2012 Emmy Comedy Ballot – Supporting Actor/Actress

25 Jun

I’m always curious about the Primetime Emmy Awards. Last year I went out of my way to find a way to watch them and was pretty heavily invested in the outcomes. In spite of this, the Emmys stand somewhere, in credibility between The Oscars (somewhat credible) and the Grammys (complete bizarre non-sense) and much of that starts with the nominations. Often a credible choice is made from the nominees but they have a tendency to be, well, a bit ridiculous honestly. They will honor performances that were rote and uninteresting yet on a popular series or made by a big name actor and often ignore performances that are laudatory for no discernible reason (that Nick Offerman not only has no Emmy but no nominations is nearing tragic).

So, all that said, I have decided that I ought to, based on the available information of who registered themselves to be nominated (and in what category – while I might think, for instance, that Jason Segel might be a candidate for ‘Best Actor’ or that Rob Lowe ought to be a Supporting Actor – I’m bound by their own decisions) and formulated what my ballot would look like, starting with two of the categories I have the strongest opinions on – Supporting Actress and Supporting Actor.

I’m not alone in doing this exercise – I’m aware of ongoing series by both Julia Hass and notably Alan Sepinwall, both of whom are putting out ballots I’d probably far prefer to what we’re likely to see. Also, it’s worth noting I have not seen all nominated shows (though I’ve seen a good portion of them)

We’ll start with…

Best Supporting Actress

My Nominees

Aubrey Plaza – Parks and Recreation

One of the main components of what makes what is, arguably the best and hard to argue as one of the best sitcoms on air work. As April Ludgate she’s generally been a sarcastic, cold type and while that hasn’t changed she’s evolved into something more and better in the latest season, taking step in character development and yet retaining all the charms of the character. An easy pick and someone who has consistently deserved recognition for a few years now.

Eliza Coupe – Happy Endings

Probably the longest long shot of all my picks (and probably who I’d vote to win, if it came to it) – she plays the dominant half of the series married pair Brad and Jane and, while playing what could be a caricature of a Type A sitcom type, manages to be consistently as  entertaining and funny as anyone on any show. The Brad/Jane dynamic is probably one of the main reasons the show works.

For an example, see:

http://www.hulu.com/watch/331949#s-p4-sr-i1

Mayim Bialik – The Big Bang Theory

Easily the most interesting thing about this show, at this point in time, are the female supporting cast and the former Blossom is the highlight of the bunch. She is a more specific and likeable version of Sheldon and it works – she feels like a vibrant, interesting character that is easy to invest in.

Ellie Kemper – The Office

The Office had a definite off year, still suffering from the loss Steve Carrell (and honestly, it’s been on a downslide for a few years now) but Ellie Kemper as Erin is probably the highlight of the show for me. The dim but appealing secretary got plenty to do – her romance with Ed Helms was one of the main stories on the series this year and while repeating many of their previous plots beats, she got plenty of time to shine. Another one who has deserved nominations in the past.

Colbie Smulders – How I Met Your Mother

Given several big plots this year, Colbie really knocked them out of the park. I think she’s always been laudable in her role as Robin but this year had several standout episodes where she showed emotional and comic range. I’m not sure she’d be a candidate in any of the past years but I think she’d make a strong nominee this year.

Nominee Six would be between: Allison Brie, Gillian Jacobs- Community, Casey Wilson, Elisha Cuthbert- Happy Endings,  Jane Krakowski – 30 Rock, Sofia Vargia, Julie Bowen – Modern Family, Allison Williams –  Girls

Ultimately I’d go with:

Zosia Mamet – Girls

The most purely supporting of all of these performers, Zosia’s Shoshanna has a tendency to not get a lot to do often times on Girls but when she did she was among the most amusing characters on all of television. It’s been said she feels like she’s imported from another, more traditional comedy show, and perhaps so but she’s a hoot and I think by the end of the season they’d figured out how to fit her particular brand of character into the ensemble more clearly. She moved slowly from pure comedy relief to being one of the easiest to root for characters on the show – she definitely is vibrating at a different frequency and it works.

And now for…

Best Supporting Actor

My Nominees:

Nick Offerman – Parks and Recreation

Ron Swanson deserves to be the reigning king of this category and that he’s never even been nominated, as I said before, is a minor crime against humanity. Easily one of the best realized and funniest characters on television – it’d be hard to argue with him as the winner. He’s developed Ron into a character that is one of a kind, emotionally solid as a rock and still manages to surprise. If I care about any one item of business with the nominations it’s that this performance deserves a nomination – and what’s more this was a stand-out season for the character as well.

