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I Watched the Series Premiere of ‘Girls’ and All I Got Was This Headache

All right, critics, here’s the deal. If you’re going to expend months and countless thousands of words talking about how good, smart, and important a show is; it actually has to be good. As a corollary to that rule I’ll add this: if you’re going to call something a comedy it actually has to be funny, and you don’t get off that hook by calling it a dark comedy. Let’s start with the second point. There’s been a rash of pay cable channels creating relatively undramatic dramas and then calling them comedies despite the fact that they contain no jokes. Perhaps the best example of this is Showtime’s Nurse Jackie which is somehow still running despite having no obvious appeal. In this vein, HBO’s new “comedy” Girls is not funny. I watched the premiere, twice, just to make sure, and I didn’t laugh once. As for how this ties into the first point, Girls is also not a good show.

How bad is it? It made me want to vote for Mitt Romney, because if this is the way my generation actually thinks then we might as well let our parents just burn this entire fucker down before we finally grow up. Of course, the characters (and even the cast) of Girls are hardly representative of everyone in their 20s. In fact, based on my own experience with being 24 years old, I have no idea where these people exist. As a point of reference, of my friends, the people I grew up with, met in college, and in the ensuing years, I’m probably one of the more shiftless individuals. In fact, I can find more than a few parallels between myself and Lena Dunham’s character on the show (I’m not making the effort to imdb this one so deal). I, like Dunham’s character, happen to be 24, with a very limited income. I’ve spent the last six months working on a novel, that objectively, kinda sucks. Unlike Dunham’s character, I wouldn’t be so pretentious as to attempt a memoir at 24, but potato, potahto amirite? Also, like Dunham’s character, I rely on my parents for financial assistance (though not to the same degree) and I have quite a few friends who do the same. The real difference between people like me, however, and people like the characters in Girls is that we don’t like the fact that we have to ask our parents for the occasional buck. In fact, it’s kind of a constant point of shame. I don’t think that I know anyone who’s quite as sociopathic as Dunham’s twat of an actor/woodworker (*double wanking motion*) boyfriend, who actually hits up his grandmother for money.

There would be nothing wrong if those two were the only characters on the show to hate. Unfortunately, there isn’t a single likable character in the entire cast. Not even Dunham’s parents, who are apparently smart enough to be professors, but not smart enough to realize that starting a blog is not the route to riches (trust me). I won’t go into the details of each character, because I’m lazy, but I will point you to this recap from Gawker, which sums things up pretty nicely. These people aren’t broad, idiotic stereotypes like the ones on 2 Broke Girls, but their navel-gazing angst, ennui, and senses of entitlement make them just as offensive.

Of course, a show can still be good if the characters are loathsome individuals. In fact, there’s a show that ran right before Girls which makes that fact abundantly clear. Eastbound and Down‘s Kenny Powers is probably a worse person than Lena Dunham’s character on Girls. He’s an unrepentantly racist, drug addled, man child wholly unconcerned with anyone but himself. Here’s the thing, you can make light of Kenny, or even root for him to pull his shit together because the show is funny, like a comedy should be. The only thing I’m rooting for Lena Dunham’s character to do at this point is get a job at McDonalds or something, I don’t care, writing is hard, I’ve gotta go call my mom and get some money. I think she has some left in her IRA.

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Peter Dinklage, Tyrion Lannister, and the Value of Good Writing

Perhaps it’s in bad taste to write a post a couple of hours after posting that I wouldn’t be writing for a little while. That being the case, I managed to find some time between stuffing my face with tacos (sadly not a euphemism, as a New Englander I’m deprived of good Mexican food and as such spend most of my trips to California eating nothing but meat, beans and rice) to put to pen something that I’ve been mulling around in my head for about a week or so. But first, since we’re already in an apologetic spirit, sorry if this contains less than the requisite amount of fart jokes that you’ve come to expect from me.

As you may have gleaned from my seemingly nonstop praise, HBO’s Game of Thrones is in my estimation head and shoulders the best show on television. Still, standing head and shoulders (irony not really intended, if you can not intend iron in a blog post) the rest of that show’s estimable cast is one man; Peter Dinklage. Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister has, since his introduction, been the show’s most consistently likable and interesting character. Despite the first season’s natural bent towards making Ned Stark the center of attention, Tyrion consistently stole the show, at least in part due to the way Stark’s Boy Scout sense of honor led him to an easily predictable (in retrospect) early grave.* With Stark out of the way, the show now belongs unmistakably to Tyrion and Dinklage has been awesome in the role. Seriously, hand him all the Emmy’s right now, no one else need be considered. Still, while I’ve been a Dinklage fan since I saw The Station Agent on a plane when I was 14, the question that’s been nagging me is whether Dinklage just has a natural advantage over every other actor on TV: the strength of his writing.

