Jun 3, 2010

Most of my followers on Twitter probably wonder why I still watch "Glee." Or at this point they wonder why I'm watching it... again. Until I quit the show a little over a month ago, each episode generated a handful of tweets from me expressing something resembling seething outrage. So, yes, after watching the entire student body of McKinley High hold hands and sing "Beautiful" at the end of "Home," I quit watching the show.

Then a funny thing happened. "Lost" aired an episode that looked like an outtake from "Beastmaster," offered a glowing cave as the answer to all the show's mysteries and taunted viewers with lines like "every question I answer will simply lead to another question." I hated that episode. Passionately. But it accomplished something for "Lost" that Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse needed to do before the series finale: inform viewers what kind of show "Lost" was. In the end, the show was as much fantasy as it was mystery and science fiction, and "Across the Sea" made that clear. I still think it was a terrible hour of television, and I mourn the loss of the sci-fi series I thought it was going to be, but with that out of the way I could enjoy the last two episodes on their own terms, as the show Darlton intended.

As I made these realizations, and it's amazing how many more realizations you can have about television shows once you begin writing about them, it occurred to me that my anger at "Glee" was something more than a reaction to mediocre TV. It, too, was a mourning experience. The series' pilot was an amazing combination of satire, slapstick, heart and music. It was close to perfect. And from that one episode I constructed an expectation of what the show was going to be. When the second episode aired a few months later, it didn't match my vision, and that was a disappointment. The tone of the show was uneven enough in those early episodes that I still held out hope that it would land in the neighborhood of the show I hoped for, but that never happened. However, in the first 15 to 20 minutes of every episode (aka the funny part), it *was* the show I wanted, so I kept watching. And kept watching. And kept watching. Until I stopped.

Having undergone the "Across the Sea" experience, I decided to give "Glee" a second chance, and this time I had to accept the show on its own terms. It wasn't the pure comedy I wanted it to be, but a drama with a lot of angst decorated with intermittent comic moments. Episodes wrapped up with a lesson, with tears, with heart-to-heart conversations between characters. I've liked shows like that in the past (probably?), so why not this one?

And so Tuesday night I began a two-part marathon of the five episodes I'd missed, starting with "Bad Reputation" from May 4th. Here's the episode by episode breakdown:

"Bad Reputation"
Someone posts a list of the glee club members ranked according to sexual promiscuity. Principal Figgins demands to know who posted it, but no one will cop to it. Inspired by the situation, Mr. Schuester asks the kids to come up with songs that have unfair bad reputations that need to be rehabilitated. Along the way Finn posts a stolen video to YouTube of Sue Sylvester dancing to Olivia Newton-John's "Physical." This makes her a laughing stock -- until the singer herself is so impressed that she recruits Sue to co-star with her in a new video for the song.

A majority of this episode was an all-out laugh riot, particularly Kurt's failed attempts to give himself a bad reputation, best of all a table-dancing performance of "U Can't Touch This" in the school library. Alas, the elderly librarian thinks it was "cute" and tells Kurt she's going to ask her pastor to let them perform the song in church on Sunday. The storyline worked because it never became serious. Every scene in this subplot for the entire hour was played for laughs, and every one killed.

Less successful but still fun was Rachel's music video for "Run Joey Run" for which she recruited Jessie, Finn and Puck to play her love interests so that she'd look like a slut, thereby raising her from last place on the "glist." Again, even with an angry walkout by the boys upon seeing the finished product, the story was played lightly and for laughs, with no tearful resolution filled with sentimentality.

Ditto for Sue Sylvester. In response to her "Physical" humiliation, she offers to become Emma's therapist, revealing to the guidance counselor in the process that Will had slept with April Rhodes and made out with Shelby Corcoran. In a dramatic scene that hit every note perfectly, Emma tells off Will in the teacher's lounge. Too often the show relies on Will Schuester as a perfect specimen of humanity, above the fray. In the rare moments when it allows another character to call him on his mistakes without irony, the show offers something more than its usual surface level, black-and-white pop psychology.

And then there was a tearful resolution to the list mystery that was done so quickly and painlessly as to not bog down the rest of the episode. The list was really unimportant anyway, as it only served as a setup for the show's real plot threads, so a quick reveal-and-resolve was appropriate. (It was Quinn, by the way. The reasons are unimportant.)

Apart from "U Can't Touch This," the episode's musical numbers were problematic. Any song in which Matthew Morrison raps will be bottom of the barrel bad, and "Ice Ice Baby" was no exception. Mr. Schuester's rendition was a far bigger musical crime than Vanilla Ice's and did nothing to rehabilitate the song. The show's final performance, "Total Eclipse of the Heart," was a good one, but I take issue with it being a song in need of "musical parole." It's a great song and is, I believe, widely regarded as such. No bad reputation to be found.

This episode is a prime example of the show's problem with tone. There are three plots. First, Rachel gets loses her singing voice and fears it will be permanent, sending her into a depression. We know this because she starts wearing pajamas to school and stops brushing her hair. Finn helps her by taking her to visit a friend of his who is paralyzed from a football injury. He helps Rachel realize that even if her voice never returns that doesn't mean she loses everything. She then offers to give him singing lessons, and they duet on U2's "One."

This story begins as a comedy, but from the moment Finn and Rachel walk into Sean's house, the tone jumps from screwball to serious drama. The shift is sudden and jarring, with no bridge between the laughter and the very real lessons to be learned from Sean's experience. And while I have no problem with the introduction of the disabled character, even with no setup at all in the script, I'm not 100% comfortable with the way "Glee" uses its disabled cast. While I applaud the inclusiveness of having them on the show, it cheats every one of them to an extent by making their entire characters be about their disabilities. Any time Artie has a plot of his own in an episode, it will be largely if not entirely defined by his condition. When the hearing impaired students from the school for the deaf's glee club performed "Imagine," it was entirely about their disability, with the McKinley kids joining in on the song, stealing the spotlight and drowning out the team that's supposed to be performing. In that setting, the hearing impaired team were little more than an instrument to demonstrate how caring the McKinley kids are. Here, Sean isn't a cheap emotional ploy to make us like Finn or Rachel more, but he also never becomes anything more than his paralysis. Sure, the script tells us that he's good at math and he sings a duet with Rachel at the end, but the gravity of that moment comes mostly from the fact that he's lying in a bed and can't actually feel Rachel hold his hand (though he remembers what it feels like). Moving? Yes. Developing Sean as a character with any depth? No. If I believed the show was going to bring Sean back as a recurring character, I might accept this as a proper introduction to someone we'll get to know more about later. But it seems pretty clear that is as deep as "Glee" wants to go with him. And that's a shame.

In the episode's second storyline, Puck has to shave his mohawk for a medical exam, and finds himself no longer feared by the student body. The geeks actually toss him in a dumpster. While lying in the dumpster he hatches a plan to raise his status by dating Mercedes (or as Puck calls her, "black girl in glee club whose name I don't remember right now"), who is apparently one of the school's most popular girls now thanks to her Cheerios membership. Mercedes and Santana fight over Puck, to the tune of "The Girl Is Mine," a song choice that suggests more about the girls' lack of self-esteem than Puck's irresistibility. When Puck's status allows him to revert to being a bully, Mercedes dumps Puck -- and the Cheerios. The setup for this plot is done comically with the excellent opening dumpster scene (is there such a thing as a bad Puck voiceover?), but it never goes anywhere from there, comically or dramatically. And as best as I can tell, the only reason Mercedes quit the Cheerios is because the show was done with that arc.

