What I’m Watching: Dear White People

Uhh, let’s start this post with a big ol’ “I’m white” disclaimer. I’m going to avoid delving too deep into the way the show engages with racism, but nevertheless everything I write here should be taken with a grain of salt as I don’t have authority on the subject. (I probably wouldn’t write this post at all if I had any meaningful audience here.)

dearwhitepeople_us

I’m not sure how relevant the title really is to the show but I guess that’s the point.

Dear White People is about a group of black students at a university and chronicles a couple weeks of their life as they grapple with the campus’ pretty crappy racial politics. The choice of protagonists is one of the areas where I think the show really succeeds, as you have Sam and Reggie who are on the more radical activist side, and then there are Troy and Coco who are more into appealing to the system and working within the establishment. By focusing on differing opinions on how to combat racism from within the community, the show avoids easy answers or clear villains and good guys. I get the impression you’re mostly meant to root for Sam and Reggie’s side (or at least I did), but the show acknowledges that there’s more nuance involved.

So while the character side of the premise is quite good, I think the plot side of things is where the show drops the ball a bit. There’s a lot of stuff happening in the show in terms of plot (and especially twisty revelations), but there is no one event that the show revolves around. This would be fine in normal circumstances, but Dear White People uses a structure where each episode focuses on a different character, with a bit of overlap between episodes. This format is best-suited, in my opinion, to narratives that focus on a singular event so that new details can be revealed as we switch to different characters, but because there is nothing like that the format sometimes feels distracting. Instead the overlapping is used to an inconsistent degree (and is more prominent in the early episodes), which comes across as, well, inconsistent.

I also wish the show did a little bit more with the way it inspects its characters through its format–again there’s an inconsistency to it. Lionel and Coco both get childhood flashbacks, while the others don’t; Reggie doesn’t even have any flashbacks that I remember; none of the flashbacks Sam is in are from her perspective; and Coco’s first focus episode is almost entirely a flashback to her Freshman year. There’s no real rhyme or reason as to who gets what kind of flashback or how these flashbacks are used to reveal information about the characters, and the end result is that the flashbacks feel like they’re used haphazardly rather than with real purpose.

Those are my only main issues with the show, though–otherwise I thought it was very strong. The characters deepen a lot beyond their basic archetypes over the course of the season and become really engaging, and I like the way the show doesn’t overtly tell the audience how they should feel about the important characters. I feel like my reading of various characters’ likability and morality is mostly based on my own opinions and could be quite different from someone else’s reading, which I generally I think is a good thing in fiction, especially in a character-driven story like this.

And then of course there’s the themes of social issues and activism that Dear White People puts at the center. I think the show does a really good job of exploring the complexities involved in activism and unlike a lot of politically-related fiction that I’ve seen, it doesn’t paint things in black and white or make its protagonists so obviously correct. The show also very deftly avoids feeling stilted when its characters discuss social issues, or like characters have been assigned opinions at random. Everything feels very natural, very effortless, in a way that a lot of fiction fails to be when tackling social issues.

I’m not sure the show is as good when it comes to issues other than anti-black racism, however. References to other forms of racism tend to be paired with the show’s flippant sense of humor in a way that feels dismissive of them Also, I don’t think the whole “supposed lesbian getting with a guy despite being engaged to a woman” thing was a great look, as either a) it’s portraying a lesbian as still being attracted to men, or b) it’s portraying a bisexual woman as a cheater. Both of those seem pretty bad.

There was a little more going on in the show thematically than just social issues, though, which I liked. There’s this recurring thing with the five protagonists being romantically involved/interested in someone they shouldn’t (or “shouldn’t”):” Sam is dating a white guy; Lionel is into Troy, who’s straight; Troy is having an affair with an engaged professor; Reggie is into Sam, who’s not single; and Coco is involved with Troy more because she thinks she should than because she wants to. And by the end of the season none of these relationships/crushes work out. I’m not totally clear as to what the show is trying to communicate–I wouldn’t really say that interracial relationships and gay guys being into straight guys are equally doomed–but I like that there’s an extra layer here.