Let’s start with the writing aspect. Along with, perhaps, Mad Men, Game of Thrones is TV’s best written drama**. The plot lines are complex, sweeping, and unpredictable. Characters who seem destined for greatness one moment find themselves getting executed in the next. What makes Game of Thrones truly great is the dialogue. The mark of great dialogue is that it reveals how a character thinks without saying it in certain terms. For example, simply from her interactions with others, we understand that the only type of power that Cersei Lannister understands is the Machiavellian kind (Her line about pulling out weeds is particularly revealing). In this sense, Tyrion Lannister is a wonderfully written character. His motivations aren’t always completely clear, he’s driven in part by love of a family that doesn’t love him back (with the exception of Jamie) and in part by a deep sense of shame stemming both from his birth and his first “marriage.” Tyrion’s a good guy on the bad guys’ side and he seems to be aware of that fact, but he’s also smart enough to realize that in his situation the good guys aren’t that different from the bad guys. In fact, the “good guys” have already tried to have him killed. As such, his outlet seems to be to call every other character in the show out on their bullshit, and in a drama about court intrigue there’s plently of bullshit to call out. The only other character on TV as complex as Tyrion is Don Draper (can you tell my viewing habits yet?) and Don isn’t as consistently likable as Tyrion for a number of reasons.

So yeah, Dinklage is at a natural advantage over pretty much every other actor on television, he has the best character to work with. Some of Tyrion’s turns of phrase this season have been nothing short of brilliant. Still, even as an aspiring writer, I’m loathe to chalk up Dinklage’s brilliance to the script and just be done with it. After all, Cerseri Lannister and Littlefinger get handed plenty of quality dialogue every week and I’m not ready to put Lena Headey*** and Aiden Gillan on the same level as Dinklage. It really isn’t something that can be reduced to a recipe: two parts source material, one part adaptation, one part actor, shake with ice and serve in a chalice. So for lack of a better equation, let’s leave this where we started and just hand Peter Dinklage every award we can find, k?

*Those who have read the books on which Game of Thrones  is based will note that Stark is a classic heroic figure, a guy who keeps making decisions based on what is right rather than what he really wants: his marriage, becoming Hand of the King, not immediately outing Cersei and Jamie, the list goes on. Guys like that seldom make it to the top in real life and they always wind up dead in Westeros.

**What’s interesting is the contrast between the two. Mad Men relies on an economy of dialogue. The exchanges between characters are generally short and terse. You know, how normal people talk. It’s awesome in it’s realism. Game of Thrones, on the other hand, is full of lengthy, witty banter and epic speeches, yet in context, it doesn’t necessarily fell less real. You expect people in castles to talk like that. Two strategies, similar effects. I have way too much time.

***Headey has done a phenomenal job imbuing Cersei with the kind of sneering smugness that anyone who’s read the books imagines the character with, still I wonder if there aren’t dozens of female actors who couldn’t do the same. Also, she just looks weird as a blond.

Mad Men Season 5: Everyone Gets Lazy

I’m in my mid-twenties and I’m a man of remarkably few accomplishments. I’m also tremendously lazy. I guess that’s why I can understand why Don Draper doesn’t seem to care anymore. Don’s pretty much got it all at this point. He’s at the top of his profession and he’s got a 20 year old wife who sings him “Zou Bissou Bissou” on his birthday. So what if he just wants a nap now?

Of course the truth about Don’s new found ambivalence is undoubtedly deeper than simple aging and contentment. Mad Men has always been more about the transformation of American culture than it has been about advertising. From the beginning of this season it’s become pretty clear that the show’s old guard is quickly falling behind the times. Last night’s scene at the Rolling Stones concert was instructive. 1962 Don Draper would have found a way to make that impossible situation work. 1966 Don Draper just isn’t cool enough and he doesn’t really seem to care.

For the past few seasons I’ve been operating on the assumption that Don would basically become Roger Sterling as he aged, a theory that I thought was confirmed when Don married his receptionist at the end of last season. It’s pretty clear now that that theory is flat out wrong. The two men have very different motivations. Roger Sterling has been on an alcohol fueled downslide for some time, but at least he’s still fighting, holding on to the ledge by his fingers, to paraphrase his own words. The reason is that Roger is a man motivated largely by pride. He can’t stand the thought of Pete Campbell — whom he brought into the business — upstaging him and he’ll fight tooth and nail to keep Campbell in his place. Don, for all his other faults, has never seemed a particularly proud man. His motivations have always been more about his insecurities. Those insecurities are now largely gone. Everyone knows about Dick Whitman now and Don can finally let his guard down and do what he really wants to do; sleep.

