Sunday, September 25, 2016

I Want To Talk About The Voice For A Sec...

Come on Alicia, you can do a better M for YMCA than that.
Something really quite beautiful is happening on the eleventh season of the singing competition, The Voice.

Well, first, my minor gripe out of the way: I wish NBC called them ‘Series’. Season for me, and pretty much for television audiences in America, means a year. Season 11 means a show has been on for 11 years. But no, NBC does two different “seasons” a year, one toward the beginning and the other near the end. Just something to differentiate them would be marvelous.

But enough of that. Following American Idol, a bevy of reality singing competitions flooded the market and oversaturated the genre. Every age group, every genre, every possible incarnation of a singing competition was on nearly any channel. Every single one had a gimmick, so when NBC decided it was time to add one to theirs, they pilfered the Dutch.

NBC already was doing the acapella group competition, The Sing-Off, which never secured much of a following, even though it featured the most qualified judging panel for any reality competition show ever: Ben Folds and Shawn Stockman with either Sara Bareilles, Nicole Scherzinger, or Jewel filling the third spot. Accomplished musicians and talented vocalists, the competition showcased the best judges’ critiques anywhere.

But taking the format from The Voice Of Holland, NBC secured another incredibly credible panel to helm the show: Maroon 5’s frontman Adam Levine, country music star Blake Shelton, the incomparable voice of Christina Aguilera, and the ever charismatic CeeLo Green of Gnarls Barkley. Despite being yet another reality show singing competition in a market shitty with the same tired format, The Voice managed to distinguish itself. The blind auditions were enough of a hook to secure an audience. Even though the judges were high profile, they proved to be invested in the contestants, and eager to share the expertise with their respective teams.

Fast forward 11 years, and we’ve seen people rotate in and out of the middle two chairs: Christina to Shakira, to Gwen Stefani; CeeLo to Usher, to Pharrell. This season marks the first with two women joining regulars Adam and Blake. And what a powerhouse two women they are. Pianist and singer-songwriter R&B extraordinaire Alicia Keys, and one of the new princesses of pop, Miley Cyrus. Taking a page from Madonna, Cyrus courts controversy with many of her performances.
And these are the two women I want to talk about.

I watched the abysmal 12th season (actual season) of American Idol, where much of the air time was devoted to the two feuding judges, Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj. Don’t worry if you can’t remember the winner, I don’t even remember if there was a competition that year, or if it was just a dozen plus episodes of Mariah and Nicki sitting at a table arguing with Keith Urban inexplicably placed awkwardly between them wishing he could go back to Australia to be as far away from them as possible. (Because Australia is the furthest thing away from everything.) Nicki and Mariah are both amazing, accomplished artists. Mariah was one of those foundation voices of the 90s, with Celine and Whitney, who brought dozens of artists to the table of music; Nicki captured attention and hearts with a string of unforgettable hits that feature eclectic music and her stellar rap skills.

There are stories that have followed Mariah throughout her career about how she can be difficult to share a stage with. There are stories of Nicki being incredibly outspoken. It’s likely both have strong egos and definitely have very strong personalities. I take nothing away from their immense talents, and I also serve no judgment on how they choose to carry themselves. If they have egos, they have no reason to be ashamed of them. So my criticism is not that they did fight while on the show, it’s that the show itself chose to showcase so much of it, and likely even provoke it. It plays into the stereotype that if we feature two women, there will be a catfight.

I’m not a fan of that narrative, nor am I particularly interested in society constantly pitting women against each other. In the run-up to The Voice’s new season, a lot of press and marketing was interested in how Alicia and Miley were going to get along on the show. It’s as if it’s pre-ordained that having two big female personalities, two strong women sharing the spotlight, will inevitably not end well. And it was incredibly refreshing to hear both of them doing their best to quash those speculations. They claim to be more interested in the bigger picture: in representing female artists, in empowering all artists to find their voices. And from just the auditions so far, you see it. And it’s wonderful to see.

It’s what women and girls should be seeing on television and in our society. The toxic combination of elements in our world: capitalist marketing, consumerist thinking, aggressive competitiveness, constant reminders of various inadequacies particularly for women, and the false dichotomy that only one person can do well, has instead contributed to seemingly innocuous but seriously harmful biases, such as: women will always be catty with each other.

You see it all over the internet. Our only means of comparison is to hold one person up in shining example by putting down another. I remember a meme that made the rounds months ago contrasting Malala Yousafzai and Kylie Jenner. Ultimately, it’s a problem of the media, but it highlights a false dichotomy. It is not Kylie’s fault that the media chooses to cover the Kardashians much more than the accomplishments of Malala. Yet she is now made the face of that problem. She is not the cause. Her lifestyle and life choices may be a result, but we’re not here to judge those things. Nothing is inherently wrong with Kylie, even in the light of Malala. They are each living their lives the way they choose. One does not inform the other. If Kylie’s values do not match yours, do not use her as a role model. It’s as simple as that. But to tell others, to insist to young women around the world who are watching them, “This woman is good, this woman is bad,” you’re placing value judgments on things that simply aren’t there. Kylie’s not a humanitarian, she’d have no business in diplomacy. Why would she? Malala is different, look at the insanity and conflict she has weathered. They are simply individuals, but society’s insistence on the binary has forced us to codify one as bad and the other as good. There are plenty of girls who look up to someone like Kylie who don’t share her exact values and priorities. Personally, I think Kylie’s welcome to do what she likes. The people criticizing her for not contributing to more meaningful efforts are most likely not doing their part on that front either anyway. We all could be doing more, and if that was the ultimate message then I’d be behind that, but it’s not. And it’s not fair to place a face of blame on it when that person is ultimately just living their life.

It’s why it’s so astounding and rather heartwarming to watch Alicia and Miley as they are on the show. The two women are not eye candy. They are not second fiddle. They are not stunts, they are here because of who they are and what they have done. Two women who could not be any more different, two women who are immensely talented, two women who are looking to make an impact. And even though they ultimately are in competition against each other, as well as Adam and Blake, they are showing incredible sportsmanship thus far. Wins for their respective teams are celebrated by the other. They advocate for each other, even when they’re the only two who turn for a contestant. One such head-to-head prompts Adam to comment, “Let me get the popcorn!” (It’s the default setting. We’re about to see the two ladies go at it.) Instead, Miley advocates for Alicia, then talks about her own qualities. Alicia does the same. The contestant picks Alicia, Miley high fives her. Obviously, Miley’s disappointed at losing out on a recruit for her team, but she’s forward-sighted enough to know it’s ultimately just a win for everyone. It’s girl power, it’s empowering. And that’s important. Because there’s girls watching.

Individually, I also love how the two acquit themselves on the show. What’s amazing about Alicia Keys, is similar to what I mentioned about Mariah earlier. Keys is a foundational voice of the 00’s, and her soulful voice and her talent at the piano has inspired a generation to music. Many of the contestants cite Alicia as an influence when the judges interview them. No one else, as good as they are, carries quite that same legacy. I love when Alicia embraces that. “You came here to meet me,” she proclaims confidently as the other judges laugh, because they know it’s true. The chance to be mentored by the artist who first influenced you is incredibly enticing. But more than that, Alicia Keys as an artist is undeniable. I love that she almost doesn’t have to say anything. She doesn’t need to sell herself on a contestant. She’s Alicia Keys. You’re probably here because of her.

Miley on the other hand comes in with a deficiency. It’s the elephant in the room. People don’t like her. She’s polarizing. She stirs controversy. She’s provocative. But she needn’t worry (and obviously she doesn’t) because they said similar things about Britney and Christina (two other foundation influencers) but ultimately those talents likewise cannot be denied. Go to any comments section about The Voice, it’s countless comments of: “Big fan of the show, will not be watching because of Miley. Sad to see a judging chair go to someone so untalented.” Really?

Pulling back from this specifically for a moment, I’m weary of people calling things guilty pleasures. First of all, you either like something or you don’t. If you like it because it’s train-wreckingly bad, that’s not a guilty pleasure, that’s the reason you like it. But guilty pleasures do not extend simply to things we’re pretty sure are bad but we like them anyway. There are also guilty pleasures that are good but the majority has chosen to write them off. In this similar situation, much like Miley, is Ke$ha.

I love Ke$ha. I think she’s fucking talented, and a good songwriter, and when given the chance, a marvelous singer. I also happen to think the same thing of Miley. If you don’t like her music, if you don’t like her performances, then she’s simply not your taste. But that doesn’t automatically make her a terrible artist. She has an amazing ear for musicality, and she’s a damn good singer. I also think she’s going to be a great producer of music one day if she ever decides to perform less. But she’s not a guilty pleasure. I unabashedly listen to both of them because I legitimately enjoy them. Look up Miley singing "Jolene." Right now. Do it.

I’ll do it for you.