The show's final storyline features the best and worst of the episode. As Kurt sees his dad spending more time with Finn, he tries to get his attention by wearing trucker hats and overalls, singing John Mellencamp and, in one of the show's best sequences ever, hooking up with Brittany. Between Kurt's rendition of "Pink Houses" and his dad walking in on him and Brittany having "sexual relations" (they're actually just kissing), I don't think I've ever laughed this hard during the entire series. A top notch comedic performance by Chris Colfer, who mines the ridiculousness of Kurt-as-redneck for every bit of its gold. But after Kurt's dad catches him singing a showtune (also well done), the plot devolves into a tearful confrontation between father and son in which Kurt accuses (again) his father of being ashamed of him while Kurt's father assures him (again) that he loves him and is proud of him exactly as he is. It's not that this kind of tearful moment can't work. It absolutely can, and has on numerous other shows. But when the storyline is set up as a farcical one, a sentimental resolution doesn't work without a gradual transition between the two extremes. Here it's impossible to reconcile the trucker-wannabe Kurt making out with Brittany with the crying one desperate for his father's love. Why? Because the show's writers don't want to put in the work necessary to join them together within a single human being.

"Dream On"
This is the long-awaited episode directed by Joss Whedon, co-starring his "Dr. Horrible" leading man Neil Patrick Harris. School board member Bryan Ryan (Harris) visits the school to decide what programs will be cut. Bryan, it turns out, is a former glee club member at McKinley and was Mr. Schuester's biggest rival. Bryan's musical dreams never came true, so now he sees it as his duty to make sure the glee club kids know their dreams won't come true either. And to shut down the glee club. Recognizing one another as kindred spirits, it's not long before he and Sue Sylvester get hot and heavy. ("Should I lock the door?" "No, I've got a secret room upstairs. Like Letterman.")

Great setup, right? Well it falls apart only 15 minutes in when Bryan reveals that he wants nothing more than to sing again. So Will suggests that they both try out for the local theater company's production of "Les Miserables" so Bryan can do what he loves again. Just like that a great nemesis for Will becomes yet another Will-worshipper. A lesser rivalry between the two men develops once they realize they're trying out for the same part, but by then the fun has already deflated. Harris does wonders with what little material he's given, but for the most part he's wasted in the episode. In the two songs he gets to sing, he's forced to share both with Will as duets. This is NPH, yo. Show him a little respect, "Glee."

Separate from the Will-Schuester-is-awesome show, Tina learns that Artie's dream is to be a dancer. Confined to a wheelchair, he knows this to be an impossible dream, but Tina gets his hopes up by bringing him printouts from the internet about all the potential treatments for spinal injuries being developed. This leads to what just might be the show's best musical production number so far. Artie imagines himself stepping out of his wheelchair, walking in a shopping mall. He then sings "The Safety Dance," in a scene choreographed as a flash mob. one by one, shoppers step out of the crowd to join the dance routine. Several shots of the scene are shown from the point of view of cell phones and mini video cameras throughout the mall, adding to the flash mob atmosphere. At song's end, Artie collapses into his wheelchair. The camera cuts to a wide shot of him sitting in the chair surrounded by shoppers going about their business, oblivious to the imaginings of the boy beside them. Powerful stuff.

In a setup to a later episode, Rachel reveals to Jessie that her dream is to find her birth mother. She and Jessie look through her fathers' file cabinets for clue's to her mother's identity, with Jessie mysteriously planting an audio cassette from Rachel's mother into one of the boxes. We soon learn that Vocal Adrenaline coach Shelby Corcoran is Rachel's birth mother, and the whole reason she had Jessie start dating Rachel was so he could push her to find Shelby. Jessie eventually convinces Rachel to listen to the tape, which is a recording of an anonymous Shelby singing "I Dreamed a Dream" for her daughter.

The adoption/surrogate issues depicted here are exceedingly well done. The scripting and performances of both Rachel and Shelby are heartbreaking in their authenticity, with both showing equal amounts of eagerness and hesitation. Adoption issues rarely get a truthful depiction in Hollywood, but this storyline is one of the few that gets it right, for the most part. (Too bad it would be reduced to trite, condescending inaccuracies when followed up in "Theatricality." See below.)

A quick note here about viewing order. The next episode to air was actually "Theatricality," not "Funk," but in production order "Funk" came first. For whatever reason, Fox decided to air the episodes out of order. Based on the Twittersphere chatter on Tuesday night while "Funk" aired, it was clear the switcheroo had caused a lot of continuity issues (not that "Glee" is all that concerned with continuity to begin with) that confused viewers. Based on Myles McNutt's suggestion, I opted to watch them in production, not broadcast, order.

For a show purporting to be about funk, this episode lacked, well, funk. Three of the songs performed in the episode were not from the funk genre despite the fact that at the performers of at least two of them (James Brown's "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" and Marky Mark's "Good Vibrations") explicitly claimed they were. At the very least, Mr. Schuester did tell the boys after "Good Vibrations" that the song wasn't actually funk, but why waste one of the episode's few songs on one that doesn't fit the theme. (Neither does Beck's "Loser," since we're counting.) It's practically a stereotypical depiction of white people not understanding African-American music, yet there's no clue from the show itself that it's intended as anything but straight-forward. In fact, Quinn's flat performance of the James Brown song was supposed to prove to Mercedes that white people can do funk. (Yes, I realize that James Brown invented the funk genre, but "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" isn't a funk song.)

The plot here, what little there is, is basically that Jessie St. James is suddenly a dick. Vocal Adrenaline shows up at McKinley to psych out their completion with a surprise performance. Jessie informs the McKinley kids that he's transferred back to Carmel and rejoined Vocal Adrenaline because he never felt accepted at McKinley. Apparently we're just supposed to take his word for this even though it flies in the face of everything we saw onscreen during his time at McKinley. In the "Glee" world, "because I said so" constitutes valid character motivation. In reality, it's just lazy writing.

The Vocal Adrenaline performance leaves the McKinley glee clubbers in a funk, leading to the assignment that results in the songs mentioned above.

In addition to the sudden transfer back to Carmel, Jessie starts mistreating Rachel directly. Thinking they've broken up, Rachel is elated to receive a phone call from him in which he invites her to meet him in the parking lot. As she runs to him, the rest of Vocal Adrenaline appears and assault her with eggs. As a final insult, Jessie himself smashes the last egg on her head. Like I said, he's a dick.

Meanwhile, Mr. Schuester decides to humiliate Sue Sylvester by seducing her(!) and then standing her up on their first date. The fact that Sue falls to Will's seduction is yet another crumbling in the effectiveness of her character. In the season's first half, what worked so well about her was that she hated Will, pure and simple. There was no way around it, so she remained an unmovable roadblock in his path. Sure, her character became nuanced through other revelations, but sometimes a person hates another person without equivocation, and that's what made Sue a great villain.

Since the show's spring return, however, the writers have decided that Sue, too, will get in line to worship the glee club coach, just like everyone else on the show, especially Will Schuester himself. In "The Power of Madonna" we learned that Sue actually adores Will's curly hair, despite the fact that she'd made fun of it with withering and hilarious insults in nearly every previous episode. Now we learn that Sue can be brought to her knees by Will simply by having him sing a song and shake his ass. At best it's an insult to a strong character. At worst it renders her powerless in the eyes of the audience. Sue (and the show itself) is a lot more interesting when her hatred of Will is uncompromising. It makes the show funnier and more creative because it has to work around her constant hatred. A series like "Glee" needs multiple points of view in play, and having at least one voice that's critical of Will is crucial to maintaining a proper balance. Sue's hatred doesn't just make her a more interesting character. It makes Will a more interesting one, too.