Don’s not the only one letting himself go. An interesting parallel is ex-wife Betty. Like Don, Betty finally has what she’s always wanted: a rich man who won’t cheat on her, and now she’s going to do what she wants; eat Bugles and ice cream*. Also like Don, Betty has always been driven by her insecurities largely linked to her incompetence as a mother and Don’s philandering**. Now the kids are older, she has help, and Don is largely out of the picture. Betty’s old weaknesses returned for a moment with the cancer scare, but as soon as she was in the clear, she went right back to her bad old habits.

There’s generally an overarching theme to each season of Mad Men, so far this season’s theme seems to be that everyone gets lazy.

* — January Jones in a fat suit has to be one of the most iconic TV images of the past year and possibly the funniest TV moment of 2012 so far. It certainly beats anything The Big Bang Theory has done throughout its existence.

** — I always found it interesting that despite his drinking and wenching, Don has always been the better parent of the two.

A Friendly Reminder: ‘Game of Thrones’ is Back This Sunday

HBO’s Game of Thrones was easily the best new television program that debuted last season and it’s back this Sunday to melt all of our faces off again. I’ve read the books (because I’m a dork) so I won’t provide any analysis for fear of giving something away, but even though Ned Stark is dead there are plenty of new characters to whet your nerdy little appetites. So just watch it, K? Sunday 9:00 EST, HBO, and when it’s done flip over to AMC and watch Mad Men because you’re cool and sophisticated. If you don’t have HBO, well that kinda sucks.

Pilot Review: ‘Bent’

Marketing, I get it!

Bent is a funny, well written, well received comedy. Bent is on NBC. Bent doesn’t stand a chance.

The show’s premise is simple enough. Single mother Alex (Amanda Peet) hires contractor Pete (David Walton) to fix up her new house, hilarity ensues. Sitcoms don’t have to have complex premises. The best sitcom of all time (Seinfeld) didn’t have any premise whatsoever. What sitcoms do have to have, however, are actors who understand comedy, and witty writing. Bent has both in abundance. Peet is an excellent comedic actress and she has great chemistry with Walton, a veteran of several failed sitcoms who might be the show’s weak link (seriously, check out his imdb page, it’s like a sitcom graveyard). What really makes the show tick is its supporting cast which features Jeffrey Tambour (Arrested Development), JB Smoove (Leon from Curb Your Enthusiasm), and most surprisingly Jesse Plemons (Landry from Friday Night Lights) as the straight man. The writing may have some rough edges, but the assembled comedic talent more than compensates. Bent would fit wonderfully alongside Parks and Recreation and Community on Thursdays. It’s certainly a better show than the derptastic Whitney, the somehow worse Are You There Chelsea?, or the zombie corpse of The Office.

Now here’s the bad news. Bent has absolutely no chance of survival, because we’re not allowed to have nice things. In all seriousness, despite decent critical buzz, the network has decided to run the show against Modern Family and burn off episodes two at a time, because that’s how NBC does business. ABC would have at least given this show a chance to succeed — CBS wouldn’t touch it, because CBS designs their programming to appeal to people who think the Doritos Locos Taco is a good idea — like it has with Happy Endings (which you should be watching) and some of its other comedies. In fact, given the character of the show, Bent would have probably have been a better fit on ABC. Of course you could say that for just about any show on NBC. So enjoy having Amanda Peet on your TV while it lasts folks, because it won’t last long.

If You Aren’t Watching ‘Justified’ You’re Doing TV Wrong

I’ve long lamented the current state of television, so I’ll spare you today by highlighting something that I actually do like. I actually never thought I’d write this about a show set in Kentucky (although it’s filmed in California), but Justified is the best show running outside of premium TV (still can’t put it ahead of Game of Thrones) and you need to be watching it.

The truth is, Justified has an exceedingly simple concept and should be fodder for the average viewer that I have so disparaged in this space. The story follows US Marshall Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) who has recently (three seasons ago) been reassigned from Miami back to his boyhood home in Eastern Kentucky. See, Raylan has a nasty habit of shooting suspects and he’s shot one too many in Florida. Once back in Kentucky Givens finds himself facing off with (and occasionally teaming up with) his best friend Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), an aspiring hillbilly crimelord who over the show’s three seasons has evolved from a loathsome neo-Nazi, into a “redeemed” back-woods preacher, into a strangely lovable anti-hero.