That husky country twang, the phrasing, the accompaniment… she’s a good artist. And it’s a damn shame that people fail to see that. Behind all the crazy outfits, the outlandish live stunts, is a mature artist. Just because this “out there” type of performance and expression is what she chooses to do with her talents instead of more subdued fare doesn’t automatically discount her as a contributor.
But what’s interesting, and in many ways empowering, is that Miley is all too aware of the predicament. When Miley advocates for herself to contestants, she extolls primarily her virtues as a very expressive performer, as someone who knows music having grown up with it, and as a performer looking to pay it forward. She downplays herself a little, except to the performers who come off as more shy, she reminds them that she’s very good at expressing herself (while in a denim jacket covered in absurdly large flowers). She encourages contestants to “go with something different.”

She knows that there are people going into this writing her off, but she’s not afraid. And it seems to be working. After the first three audition episodes, Alicia has the most recruits, with 6. Right behind her is Miley. She is technically tied with Blake for recruits, but in reality, one of Blake’s he gained outright since no other judge turned. All of Miley’s recruits she had to fight for. (Incidentally, with the exception of Blake’s aforementioned team member, every audition has been a contention.) So she is winning people over, and I hope this show manages to put her over with more people than previously, because she’ll get to show off traits that are not immediately noticeable when she’s on tour or on television: her musicality, her knack for thinking through performances, etc. She was great as a guest mentor in previous seasons, I have every confidence she’s going to be great here.

But like I said, it’s the magic of seeing the two ladies be there for the contestants and command such presence in the room. They’re both smart and sassy (Miley calling out Adam for winning only three out of the ten times he’s been a judge) and it’s very refreshing to have such outspoken, approachable, and charismatic personalities on the show. Pharrell was good, but quiet. Shakira was a bit hit-and-miss for me. I loved Gwen. I loved Usher. I love Christina but not so much on the show. And these two right now tend to bring the best of all their predecessors to the table, while being notable in their own right.

You get to watch dignity and class, with two female artists who will not resort to leaning into the hype, and instead stand on their own reputations and their accomplishments. They are assertive and articulate, they have been fittingly competitive with each other as well as the other two judges on the panel, but they haven't resorted to anything underhanded, anything personal, they have taken no potshots at each other. TV can be compelling without setting women against each other. Competition can be competitive without resorting to resentment. Both women's success is undeniable.

And the contestants are taking that seriously. They are noticing. We should too.

And to sweeten the deal, we still get a catfight every episode. The bromance and rivalry of Adam Levine and Blake Shelton is great TV. It also subtly reminds everyone that cattiness is not an inherently female trait. 

Monday, September 12, 2016

Gorilla Position: Smackdown's BACKLASH Pay-Per-View

Last night the blue brand held their inaugural pay-per-view event and it was a blast. It's fairly apparent that Smackdown is being pushed as the wrestling show, much more than it is a sports entertainment show (that's RAW's job) but it is also turning out to be the far more sports-entertaining show. The PPV is the culmination of several storylines they've been building over the live shows since the Brand split, which is in my opinion one of the best things to have happened to the WWE in the last couple of years. Incredibly solid storytelling was done throughout the night, everything was kept at the perfect length, nothing dragged on too long, and no filler was paraded in front of us. I think all the right results happened, and I'm very excited for what happens next. Shane McMahon calls this The New Era, so far I refer to it as the "I can't believe this" era. I'll be starting each section with what I can't believe.

Here We Go...

The Women's Six-Pack Elimination Challenge for the Smackdown Women's Championship
Becky Lynch VS. Natalya VS. Naomi VS. Alexa Bliss VS. Carmella VS. Nikki Bella

I can't believe they managed to book a multi-person women's match that wasn't a clusterfuck. I also can't believe how well everyone did.

We finally got to see a glimpse of what Alexa Bliss could do, and it was great to have her and Naomi dominate the early going. I had completely forgotten that Naomi was capable of anything she did in the match. Yeah, pretty obvious botch with the head-scissors to Nattie to the outside, but good lord she must've been pretty winded by that point. I can't remember the last time I saw a multi-woman match going into double digits for time. But she still put on a good show, and got good appreciation when she was eliminated. Alexa looked great even going out first. The Harley look was badass, and she looked like a great opportunist throughout. I loved the failed attempt sequence of pinning the three downed women in the ring and her growing frustration and failing to eliminate any of the trio.

The match also used everyone quite effectively to move each other's stories forward. Naomi and Nattie workhorsed the early half, and could easily be in a feud coming out of it, but just as valid is for one of them to be paired against Alexa, because they used her so well to give some shine to Naomi. Then the feud of Carmella and Nikki Bella got furthered, with the two focusing mostly on each other.

I find their feud quite interesting, because looks-wise, Carmella is much like the Bella's Diva-era counterparts. She's still quite limited in the ring. So to pair her against Nikki, who is easily the most improved women's wrestler out there, it's a great contrast. Carmella relates most to Nikki, and so is set to take her out and prove herself. Nikki can carry her through a feud as a much improved worker.

This is also how you weave characters together without over-exposing match-ups too soon. Carmella was so good as a heel against Nikki that when she finally eliminated Nikki, everyone was ready for Becky to destroy her. In one moment, you have advanced two storylines for three different wrestlers, instead of immediately pairing off one set of wrestlers and having them exchange wins over several shows. Instead, we got the excitement of Carmella having a chance at the belt even though storyline-wise we know she's going after Nikki. They managed to do similar things throughout the night last night with other matches, and actually Smackdown has done a beautiful job of weaving storylines throughout multiple people in the roster, so that it doesn't feel like RAW, where only one storyline in the main event seems to hold any attention.

And of course, it practically goes without saying, congrats to Becky Lynch! She deserves this, and the crowd responded as such. Her win was great, and I'm so proud to have her as the inaugural Women's champion on Smackdown.

Winner: Becky Lynch
MVP: Naomi
Rating: 6/10

Last-Chance Match in the Tag Team Tournament Finals to Challenge the Tournament Winners
Zack Ryder and Mojo Rawley, The Hype Bros VS. Jimmy and Jey, The Usos

I can't believe how good the Usos are as heels. I can't believe how much I wanted Zack Ryder to win.

This is my first real experience seeing the Hype Bros in action, and they were really fantastic. Zack needs to find that groove of charisma he was in at his height of popularity, because he's The Hitman of this pairing. Mojo functions as the hype dog, as the enforcer. And he's playing that part perfectly. Ryder needs to not hang back, because I feel like that's what he's relegating himself to at the moment. That being said, these two put up a good fight, but they were functioning as victims for the newly turned Usos, who were spectacular as heels.

I don't know if I'm mad that they waited so long to turn the Usos heel, because it was worth it. But in just one night, they've were more interesting to me than they have been in three years. They were cocky, rude, but also still a great tag team, outsmarting the Hype Bros several times throughout their match that could have so easily been such a throwaway. I love heel Usos.

That's also something I really enjoy about the Smackdown shows so far. There's almost no wasted movement. Some filler here and there, but most of it is ultimately meaningful. This match could have been relegated to a cool-down before the lengthy Intercontinental defense, but it was instead a strong final hurrah for the tag team tournament before the finals. Kudos all around.

Winners: The Usos
Rating: 6/10

Singles Match for the Intercontinental Championship
Champion The Miz VS. Dolph Ziggler

I can't believe how good of a match this was and it was more thanks to Miz than to Dolph.

It's hard to get invested in a Dolph Ziggler feud anymore. We know he's now someone brought in to sustain the push of the person with the momentum. Right now, that person is The Miz. And even though we've seen these two fight a couple times before, this match impressed me more than anything I've ever seen from either of them. This could be one of my favorite Dolph matches now, and certainly my favorite Miz match. Dolph pushed Miz outside of his comfort zone. We got to see Miz deliver on the promises he made against Daniel Bryan. He'd be a face after that amazing promo last week.

But Miz is ultimately a heel, and a fantastic one at that. Besides being a great talker and a great heel, he's also got a great valet in Maryse. They make a great team, and Maryse helped Miz retain his title. It was wonderful to see the Intercontinental title get such a long match on a PPV in a big spot. And I'm glad also that Miz retained. I'm looking forward to an extended heel run with the IC title, like a Honky Tonk Man style reign. I think more people are starting to see in Miz what some people have long known: he is better than we give him credit for, for many, many reasons. He deserves this, and I can't wait for the weekly show to see his ego go through the roof after beating an audience favorite in Dolph Ziggler.

Winner: The Miz (with interference from Maryse)
Rating: 8/10

Singles Match
Randy Orton VS. Bray Wyatt

I can't believe they made this work. I can't believe I enjoyed a Kane match.

I can believe Wyatt lost. (Okay, some things are much slower to change, even in this New Era.)

It came out earlier in the day that Orton was still nursing an injury from Summerslam and it was possible he wasn't going to be able to compete. We got an insert video of Wyatt brutalizing Orton backstage before a ref shoos him off. Then when we got to the match, Wyatt insisted on a countout which referee Robinson hesitantly obliged. As he was leaving, it was announced he was going to compete anyway, and out came the Demon Kane.

