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AP Bio: In Session.

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AP Bio: In Session.

Or, The Dennis Show


Alright, I am absolutely all about the idea of just taking the characters from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and making them leads of their own thinly-veiled spinoff shows. Sign me up. The Mick is already in its second season over at Fox and doing just fine for itself, and now we have NBC's AP Bio, making for two shows that have taken what are essentially the lead actors' characters from Always Sunny and plopped them into another series with a different set of circumstances. 

The Mick is a little more one-to-one with Kaitlin Olson's character; the premise there is basically, "No, seriously—what if Sweet Dee became the guardian of a handful of super rich siblings?" Of course, The Mick's Mackenzie is a little more sanded-down and has more moments of humanity than Sweet Dee has ever gotten on Always Sunny, but of course; she's the lead in her own TV show. Glenn Howerton's character in AP Bio basically asks "What if Dennis somehow managed to become a celebrated Harvard philosophy professor?" and the answer is probably exactly what you'd expect: He'd grow into a total egomaniac and eventually do something insane that would upend his entire career and send him spiraling into a despair corkscrew of his own making.

Thus begins AP Bio.

It's more than likely that the pilot script for this show has been floating around for some time (or it could be brand new! I genuinely have no idea), so it's hard to say whether or not this role was written specifically for Glenn Howerton. Comparing Jack Griffin to Dennis Reynolds isn't a detraction at all, here, because there is frankly no reason to sniff at the idea of taking his myriad neuroses and legendary freakouts and giving them their own spotlight. Jack is clearly smarter than Dennis (one could even argue that he's as smart as Dennis thinks he is), but his priorities are strikingly similar to his Always Sunny counterpart. In fact, Jack literally writes his main motivations up on the board in one of the series' opening scenes (the very first few moments are a thing of beauty such that I rewound to them watch maybe three or four times, and they're too brilliant to spoil here): He's primarily concerned with driving his successful nemesis to insanity, banging as many women as possible, and avoiding anything that might resemble teaching the children biology.

The children, naturally, are nonplussed (this is advanced placement biology, after all), and their attempts at getting Jack to actually teach them something don't go over even remotely well. (One of the episode's best runners involves him making sure they stop writing things down any time he actually winds up saying something of value. Another involves an apple repeatedly thrown at the wall.) We're quickly informed that Griffin's status as a Harvard professor means the high school's Principal Randy (Patton Oswalt in one of his very best performances) needs him way more than he needs the job, so Griffin can pretty much get away with doing anything he wants. Later conversations with other teachers, however, show that Jack isn't exactly the only teacher at the school who has figured out that Randy is a total doormat: the clique of give-no-fucks faculty members played by Lyric Lewis, Mary Sohn, and Jean Villepique are instantly unhinged and make it pretty clear that we're dealing with a situation where the teachers are really the students, at least in terms of social dynamics.

Griffin's class isn't without its own individual problems, though, and the pilot episode mostly focuses on Jack's nascent relationship with the requisite class Prince of Darkness. Devin (Jacob McCarthy) is the angsty emo kid, and when Jack tells the class about how he pissed on the workplace of a woman who had sexually rejected him the night before, Devin takes the same action against a kid who had been bullying him. Jack's deference to Devin is clearly "save the cat" writing, but it still comes relatively unexpectedly, and it's immediately clear why someone like Jack would bristle at the idea of a kid like Devin taking shit for no reason. It's a little odd that Principal Randy decides to bring a high school kid over to a faculty member's home after school hours, but the developing relationship between Jack and Devin is more interesting than that weird storytelling indiscretion is problematic.

There's just so much to love in the pilot for AP Bio. The writing is fantastic, and Howerton's performance is perfect. He's not exactly breaking new ground here, and Jack Griffin is just a few shades removed from Dennis Reynolds, but it all works so well that none of that matters. His interplay with the students works tightly, there's enough of a meta-narrative to keep things interesting (we only got a quick moment with his arch-nemesis—who is seemingly unaware of their rivalry—but it's a very safe bet we'll spend more time with him later on this season), and the characters filling out the background are primed to grow into their own. AP Bio looks like a sitcom set up for success, and I certainly plan on having a perfect record of attendance.


Oh, and also...

  • The attempted rap was unexpected, and a thing of beauty. As are Jack's chalkboard drawings.
  • Out of all the potential this show has, I might be most excited to spend more time with those three teachers.
  • I really hope Patton Oswalt is in every episode this much, if not more.