Once Will stands her up on their date, she confines herself to her bed (clutching a trophy -- admittedly, a nice touch) and neglects the Cheerios. Seeing all the cheerleaders lose direction without Sue to lead them, Will goes to her house and convinces Sue to go back to work for the sake of the kids. As a result, the Cheerios win their sixth consecutive national championship.

Across the board, "Funk" does a disservice to its characters. Over 20 episodes of backstory mean nothing, with both Sue and Jessie suddenly, with no explanation or motivation, behaving against type in order to change the direction of the plot. When some people called the "Lost" finale a betrayal of it fans, I chafed at the characterization. It's one thing to call a show bad, but "betrayal" seemed to be overstepping. In a phone conversation with a friend on Wednesday about this very topic, I said, "It's not a betrayal. It's a TV show, for Christ sakes. They didn't kill your mother." Yet, I'm at a loss for any way to describe the Jessie St. James and Sue Sylvester offered to viewers in "Funk" other than as a betrayal.

Okay, I'll settle for "lazy."

This episode was hyped as a mini-Lady Gaga tribute, which is a bit of an insult to KISS, since that band had just as many songs in the episode as Gaga and just as many characters dressed in their costumes.

I'll mention the music first because that was the only part of "Theatricality" that worked for me. I am a closet Lady Gaga fan. I don't own any of her music, but I think she's an immensely talented artist whose commercial releases only scrape the surface of what she can do musically. For all the comparisons to Madonna, Gaga's actual musical talents dwarf anything possessed by the Material Girl, even if both use sexually-charged stunts to get our attention. Here, both "Bad Romance" and "Poker Face" were given faithful interpretations that made the best of the material.

As for KISS, they were my first musical love as a child, mainly because they terrified me. Now, the guys talk to the press and appear out of costume on a regular basis, but in the late 1970s they were a menacing presence, never appearing publicly as anything other than their demonic stage personas. I feared them, and thus loved them. In "Theatricality" the McKinley boys opt to perform as KISS as a response to the girls' Gaga selection. They nailed both "Shout It Out Loud" and "Beth," two very different songs. The attachment of the latter song to the naming of Quinn and Puck's baby gave it even greater weight.

Despite its musical success, much of the rest of "Theatricality" was botched by everyone involved, but particularly by writer Ryan Murphy. Rachel's search for her birth mother, handled so well in "Dream On," is given a trite, offensive treatment here. I'm hardly an expert on adoption issues, but I've dealt with many of them secondhand in recent years and have read books on the subject to help my understanding. Murphy, however, treats a serious subject as a plot thread that can be opened and closed neatly in a single hour, which is an insult to those for whom the topic is a personal one.

While spying on a Vocal Adrenaline rehearsal, Rachel hears Shelby Corcoran sing and immediately recognizes the voice as her mother's. She introduces herself to Shelby as her daughter, and the two have a tentative but moving conversation. Alas, a story Rachel tells about her fathers bringing her a glass of water when she's scared spooks Shelby, who cuts the conversation short and leaves. A few days later, however, Rachel returns, asking Shelby to sew her a Gaga costume. Shelby does it.

To this point, the situation is still handled well. The tentative exchanges are authentic and exactly what one would expect from two people dealing with a lot of nerves and unresolved issues. But then Will Schuester enters the picture.

Every time Rachel mentions her mother in the presence of Mr. Schuester, he makes a disapproving face, communicating to the viewers at home that he doesn't think this mother-daughter reunion is a good idea. Eventually, he goes to Shelby and without saying it explicitly, encourages Shelby to back off and put some distance between herself and Rachel because Shelby isn't ready or willing to be a mother. So that's exactly what Shelby does, telling Rachel that they have to end their relationship. The two sing a song together and part ways.

First of all, the interference of Mr. Schuester is without question inappropriate. It's none of his business. The presumption necessary for him to insert himself into the middle of a reunion between a daughter and her birth mother is astounding. Second, he couches the situation as if Shelby has only two choices: a) become Rachel's full blown mother or b) cut Rachel off. Frankly, both of those options are terrible ones. Rachel already has parents: her two fathers. They raised her and are still raising her, and that wouldn't stop simply because Rachel found her birth mother. Thus, the assumption that a birth mother must become parental figure immediately is unnecessary and absurd. Shelby hasn't been a mother to Rachel all of these years. Why would any birth mother be expected to jump into full-time parenting duties the minute a reunion occurs? The initial relationship will be tentative and nervous by necessity. Neither person knows what to expect from the other or whether the other is going to do something to hurt them. Everything depicted between Shelby and Rachel prior to Will's interference is consistent with this.

More realistic than an expectation of motherhood is the gradual development of a unique sort of relationship between the two that isn't exactly either mother-daughter or friends. It would take time to become a comfortable one as the two figure out their roles and develop trust, and what Rachel and Shelby shared up to this point was a solid beginning, but just that: a beginning. Will and Shelby both ignore this middle ground, opting instead to mine the black and white depiction of issues that "Glee" relies upon every week.

By taking Will's second option, however, Shelby inflicts a lot of psychological damage on Rachel. In essence, it marks a second rejection of the daughter by the birth mother, and whatever insecurities Rachel had before the reunion will only be amplified from here on out. This may manifest in an emotional shutdown or through unhealthy romantic relationships, but its impact will probably be significant.

Now, I'm not saying that the show absolutely shouldn't have had Shelby end the relationship with Rachel. This is something that can and does happen after these kind of reunions, but if Ryan Murphy wants to go there, he needs to commit to it for the long haul, because the issues don't end just because the hour fades to black and the credits roll. "Glee's" lack of interest in developing its ongoing storylines does not bode well for a healthy handling of the subject matter. Instead, it will only come up, if ever, in episodes where the theme calls for it.

So what of the rest of the episode? Finn uses a homosexual slur when complaining about Kurt's redecorating, which is overheard by Kurt's father who defends his son and kicks Finn out. Finn makes it up to Kurt at episode's end by protecting him from a beatdown by a couple of homophobic football players. No depth. No interest in depth. But it does give Mike O'Malley yet another great scene as a blue collar father who loves his gay son unconditionally. He has become one of the series unexpected joys. (And who would've ever thought we'd ever describe Mike O'Malley's contributions to a TV show like that? A very impressive career transformation for O'Malley.)


So there you have it. Five weeks of "Glee" in two days, and clearly the break didn't help my opinion of the series. Though if two-thirds of the episodes were on par with "Bad Reputation," with a third dipping into "Dream On" territory, it would be a very good, very watchable show. But with dreck like "Laryngitis," "Funk," and the emotionally obtuse "Theatricality" mucking things up, the series remains a mess. Honestly, though, when this show does comedy, I love it, and that's what keeps me coming back to punish myself.

Next week is the season finale, so I'll stick around for that, just to see what happens. If the upbeat ending of the winter finale is any indication, it might end up being a good episode. And in the long term, if Ryan Murphy, Ian Brennan and Brad Falchuk would remember that the show is called "Glee" and not "Despair," they could turn it into something great.

Perhaps our definitions of "glee" are different.