I was initially disappointed by this but they actually had a surprisingly good back and forth for being a cool-off match. I did have to laugh at one point because they reference the history between Wyatt and Kane, and I couldn't help thinking, "Oh, the history that ultimately led nowhere?" Yeah, the Wyatts kidnap Kane, we're all thinking to convert him, but he's off TV a couple weeks and shows up again like nothing happened. Well, maybe not nothing. Now he can suddenly switch between corporate Kane and Demon Kane at will, but also as if one personality is not aware of the other? Basically, like Wyatt's speeches, it became overly complicated for no reason.

Of course, the match was no holds barred so that when Orton inevitably came out to a hero's welcome to deliver an RKO to Wyatt to end the match, it all stayed legal. Wyatt's record for the evening goes to 1-1.

I know people are lately exhausted by Wyatt's gimmick and his resulting record. He has promoted himself as a leader, as the Eater of Worlds, as the new face of fear, as the man who could turn Cena, as the destroyer of stars, and delivered on none of these promises. The closest he got was converting Daniel Bryan for two weeks and stalling the hottest act in the industry. But last night, I kind of realized, maybe this is his gimmick? He always says "follow the buzzards." Buzzards are birds of prey, but some are scavengers, carrion scavengers. So Bray comes in like a bottom feeder to attack someone at their worst: Cena is vulnerable after losing to Lesnar, Undertaker is vulnerable after losing his streak to Lesnar, Orton is split open and TKO'd after WAIT A MINUTE. Is Bray Wyatt just Brock Lesnar's bottom feeder!? Kind of an amazing gimmick, if you ask me.

Would I prefer Wyatt be a more credible, monster heel? Yes. But since they seem to not want to, I want them to lean into the skid of what they've stumbled upon instead. Wyatt is all talk and a bottom feeder. His next feud should be Ziggler, after Ziggler lost so convincingly for the World Championship, and now has immediately lost at the IC title too.

Something else I really am getting a kick out from Smackdown too is that initially, it seemed like they were throwing Smackdown under the bus, drafting so many "older" acts. But Orton's relegated to special attraction matches at the moment, and Cena has yet to really have a presence outside of the Styles feud. Which is fantastic use of both of them. And this was even a fantastic use of Kane. Other acts are taking the spotlight and while they haven't quite found the right groove to rehabilitate Bray Wyatt yet, after this rather interesting match from last night, I'm actually confident the blue brand will find a way.

Winner: Bray / KaneRating: 4/10 overall

Tag Team Tournament Finals for the Smackdown Tag Team Championships
Rhyno and Heath Slater VS. Jimmy and Jey, The Usos

I can't believe Smackdown found a way to make me care about a comedy act.

This is how you do comedy. You make us care about the characters. I got invested in Heath since the Draft where he wasn't picked at all. He's been back and forth on the two shows since then, doing some of the most entertaining work of his career. I haven't seen him so good since the RAW 1000 celebrations, where he was taking on veteran after veteran and losing.

Heath and Rhyno made a great tag team and looked fantastic while doing it. They were paired against an overly confident Uso tandem that made them look like a million bucks, selling offense I couldn't remember Heath ever doing because I haven't seen him in a real match in forever, and selling the Gore like crazy (USO CRAZY),

These two deserve it. They've been in the most entertaining segments on Smackdown for the past few weeks and their match was absolutely solid here.


Winners: Heath Slater and Rhyno
Best Moment: Post-match interview, Heath says, "This is the best night of my career. No. I'm-I'm serious." He meant it, guys.
Rating: 8/10

Singles Match for the WWE World Championship
Champion Dean Ambrose VS. AJ Styles

I can't believe our main event has AJ Styles in it. I CAN'T BELIEVE AJ STYLES IS CHAMPION.

I actually very much enjoyed Dean's run as champ. I think it's ending at the right time. The payoff to his run as champ was to best Seth and Roman, which he's done in convincing fashion, so there wasn't much more to do after that, except to build him up (with a win against Ziggler) to prop up the World Championship's prominence before handing it off to the next star.

Since Styles debuted at the Rumble, he's been gathering momentum like nothing else. It was completely unexpected by possibly everyone, even us who were fans. There was just no guarantee that he was going to catch on with the general audience. But to pair him against Cena is such a great formula, because it can use all the same beats as Cena/Bryan, but Styles has an incredibly decorated career that legitimizes him like nothing else. So now with the momentum of defeating Cena on the rather grandiose stage of Summerslam, he goes in with the better win against Ambrose.

To see this match actually happen, I can see now the problem with Ambrose. Putting aside anything else he did in the indies, Ambrose doesn't really do a whole lot in the WWE. Which is interesting to think about how he criticized Lesnar for limiting their match together. Ambrose had an opportunity to wow here, in some form or another, but he was simply outclassed by AJ Styles beat after beat after beat. Styles is quite simply a superior performer. Ambrose had a good run, and he's going to remain massively popular, considering what he's already weathered and remained as such since the Shield breakup. So I'm fine with this. The match was as great as it was I firmly believe because of Styles throwing himself into it full throttle. The slingshot on the apron into the ring post looked scary as hell.

And I'm very excited for AJ. I can't believe Kevin Owens and AJ Styles are the champions of the two brands. And Shinsuke Nakamura is the NXT champion? Like, what the hell is happening. I can't believe this is WWE right now.

Winner: AJ Styles
Rating: 9/10 

RAW, you got a lot to live up to.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Saw The Comedy Central Roast of Rob Lowe And Yeah, Ann Coulter Was There For Some Reason

I love the Comedy Central Roasts. I love Roasts in general. To many, they are pointless. And when your highest rated, most viewed roast of all time is Charlie Sheen's, then I guess you have a point. But regardless, it's a nice opportunity to see some more obscure comics get a moment to shine, it's a chance to see funny people shit on a celebrity you have a good chance of not liking (James Franco, Justin Bieber, Flava Flav, Larry The Cable Guy, etc.) and it's fun. I love seeing who they got to do the roast, who's going to have the best roast and the worst, and who's going to have the meanest, sharpest joke? To me, it's not enough to just be mean, how do you make it funny? How do you make people feel that perfect mix of pain from the truth exaggerated, while also the relief of the laughter and the realization that it's actually not so bad?

Jonah Hill said of the jokes at the Franco roast directed at him, (I paraphrase): "I had everything said to me I was always afraid of having said to me growing up, of being bullied and humiliated. And I survived them. I even laughed at them." That's what a roast should be. All in good fun. It's why the roasts work especially well when it's friends and comedians. The Saget roast comes to mind. Even the Bieber roast is excellent. The Sheen roast is amazing. The Shatner roast works because of these things. Some are not as successful. Larry the Cable Guy. Hasselhoff. If it's too mean, or it's too distant, it fails. The subReddit /r/RoastMe highlights this. All the insults directed at complete strangers are creative, but they're also generic and bland. When the graduating class got up to be roasted every year in the theater department at SDSU, it was a delightful mix of creatively funny, cringeworthy, awkward, and hilarious, because pretty much everyone knew each other, and the roast was quite literally billed as, "Here's all the shit we say to each other about you behind your back that you're afraid we talk about behind your back, to your face."