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Waco: From the Hip.

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Waco: From the Hip.

...and here we go.

Given that the Waco miniseries is only six episodes long and that the real-life siege lasted for nearly two entire months, it's not much of a surprise that things are about to kick off by the third episode's opening. What is surprising, though, is the path that leads to the iconic standoff, and the choices made therein. The time we spend with the Davidians is understandable; it's important we understand them and their point of view throughout the course of events. Time spent with Rogers and Noesner also makes sense, as their differing personal philosophies regarding law enforcement in general and hostage negotiation in specific make up the show's political and thematic interrogations. The problem lies in the machinations that surround them, and by the end of the second episode, it starts to seem like all that time spent with Noesner and Rogers at Ruby Ridge might have been better-served if we had spent it with those same characters, but in a situation that gave a bit more depth and context into the ATF's motivations, as opposed to something that largely functions as an action sequence.

Ruby Ridge certainly sets the stage for the ATF's hungry jump at the Davidians and their Mount Carmel compound, but it's justified with literally one scene wherein some ATF brass figures they can "remind congress" how much they're needed if they pull off some kind of big win. It just so happens that there have been some gun-related whisperings surrounding Koresh and his followers, so there it is. It's clear that the show wants its audience to understand that the ATF is insisting to itself that the guns are definitely there, and is ramping up the siege without any concrete evidence that would actually make it justified. The raid preparation even involves a woman who dresses like a realtor and is in charge of making sure cameras are in position to photograph ATF agents rescuing children who are supposedly in peril and bringing out guns that are supposedly illegal.

Beyond "hurting after Ruby Ridge and thirsty for a win," though, the ATF agents in charge of kicking down Koresh's doors don't have a whole lot of developed motivation, and the result renders the government as mustache-twirlingly evil. I don't think this is the actual intent, because I don't think Waco is asking us to side with a dude who has sex with minors and bangs all his best friends' wives.

Koresh is very clearly a manipulator, and a lot of the best writing to be found in Waco comes from spending time with the Branch Davidians. ATF agent Jacob Vasquez (John Leguizamo) is tasked with infiltrating the compound and getting eyes on all those illegal guns, and Koresh's attempts to "turn him" are nakedly presented as such. He's unmistakably manipulating Jacob, and it's clear that his relationship with his congregation is founded his need for sexual and social power. Melissa Benoist's Rachel is a manipulative true believe right there along with her husband, but literal sister wife Michelle (The Americans' Julia Garner) is clearly not stoked about living a life sans agency. The dynamics within the Davidian compound are well-developed, and the characters are thoughtfully portrayed, despite being fundamentally and unmistakably wrong in the morality of their actions.

So it's a real fucking problem when the show manages to make the government into gun-licking militaristic crazies, with Michael Shannon's Gary Noesner throwing up his hands in constant frustration at being the literal last good person left in the entire organization. It was probably going to go in this review, but the script for "The Strangers Across the Street" actually has Rogers call Noesner a "Boy Scout," and roll out the old "you're no better than me" cherry. Developing the complicated nature of a law enforcement agency and the various forces at play within it is crucial to making the Waco narrative something more than the good vs. bad narrative, and it's clear that this objective was important to the writing staff...and this is exactly why it's such a problem when all the writing that surrounds the ATF and FBI completely whiff this approach.

The story of the Waco Siege is a complicated one, and Waco is leaving too many questions on the table. Who's the ATF's source? (Is there even one? They were sure that the illegal guns would be stored in that upstairs bedroom, but they were nowhere near that location.) How did that "Sinful Messiah" article get written? It seems to have simply appeared out of thin air. Why do the Branch Davidians have those guns? (It's so they can sell them at gun shows — not illegally — but this is only given a line or two of dialogue in the premiere.) Waco seems to have noble intentions in the way it wants to explore its complicated subject matter, but to truly do so is going to require a bit more precision.


Oh, and also...

  • Kitsch really steps into the role in this episode. Bravo, man.
  • Kinda bummed that Michael Shannon didn't get more to do this episode, and even more bummed that some of what he did get to do involved him telling a sad exposition-dump story to his wife at the end of the day. Weak.
  • Speaking of which, Shea Whigham had better do something real awesome real quick here, because this use of The Whig is absolutely not cutting it.