Each episode generally revolves around a procedural storyline, during which Raylan does Marshall stuff (tracking fugitives, protecting witnesses, shooting people) against the backdrop of a conflict between the larger, more malevolent forces in his life (usually Boyd and one or two other “big” bad guys). The larger, overarching storylines are allowed to simmer in the periphery before coming to a head in the final few episodes of the season. In this sense, there’s a little bit there for everyone. For fans of NCIS there’s a crime procedural, gun fights, Stetson hats, Southern accents, and very few big words. For people who appreciate good TV there’s actual story, human characters with plenty of flaws, and well written dialogue. And for people like me who enjoy staring at pretty ladies, there’s plenty of that too.

What truly sets Justified apart is the quality of its acting. The cast is across the board excellent, but the two standouts are Olyphant and Goggins. Olyphant is perhaps best known for playing another (former) Marshall, Sheriff Seth Bullock on HBO’s Deadwood. He plays Givens with a bit more swagger, where Bullock was very much the strong, silent type, Givens is often glib. He’s Clint Eastwood with a sense of humor.

The real treasure, though, is Goggins, a veteran of another great FX show: The Shield. Goggins’ performance lends Crowder an air of casual, menacing intelligence. When contrasted with the usual dumbassery of the backwoods criminals featured on the show it becomes clear that Boyd Crowder is an entirely different animal, a would be Michael Corleone in a flannel shirt. Justified‘s writers along with Goggins, have managed to turn Boyd Crowder into the most complex TV villain since Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen on Deadwood. 

Justified airs at 10 pm ET on FX and if you aren’t watching you’re doing TV wrong.

Things to do on Sunday: I Admire This Network’s Devotion to Boobs

This is the first in a running series about things to do on Sunday now that football season is over:

I love boobs. Along with scotch, pizza, and puppies, they’re probably my favorite thing in the world. That’s why I’m thrilled with Showtime’s Sunday lineup of shows: Shameless, Californication, and House of Lies, all of which feature boobs as significant plot devices. With Sundays now devoid of football, I can think of worse things to do than stare at boobs for two hours. Here’s a breakdown of the shows themselves…

Shameless kicks things off at 9 pm ET and is actually quite good. The plot centers around alcoholic Frank Gallagher and his six children, living on the South Side of Chicago. Shameless is a remake of a British show and if you know anyone who watched the original they’re sure to be insufferable about the inferiority of the American version. Ignore those people, everything is better in America (USA! USA!) and alcoholics are gross enough without having British teeth. The show ostensibly stars William H. Macy as Frank, but the real headliner(s) are Emmy Rossum’s — who plays Fiona, Frank’s eldest daughter — boobs, which are featured prominently. Overall the show is consistently interesting, although some of the characters are irritating and plot devices are sometimes contrived. Shameless is billed as an hour-long comedy and in that sense it’s much more successful than other Showtime offerings like Nurse Jackie, Weeds, or The United States of Tara. Shameless is still more of a drama than a comedy, but it manages to be lighthearted without trying to lay on the schtick to thickly like Weeds. There’s a chance I’d be watching even if there weren’t so many boobs.

Next up on Sundays is House of Lies, an new half-hour black comedy that takes viewers inside the world of management consulting. The truth is, you don’t have to be interested in consulting, business jargon, or even money in general to enjoy this show, a simple interest in boobs will do. This is the rare Showtime comedy that is actually consistently funny, and that has a lot to do with a stellar cast that includes Don Cheadle, Kristen Bell, and my personal favorite Ben Schwartz, best known as Jean-Ralphio on Parks and Recreation. Did I mention there’s boobs? Unfortunately, one set of boobs that we won’t be seeing on House of Lies are Kristen Bell’s, as she has a no nudity clause in her contract. That aside, this is worth a watch.

Californication wore out it’s welcome with me some time ago. Sorry, but there’s only so many masturbation jokes that one man can endure. It’s hard to say that this show jumped the shark, because the whole thing has felt like one extended shark jump. Compared to the shows that precede it, this one is pretty bereft of boobs, which is pretty strange for a show that handles sex with as little tact as possible. Still, it’s not like you’ve got anything better to do at 10:30 on a Sunday, so you might as well have that 3rd scotch and watch.

‘Not Deadwood’ Renewed for Second Season

HBO’s tragically short-lived western series Deadwood, which was killed after its third season because of a financial dispute between HBO and Paramount, has long been one of my favorite TV shows of all time. That’s why I was totally pumped when AMC debuted Hell on Wheels another Western that promised all the violent glory that Deadwood made so fun. However, as usual, I found myself sorely disappointed by the new show, mostly because it’s boring as sh*t. But hey, second season wooohooo!