How did everyone at the latest outing?
Ranking The Roasters at the Lowe Roast

1.) Jimmy Carr
British stand-up comic Jimmy Carr is my favorite. A roast is right up his alley. I originally was introduced to him as the host of Distraction, a game show where normal contestants attempted to answer relatively easy questions while dealing with annoying or painful tasks. Carr was so fast with his put-downs and condescensions that I was convinced post-production was shaving off seconds in between contestants responding and Jimmy responding. This skeptical pattern of thinking has followed, to where there are now compilations of Jimmy online dealing with hecklers, and I'm half-convinced Jimmy plants them himself. But the man is just an incredible wit, and years of experience dealing with crowds of the U.K. who are notably tougher and less forgiving than American audiences. He's a frequent guest on Britain's various panel shows (even hosting a couple himself) and he gets to shine because while maybe not always being the smartest in the room, he's the one you don't want to mess with. As soon as Carr takes the stage at the Lowe roast, everyone has to up their game considerably. Carr is unabashedly, unashamedly unafraid, and unwavering in his delivery, even as he delivers his line of the night, directly into the eyes of his target:
"Ann [Coulter] is one of the most repugnant, hateful, hatchet-face bitches alive. It's not too late to change, Ann. You could kill yourself."
2.) Jewel 
A couple of musicians have entered the foray of roasts before. Some are masterful (Snoop Dogg), and some are trainwrecks (Courtney Love and Tommy Lee). But Jewel would also have the distinction of being the only musician to actually deliver some of her roast in music. She was an unexpected gift of the evening. I feared her trying to save some sort of grace and dignity by avoiding going too far, but she instead delivered a laid back, very dry, almost too understated series of jokes aimed at everyone on the panel, saving the ballad for the man of the hour. Jewel's the closest we get to a non-comedian celebrity on this dais, so she's up there with similar acts from previous roasts: Gary Busey, Martha Stewart, and Kate Walsh who proved quite good, and Hulk Hogan, Mike Tyson, and Toby Keith, who turned out quite badly. Jewel gets the two spot for being a complete surprise from out of left field, for making me feel pretty confident that of the non-comics she wrote most of her own material for the night, and because she also delivered what I think is line of the night:
"I do want to say, as a feminist, that I can't support everything that's been said tonight. But as someone who hates Ann Coulter, I'm delighted."
3.) Pete Davidson
Davidson has the unenviable job of being in the Greg Giraldo position, so named because Giraldo would often go first, and I think he's forgotten in how good he was on his own, and also in setting the tone for the evening. Davidson isn't quite the pace-setter here, but he is definitely an improvement from the Bieber roast. He's more confident here, and finds a groove, not unlike Anthony Jeselnik, though he does more moments of intensity. I think he's solid throughout, but his ending falters a little bit, fading off rather than ending with a bang. But Davidson's young, and if he enjoys it, I hope he stays on for the coming years. I'm pretty sure they're going to keep him in that spot, and if can really own it, he'll be untouchable. Going first means you can find kick-ass ways of taking all the best lines. Davidson's creative enough and smart enough to do that. His point of view, his approach, hasn't quite come across yet. Giraldo was a master of hyperbole, and also throwing out the joke held in worst taste by absolutely everyone. Davidson gets close with a joke like that of his own, to which the audience groans dissatisfied, and Davidson tells them to fuck off. It's perfect. I feel like this line is one of the ones that'll get cut from the re-broadcasts, so I want to preserve it here, Davidson's quote of his roast:
"Ann Coulter and no black people? What are we roasting? A cross?"
4.) Jeff Ross
Ross of course, the Roastmaster General, was solid as always. What I love about Ross is his variation of delivery. He breaks up the rhythm of his jokes so well, one minute telling a longer joke, the next a couple one-liners in a row, then a surprise double joke, a joke seemingly directed at one person then swerved at another, and similarly a joke seemingly aimed at an obvious punchline about a person only to swerve to a less obvious one. Ross is a master. He's done this at the more recent roasts, where he dresses as someone unconnected to the roast itself, but in the news at large. It started out as more grounded in the roasts, at Trump's he did his hair similarly, at Hasselhoff's he wore a speedo. But then at Sheen's he went as Muammar Gaddafi, at Roseanne's he was Joe Paterno. For Lowe's he came as Prince. But to his credit, he incorporated it much better this time around. A great musical tribute to the Prince, while also a great dressing down of Rob Lowe. It was a welcome remix of Ross' usual brand of meanness. An absolutely solid closer, Ross brings stability to the dais. I'm having a hard time settling on a single quote from his fantastic roast, so I'll just throw the dart and pick this one:
"The truth is, Rob, roasting you wasn't easy. I mean, what can I really say about you that hasn't already been said in court by three nannies, a chef and an underage girl from Atlanta?"
5.) Rob Riggle
Riggle's always felt like a mixed bag to me. I have adored him on everything he's on, but I fail to remember any particular notable piece. On SNL, he was a lot of generic setup characters, on Daily Show, he was a credible enough correspondent, but nothing too stand-out. I actually think he's a great fit for these roasts if he decides to do them. The dais needs more stability and since Lisa Lampanelli hasn't made a return, I wouldn't be opposed to the set being anchored by Davidson, Ross, and Riggle somewhere in the middle. The angle to Riggle's roast was similar to something Andy Samberg did at the Franco roast, though Riggle managed to add a bit of a twist, in that the roast lines themselves were also quite good. So I give him props for doing great, but I rank him lower for doing a bit we've seen before. Riggle's a smart man though, and I have a feeling that if he does another, he'll switch it up, and bring more of a "skit" feeling to each of his roasts. Riggle's a favorite, I wish he'd had a more memorable showing.
"Rob, in both your sex tapes, you appeared with two other people. Good God, man. You can't even carry a sex tape. You're like the me of sex tapes. Self-deprecating! Beat you to the punch!"
6.) Nikki Glaser
It's unfortunate that Glaser was so immediately compared to, and will be continually compared to, Amy Schumer. Schumer and Glaser are very different stylistically, and this comparison, combined with the fact that her roast showed only a glimpse of what she can do, ranks her lower. People didn't warm to Whitney Cummings but she was unapologetic in her two roast appearances. Natasha Leggero, who many might not have known before her appearance at the Franco roast (though people were catching on by the Bieber roast) was a surprise to those people. Schumer also did similarly in her two appearances. Her Roseanne roast is one of my favorite segments from these, ever. Glaser came in with the same fire and drive as her other female roasters, but I think she lacked a point of view. I hope she does another, because I'm a huge fan of Glaser as a stand-up and as a show host, so if there is to be a more permanent female presence on the roasts, my vote is for Glaser. Originally, my pick for line of the roast was this one:
"[Peyton], you're like the Tom Brady of being in commercials. Like, the greatest."
But I also have to shout out to this one, which is even more of an insight into how sharp Glaser is, to the man of the hour:
"God, I had such a crush on you when I was a little girl. If only I'd known that's when I had my best shot."
7.) Peyton Manning
I've mentioned some other athletes who've made appearances on the roasts as well: Warren Sapp, Shaquille O'Neal, and the aforementioned Hogan and Tyson. Manning is miles away the best to appear as a roaster. I actually shit on Tyson more than I should have earlier, he does a good job at the Sheen roast. Out of the other four, he's definitely the best. But Manning has incredibly good comic timing for not being a comic. I'm doubtful he wrote his own material (though I'm pretty sure both O'Neal and Tyson wrote most, if not all, their own stuff) but he was pitch perfect in his delivery. I rank it lower simply because the other roasters before him are hilarious, and the top of Manning's roast is dedicated to this Tweet Lowe sent out years ago about Manning retiring. There isn't much of a payoff to the story, but the rest of his set is solid. Props to Manning for being a good sport for all the jokes directed at him as well.
"Rob Lowe, the only thing you are consistently on is Twitter, which is surprising because you have never been able to master one character, let alone 140."
8.) Ralph Macchio
You know, everyone's talking always talking about how good Lowe looks for his age, but I gotta say, Ralph Macchio is no slouch either! For that matter, neither is David Spade! He looked great. Anyway, Macchio is in the rather unfortunate spot of "faded star" for these roasts: Maureen McCormick at the Larry the Cable Guy roast, Brigitte Nielsen at the Flava Flav roast, Tom Arnold at the Rivers roast (you could also argue Brad Garrett at that point), Hogan, George Hamilton, Pam Anderson at the Hasselhoff roast, Farrah Fawcett at the Shatner roast... But some of these at least have an emotional connection to the guest of honor, and so too does Macchio with Lowe. It's actually how I was introduced to them and the entire Brat Pack, when I saw The Outsiders as a kid. They were a talented group of guys. Macchio hasn't lost any of his swagger, still amazing on the mic and rockin' some good looks like I said. I rank him low because he doesn't really do much roasting. It's a very touching and honest tribute to Lowe and his friendship with the guy, avoiding becoming too real but does bring up the interesting question of complicated friendships with people who become more successful in something you both started doing. And it has a solid ending as well. Macchio's job was to humanize Rob Lowe, to show that someone on the dais has an emotional connection to Rob, and in that he succeeds. I couldn't really pick a good line from his roast, so I'll shout out to a line used by David Spade to talk about him:
"You might know Ralph from The Karate Kid. If you don't know him from that, you don't know him."
9.) Ann Coulter
And dead last, to the surprise of absolutely no one in the universe, we have the spawn of Satan herself. There's now been some reports surfacing that Coulter didn't understand what a roast was when she was asked to do it. I doubt the veracity of that claim, simply on the basis that that's the stupidest thing I've ever heard. It's either a joke, or it seems to be much more in line with the other story from Coulter's camp, that she was edited to look like she bombed at the roast. I also don't believe that, because I listened to her roast, and she doesn't know how to do it.

Wait a minute.

Maybe she doesn't know what a roast is.

Regardless, it's being called the worst roast performance ever, and it's hard not to agree. Coulter is mean and witless, she plugs her book as the only reason she's there, and she bombs as expected. Everyone ends up taking more shots at her than they do at Lowe, most likely because as comedians, they're just as "what the fuck is she doing here" as we are, and it's hard for them to let go of anything WTF-worthy in the moment. Everyone keeps looking back at her throughout as more and more gets piled on, in a sort of "I wonder what she's thinking right now" or a "God, is this really happening" kind of way. At one point, can't remember what joke it was, but Jeff Ross turns back to her, and it's the only time she actually speaks up, but I can't make out what she says. I'm pretty sure it's, "I'm not laughing." I don't know. It's very strange. It's a surreal moment in roast lore now. The huge bomb of The Situation Mike Sorrentino at the Trump roast is the only comparison. People will say Coulter's was far worse. That may be my only point of disagreement, though.