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GLOW: Who Do You Think You Are?

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GLOW: Who Do You Think You Are?

(episodes 1-3)

 

Television has always loved a protagonist with a good amount of flaw cards sprinkled throughout the deck. By now, we've moved from the kind of troubled leading characters who are a bit rough around the edges but still at least somewhat lovable and/or principled (think your Gregory Houses or your Annalise Keatings) to characters who eventually come to become out-and-out hatable pieces of shit, a la Walter White. Even in the latter example, though, this level of rampant awfulness was only achieved after seasons worth of careful storybuilding and character development: Walter White didn't start out as an awful dude, and the audience had a blast watching him become one. GLOW is giving the inverse a try, instead delivering a selfish asshole lacking even a little bit of self-awareness in Allison Brie's Ruth Wilder and leaving its viewers to assume that she'll have some sort of redemptive arc by the season's end.

GLOW's first season starts by following Ruth, but quickly shift their focus to creatively frustrated director Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron, requiring that you wipe up the battery acid that accumulates on your screen every time he opens his delightfully angry mouth), fleshing out his desires and backstory much more thoroughly than those of our ostensible protagonist. By the close of the first episode we learn that Ruth is the kind of woman who will fuck her best friend's husband while said best friend has an infant at home, and by the close of episode three it's been made clear that Ruth isn't possessing of much in the way of empathy or self-awareness. Roughly a third of the way into the season, and her motivations can be summed up as "wants to act," and "wants to not be treated like shit." The second is easy to get behind given the show's canny dramatization of the short shrift women were given in 1980s showbiz, but the first is about as boilerplate as it gets (and is shared by at least two other major characters), lacking any real depth or nuance.

Strangely, GLOW does a much better job fleshing out Sam as a character, diving more into where he's come from and what he's after. There might not be anything groundbreaking to his perennially misunderstood writer type, but he's at least given a level of depth that isn't offered to anyone else. None of this would be a problem if I hadn't signed on for a show...about women? The season's first three episodes do plenty to sew the seeds of some interesting storylines as it begins to flesh out the supporting cast, but so far little has emerged beyond characters who are simply trying to get the idiots in charge to notice and take them seriously.

None of this isn't to say that GLOW lacks redeeming qualities. As is typical of a Jenji Kohan production, GLOW benefits from a cast sprinkled with colorful background players, even if some of them do sort of feel a little color-by-numbers at this point. At a certain point one has to admit that the whole "goth who overdoes it in just about every way" thing is just a little bit played out...and yet, Gayle Rankin manages to make Shiela one of the most watchable side characters in a bevy of very watchable side characters.

In fact, if there's anything that's keeping me hooked, it's my desire to learn more about the ladies surrounding GLOW's three apparent players (maybe excepting Melrose; I'd be OK with her departure and am absolutely not looking forward to whatever "I've been through some serious shit and that's why I'm like this" backstory reveal she seems headed for). Characters like Britt Baron's Justine and Britney Young's Carmen work well with the rest of the ensemble to lend a god depth to the proceedings, even if some of the gags threaten to make some of them into outright cartoon characters.

Just three episodes in and GLOW is really only hampered by its stakes problem. We know what Sam's are — he wants to get GLOW made so that he can redeem himself creatively and kickstart his flagging career. When it comes to our two leads, though? Both Ruth and Debbie want to be taken seriously as actresses. The real problem is that at this point, only Sam's motivations seem to have been adequately dramatized...and it's his motivations that are driving the plot's action, to boot. For every scene like the brilliant one in which Sam squares off against his ex-wife and lets the viewer in on his creative process, we should have two or three that help to develop Debbie, Ruth, and what they're after. There's no question that Sam Sylvia is a fantastic character, but why let Ruth and Debbie drift so far into the background?

Moving forward, it'll be nice to see Ruth & Diane have a bit more agency, even if their (hopeful) reconciliation does have the seeds of some good character drama. GLOW boasts writing as snappy as any other Kohan project, and Maron just about walks away with every scene he's in, but it's frustrating to see such an oddly-lopsided narrative focus so early in the game.

Oh, and also...

• "Blood!" "Tits!" "Storytelling."

• Sam's Heavy Metal style male fantasy bullshit script must have made for a super fun day in the writer's room.