May 31, 2010

Among Georgia O'Keeffe's numerous painting's of her home's patio door, two 1954 companion works differ only in their use of color. "Black Door with Red" has vibrant reds and yellows contrasting with the black doorway in the center. In "My Last Door," however, the red background is replaced with white while the yellow accents become shades of gray. Interesting, then, that "Breaking Bad," a show known for its use of color, chose to showcase the monochromatic work in tonight's episode which, like O'Keefe's painting, was muted only in its tone.

When the episode ended, I initially felt like it was little more than a functional bridge between the season's incredible middle episodes and whatever action would play out in the final two hours. But later I realized how much happened tonight. Skyler volunteered to be Walt's money launderer. She also revealed that, well, she never quite got around to filing those divorce papers. Oh, and Jesse stumbled upon the identities of the dealers who killed Combo last year. Just as the O'Keefe painting first bored Jesse to sleep before ultimately inspiring a lively debate with Jane, this episode's quiet demeanor hid a lot of drama under its surface.

Jesse and Jane's flashback debate about O'Keefe's tendency to paint the same subject over and over foreshadowed a conversation between Walt and Gus. In the former, a bored Jesse suggested the painter wanted to paint one perfect door. To Jane, however, it was an exercise in contentment: "That door was her home, and she loved it. To me that's about making that feeling last." The latter conversation occurs after Walt learns his marriage might not be as over as he thought, seeing a chance to perhaps go back to the home he loves. Gus, on the other hand, favors perfection, cautioning Walt not to make the same mistake twice. Which mistake? There are any number of things Gus may have been alluding to. If he's spoken to Saul, he knows Walt is letting his wife even deeper into his dark life. If the entire White family was in danger with only Walt involved, the risk jumps higher with his wife cooking the books. But if Gus does have Walt's lab bugged, it's more likely he's voicing concern yet again about Jesse. (As he told Walt before: "You can never trust a drug addict.)

And there's now a lot to be concerned about. In addition to skimming product, Jesse will now want to get even for Combo's murder. That kind of direct violence isn't Gus's style, so he'll do whatever it takes to keep Jesse in check. I have to admit, though, I was surprised how well Jesse hid his anger when quizzing Andrea about her brother, especially since he'd blown up at her just a couple of minutes before.

As for Skyler, her offer to run Walt's financial schemes seems to be more about love of money than love of family. And she can even use her corruption for passive aggressive gain. When Walt protests her involvement after their powwow with Saul, she tells him it's too late for that. "This is what happens when you decide pay our bills with drug money." She, of course, leaves out that she's the one who decided to pay Hank and Marie's bills, too.

This sneaky little episode set up quite a few big developments to play out in the season's final two episodes. Walt's guilt-ridden decision to bring Jesse into the operation now shows multiple ways to end badly for both of them.

A few random thoughts...

  • My favorite use of color tonight was Walt's clothing choice for his visit to Gus's house. He had on his now standard blue shirt, but covered up by a brown jacket that perfectly matched Gus's own sweater. The jacket may not be quite as suffocating as the yellow hazmat suit he has to wear in the lab, but even on a social visit he's still Gus's man, albeit with a bit more of his own personality peeking out.
  • Since Bob Odenkirk joined the show last year, most of the series' blatantly humorous moments seem to involve Saul. This allowed the rest of the show to become darker than its first season while not losing the black humor it does so well.
  • Saul on Skyler: "Clearly his taste in women is the same as his taste in lawyers: only the very best, with just the right amount of dirty."
  • Saul on car washes: "Hey, how come you guys always get with the air freshener? I explicitly say I want no air freshener, and every time I driver away smelling like an alpine whorehouse."
  • Saul on marriage: "Is that you talking or Yoko Ono?"
  • Saul on commitment to a story: "I once convinced a woman I was Kevin Costner, and it worked because I believed it."

May 29, 2010

The end of May sweeps is a peculiar time to launch a TV blog, but it provides the advantage of allowing me to become comfortable reviewing television shows during a low volume time. However, rather than rely solely on the summer's cable series to keep me busy, I have something else in mind. Inspired by Alan Sepinwall's annual summer re-watching ritual and Myles McNutt's ongoing Cultural Catchup Project, I've selected two critically acclaimed shows I missed during their initial runs to watch and review on a weekly basis over the summer. They are:

"The Shield" and "Better Off Ted."

In both cases I'll be watching the first season. Unlike most shows I watch after their original broadcasts, I won't be devouring multiple episodes a day. In fact, the plan is to watch only one episode of each in a given week. This serves both to duplicate the real experience of watching first-run episodic television and to give me the time to write a proper recap. A couple of weeks ago I watched about 25 episodes of "Breaking Bad" in eight days. That's not really a time-frame that's conducive to writing.

May 29, 2010

Megan Mullally's Lydia Dunfree didn't exactly mesh with the rest of the "Party Down" cast during the first half of the season, finding herself with little to do other than smile in amusement at the tragic lives of her co-workers. As the show's most optimistic personality, she seemed a logical foil for Roman, but that relationship has yet to be explored. Instead, the writers opted in this episode to put her in the one place most likely to challenge her glass half full outlook: in the romantic sights of Ron Donald.

You can't blame her for not realizing his repetition of the phrase "not if I see you first" was a flirtation. But after Lydia's desperate efforts to get in on the orgy action a few weeks ago, you almost feel sorry for Ron upon discovering that even she finds him repulsive, to the point of macing him.

The show didn't abandon its dangling storyline, picking up immediately with the aftermath of Casey and Henry's kiss in Steve Guttenberg's hot tub. But their agreed upon detente followed by another bit of making out was as much about setting up jokes as it was the romantic plot. Which is how it should be on a show this funny.

"Party Down" thrives on farce (think season one's "Celebrate Rick Sargulesh"), so it's no surprise that an episode about a farcical play would be the best of the season to date. The romantic entanglements of the characters wrapped back upon one another endlessly with multiple mistaken identities, one of which led to Kyle playing out a sexual fantasy with a gorilla mask. I've never seen the movie "Noises Off," but this is pretty much the way I always imagined it (though maybe without the references to lesbian karaoke night).

Roman, for his part, was far too busy with the pansexual frenzy at the bar to worry about everyone else's drama. Somehow his two companions were actually aroused by his story of one last man trying to avoid the processor farms in a world of human replicants.

A few random thoughts...

  • Tonight's episode was directed by David Wain, who also directed "Wet Hot American Summer" and "Role Models." Between Wain, Ken Marino and Kerri Kenney-Silver, there were three former members of "The State" involved in the episode.
  • Speaking of Kerri Kenney-Silver, did you notice her fondling the breast of the woman in the painting behind the bar during Roman's pansexual frenzy?
  • "If you're shunned it will be for the usual reasons." "Because I'm a Jew."
  • The end of Roman's sci-fi story: "...and the whole world is humanoid replicants except for one last guy. One last man who has to blend in or else he'll, too, be sent to the processor farms."
  • "You were great in 'Misery.'"

May 27, 2010

Last night at 11:59pm, the May sweeps ended, marking the end of the television season. This seasonal model really only pertains to the broadcast networks these days, but nevertheless I thought I'd take a look back at what I watched and enjoyed (or didn't) this year.