Let me be clear: I think Coulter is a despicable human being. On the most surface level, she is not a comedian and has absolutely no business here. I also don't feel bad for any of the jokes made at her expense throughout the evening. Regardless of how sincere the comics themselves feel about what they said, 1) I think she deserves it for the vitriol she's spewed over the years, and 2) they were jokes. But one thing I've read since the roast aired was that Coulter also wrote everything she said herself. And I gotta say, in a room where you know you're going to be the most hated, most reviled human being, in a forum you know absolutely nothing about, doing something you've supposedly never heard of, that's some balls. I can assure you 100% that The Situation Sorrentino did not write a single word of his material, and I'm frankly surprised he could read any of it, because I was convinced he was illiterate. Sorrentino had all the same disadvantages as Coulter, but bombed with material tailor-made for him. He failed so badly that Jeff Ross goes and saves him. Anthony Jeselnik says in interviews that he was the comic following Sorrentino and they had to take a break to regain control of the room. We all knew Coulter was going to be bad. And no one was going to give her the benefit of the doubt. So all that said, to go out there, rejecting the writers' lines for ones you wrote yourself takes some amazing guts or amazing self-delusion. Either way, is it still the worst roast of the night? You bet your ass.
The science is solid.

Host: David Spade
Spade lookin' sharp and killin' it all night long as the host. He was on point and kept an amazing forward momentum to the proceedings. I was worried he'd venture too far into his bitter and acerbic, but he kept it just light enough so as not to be a complete dick. Spade's best when he toes that line, and you can see it here. He proved his abilities without question. Seth MacFarlane may always be the most solid choice, but considering how close Spade and Lowe are, I'm glad Spade was here for this, and I'm so happy to see we got the best of him for the evening. There were so many good lines. I know I highlighted one earlier directed at Macchio, here are a couple others:
"Is Pete white? Is he black? Ann Coulter needs to know so she can decide if she hates him."
At Rob himself:
"Rob came up at a time when a sex tape could really ruin your career. But Rob had to do it the hard way: with his acting." 
"Rob was in Austin Powers 16 years ago. Can you believe it's 16? Or as he calls it, 18."
Man of the Hour: Rob Lowe
As per tradition, Lowe gets his rebuttal at the end of the evening. It's tough, because by then all the good lines are taken, and it's rare that the honoree is all that good at comedy. The best rebuttals over the years are from actual comedians, particularly stand-ups: watch Bob Saget's, Roseanne's, and my favorite Joan Rivers' for reference. Lowe is no stranger to comedy though, so his delivery is perfect, and it's hard to hate any joke that comes out of that handsome face.

I mentioned that I'm sure Manning was highly written for and Jewel wasn't, and I'm sure Lowe falls somewhere in the middle. There are writers for these roasts, and it's obvious when someone is delivering scripted lines or their own attempts. Lowe leans more to the former, but manages it with grace. His line of the night is of course at the expense of Coulter:
 "Ann, after your set tonight, we've all witnessed the first bombing that you can't blame on a Muslim."

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Title Reads: Don't Think Twice, So I'm Reviewing It After Thinking About It Once

I just got out of Don't Think Twice. I have a lot of feelings about the movie, but overall, I didn't like it.

                Improv exists at this very weird and strange epicenter of art, business, comedy, stardom, and obscurity. The essence of that struggle, the push and pull, the beauty and tragedy of it, is difficult to capture. Don't Think Twice is a brave effort but in its shorthanding and storytelling methods it robs itself of a lot, a lot, of the complexities and nuance of what it all means to be part of that scene. 

                Mike Birbiglia's character Miles, the founder of the improv team the story is about is absolutely intolerable. For all his talk he has no perspective on comedy as a business.

                Chris Gethard's character struck me as the most reflective of the real person, based on interviews I've listened to with him. His line, especially about what his 20s and his 30s mean to him felt especially personal.

                 Kate Micucci's character was robbed of characterization, which is too bad because she's probably the best actor of the group. Out of nowhere, she has Gethard's bitterness in the scene where they find out Sagher's character Lindsey actually got hired as a writer. But why? Also, Tami Sagher in that scene was absolutely 100% correct, calling out all of them on their bullshit: their misdirected anger and jealousy, Miles' accusation of her not knowing work. She did the work and got the job.

                 Her character was the most interesting to me, because rich parents is not a relatable problem, but wanting to prove herself on her own merits is a very relatable one. She never asked for sympathy, and is never played sympathetically, and I love that.

                The key disconnect for me with this movie is that I believe it wants me to feel bad for or at least somehow empathize with Micucci, Gethard, Birbiglia, and Gillian Jacobs. And I do not. Because they do nothing but get in their own way, constantly. Now the conflicts that arise in the events of the film are all very real, and very unfortunate. The main one being: Improv is about the team, as it is said in the opening montage. But comedy, the business of comedy, is not. If producers come to a show, they book the ones who stand out for whatever reason they want them for. It could be completely arbitrary, it could be completely off-base. (A more interesting conflict to me is the fact that Weekend Live, the show everyone is vying for in the movie, seems to be a mostly white cast, and Jack is the only one hired, and he's black.)

                 Why is nobody happy when Keegan Michael Key's character Jack gets Weekend Live? Streamlined audition process aside, my bigger problem is that he seized the opportunity, landed the audition, and no one was happy for him. Now, I understand being jealous, that happens. But absolutely everyone, right in front of him, is not happy for him? It felt completely disconnected from reality. But Jack is not untalented. He's not set up to be the least talented of the group. In fact, he IS the most talented! And it would make sense that they are mad at him for HOW he got the audition (he was told not to showboat, and in the snippet we see of the improv set, he does an edit to a scene by himself where he gets to do an impression he's good at, and it's only very loosely thematically linked to the previous scenes), EXCEPT that they also booked Jacobs' character Sam for an audition too! And what did we see her do?

                   So obviously, like I said, it's all complicated and messy, but in terms of a movie, it makes no sense. I felt no sympathy for Sam when she didn't audition. I guess later it's a sort of justification because she realizes she didn't want it, but I think I'm supposed to be sympathetic to her, when I have not the slightest but of sympathy for her. Hey, go to your fucking audition! You can't handle rejection? Sucks. That's what this is. If you don't like it, I guess stay in your bubble and teach. Which IS what she did, I guess! But they all felt afraid of success, and in denial about trying. And that's silly. The characters all felt too old to have that mindset. Except Miles. Miles is dumb. 

                    Speaking personally, I was afraid to see this movie because I feared relating too much to it. The disappointment and frustration can happen. But I was thankful to realize I didn't. I hated these characters for the most part, because they were mostly despicable. And the fact that they're played by actually successful folks from the scene is not only ironic, but I find it a bit insulting. Like I said, jealousy has its place. You can use envy, you can use it as a motivator. But for it to make you bitter and sad is just depressing. And people as self-aware as comedians shouldn't be so lost in that tunnel vision.

                     Also a bit frustrating was that all the side plots were way more interesting to me. And that might've made for a stronger movie about improv. I wanted more scenes of them working shit out on stage. Gethard's Dad in the hospital, Miles' reconnecting with this high school flame who's about to have a baby. I think Sam and Jack would have been infinitely more interesting if he just didn't want to do it anymore. And they were a couple who were falling apart because what brought them together was not important to both of them anymore. She could've found a new love in teaching it, and he was just over it. That's fascinating to me.

                     The improv scene of the funeral was the only one I loved. It was real without being so on the nose, like the others, especially the break-up scene. I'm not clear on why they needed to break up and I liked it okay until Sam says, "I belong in the well." Gag.

                      Anyway, I won't hate it completely, because I do think that everyone is doing a good job performing. It's a well-acted, earnest performance from everyone, I just don't particularly care about what's happening to their characters and the way they're reacting to things around them. I also don't want to hate it completely because I hope it leads to other efforts of stories being told about this scene. Ultimately, this is ONE PERSON'S perspective and take on it. And it's not a universal experience. I'm a bit bummed that until the next one, this is the general audience's idea of what the improv scene is, because I've seen it be so much more. I wanted to see the joy. The love. The passion. I wanted to see more of the students. I wanted to see people who'd left it behind. I wanted more ideas people, I wanted to see the punk rock kinda vibe where everyone is in each other's shows and telling people to see improv or even try improv. I hope other people make something more soon.

                      There's hundreds more stories to be told and this one felt like an earnest swing and a miss for me. It's actually a lot like Funny People, a movie with talented people I admire, attempting to encapsulate the ups and downs of a vast scene with absolutely no perspective on it.