GLOW seems to be setting itself up as a story about self-identity, ie Ruth is disliked and doesn't fit in because she's not aware of who she really is as a person; each of the wrestlers has a broad and stereotypical identity thrust upon them by white, male producers at the end of the third episode; Sam wrestles with his legacy, perception as a writer.

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The Leftovers: Torn Asunder.

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The Leftovers: Torn Asunder.

If faith makes us do some pretty crazy shit, grief is maybe the only other part of the human condition with the ability to one-up it. Combine the two, though, and you'll see people do stuff that absolutely defies logic. Most of those people seem to have wound up in The Leftovers, whose third season continues to masterfully explore towering grief resulting from unknowable circumstances, and the way relate to each other in the face of it. While the show's first season was a brutal meditation on grief and despondency, the second expanded its scope and palette (and lightened its tone significantly in what turned out to be a pretty crucial move) to include a deep dive on religion and spirituality, especially as they become anchor points for us in an increasingly incomprehensible world.

In fact, The Leftovers' first two seasons may have been more prescient than showrunners Damon Lindelof and Tom Perotta could ever have realized, as many now actually do find themselves living in a world that defies logic and explanation. And if you think about it, there's a pretty big part of the world that's felt that way for the last eight years, as well. When it comes down to it, there's always someone who thinks that the world has gone completely insane, so The Leftovers shows us one where things actually have gone insane, and invites us to sit and watch people deal with it and make the uphill trudge back to "being OK," whatever that means and if it even exists anymore.

"G'Day Melbourne" finds The Leftovers in the process of shuffling most its principle cast to Australia. Kevin, Sr. has been there for an indeterminate amount of time, stealing Aboriginal rituals so he can stop the apocalypse from happening, falling off roofs, and getting rescued by women named Grace (who just so happen to be looking for his son). Nora has gotten involved with a suspected scam that purports to send people to wherever it is that the departed have gone, for an exorbitant amount of money. Going more or less rogue from the DSD, she heads to Melbourne to investigate and brings Kevin with her. Honestly, they both have a super shitty time Down Under.

On the surface, Nora says she's taking the trip because she wants to bring down a ring of scammers...but her unnecessary cageyness makes it pretty suspicious that part of her actually hopes she might be reunited with her children. Kevin is clearly a willing accomplice, but Nora's decision to hide her $20,000 from him entirely rather than just have him carry half to make it through customs indicates that she's in full-on Secrets Mode. In a string of events reminiscent of the first season's "Two Boats and a Helicopter," Nora is met with test of faith after test of faith, before eventually being told that she's not going to be getting what she came for, after all. The doctors' quick and cold dismissal after everything Nora has been through is a particular gut-punch. Nora used to suss out people's bullshit with a litany of obscure questions; the idea that these two random doctors have sniffed hers after just one is absolutely incomprehensible to her. Unfortunately, what comes next isn't really going to taste that much better.

While Nora is out getting her Job on, enduring test of faith after test of faith, Kevin is dealing with the questionability of his own narration. Unable to change the channel or turn off the TV in his hotel room (yet another example of technology not playing nice with our heroes), Kevin sees Evie Johnson on TV at a local news show. He makes his way there, confronting Evie and snapping a photo of her that he sends to Laurie back in Texas.  She tells him not to confront Evie, which he does anyway. Turns out Evie wasn't Evie, but another hallucination of sorts. This time, "Evie" was just a scared Indian woman, and Kevin further wonders if he's absolutely losing his mind.

Sitting down to talk about it with Nora doesn't go well, as the two of them just lay into each other, their unresolved grief mutating into barbs that get flung about the room while the Book of Kevin literally burns in the background. The Leftovers has, for two seasons now, been chiefly about what it means and what it takes to actually "be OK." This third season seems to be raising the question of whether or not these people will actually let themselves be OK, if given the chance. Being OK would mean that Kevin gives up his Jesus complex, Nora her victimhood. At this point, it remains to be seen whether not "being OK" is actually what anybody on this show truly wants.

 

Oh, and also...

• That ending shot was just devastatingly beautiful, as was the overhead shot with Kevin in the library. Daniel Sackheim did some great work with this hour.

• "Why didn't you just give me half?" ".....Huh."

• I'm sorry, but that whole "Watch my baby for me!" moment pulled me right out of the show. That's just something that would never happen, Sudden Departure and potential impending apocalypse or no.

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