"30 Rock"
Not so long ago "30 Rock" was the crown jewel in NBC's Thursday night comedy lineup. Now it's the weakest link. There's been considerable backlash against the show this year. And some backlash against the backlash, though I'm firmly in the backlash camp. But for the fact that Tina Fey is walking around a TV set, one would have no idea that the show is about a sketch comedy series on NBC anymore. Every third week or so the show turned in a comic gem, indicating it was back on track, then promptly fell off the rails again the following week. Jack Donaghy's romantic storyline with guest star Elizabeth Banks provided a lot of great comic banter, until it was weighed down with a trite love triangle that brought cliches (and bad Boston accents) into affairs. Jenna and Tracy, once the source of so much of the show's charms, now repeat the same rote ego gags every week. And poor Kenneth the NBC page. The more the show tries to break him out of his one note role (but what a great note), the less charming the character becomes, though his drunken send-off speech in the season finale more than made up for it. Another ongoing source of irritation is the show's insistence that Liz Lemon is an overweight frump when we're all looking at the same thin, beautiful woman who always seems to be showing a fair amount of cleavage. In the end, "30 Rock" is showing the same arc that SNL had during Fey's tenure as head writer: early brilliance followed by steady decline. But for all my harping, refocusing on the work place and the show within the show would do a fair amount to improve "30 Rock" come fall. C

The lure here is clearly Nathan Fillion as mystery writer Rick Castle. His rapport with Det. Kate Beckett, aided by some great writing, usually overshadows the case-of-the-week, which is often a good thing. Over the course of the show's second season, the non-mystery action shifted further away from Castle's family to play up his sexual tension with Beckett. After a season finale that placed yet more romantic barriers between the pair, the producers clearly want to milk this angle for as long as possible. As long as things stay just as fun next year, I think I'm okay with that. B

The great debate among TV fans this year has been which is the best new comedy series, "Modern Family" or "Community." Count me in the "Community" camp. Much has been made about the show's reliance on pop culture references, but unlike "Family Guy," the show doesn't succeed or fail based solely on a viewer's knowledge of the reference. A big reason the show improved as the season progressed was its ability to adapt as writers figured out what worked. In the pilot, the show positioned Joel McHale and Gillian Jacobs as romantic leads with Chevy Chase and Donald Glover as the comedy duo and the rest of the cast filling certain requisite archetypes. The romantic plot faded away as its limitations became apparent (though it returned with mixed results by season's end), while Glover found himself more often paired with Danny Puti than Chase. More importantly, the entire cast member showed itself to be equally adept at verbal and physical comedy, regardless of the archetypes each actor originally represented. This allowed the show to take bold risks, from a "Goodfellas" spoof about chicken fingers to an all out action movie homage, that allowed "Community" to soar well above the sitcom fray most weeks. A

"Family Guy"
At this point, Seth McFarlane's long-running and oft-canceled series is running on fumes. The flashback gags still generate chuckles, but the show's originality and enthusiasm just isn't there anymore. C-

This science fiction series has a lot more in common with "Glee" than you might think. Both had fantastic pilot episodes that suggested a year of greatness to come. Both veered from week to week between quality and "worst show on TV" territory. Both featured miscast actors in lead roles that weighed down what should have been a can't miss story. But where "Glee" does seem to know one or two things about high school, if the FBI setting depicted in "Flashforward" is even remotely accurate, everyone in this country is in a lot of danger. The small(!) group of agents investigating a worldwide blackout contains not one but two double agents, and when our intrepid hero figures out someone is leaking info , he takes away everyone's cell phones but not their guns during the in-house investigation. Guess what happens next. But this kind of high camp could've worked if the show's writers hadn't found more enjoyment in exposition, particularly repetitive exposition, than action. And in the odd moments where the characters do resort to action, odds are they're speaking in exposition the entire time. Yet for all this descriptive dialogue, not one character seems capable of acting like a real human being with real motivations. In their flashforwards, FBI agent Mark Benford and his wife saw themselves separated, a prospect they find horrifying. Yet when his wife suggests the couple move to another city to avoid all the things likely to push them toward a breakup, he refuses. Another character saw herself being murdered in her vision. When the day of the flashforwards arrives, her boyfriend vows to protect her. Yet when they have an argument a short time later, he leaves her behind in a huff, with no consideration whatsoever for her imminent death. The show is still airing its remaining episodes, and for some reason I'm sticking with it to the end, but ABC has already announced it won't be back in the fall. D

Where it's obvious predecessor "The X-Files" shown brightest in non-mythology, standalone episodes, "Fringe" hits its stride when dealing with its continuous narrative head on. Over the course of two seasons the show has slowly built up the fabric of its parallel universes, with "observers," shape shifters, and temporal anomalies. With each element, however, things shift just enough to keep audiences re-evaluating. This all paid off beautifully in a two-part finale that traveled into the show's alternate universe, revealing the grand villain to be "Walternate," the alternate universe's version of John Noble's half-crazy scientist. This isn't to say the show wasn't firing on all cylinders the rest of the season. It was, with Noble putting on a weekly showcase of charming eccentricity. Sometimes the leaps in logic are hard to swallow, particularly from Walter's uneducated yet somehow versed-in-everything son. But that's a small complaint. With it's intense, revelatory season ending, "Fringe" seems poised to become the closest thing we'll have to a "Lost"-like conversation show next year. B+

From an immensely enjoyable pilot to grating pandering in just half a season. When it first arrived on the scene, "Glee" had it all: heart, humor and story. Over the course of the season, the show's tone veered randomly , sometimes a biting satire with dark themes, while other times evoking the emotion of an unironic afterschool special. Eventually, the show settled closer to the latter. (One episode actually ended with the entire school in the gymnasium swaying and singing along to Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful.") With the tone decided, the series lost all interest in plot, with each week presenting a new reason why Will and Emma or Finn and Rachel can't be together. Or why Kurt and his father just can't connect. Any progress a "mean" character makes in one episode is conveniently forgotten the following week. Instead, each episode begins at roughly the same narrative point as the last, offering the characters a chance to explore a different theme in that unmoving plot before resetting things yet again so they can tackle the 18th or 19th variation of the same story next week. There's little left of that wonderful pilot other than the music, which now dwarfs every other aspect of the show, no doubt because Fox can sell five or six more songs each week on iTunes. Instead of selecting songs to match the narrative, now it seems the storylines revolve solely around whatever songs the producers thought would sound cool, as evidenced by a musically rich but dramatically cold tribute episode to Madonna. In the end, "Glee" is a quality framework corrupted by its desire for mass adoption. I am, however, giving a lot of thought to revisiting the series to see if I can accept what it became rather than what I thought it would be. Stay tuned. D

"The Good Wife"
I started watching this show in the fall, but after the winter hiatus I never came back. Many critics continue to praise the series, but as an attorney I can't get past the show's ridiculous inaccuracies. From First Amendment arguments in a personal injury case to an appellate proceeding that played out like a trial (complete with witnesses and a judge apologizing to the defendant), there's little about the legal system this show gets right. Laughing at the show's gaffes even became a weekly exercise at the law school where I work (until one by one every participant stopped watching the show). Outside its judicial ignorance, it's little more than a passable drama. And as with every single legal drama to ever air on television, the lead female attorney character is well on her way toward sleeping with her boss, a tired and sexist cliche if ever there was one. C-