                       Finally, the most infuriating part, is right at the beginning when the stage manager tells them 5 minutes and they don't acknowledge her. Coming from a theatre background, I can't think of much that's more rude. Guys, thank your fucking stage manager.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

My Level-Headed Attempt At Explaining Why Harry Potter And The Cursed Child Is More Disappointing Than Any Of My Own Cursed Children I May Have Complicated, Distant Familial Relationships With In The Future

By now, those who have long awaited its release have likely read Cursed Child. And by now, overwhelming disappointment has clouded those people’s judgment of a beloved book series and movie franchise. And by now, the apologists have also come to the fore, attempting to defend it, either on the grounds that a play is meant to be seen and not read (much like children themselves, I think), or that it’s really not as bad as people think and to give it a chance.

It sucks that the first piece of theatre I’ve gotten to write about in a while is such a drag-fest, and not a fabulous drag-fest like at LIPS or something, but instead a total drag of a time. But like my title notes, I am attempting to explain this reasonably. I don’t think the negative feedback from those who have read it is entirely misdirected or misguided. I also don’t take anything from those who have found enjoyment in it. For some, simply getting to be back in the world of Harry Potter is enough, and revisiting the characters in some way and form is magic sufficient. But I do think those who were expecting more, who had higher expectations for the result are justified in their disappointment. I agree that something with the depth of Potter should have received a higher threshold of standards.

Three main things work against Harry Potter And The Cursed Child:

- The scenes are short, lack progression, and don’t accumulate value. 
                   Something I find most unfortunate is that I see a lot of criticism leveled at Cursed Child and even some defending it are arguing, “It’s a play!” and this is completely inaccurate. If a story, even in script-form, seems thin and stagnant, that’s not a criticism of plays as opposed to novels. Certainly, a script is far stripped down from the robustness of a novel, but the dynamics of scenes should never be sacrificed. In fact, they should be even more substantial, because that’s all a play has. Those passages in between lines of dialogue in a novel, where we are privy to the inner thoughts of a character, that all has to be conveyed in only dialogue and the abilities of the actor on stage. A script needs to convey as much of that as possible to the actor. Certainly, there is always room for interpretation, but a scene always has a point, and the characters in the scene are supposed to be looking to gain something. So again, reading it may not fully immerse you while reading it as a book would, but don’t mistake that for playwriting. That’s still bad playwriting. That’s poor scene-building.
                     The basis of drama is a two-person scene. It’s the most straightforward setup in the world. In Cursed Child specifically, the scenes are practically designed to keep our two main characters in conflict, Harry and his son Albus, apart. The two characters don’t grow and change in relation to each other. One could argue that the distance of the relationship is reflected in the make-up of the scenes, which would be fine, but it does nothing to inform their relationship: Albus learns nothing of his father, Harry gains no insight in how to reach his son, nor do the secondary interactions sow mistrust of each other, Albus simply begins to resent his father more, Harry simply begins to distrust his son. But we’ll come back to characters.
                    As a result of the brevity of these scenes, it makes sense that nothing progresses throughout them. No character “wins” the scene, no characters leave a scene better or worse off because of the action or dialogue that took place during the scene. Now, short scenes are not inherently a problem. The problem here is that in addition to the scenes being short, they also achieve nothing for the characters within. They seem to cut off before deeper conversations emerge, before moments of revelation happen to our characters. Very symptomatic of that therefore, is the scenes should accumulate value but they don’t. Things that happen in previous scenes do not directly have bearing on later scenes. Harry and Albus do not eventually mend their relationships directly from the events of the play. If they did, the pivotal emotional breakthrough would have happened during the gang’s final confrontation with the main villain. Instead, it happens in a wrap-up scene post adventure. Harry and Voldemort apparently cannot kill each other with their given wands because of twin wand cores. Even if you take this as complete bullshit, it at least gives a reason to the proceedings. It also inherently ties Harry and Voldemort to this plot specifically. It can be nobody else because they alone share wand twins. Albus ends up coming in a clutch during the final battle because... he's the smallest and could fit in a grate? So. Nothing to inform us of the relationship, nothing to tie them to the proceedings of the plot around them. So again, I just have to reiterate that plays are not inherently thin in immersion. The problem here is the problem with any story that disappoints: it is still simply bad writing.

- The characters lack motivation or intention for anything they do.
                    So now we have to address the deeper problem than things not happening, because those “things” are perpetrated by characters who don’t know what they’re doing. I think this could easily be the main issue of the play. A character has to be sympathetic, we have to at least be understanding of the decisions they are making, even if we don’t necessarily agree with them. The problem with so many characters in this piece is that they are doing things for absolutely no reason. Albus’s plan to avoid going to Hogwarts comes completely out of nowhere. From one conversation he overhears he latches on to a very specific event from his father’s past and decides that can fix everything. At this point, we’re still unclear just what he’s trying to prove. I think it’s that he thinks fixing a mistake made by his father will somehow distinguish him from the famous Potter, except that it’s 1) a plan that further intertwines him to his father’s legacy rather than distinguishing him from it, 2) the death of Cedric Diggory was not Harry’s fault, and 3) it’s overall a piss-poor plan full of too many variables that they cannot account for. Even if you buy into the idea that Delphi manipulates the entire thing, it is then her plan that makes absolutely no sense.
                      I am absolutely willing to believe in large, complicated plans coming together in film or any medium simply because the group is that good and their timing is impeccable. But the work has to be there. There is no reason that Delphi decides to target Amos Diggory. There is no reason that Amos yelling at Harry should be enough to motivate Albus to fix his father’s mistake. Delphi would also have to have known that Albus felt this way about his father, despite only meeting him briefly the very night she accompanies Amos to the Potter house, presumably to carry out this plan in the first place. And this is all the characters. Albus doesn’t give me enough reason to be behind him for his plan. I don’t understand why Harry flies off the rails about a curse, as if he’s the only one in this world who believes in curses. I don’t understand why McGonagall bends to Harry’s irrational wishes under threat of… what, exactly, I don’t know. Malfoy doesn’t give me a reason that he’s chumming around with the trio, and similarly Ron remains largely absent from the proceedings for no real reason.
                        Aristotle’s elements of tragedy, which get extended to all drama, has a loose hierarchy, listing plot at the top, character second. But honestly, character is tops for me. As long as the characters are characters I care about or are at the very least interesting. Characters doing nothing but talking, as long as they have opinions informed by their background and mutual histories is more interesting to me than boring, uninteresting characters doing something, because that makes me not care about what they’re doing. So a bad plot can easily be saved by good characters, but bad characters will make the plot bad, regardless of how good it was in theory. Cursed Child suffers already from a convoluted, bad plot. But the characters, with motivations unclear or nonexistent, make it infinitely worse. All of them are plot devices moving from one required beat to another simply to fulfill the requirements of a plot that feels predetermined, separate from the characters.
I think that’s one of the effective things that sets apart the Harry Potter books. The plots aren’t simply happening to the characters. They are as much intrinsic to the plot as the plot is to them. If you took out these characters from the play and just replaced them with generic names, it doesn’t change anything. The plot operates independently of the characters and that’s not good, because again, what the characters do and why they do it makes us care about their progress.
                        What would a real story about Harry Potter and his friends be about 19 years later? I don’t know for sure, but what about Harry’s struggles of remaining relevant, or living up to the reputation he possessed at half his age? What about the progression of the marriage of Ron and Hermione, two characters who seem to have so little in common except that they care deeply for each other? Potter’s relationship to his child is not an inherently bad idea, nor are the specifics of this plot, but it feels forced upon these characters, without getting at the heart of what makes it unique. Why is Harry finding himself unable to relate to Albus? Why does Albus resent Harry so much, despite the fact that it seems Harry has sunken into irrelevance long before Albus came around? What more reason is there for Delphi to try and meet her father, and why does she believe this is the best plan of action? Again, the characters move as dictated by the plot points set before them, not the other way around, which makes for flat, undefined at best, and inconsistent at worst characters.
                  And speaking of the characters, who are some of these people?
                  I would say almost everyone is hilariously out of character in this story. What makes it especially sad is that it’s arguably the strongest selling point for a follow-up story based on a beloved franchise. We’d like to see where these characters have developed and grown in the past 19 years since we last saw them. And the answers are disappointing. Harry, despite already having raised two children, is impossibly incapable as a father to his third child. Ginny does no better, offering no help or insight. Ron is reduced to comic relief, it seems they took a cue from movie Ron rather than book Ron. The strong women of the books are similarly reduced to piles of irrationality, with Hermione ineffective as Minister, and McGonagall bending to Harry’s will as Headmistress. Draco sulks with guilt instead of grief over his wife’s death and similar to Harry has no parenting skills. He also shortsells his two schoolyears friends Crabbe and Goyle in an offhanded comment where he confesses he would have much preferred being friends with the power trio of Hogwarts. Dumbledore has an extremely puzzling cameo that’s completely out of line with his character from the books and even the movies. This could perhaps be explained away by a line McGonagall says to Harry, that paintings are not the full person, they are memories and fragments. But even then, a character that was constantly a voice of reason offers wild and unfounded advice to a still-influential Harry, who even after having had 19 years of reflection on how Dumbledore acted, still holds him in as high regard. Even Cedric Diggory, who only appears for a scene, has his memory tainted with a weird exchange between him and Albus and Scorpius.
                     It’s less indicative of growth and transformation and rings more like a sitcom that has persisted too long, and the characters have become exaggerated, broad caricatures of themselves, shells and shreds of what they used to be. Ron was always a little dopey, here he’s the clown. Hermione could get frazzled, so she’s a shipwreck here, and Harry seems solely based on his most hormonal self from Order Of The Phoenix. And personally, I find Dumbledore and McGonagall to just be straight character assassinations.