Anyway, while I do have some quibbles with Dear White People, overall I very much enjoyed it and I think it nails the execution where it really matters. I should note again, though, that I really don’t have the authority to say whether the specific messages the show sends are correct or good, so my opinion of the show should not be considered particularly important.

Advertisements

What I’m Watching: Grace and Frankie

Continuing the saga of “everything I watch is a Netflix original” is–well, you can read the title. (It’s Grace and Frankie.)

Grace and Frankie

Searching for key art for this show turned up a surprising amount of stuff for Nashville.

Grace and Frankie is perhaps one of the most Netflix-y Netflix shows in its conception, not because of its tone or quality but because of its subject matter. Since most TV shows are funded based on advertising and advertisers only really care about the 18-49 demographic, you don’t really get many shows focusing on older characters. Netflix, on the other hand, doesn’t care about advertisers, allowing it to greenlight shows regardless of what demographics might be interested. So one of the results of that is Grace and Frankie, a show that’s very directly about issues that affect the above-60 crowd.

And it’s a pretty good show, too. There was something strangely captivating about the first season especially, as the show is billed as a comedy and its plots work like comedy plots, yet season one felt mostly devoid of actual jokes. Like, it wasn’t just that I didn’t think it was funny, it was that the show didn’t even seem to be trying to be funny. That’s really not something you get much in TV and it was really interesting to watch.

Season two and the recently-released season three play it more regular, though, with clearer (and very funny!) humor. It’s one of the more pleasant shows I’ve watched in recent memory, too–even when it’s emotional there’s a sort of low-key vibe to it that keeps it from being too stressful. The biggest exception was at the end of season three where the show played an anti-gay protest for laughs. That really didn’t work for me; closeups of clever signs isn’t very fun when the signs are hateful.

What does really work for me, though, is how the show handled its central premise. (Which is that the titular Grace and Frankie’s husbands, Robert and Sol, leave them for each other.) I was worried going into the show that it would minimize Robert and Sol and basically just use them as a prop, but instead they’re main characters and both sides of the divorces are given very fair treatment. Grace and Frankie are very understandably hurt that their husbands lied to them for decades, but the show also notes the hurt of Robert and Sol in having felt the need to hide their relationship. Everyone is allowed to have their feelings and the situation is generally recognized as one that kind of sucks all around.

The friendship between Grace and Frankie is handled really well, too. I think a lot of shows with odd couples struggle to pace the characters’ relationship, either making them too friendly too quick or holding onto the animosity for too long. Here, though, the development of Grace and Frankie’s relationship is handled perfectly: they still argue and clash by season three, but they also recognize each other as their best friend, and it makes for a really interesting, sweet friendship.

So, yeah, this is a really pleasant show and I really enjoy it. Glad it’s already renewed for season four!

Moana Is Great and Frozen Is Terrible

So before I get into the rest of this post I want to include the disclaimer that I am analyzing these two movies purely from a filmmaking standpoint, that is, I’m not getting into gender or race politics because I’m not qualified to speak on such issues. (The second half of this most recent episode of the podcast Still Buffering had some good discussion on gender representation in Moana and Frozen if you’re interested.) With that said:

Frozen_(2013_film)_poster

I hate how snow and ice are so blue in this movie.

I remember being fairly skeptical of Frozen‘s quality when I finally got around to seeing it a year after release. I think it was mostly because Olaf looked awful, and while he was, it turned out that was only the tip of the iceberg. Frozen reportedly went through some late-stage changes in story, and while that worked out well for Zootopia, it really did not here.

Let’s begin with the beginning. Frozen opens with Anna and Elsa as friends, playing with Elsa’s ice powers. Then Elsa accidentally hurts Anna and the sisters’ parents have trolls make Anna forget about the ice powers and tell Elsa to hide them, and then the parents die at sea and there’s a song showing Anna and Elsa growing up and not being friends anymore and then there’s going to be a big party and Anna sings about how the castle is finally going to be lively again.

That all happens in about 15 minutes, by the way. The extreme speed of all this plot information and changes in status quo make it impossible to care about any of it; sure, for Anna it’s been years since the castle was exciting and fun, but for the audience it’s been about five minutes.

