curious to see how the writers will dig themselves out of the first season’s hole, but I’m also confident that they’ll be able to do it, because the first chunk is so strong and unique and likable. Let’s hope they downplay the drama and get back to the title again.