 - And finally, the plot is messy and convoluted.
                       And of course, even despite truncated scenes of no substance and paper thin characters, the plot we’re left with is still not anything to write home about. I know other people have said it, but it does read a lot like fan fiction, and fan fiction has its place, certainly. Revisiting existing plot points with a twist can be a fun what-if exercise. That’s the basis of the story here. Albus and Scorpius venture through the Triwizard Tournament events of Goblet Of Fire to keep Cedric Diggory alive. To what end? They set about their plan through the use of a bootleg Time Turner. Let’s put aside the fact that right at the end of the story, Draco Malfoy reveals he had a fully functional Time Turner all along. Put that aside. We know how messy time travel plots can be and how quickly they can unravel. There’s a reason Prisoner of Azkaban is the only time travel story of the original seven books and a reasoning behind Rowling then retroactively destroying every Time Turner in existence to avoid the mess of implications their existence entails. The issue I have with this particular time travel plot is that it prevents any character growth for almost everyone involved. They’re simply playing parts at different points in time, and in some cases, in different timelines. So the interesting implications of Scorpius’ character in the darkest timeline, where he is heralded as a hero of purebloods, is never explored and this character development is irrelevant anyway because it’s in a timeline that doesn’t count. It also alters nothing inherently about the “real” Scorpius, the one we’ve been following throughout the play thus far. With the way the scenes move and end, insightful conversations and meaningful moments are taken away from us because the scene is over. We have to get to the next part.
                    The inability of the plot to exhibit character growth is exacerbated by the fact that the play still strictly adheres to the timeline of a Hogwarts school year. So our two biggest characters and our main conflict, Harry and Albus, are separated except for sporadic scenes, often taking place the night before Albus goes off for another year to school. Was there are any attempt between the two to mend things during the three months of summer? Apparently not. Something cannot be designated a plothole simply because it happens offstage or offscreen. But a huge problem is that according to the action of the play, nothing happens offstage. The characters exist only in their scenes and remain in stasis while off. There’s nothing wrong with things happening offstage that the audience doesn’t see. It implies that there is life happening in the world of the play outside of what we can see, that there is a larger world outside of the confines of the story. But each scene only builds from the previous scene, which in some cases take place a year apart. That’s incredibly poor planning on the plot. And to reiterate the motivations of the characters, because they seem to lack consistent motivations, the plot itself lacks coherent momentum. Suddenly, we are in the past, and Delphi decides to simply abandon Albus and Scorpius, I guess believing that since they have no clue as to where they are or what Delphi’s intentions are, there is nothing they can do. I still think it’s a hilarious oversight for the daughter of the Dark Lord, who also managed to flawlessly bring this harebrained plan together, anticipating every single choice and idiocy along the way.

Are there good things in the play? The biggest redeeming quality is Scorpius Malfoy. About a quarter of the way in, he gets older and suddenly becomes this excellent, fully realized character. Besides being literally the only one of those in the play, he is a genuinely good character: smart, insecure, funny, and loyal. He’s a little bit uncool, but also quietly confident. I found myself loving Scorpius like I did characters in the original books. Other than that, there is one moment of drama I also was genuinely moved by. During the aforementioned scene where Malfoy confesses to not liking Crabbe and Goyle much, and being jealous of Harry, Ron, and Hermione, Ginny lets the fa├žade fall and confesses the same. Harry is taken aback by this, but Ginny admits that she was also constantly jealous of the close-knit bond of the trio, and it’s a marvelous bit of character development, arguably the most she’s had in eight stories she’s been a part of. That’s wonderful, and should be what the play is serving in general: insight into more sidelined characters, opportunity to develop character dynamics further. What’s so disappointing mostly is that there is so much opportunity squandered and with source material as strong as the seven Harry Potter novels, there really is no reason to come up with such a lackluster plot helmed by poorly written characters.

Obviously, simply reading a script is not a full experience of the play. It has to be seen to be fully enjoyed and critiqued. But that doesn’t mean analysis and criticism of a script by itself is without warrant. I went to school for theatre, we took classes where we analyzed many scripts without ever seeing them. The script can still be judged on the merits of clarity of story, conveyance of character motivation, and quality of lines. Again, not everything can be fully judged, because sometimes things depend on how actors portray characters and deliver lines, or things can be interpreted differently based on staging or a more realized context. Cursed Child lacks these things, the qualities that make a script good. A script that forces those reading it to ask the questions, “What is my character doing?” “Why is my character doing these things?” “How am I supposed to make this moment work as an actor?” but not in an exploratory ‘getting into character’ kind of way, rather in a “Please someone explain to me what’s going on” kind of way, then the scriptwriter has failed to properly convey intentions of the story.

At the conclusion of the story, we’re left with Harry and Albus, their conflict resolved, their relationship on the mend, Harry revises a line he had once said to Albus in the epilogue. “You’re named after two very great men, with very big flaws. And those flaws made them better men.” Really, Harry? Dumbledore’s arrogance and disregard for life and safety and Snape’s unrequited pining and love for a woman that did not love him made them better? No, Harry. It is how Dumbledore continuously sought to be better and threw himself into the fray first to overcome his arrogance, and how Snape chose to protect the one remaining thing on Earth that reminded him of her despite also being reminded by that thing of his childhood tormentors and even going undercover to deceived the most powerful Dark Wizard of all time, for love. Simply, it is not their flaws that made them great. It is how those men chose to confront their flaws and not allow them to define their characters that made them great. Essentially, they are great men despite those flaws. This sums up Cursed Child for me: continuously missing the point.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Stranger Things Is Both Nothing What I Expected It To Be, And Everything I Expected It To Be

                To start with, my original intent was to watch only the first half of episodes of the new Netflix miniseries Stranger Things. It was the latest thing that everyone was talking about, and my track record with things that come to me pre-hyped is not great, so I was committing to watching only four because I fully expected to be bored by two. Bored is perhaps the wrong state of mind, more likely that I would have more complaints that praises by the end of two episodes.
               But I am very happy to say that is not the case. It’s actually become my almost-opposite experience with Sense8. The latter was not hyped, but I thought was extremely promising due to its creative and cast, started off okay, then kept losing steam even as its first season mysteries unraveled. I was worried about my high expectations as I started. I also really hate accessibility descriptions for movies and shows like, “It’s this meets this!” because that’s either a whole set of expectations that the show now has to meet for me, or if I don’t like the things used in the description, then I’m writing off the show almost immediately. And there were all sorts of reactions I had to how people were describing Stranger Things to me. Stephen King was a constant. I have to admit something. I’m not a huge fan of Stephen King. A lot of his stuff just doesn’t resonate with me. My favorite novel of his is Duma Key, and it feels like no one ever knows what I’m talking about except his die-hard fans. I love the Kubrick Shining, and I know King hates it because it has next to nothing to do with his novel (AND EVERYTHING TO DO WITH THE MOON LANDING GUYS!) and that’s just more my speed, I feel. Carrie is the other one I really love. Everything else falls into the category of being just fine to me.

                So to tell me Stranger Things is Stephen King (which I’m not a fan of) meets Twin Peaks (which I’m a HUGE fan of) meets Spielberg (whom I’m FINE with) I am at best confused about how to feel. Here’s the thing, Stranger Things doesn’t really strike me as any of these things. It certainly pays homage and lays tribute to these inspirations: a lot of King references, many Spielberg trademarks, a couple good Twin Peaks shout-outs, along with The Goonies, Alien, and some John Carpenter, and of course, Dungeons & Dragons. So it goes without saying that the series is decidedly 80s, and it captures that spirit and tone amazingly. And I mean, just by that list of things, if you’re going to base your story in an era, that’s a great one to be a part of! That’s the most basic thing that bind so much of those 80s films together: youth, very often kids, come together and while also combating social norms and coming of age adversities, they come face-to-face with otherworldly encounters or fantastical adventures. So it’s based in a tried and true foundation, a formula that works and continues to work. Which is why I’m having trouble discerning if it’s a good series on its own, or it’s good because it’s so steeped in the mythos that inspired it.