This flip-flopping in status quo also drives the problem with Elsa as a character. Elsa basically has two characters in the movie: shy and afraid of her powers, and overly bold and confident. The result is a character with a totally unclear personality; is the confident Elsa just a blip and the shy Elsa we see for most of the movie “really” her, or is her confident side her “real” personality that’s otherwise been hidden? Because her character arc is kind of deemphasized at the end of the movie (at least to my recollection; it’s been a while since I saw the movie) there’s not really enough information to determine that.

Speaking of the end of the movie, that’s it’s other main problem. At this point in the plot Anna has been put under a magical curse that will freeze her unless broken by an “act of true love.” The resolution to this is when Anna steps in front of the villain Hans’ blade to save Elsa; Anna’s self-sacrifice is the act of true love. The problem with this is that Anna’s love for Elsa is something that’s never been in question during the movie. Half of the plot, in fact, is driven by how much Anna cares for Elsa. So for Anna saving Elsa to be the climax just doesn’t mean much because it says nothing new about the characters and requires no personal growth or change.

Hans, meanwhile, is a terrible villain. It’s really easy for characters who are pretending to be good but are secretly evil to come off as cheap because the writers can just write the character as if they were good until the reveal comes. And that’s exactly what happens here: there are no hints that Hans is evil, no indication that he’s putting on an act. He’s just a good guy who suddenly becomes a bad guy.

And it’s a shame that he turns out to be a bad guy, really, because of how it makes the song “Love is an Open Door” totally meaningless. I actually really like the song (it’s the only one in the movie I enjoy listening to), but not only is it lampshaded almost immediately when Elsa points out how ridiculous it is to get engaged to a dude after five minutes, but it turns out that the love was 100% fake on Hans’ part anyway so in retrospect, “Love is an Open Door” is basically just filler and its cuteness is totally undermined by the deception involved.

The final point against Frozen is its songs. Most of them are either emotionally hollow (“Love is an Open Door,” “For the First Time in Forever”) or more-or-less filler (Olaf’s song, the trolls’ song, the opening song which is sort of thematically relevant but is literally just about ice miners, whose lifestyle is totally irrelevant to the movie). “Let It Go” is the only song in the movie that has any real significance to it, and while its popularity is undeniable I don’t think it’s a very good song.

In addition to the actual quality and relevance of the songs, they also fall into a problem I have with a lot of Disney musicals, where the songs are majorly frontloaded. After “Let It Go” closes the first act, three of the four songs left in the movie are pointless filler and there aren’t any at all in the third act. (Also, while I don’t have the patience to start up the movie and check the timestamps, I’m pretty sure there’s only one song past the halfway point of the movie.) The end result is that the movie feels less like a musical and more like a movie that has some songs in it.

Moana_Teaser_Poster

Not sure why the pig even exists since it’s just there for like ten minutes.

And that brings us to Moana and the first point in its favor, which is that it has not one but two climactic songs, both of which are great. (I haven’t thought a lot about what my favorite Disney song is but “I Am Moana” is definitely up there.) And there really aren’t any filler songs, either–the closest one to being filler is “Shiny,” but the way it’s used as a focal point for the setpiece going on during the song makes it feel more important.

Beyond that, Moana just fundamentally works. The characters have clear personalities and their arcs make sense; the light plot twist feels natural; the climax is founded on Moana’s unique skills, not a test of something that was never in question; and while the pacing in the first act is a little jumpy, the prologue isn’t at all convoluted. I haven’t seen Big Hero 6, but that aside I feel quite confident in calling Moana Disney’s best 3D animated movie this decade. (Zootopia is pretty close, though.)

Ugh, this is why writing about stuff I like sucks. I got nine paragraphs out of Frozen but only two out of Moana. Anyway, Moana is awesome and Frozen is not, case closed.

What I’m Watching: When We Rise

Okay so this is even later than Time After Time but WHATEVER.

I don’t actually have a lot of pressing thoughts on When We Rise. And not because I found it boring, but because I think overall it’s such a strongly put together eight hours of television that I feel like there’s not a lot to say. (Also it’s been a couple weeks since it aired so I’ve forgotten a bunch of what I might have said.) So actually, what I’m going to do is rank each two-hour episode and use that as a jumping off point. (Technically it’s eight episodes with two aired per night but ABC’s website counts each pair as an episode so that’s how I’m doing it.)