"How I Met Your Mother"
Maybe this is just the "Lost" fan in me, but the HIMYM showrunners need to set an end date. In its first three or four seasons, the momentum of Ted's search for the titular wife gave the series an intensity that's now lacking. Shifting away from Ted, this season the show focused more on Robin and Barney's doomed romantic relationship and Marshall and Lily's marriage. Since the show is told from Ted's point of view, it's more of a challenge to invest viewers in these arcs. Rather than rise to the challenge, the writers often resigned themselves to emotional depictions about as deep as a molded plastic kiddie pool. The best example of this is the show's handling of Robin and Barney's breakup. The characters immediately reverted to their pre-relationship personalities, only acknowledging the break up's emotional consequences when the plot called for it. As the show moved away from Ted, his character became uneven, drifting from douchebag to the voice of reason depending on the week. Still, the show is funny, if not quite as funny as it early years. In season six, the producers need to remember the series' title or risk losing more audience engagement. B

Despite a fantastic series finale, this long-awaited season was arguably the series' worst (though far better than the first half of season three). Several weeks were wasted on a temple storyline that went nowhere, representative of a season that didn't have enough story to fill its episode allotment. Still, episodes like "The Substitute," "Happily Ever After," and "The End" will stand among the series' best. The finale divided viewers, but I remain firmly in the "pro" camp on that one. Regardless of the show's quality, this season generated just as much morning after chatter as the others did, which was sometimes more fun than watching the show itself. Thought provoking dramas like "Lost" are rare in episodic television, particularly on the broadcast networks. This show will be missed. B-

"Modern Family"
I'm not going to lie. The first time I watched the pilot episode, I turned it off with about five minutes left. I hated it. Hearing all the positive reviews of friends and critics, I tried it again a couple weeks later and didn't last more than 15 minutes. Finally, early this spring I tried one last time. And it took. At that point I finally fell hard for this show. It's difficult to say what makes this show work other than the fact that it's just funny, every single week. The characters are more richly drawn than on most comedies, with the humor originating in their personalities rather than the other way around. Oh, and it's really funny. A-

"The Office"
It's not that Dunder-Mifflin isn't a funny place anymore. It is. But "The Office" seems to be phoning it in lately. Too often, the funniest moments in an episode are one off sight gags from the supporting cast (Kevin running to his desk when he finds out the IT guy is searching hard drives or Creed fleeing the building when Michael tells him he's a suspect in their murder mystery party) rather than anything from the show's "A" storylines. With Dunder-Mifflin sold to Sabre last year, the show spent this season playing with alternate configurations, like Michael and Jim's stint as co-managers. Past story developments carried real consequence for the characters, but this year's machinations felt like temporary diversions that would never prevent the status quo from returning, a storytelling method that doesn't live up to this show's grand past. Kathy Bates' CEO character never clicked either, with her comings and goings doing little more than interfering with the employees' lives and making audiences squirm with impatience rather than uncomfortable laughter. If next year is the last for "The Office," as it should be if Steve Carrell does leave the show, it will create a big comedy hole on Thursday nights, but the time might be right for an exit. Hopefully the showrunners will know the series' fate long enough in advance to craft a robust and funny conclusion. B-

"Parks & Recreation"
Easily the season's most improved show. After a mediocre launch last spring, "Parks & Recreation" reinvented itself through its depiction of Amy Poehler's Leslie Knope. Initially something of an incompetent who clashed with her co-workers, this year Knope proved herself a dedicated and caring civil servant. Along the way, the entire parks department crew went from angry dysfunction to tight family unit, proving that a show in which everyone genuinely likes one another provides more comic flexibility than one based upon animosity. Ron Swanson provided some of the year's funniest TV moments, from proving himself a master of the woodshop to cackling at the prospect of budget cuts. "Community" may have soared higher at times, but "Parks & Recreation" is now consistently the best comedy on television. A

The attempted reboot of the series focusing on a new cast of medical students fell flat, and ABC finally canceled the show. The new cast was uneven, with the writers only able to play up the strengths of standout Michael Mosley late in the 13 episode run. The reboot was also hurt by the show's over-reliance on guest appearances from original cast members, preventing a proper establishment of the new cast. D+

I lasted five episodes with this one, and only because I heard that the network fired the original showrunner after week four. Once I saw that the new lead writer didn't produce a better show, I cut my losses and left. As bad as the dialogue on "Flashforward" was, at least the characters on that show said things relevant to the plot. Here the words coming out of people's mouths served no purpose at all. ("What can we do? Run?" "We can't run." "Then we'll have to fight." "Oh, we'll fight.) The pilot episode featured a covert meeting of anti-alien rebel recruits in which, without being told why, everyone let a man they'd never met before make an incision in their heads to prove something or other. Eventually the meeting was raided by aliens who, rather than kill everyone with guns, produced swords for battle, which served little purpose other than to allow our heroes to escape with minor injuries. Also, an alien race with technology advanced enough to place hidden cameras in the fabric of every crew member's jacket apparently isn't smart enough to also place cameras in a hallway leading to its surveillance room, thus allowing a rebel to discover the room without being caught. It went downhill from there. If you think this sounds awesome, you're in luck. ABC is bringing it back next year. Along with "Flashforward," this show takes the cake as a can't miss concept that somehow still missed on every level. F

May 24, 2010

In the end, the finale of "Lost" gave me a headache. No, not because I was angry about the sideways world resolution. I wasn't. In fact, I enjoyed its explanation. And not because there weren't a lot of answers provided in those two and a half hours. "Lost" gave what answers it wanted to give in earlier episodes, allowing the series' end to focus on the characters and the narrative. It gave me a headache because a man can only cry so many times in 150 minutes.

Going into Sunday's cinematic episode, I had certain demands of "Lost." I wanted more information about Charles Widmore and Eloise Hawking. I needed to know what would happen to the rest of the world if Smokey ever got off the island. I expected a clearer understanding of the island's rules. And, yes, I thought I'd be unforgiving if we didn't find out who was shooting at our heroes' outrigger last season.

The minds behind "Lost" didn't fill any of those demands. Instead, they redirected viewer attention to what was important: the island narrative of the Oceanic 815 crash and the characters who were part of it. Well played.

I'll admit to a moment of hesitation in the last minutes when Jack realized that he, and everyone else in the Sideways World, was dead. When Christian Shepherd guided his son to this revelation, I feared he was saying they'd all died in the original crash, a fan theory long ago refuted by executive producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse. But the tumblers in my brain clicked quickly into place, and I realized this wasn't the case. What happened on the island happened. The Sideways World was something that happened at life's end.

I understand why this explanation for the Sideways World would rankle many. After all, we devoted half our attention this season to a storyline that had no impact on the island war. No payoff. No direct connection. We were fooled, just like island Desmond was. The castaways didn't get to leave their struggles behind and move to their happier sideways existences, and the sideways incarnations didn't need to choose their island lives to stop the Man in Black's evil machinations.

So why didn't this bother me? For one, with this knowledge in hand, it made me want to re-watch the entire season to experience Sideways World in an honest way. To see how and why the characters' choices were a journey of letting go. There's no doubt that everyone who became stuck in the island's pull would question whether that pull had ruined their lives, and that only upon getting the fantasy fulfillment provided by the Sideways World could they understand how meaningful and emotionally fulfilling their island miseries had been. It all matters. All of it.

I'm also reminded of Stephen King's introduction to the uncut edition of "The Stand," in which he speaks of the breadcrumbs in the fairy tale "Hansel and Gretel." The breadcrumbs are not essential to the story. Everything could and would happen much the same without them, yet they make the story better by fleshing out the characters and themes in ways not afforded by the main narrative thread. That's how I feel about the Sideways World. No, it wasn't necessary, but it did have something valid to say about everyone involved. There were some clunker storylines there. The Kate, Sayid and Jin/Sun stories meandered in frustrating ways, but when the stories popped, as with Jack, Locke, Desmond, Hurley and especially Ben, my enjoyment was no less meaningful simply because they weren't saving the world.