I’ve learned that AMC has renewed its newest series, period Western Hell On Wheels, for a second season.

-snip-

Hell On Wheels has slipped since but consistently delivers more than 2 million viewers in first-run broadcasts, most recently 2.3 million last week. The series has aired 7 episodes of its freshman series to date, with Episode 8 slated for Jan. 1. Hell On Wheels is set in post-Civil War America circa 1865 and centers on a Confederate soldier (Anson Mount) who sets out to exact revenge on the Union soldiers who killed his wife.

Fun fact that’s been on the internet for a while: Anson Mount starred alongside Britney Spears in 2002 Fartbortion Crossroads, which is like an automatic -20pts for Hell on Wheels.

Since I’m feeling nostalgic, here’s a late Christmas present, the best of Al Swearingen:

‘2 Broke Girls’ and the State of the American Sitcom

More so than any other type of television program, the sitcom is a largely American format. Sure, the British have made inroads into the format, but no other country makes even close to the number of sitcoms that American networks produce. And after a long dormant period dating approximately to the series finale of Friends, the American sitcom is back. Or so the entertainment media would have us all believe.

Objectively, it’s hard to argue that sitcoms aren’t more popular now than they have been at any time since the early aughts. That’s largely because they’re ubiquitous on network schedules. I’m pretty sure that NBC doesn’t even have a single hour-long drama in primetime (and no I’m not going to check). No, the problem isn’t that Americans aren’t watching sitcoms, it’s the sitcoms that they are watching.

There are a handful of good half-hour live-action comedies on television these days. I would list them in order as: Parks and Recreation, Community, Happy Endings,  It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The League, and How I Met Your Mother (the jury is still out on Up All Night). Of these, two are on cable (Sunny and The League), two are largely ignored (Community and Happy Endings) and two do well enough. What all these shows have in common is witty writing, both plot and story, and an ability to challenge audiences. That’s their biggest problem.

The show most often cited when talking about a sitcom ‘comeback’ is CBS’ 2 Broke Girls. The only problem is, 2 Broke Girls sucks monkey balls. Despite the likability of it’s principles: Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs, Girls is entirely devoid of wit, intelligence, and laughs. It paints in wide, ethnic and social stereotypes that would be offensive if they weren’t so poorly envisioned. 2 Broke Girls is essentially Two and a Half Men with Kat Dennings’ rack replacing Charlie Sheen in a bowling shirt naked Ashton Kutcher.

What makes it doubly sad, is that 2 Broke Girls has the potential to be a great show. The country is going through a period of economic stagnation, in cities everywhere there are plenty of broke girls, trying to make ends meet and follow their dreams. Instead, it comes out looking like how the tea party people with the rascal scooters and funny hats must envision Brooklyn. I certainly don’t believe that every TV show has to make a social statement and I enjoy fart jokes more than the average viewer, however if you set your sitcom up in the perfect situation to say something meaningful, you’re doing us all a disservice by not doing so.

The truth is, I can’t really fault the writers of 2 Broke Girls for their laziness or ignorance, whichever it is, Girls is just a symptom of what’s wrong with American TV today. No one wants to watch something that makes them think, it’s much easier to look at your screen and go, “Hurr Durr that fat little Asian sure has a funny accent.” It’s this same mentality that’s made Chuck Lorre and Jay Leno obscenely rich. It’s the same reason why while Community continues to challenge viewers every Thursday night while remaining hilarious, infinitely more people watch The Big Bang Theory make the same Star Trek joke over and over. 2 Broke Girls isn’t the vaccine that saves sitcoms, it’s just a mutated strain of what’s been ailing them all these years, one with bigger boobs.

Excuse me while I go drink a liter of Listerine.

Weekend Preview: Dreamworks Face

Here’s your weekend preview, degenerates:

Movies

The Rum Diary: An adaptation of the novel Hunter S. Thompson wrote as a 22 year old.

Rotten Tomatoes: 51%

Uninformed Commentary: Like many other self-styled creative types of my generation I have a huge hard-on for Hunter S. Thompson. I honestly don’t give a f*ck what critics think (SUCK IT H8rs!) . The Rum Diary isn’t so much a great narrative as a great exploration of voice and style in modern writing so I can see why a bunch of stodgy old people reviewing movies (who probably didn’t take the time to read the book) wouldn’t get it. I still think this movie is going to be awesome.

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