1000x563-Q90_18fa892a26b5e98feafac80fdf417dfe

This show has no promo photos with all the characters in it which sucks.

4. Episode Three

So the central structure of When We Rise was that each two-hour episode would approximately cover one decade. Night three was for the ’90s, and ended up being a lull in the show’s story. The miniseries mostly focused on activism, but only one of the three main characters was actually doing activism in this episode–the other two were just living their lives. I think it was important for the show to have some downtime, and it’s not as if two women raising a child together wasn’t radical in its own right, but the end result was an episode that felt far less focused than the rest of the show.

Also, this episode had the “Cleve starts taking care of a baby and wants to adopt it but then can’t because the social workers notice his HIV medication” plotline which I have to assume actually happened, but boy did it feel like a Lifetime movie the way the show handled it.

3. Episode One

This episode had the most working against it structurally–it had to establish three protagonists as well as the time period’s culture and societal attitudes while also trying to get into the activism that’s central to the show’s premise. The result was an episode with a lot of small, hazily-connected scenes that was still good, but that didn’t work as well as it could have. It probably would have been better if the narration hadn’t retreated as the episode progressed and had instead been used to help hold together the narrative.

2. Episode Four

The thing about this episode is that I was basically sobbing for the entire last 20 minutes so I’m not sure there’s a lot to really discuss here. What can I say–seeing a heavily-promoted miniseries on a major-three network focus entirely on gay characters and social justice meant a lot to me, and this episode did a great job really selling the culmination-of-sorts of decades of activism and just life. These people went through so much, had such an intense struggle, and affected real, meaningful change and progress. That’s pretty incredible.

1. Episode Two

This is, however, the best episode of the When We Rise in my opinion. The first half, still in the ’70s, had a clear focus with the fight against a proposed anti-gay law in California and the second half was an effective portrayal of the harrowing beginnings of the AIDS epidemic. This episode also had the best use of voiceover, with Roma’s narration in the first half being used to give useful exposition and bridge the gap between scenes and both hers and Ken’s in the second half being revealed to be a letter and conversation, respectively, that had relevance to the plot.


Eh. I wish I had better, more meaningful commentary on this show, but at the end of the day it’s just something that I really liked and that I absolutely recommend. It’s a shame the show’s ratings were crap because I think it’s a really important piece of media.

What I’m Watching: Halt and Catch Fire

It seems like Halt and Catch Fire has been stuck with one narrative from critics, that of a show with a troubled first season that turned it around in season two but never found its audience due to Peak TV. I think that’s a somewhat inaccurate story (how many shows really see any audience gain from improvement in critical reception, Peak TV aside?) and, honestly, I don’t think the show was that bad in season one and thus I don’t think season two was that much of an improvement. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

halt-and-catch-fire-S3-800x600-logo-compressedV1

Whyyyy did they give Joe a beard in season three?

I don’t know how Halt and Catch Fire was conceived or why it was greenlit, but the show certainly came across in its first season as a bit of a “prestige drama paint-by-numbers.” You got your artsy but kind of nonsensical sequences, your ~mysterious and ~edgy antihero, your “electrical shock from computers as foreplay” scene. And as silly as some of it was (electrocuting yourselves for foreplay! What the heck!) I thoroughly enjoyed the show’s first season, mostly on the strength of its core characters and their relationships with one another. I can’t think of another character, at least on TV, who’s quite like Cameron Howe–young, idealistic, creative, but tough and hard-edged and hot-headed.

Meanwhile, I loved the way that Gordon and Donna were united in their passion and skill for technology–Donna could so easily have been slotted into the role of “nagging wife holding the dude back,” but instead she was a force unto her own right, and ended up being a crucial part of the team. Gordon is a little less interesting, although the fact that he’s kind of really pathetic drove a lot of probably-unintentional humor.

So, yeah, I was along for the ride after season one, and I was stoked to hear that the show’s supposedly-bad quality took a sharp upturn in season two, coinciding with its drastic change in status quo and focus. Where season one was about early computers, season two was essentially about CompuServe–an early mix of MMO and web forum, sort of like Club Penguin but not kid-oriented and using pre-internet multiplayer technology.