                A lot of reviews and recaps praise Stranger Things for its accuracy, if not for the exact timeline and chronology, then certainly for the feel and the atmosphere. The show looks, feels, and reads like an 80s era story. The kid protagonists are a believable and dynamic groups of friends as good as Stand By Me or The Goonies (one kid even has his own freak display like the Truffle Shuffle). The soundtrack is very John Carpenter in the incidental music, while the covers for 80s hits as well as the original tracks are used more than appropriately. But again, does that equal a good story? I don’t care much about adaptation in the way that some people do. I don’t care that Lord Of The Rings wasn’t exactly the book, I care that it was a good movie. Similarly, I don’t think The Hobbit is a bad set of films because it’s a bad adaptation, they’re just bad movies. Same with remakes. Same with genre pieces. Same with period pieces. So I truthfully don’t care how much of the 80s they got right or wrong, I care that it was a good story. How does Stranger Things do as a piece of entertainment?

                Fortunately, there is a whole lot to love about this show. It’s ultimately better, and my personal recommendation, that you just watch the whole thing at once. Considering how many episodes pick up right where the previous one left off and the overall structure, I think that’s the way it was meant to be enjoyed. Watched this way, the momentum builds properly and the pay-offs work properly. I think the plotting has plenty of turns and a good balance of questions and answers to keep you moving from one episode to the next. There aren’t twists, per se, and there’s no reveals that aren’t terribly surprising, which I think effectively moves it out of the true horror genre. But the conventions of horror that it does use are nonetheless effective. Also, if you know D&D, which is used ostensibly as the story’s framing device, you can more or less predict the beats, and judger the show more for how it gets you from point to point, rather than the points themselves.
                The writing is natural and solid, and it’s certainly all bolstered by a powerhouse cast. I’m always impressed by capable child actors, and there’s not a weak link in the bunch amongst the core main cast. Mike, Lucas, and Dustin, our three main adventurers, have a great chemistry. The girl who plays Nancy I find to be the strongest of the cast. Jonathan and Steve, while I wasn’t initially blown away by them, really came into their own by the end. And of course, Eleven is compelling, doing so much with so little. Winona Ryder and David Harbour are doing excellent, nuanced work as the put-upon Joyce Byers and the guilt-ridden, drug-addled Chief of Police.

                The most difficult part of any “face the monster” story is once the monster starts putting in full-time appearances. There’s diminishing returns to the final reveal of Signs. There’s a reduced impact for every monster whom we see parts of throughout and then they finally attack full-view. Our monster is sufficiently terrifying, and particularly unsettling, but I was rather surprised it was only one monster that terrorized them the whole time. I was so sure a twist was going to be an eventual second monster. Again, it’s a credit to the cast for keeping the monster unknowable and terrifying, particularly Eleven, as she encounters him in the upside down, and particularly Nancy who brings legitimate fear for pretty much the only time throughout the series as she encounters him in the woods of the other side.

                So overall, that’s my feelings for the show. It’s great. It’s absolutely solid. Writing-wise, acting-wise, there is no reason to not like this show. And any nagging feelings about continuity or inconsistency in terms of the plot are negligible on your viewing of it. Like any good Spielberg film, it’s the drama of the characters that carries us through. And we genuinely care about the characters and what they’re facing, both the extraordinary and the ordinary. You can ignore it for the sake of a great story being told. I do think that once you move past all the genre adaptation and homage, the plot’s a bit thin for an 8-part miniseries, but again, the characters are too strong and too well acted to ignore.

                My final thoughts though, I reserve for my singular problem with the show. And it’s a minor or major problem depending on your perspective. I find it complicated because of its context. Because of the conventions of the storytelling and the era, the person who ends up suffering the most in characterization is the centerpiece of our story, Eleven. She’s traumatized by her life previous to entering the story which leaves her mostly mute. What ends up happening is everyone projects their thoughts on her characterization onto her, from Lucas believing she’s a traitor, to Mike in the end saying she can live with them and be a part of the family. We never gain any sort of indication as to what Eleven herself actually wants. And what I mean by the storytelling conventions of the era, I mean that with the loss of her characterization, she gains powers. It makes her indispensable to the group of boys (who are more than capable except when it comes to fighting) and it makes her drive the plot forward, with Matthew Modine’s bad guy on a quest to get her back and most of the rest of cast attempting to keep her safe. It’s fine for what it is. She’s E.T. She’s Leeloo. But setting something firmly in an era doesn’t mean you have to stick to every convention and every trope of that era. And I think it’s almost irresponsible if you don’t. What makes Shaun Of The Dead, Scream, Cabin in the Woods, even the latest Trek movies so good is that they play with the established conventions of their respective genres. Eleven is Carrie. She’s Jean Grey. She’s the all-important female character with the mysterious past. But like these other characters, she’s never more than a convention of the plot, a tool of the other characters.

                The most glaring scene of this for me was a very touching, very intimate scene between her and Winona Ryder. It’s a well-performed scene, but something about it rings false to me. They’re about to put her in the sensory deprivation tank so she can reach the other world and hopefully track Ryder’s missing son Will down, the impetus for the entire plot of the series. At one point Ryder stops and thanks Eleven for doing this. Despite all the characters at this point being brought up to speed with the traumas and horrors she faced, the possible dangers and jeopardy that her life is put in because of the very same procedure they are about to perform (with more rudimentary equipment, no less) it never crosses Ryder’s mind to say, “You don’t have to do this,” because what’s more important to her is getting her son back, essentially at the expense of Eleven. And sure, the writing of the scene makes it so that Ryder’s character is her protector, her tether to the real world, but considering the implications of what she’s gone through, Ryder needs to be more than grateful to this complete stranger who is also a child.

                Equally tone deaf, like I said for me, is Mike’s promises to her of what she’ll get once they make it through the ordeal and if she can stay alive. But again, we have no clear indication as to what she really wants. They’ve stunted her and made her silent through her trauma, and they’ve removed any agency the character has over the situation. Her willing sacrifice at the end to dispose of the monster is her only moment of complete control, and it’s the expected sacrifice that this character type is allowed to make. I think with such a strong writing staff and cast they could’ve done a lot with Eleven to make her more than just this archetype. Again, I don’t mean Eleven’s bad. The girl playing her is a magnificent actor, but she truly is doing a lot with so little. But in the end, all we know is she wants Eggos. And that feels pretty thin compared to the rest of the cast who arguably didn’t give up nearly as much.

                And the only reason I see this as a problem, is because I firmly believe you can’t say they were trying to be completely pitch perfect with the era. I would believe you, if they hadn’t managed to pull off a complete subversion of another character archetype of that time: the jock idiot boyfriend. Nancy’s love interest throughout is Steve Harrington, who is played like Troy from The Goonies, like Ali’s ex- Johnny in The Karate Kid. He’s the horny older guy just trying to get into the most popular girl’s pants, never calls never cares, picks on the “reluctant hero” Jonathan Byers, and if this were a horror movie, would be killed in the final act, if not end up being the killer himself (a’la Scream).

                But every beat of that archetype is undone by the story. Nancy and Steve don’t have sex the night he sneaks into her room. He actually helps her study. When he starts to bully Jonathan and ruins his camera it’s for good reason: they found out Jonathan was secretly taking pictures of everyone at a party one night, including one where Nancy was undressing! When you think he’s gonna die in the finale, he doesn’t. When you think he’s gonna run in the finale, he jumps in as the hero. And in the end, he gets the girl. Do they have problems here and there? Of course. But the character blooms from the initial stereotype into a more realized character. To a lesser degree, Nancy, Jonathan, Joyce, and Hopper all experience growth as their initial archetype characters. But Steve is the most glaring to me. Why did we bother to redeem this male stereotype and not this female stereotype given the same opportunity? It really does feel like a wasted opportunity.

                I think in the ongoing argument about what makes a good female character, and what is a strong female protagonist, it’s important to recognize nuance and layers. Eleven is a fantastic device of the story, acted more than capably by a very talented actor. She is surrounded by equally talented actors who are playing far more fully realized characters. Like I said earlier in the post and what I said last night as I watched, the three core boys are smart and capable: they know how to work radios, they organize and play complicated D&D campaigns, they are organized, curious, they differ in opinion, and they think critically in times of crisis. Imagine what it would have meant to have these characters be girls. Or at least to have Eleven be as much in control of herself as they are. Or in other words, if screenwriters and filmmakers could make female protagonists as capable as they make child protagonists, we wouldn’t be having this silly argument at all.

                So last word? Watch Stranger Things. The abilities of the storytellers are unmatched, and the pay-off is sentimental but worth it. You are going to be able to ignore any of its shortcomings because of its thrift and momentum. There are things that can be improved and you’ll think about those later. And hopefully future filmmakers will also be thinking of those things, because there’s still a lot of work to be done.