My biggest complaint with the Sideways World isn't how it resolved but the fact that it was something of a trick of the light, creating false suspense for viewers by dishonestly suggesting an imminent impact on the island timeline. Much of our investment in the events, particularly in the meandering moments, was based upon faith that it would connect. On its own I have no problem with that lack of connection, but the suggestions along the way that it would don't sit perfectly with me. I do, however, like that Desmond himself was fooled, believing that if he went into the heart of the island he'd be instantly transported to Happy Resolution Land. Thus our being tricked paralleled Desmond's, which takes a bit of the edge off my dissatisfaction.

As for the island, Lindelof and Cuse focused on the direct action necessary to resolve the series storyline. Though knowledge of the show's mythology was necessary to understand the action, this was not a mythology episode. The show wisely exhausted its font of answers in the episodes leading up to the finale. We'll argue among ourselves about whether the answers provided were satisfying, but keeping the finale free of "information download" exposition streamlined the story, allowing for immediacy and deeper viewer connection.

Everything mattered here, too. So much of the debates about the show have centered on what components of the show's chess board were placed by Jacob and which were placed by Smokey. Ultimately, they both needed the same things to set their plans in motion. Both needed the Oceanic Six back on the island. Both needed Desmond there, too. Both needed the stone cork to be removed from the heart of the island. Smokey needed this because the release of evil energy would destroy the island and set him free. Jacob, and by continuation Jack, needed it because it would make Smokey mortal.

The cliffside brawl between Jack and the Locke-faced Monster will stand as Jack Bender's finest moment on the show as an all-out action director. The sweeping camera shots captured the scene in a way few movies, let alone TV shows, do these days. For all the beatings various characters have taken in six years of the show, it really was all leading up to these two men kicking each others' asses.

And having Kate be the one to actually kill the bad guy? Unexpected and perfect. As a frequent damsel in distress on the show, putting the gun in her hands went back to the character's independent origins and allowed her to finally become what she wanted to be long before she came to the island: a protector of the people she loved.

I've spoken to a few people who weren't happy with Hurley becoming the island's ultimate protector, both because they wanted him to get off the island for a happily ever after and because they didn't want Jack to die. For me, this ending rings truer to the show's story than one where Jack spends eternity as protector. For the entire show, Jack has been "The Fixer." Got a problem you need to solve, call the Doc. He devotes himself tirelessly to an immediate problem and gets things done. But if you need someone for the long haul, he's possibly the worst guy you can get. Just ask his ex-wife. And so Jack solved the problem of the clicking cloud of black smoke that wants to wreak havoc on the world. That was his purpose. Once the problem was solved, though, the island's long disrupted status quo returns, and the island needs a protector who cares more about humanity than problem-solving. Looking at the line of succession for island protectors, Jacob's lines from the Season 5 finale ring true:

"It only ends once. Anything that happens before that is just progress."

Each protector we've seen has been progress. Jacob improved upon his island mother by introducing choice into the proceedings. Jack improved upon Jacob by solving the one problem Jacob couldn't: Smokey. And we are left to believe that Hurley will improve upon them all through his compassion. The best evidence we have for this? The Sideways World, seemingly a gift from Hugo to all his friends. Think of it as an extension of the golf course he gave them in the first season. But better, dude.

I saved more than one bullet for you:

  • Richard and Frank live! I figured they'd both turn up alive given their earlier uncertain ends, but I'm surprised -- and ecstatic -- they both made it off the island alive.
  • Kate, Sawyer and Ben all seemed destined for redemptive death scenes in the finale, yet all survived at the show's end. Given that Sayid provided the series with a meaningful death fitting the redemption story archetype, I'm relieved this concept wasn't beaten into the ground by taking one or all of these other survivors with it. That Ben got what he's always wanted, and gets to be the good guy doing it, had me in tears, as did his heartfelt -- and accepted -- apology to John Locke outside the church. The one big heroic death in the finale, Jack's death in the final scene, wasn't one of redemption at all. It was one of free will.
  • I'm happy not knowing what became of Kate, Sawyer, Claire, Richard, Miles and Frank after leaving the island. Since so much of this show is about choice and free will, the uncertainty of their lives ahead embodies that theme perfectly.
  • I'd long expected the series' final image to be a close-up of an eye closing, and from the moment Jack awoke outside the cave and stumbled through the bamboo field, I knew where things were headed. Yet I was still surprised at how perfectly that parallel with the show's opening scene worked. And I'd never expected Vincent to come bounding out of the jungle to keep him company in his final moments.
  • There's been some complaints that Michael and Walt weren't in the church at the end, but the show told us several weeks ago why we shouldn't expect Michael to be there: He's stuck on the island for eternity because of what he did there. As for Walt? Well, I guess it's just one more casualty of his adolescence.
  • Speaking of Walt, a lot of people are still wondering what was so special about him and Aaron to The Others. For me it's no mystery. They're special simply because they're children. On an island where women can't have children, seems like that would be pretty important, wouldn't it?
  • Yeah, I've still got questions. First and foremost right now: How the hell did Smokey get onto the freighter to for Michael's death scene? I have plenty of others, but that one nags me from a logical perspective.
  • It says something about how much I loved this finale that I didn't mind missing this week's "Breaking Bad" and "Treme" one bit and am still in no rush to watch either.
  • EDIT UPDATE: I just went back and watched the season's opening scene on the plane. Rose says to Jack after the turbulence: "It's over. You can let go." This just reinforces my belief that Rose and Bernard were already awake from the beginning of the Sideways World. Why were they awake? Because unlike the rest of the characters, they were the ones who let go in life, not getting involved in the drama. Thus, they only stuck around in Sideways to help everyone else -- Jack and Locke in particular -- wake up.

May 20, 2010

Next month I'm attending the 2010 Los Angeles Film Festival, which has a lineup this year of over 200 films. Earlier today I RSVP'd for the ten movies I'm attending:

Friday, June 18
The Two Escobars (dir: Jeff Zimbalist, Michael Zimbalist) - 7:30pm
Marwencol (dir: Jeff Malmberg) - 10:00pm

Saturday, June 19
The Red Chapel (dir: Mads Brugger) - 7:30pm
Cold Weather (dir: Aaron Katz) - 10:00pm

Sunday, June 20
The Tillman Story (dir: Amir Bar-Lev) - 1:30pm
Lebanon (dir: Samuel Moaz) - 4:30pm
Ain't in It for My Health: A Film About Levon Helm (dir: Jacob Hatley) - 7:00pm

Monday, June 21
Tiny Furniture (dir: Lena Dunham) - 10:00pm

Tuesday, June 22
Waiting for "Superman" (dir: Davis Guggenheim) - 5:15pm
Make Believe (dir: J. Clay Tweel) - 7:45pm

Due to a scheduling overlap with the CALI Conference for Law School Computing in New Jersey, I'm only attending the first five days of the festival. This means I'll miss several other movies I'd hope to catch, including "Centurion" (dir: Neil Marshall), "Four Lions" (dir: Christopher Morris), "Freakonomics" (dir: Heidi Ewing, Alex Gibney, Seth Gordon, Rachel Grady, Eugene Jarecki, Morgan Spurlock), "Kings of Pastry" (dir: Chris Hegedus, D.A. Pennebaker), "Monsters" (dir: Gareth Edwards) and the 25th anniversary screening of "Pee Wee's Big Adventure." In addition, my pass won't get me into the opening night screening of Lisa Cholodenko's "The Kids Are All Right." Since that would've cost me about $350 more, I'm okay with that. I'll happily wait a few weeks and see it for $12.