It was a bold shift for the show, and it paid off. While some of the interpersonal storylines got a little silly (Gordon and Donna’s home life got pretty melodramatic), the show did a fantastic job of capturing an exciting time in computer software and was overall totally fantastic.

Which brings us to season three, which just hit Netflix. There was less critical hubbub around season three so I went in not really knowing where it was going; all I had was the implications at the end of season two, which ended up being not very indicative of the show’s direction in season three. Season three almost felt like it was picked up by a totally different team of writers from season two, and I think the season suffered for it.

Let’s start with Joe MacMillan, the aforementioned antihero character. He was basically just a caricature of a TV antihero in season one, behaving erratically and kind of swapping between “good” and “evil” with no real reason to it. Season two used this to amazing effect: Joe claimed to now be a “good guy” and seemed to behave altruistically, but because both the other main characters and the audience had experience with his “evilness” (I’m using quotes because you can only be so evil in the context of the computer business) it was hard to trust him. The show wisely never gave much insight into his true feelings until toward the end of the season, where the conclusion to his arc appeared to be that he had indeed been trying to be a good guy, but because nobody believed him and things outside his control went wrong, he decided to just give up and be a jerk.

Joe’s character arc in season two is one of my all-time favorite plotlines in a TV show, and I was really excited to see where they’d take “evil anti-virus mogul Joe MacMillan” in season three. So where did they take him? . . . Nowhere. Joe in season three had very little in the way of personality, a bizarre turn for character who previously was so exaggerated, and what personality was there was more “normal guy who loves technology” than “evil genius.”

All the characters kind of felt muted, really. The show as a whole kind of felt that way; the season was way low on actual conflict, so most of the tension I experienced watching it was more from an expectation of something going wrong, or characters having a difference of opinion, then anything really happening. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing–I like nontraditional storytelling and I had a fondness for these characters and this show built up. But the problem is, I’m left in the end wondering what actually happened in season three. Joe’s plotline with Ryan led to an anticlimax, as did the “Mutiny going public” thing, with the only real drama being the pretty-contrived split between Cameron and Donna.

I can respect a certain amount of “things petering out” as a purposeful narrative choice, but here the petering out was over the entire season–until the timeskip for the last two episodes, at which point the show seemed like it was in setup mode for season four. And at that point I think that’s just bad writing–to spend the last two episodes of your season on setup is such a bizarre move and results in such an anticlimax, especially after such an understated season. I can’t imagine how weird it would have been to watch this season live (I watch on Netflix). I’m still in for season four, especially since it’s already been determined that it’ll be the show’s last, but sadly I have a feeling Halt and Catch Fire peaked in season two.

Pilot: Time After Time

Yeah, this is way late; I got sick and didn’t have any desire to write about TV. Anyway.

I really wasn’t sure what to make of Time After Time prior to watching it; the premise was beyond absurd, but then, the same was true of Sleepy Hollow and that show managed a fun season before going off the rails. However, the trailers made this look far less self-aware and lighthearted than Sleepy Hollow, so it was a big question mark if the show would manage to be fun and entertaining or end up being boring and just plain bad.

timeaftertime4

A little bummed they didn’t keep the period facial hair.

Interestingly, the two-hour premiere was both! The first hour was exactly what I was hoping for–a complete embrace of the show’s absurd premise and shameless silliness. My favorite part was when the female lead started blabbing her life story and insecurities to H.G. Wells like five minutes after meeting him. It was amazing not just because it was ridiculous, but also because H.G. Wells in this is so incredibly adorable and immensely attractive that I absolutely buy that she would do that. I would probably do that!

The first hour of the show really banks on the appeal of H.G. Wells’ character, and it’s to the show’s strength because he is written fantastically and cast perfectly. I was really feeling the Sleepy Hollow comparison, although I don’t think any show will ever quite top the sheer enjoyability of season-one Sleepy Hollow

Then the premiere got into its second hour and . . . spent the majority of its runtime on a hostage situation. Also it started toeing into its meta-mystery, and sadly both of these things proved to be extremely boring. Like, kudos for having a pretty respectable escape attempt from the female lead, but still–we’ve seen a character taken hostage how many times in TV before? What a waste of screentime.