May 11, 2010

Like many academic libraries, my institution uses a liaison model to provide faculty service. In short, each member of the law school's faculty is assigned to a reference librarian. That librarian becomes a faculty member's liaison to the library, and any request for library service usually goes through this liaison. Ideally, in addition to waiting for direct requests for service, a librarian/liaison will stay on top of what faculty members are working on and funnel relevant information to them as needed, say keeping track of new books and articles in an area in which the faculty member typically writes.

Maintaining these faculty-librarian relationships are an ongoing challenge of the job. Some faculty like to stay in constant contact, so knowing what they're working on is easy. But others keep a little more distance, either because they're hesitant to ask for help or because they're simply more comfortable working in isolation. Even in these more "spacious" relationships, however, author alerts can be a good way for a librarian to keep track of a faculty member's interests without nagging him or her with unwanted emails and phone calls.

Most law school librarians are probably already aware of such author alerts from Westlaw ("WestClip") and Lexis ("Alerts"). LegalTrac provides them, too ("Search Alerts"). But the limitation of these alerts is that they're limited to what's already been published. If Westlaw sends an email notifying me that Prof. Smith has a new article in the Iowa Law Review, that can be useful in a number of ways, but it doesn't necessarily tell me what Prof. Smith is working on right now. In fact, it may simply tell me what he was working on a year ago.

So, in addition to those alerts, I also subscribe to author alerts for all of my faculty from SSRN (Social Science Research Network). Because many professors post working papers and forthcoming publications to SSRN, sometimes long before a journal accepts it for publication, these alerts keep me more up to date than the aforementioned systems. I'm still limited to what's already been written, not what's being researched currently, but the delay is considerably shorter than what I get from Westlaw, Lexis and LegalTrac.

As far as I can tell, author alerts from SSRN are only available via RSS feeds, but they're easy to access. Simply search for a professor's name. When you find an article he or she authored in the search results, just click the author name. This takes you to SSRN's author profile for the professor. In addition to listing all the articles in the system written by this professor, it provides a link to the RSS feed for the author. Subscribe to the feed using your preferred RSS reader, and you'll be notified whenever the professor uploads a new or revised article to SSRN. (A quick hint: Google Reader seemed to have trouble reading some of SSRN's author feeds, so I run all of mine through Feedburner now and use Google Reader to subscribe to the Feedburner URL for the feeds. It's an annoying step, but it works.) And if you do prefer email alerts, there are plenty of options for receiving RSS feeds via email.

Technologically speaking, this isn't a mindblowing concept. I use RSS for many things, and this is hardly a novel application. However, I don't tend to visit SSRN that often, and as a result I'm not always aware of what functionality the site offers. What makes this tool so useful for me—and perhaps for you—is that I'm seeing works in progress, not long completed publications. I, for one, find this extremely beneficial in my day-to-day job duties.

Mar 3, 2010

As Roger Ebert notes, this does seem like one of the easier years to predict winners, especially in the acting categories, making long-winded analysis unnecessary. For once, however, the Best Picture category is legitimately, um, up in the air with only a few days to go. However, even in that race there's a favorite, and I'm sticking with it. So let's get to those predictions.

Best Picture
This is a two-horse race between "Avatar" and "The Hurt Locker," each of which comes to the show with some negative baggage. "Avatar" director James Cameron rubs a lot of people the wrong way, and almost everyone who's raved about his latest movie qualifies their praise with something about the lackluster script and performances. Add in a little bit of negative publicity for Cameron's connection to Charles Pellgrino's debunked non-fiction book, "Last Train to Hiroshima," and you can probably count on a few lost votes. Alas, "The Hurt Locker" has been similarly compromised by allegations of inaccuracy and a violation of the Academy's campaign rules that resulted in one of its producers being banned from the Oscar ceremony. Assuming these controversies all cancel out, the buzz seems to favor "The Hurt Locker." A recent DVD release coupled with "Avatar" falling from the top of the weekly box office right about the time voters received their ballots, and it seems fair to predict... The winner will be: "The Hurt Locker"

Best Actor
Not even close. The winner will be: Jeff Bridges - "Crazy Heart"

Best Actress
Ditto. The winner will be: Sandra Bullock - "The Blind Side"

Best Supporting Actor
Ditto ditto. The winner will be: Christoph Waltz - "Inglourious Basterds"

Best Supporting Actress
Sigh. Ditto ditto ditto. The winner will be: Mo'Nique - "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire"

Best Director
Finally. Another close race that warrants discussion. Given how much bigger a production "Avatar" was than "The Hurt Locker," an argument can be made that Cameron's work constitutes a more impressive accomplishment than Kathryn Bigelow's work on "The Hurt Locker." However, while Cameron spent most of his time dealing with technology on a soundstage, Bigelow produced far better performances from her cast. Given that actors make up more of the Academy's membership than any other discipline, that goes a long way. The Academy also likes making history, albeit 10 or 20 years late in most cases, so I expect voters to make a little history this year by (finally) naming a woman best director. The winner will be: Kathryn Bigelow - "The Hurt Locker"

And all the rest...
Original Screenplay: "Inglourious Basterds"
Adapted Screenplay: "Up in the Air"
Animated Feature: "Up"
Documentary Feature: "The Cove"
Foreign Language Film: "The White Ribbon"
Art Direction: "Avatar"
Cinematography: "Avatar"
Costume Design: "The Young Victoria"
Editing: "Avatar"
Makeup: "Star Trek"
Original Score: "Up"
Original Song: "The Weary Kind (Theme from Crazy Heart)" - "Crazy Heart"
Sound Editing: "Avatar"
Sound Mixing: "Avatar"
Visual Effects: "Avatar"
Documentary Short Subject: "China's Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province"
Animated Short Film: "Logorama"
Live Action Short Film: "The New Tenants"

Feb 12, 2010

I love my iPhone, but its core functionality doesn't always provide the tools necessary for me to function as a mobile librarian. Faculty requests for articles are an almost daily occurrence for me, and I'm not always in my office when I get them. Yesterday, for example, I was in a lunch presentation when I got an email from a colleague with an urgent request. I didn't have my laptop with me, so I used my iPhone to track down the article. JSTOR had the document I needed, but when I displayed the PDF file in Mobile Safari, there wasn't much I could do with it except read it. I certainly couldn't save a copy or attach it to an email:

So even though I'd found the requested article, I couldn't send it to the person who needed it it until I got back to my office an hour later.

I knew there had to be a way to get a PDF out of my browser and into an email. Josh Brauer tipped me off to an app called GoodReader. It's not free, but at 99 cents it's hardly expensive. GoodReader is a PDF/TXT reader and file storage application, and because it has its own web browser one can access PDFs on the web and save them.


Once the file downloads, it resides in the app's file library. From there, select it and choose the email option, which drops the file into a new email as a file attachment.


There's also a method for saving documents to GoodReader directly from within Mobile Safari, but I find it easier to use the app's browser since I'll have to switch to GoodReader to email the file anyway.

I've only described a small fraction of GoodReader's functionality here, but this document delivery feature alone makes it worth 99 cents. There's also a free version of the application that limits storage to only five documents.