Meanwhile to the female lead (whose name I cannot for the life of me remember, sorry) being kidnapped, H.G. Wells was getting to know his granddaughter whose being related to him is a mystery and she’s wealthy and powerful and has met him before through time travel and well, there’s some intriguing stuff there on paper but in practice she was boring and the episode didn’t delve deep enough into this mystery stuff for it to actually be interesting. Like, your premise is H.G. Wells following Jack the Ripper into the present–you can’t immediately segue into time travel conspiracy stuff unless you’re going to really commit.

So, yeah, this has aired a couple more episodes now but I can’t say I’m watching. My Sunday nights at nine continue to belong to Madam Secretary. I’d give ABC kudos for trying but really, who the heck gave this the okay?

Pilot: The Good Fight and TV Retrospective: The Good Wife

Yeah, I know, I’m two weeks late to writing this. College has been leaving me exhausted and uninterested in writing here. But better late than never, right?

I think I’d probably consider The Good Wife one of my favorite TV shows. I’d definitely call it one of the best I’ve seen, although I don’t watch a lot of prestige TV so that might not be saying much. Still, I think it earned its frequent classification as “the best show on network TV,” and it’s one of two shows I’ve ever seen manage to reinvigorate itself and even possibly reach its peak after season three.

the-good-wife-cbs

Juliaana Marguiles absolutely killed it in this role.

But let’s start with the beginning. The Good Wife came about when network TV was still mostly focused on procedurals, and on CBS no less, where procedurals still reign supreme. And in some ways I think the show was strongest in its early seasons when it had to play by these procedural rules, as I remember the cases of the week being more interesting and effective than later in the show, where they got less screentime and often felt perfunctory.

I think it was season four, though, where I stopped watching the show for a period because, well, it got pretty bad. The serialized conflicts began to feel stale and the cases of the week felt pointless, and of course there was the total mess that was Kalinda’s husband.

Luckily, though, I got back on board early in season five, because that season was possibly The Good Wife‘s best. Over the course of the season the show shook up its entire status quo in a way that brilliantly intertwined the interpersonal drama and power struggle machinations that were the show’s strengths. Even the previously-staid cases of the week were more interesting since many of them now saw the protagonists on opposite sides of the courtroom.

I’m not as hard as seasons six and seven as other people seemed to be, but they were certainly a letdown after season five’s peak. Still, Lucca Quin was a fantastic character, which is impressive given the typical quality of characters introduced for a show’s final season (see Jason Crouse, who was also introduced in season seven and kind of sucked), and the show did a good job bringing back past characters for one last hurrah. I don’t think the actual end to the show quite worked, but given the show’s strong body of work I’m not sure that’s a huge deal.

So that brings us to The Good Fight, which picks up a year after the end of The Good Wife.

the-good-fight-779x400

That “hand on the neck” pose is sooo unnatural-looking.

I wasn’t totally sold on this show on paper. It had potential–promoting Lucca to protagonist role sounded awesome, and the ability to refocus a bit and shed some of the baggage from The Good Wife (Alicia’s kids, ugh!) could allow for improvement over that show. But at the same time, there was the possibility that the show would feel kind of pointless, adrift, by picking up in the same place as the show it’s a spin-off from except now without the main character.

But no, the pilot was really damn good and absolutely feels like it has a purpose. Some of it is simply due to the world we live in–an older, powerful, unabashed liberal and feminist woman, a black woman, and a lesbian as your three protagonists is pretty much a “screw you” to our 45th president–but most is outright on the strength of the writing. Diane was always a fantastic character and getting the opportunity to see more of her inner life after all these years is engrossing. Meanwhile, Lucca was one of the best things of the final season of The Good Wife and has a ton of potential as a protagonist. The pilot didn’t give a lot of development to Maia, the third lead, but she should be good as a link to the serialized plot and outsider to the show’s world.

Beyond just the strength of the lead characters, though, this is show creators and writers Michelle and Robert King at their best. The dialogue is snappy, the pacing perfect, the tone perfectly blending situational humor with high-stakes emotional and social drama. This is one of the best-crafted pilots I remember ever seeing, and I can only hope the rest of the series holds up to this level of quality.