Chris Pratt – Parks and Recreation

As good as Offerman is, Chris Pratt as Andy Dwyer is as funny a character as any on television and always slowly being built into something bigger and better as time goes on. His relationship with Aubrey Plaza’s April is a highlight of the show and his hijinx is the most purely madcap of the cast and nearly always hits it’s mark.

Max Greenwald – New Girl

If anyone deserves to beat Nick Offerman here it’s easily Max Greenfield as Schmidt who was the easy breakout character of New Girl’s excellent cast. Another entirely unique persona and another great, emotionally relevant and comically terrific performance. He was an early highlight and as they fleshed out his character he only got better, funnier and easier to root for and understand. Another performance that is hard to beat. I’d put him and Offerman in a dead heat and likely do a very Award show thing I dislike and give it to the candidate likelier to not get another nomination. But it’d very close.

Adam Driver – Girls

Speaking of performers who evolved as their season continued, perhaps the biggest and best thing Girls did in it’s first season was introduce Adam Sackler as Hannah’s romantic interest and manage to do one of the most complex and interesting job developing a character of any show in television this year. And the performance had to be just right to pull it off and he pulled it off. One of the oddest, most compelling characters on TV. Another contender, really, but probably boxed out by the two I have already anointed.

Adam Pally – Happy Endings

Adam Pally’s Max is likely the least stereotypical gay character on all of television and another one of the funniest. Another example of purely funny character gaining some level of emotional depth. Had a great romance storyline and was all around the comic highlight of what is a very funny show.


Nominee Number Six would be between: Danny Pudi – Community, Damon Waynes Jr. – Happy Endings, Jake Johnson – New Girl, Ty Burrell – Modern Family, Neil Patrick Harris, Jason Segel – How I Met Your Mother, Tony Hale, Timothy Simmon – Veep, James Van Der Beek – Don’t Trust the B– in Apartment 23

Ultimately I’d go with:

Damon Wayans Jr. – Happy Endings

As the other half of Brad and Jane, it’s hard to not give it up to Damon Wayans Jr. for being one of the weirdest and most fun characters on a pretty weird and funny show. If he wasn’t perfect that couple wouldn’t work and Eliza Coupe’s arguable award worthy performance would be for naught.  That’s at least nomination worthy.

That said – #6 here is hotly contested. It’s hard to give it to a 2nd cast member on the same show (and hard to make the call to have 3 nominations in only these two categories but the entire cast is up for nominations in supporting, so…). 

And there we go!

I’ll return soon to look at Best Actor and Best Actress, perhaps later to look at some other categories and then also to finally reveal my Best Comedy Series picks. Look out for it, coming soon!

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Classic TV Review: Mary Tyler Moore Show, Season One, Episode Three: ‘Bess, You is My Daughter Now’

24 Jun

There are two, very distinct ideas that came to my mind as I watched this, the third episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show – the obvious one, full of plot twists and turns and which is done well enough and with enough verve for it to work well but there is also another show, a show of incidental comedy moments and the further establishment of what would become the main cast of the show, seemingly shunted to the side for the majority of the episode but still managing, often to start stealing the show.

The main plot is, as I said, fairly twisty – Phyllis, as played by Cloris Leachman – who’d later be spun off into her own show but who was oddly always billed as a ‘special guest’, is concerned her daughter Bess (who figured prominently in the pilot and who, as played by Lisa Gerritsen, is pretty good there and in a more prominent role here and who would also join Phyllis, logically enough in her spin-off) will get sick when her father catches chicken pox – she pawns her off on Mary for a few days. Mary isn’t sure about it and Phyllis doesn’t make this any better by telling her she has to take care of her inline with the ‘progressive parenting’ techniques in the books she raises her child with.

Predictably enough Phyllis, it’s revealed, isn’t exactly doing the best job of things, especially when it comes to keeping Bess in line. We’re first introduced to Bess in the episode with her decked out in a wig and make-up stolen from Phyllis, a regular occurrence, it seems. And when Mary tries to suggest that perhaps the make-up doesn’t look particularly good and that it’s perhaps a bit unusual for Bess to refer to her mother by her first name she locks herself in the bathroom and again Phyllis notes it’s something that happens a lot though she notes it’s really because Mary isn’t using the books.

Bess, You is My Child Now

It’s interesting how this is all played. It’s a clear attempt to criticize a certain sort of liberal child rearing technique. Phyllis is often used in the show in their criticisms of certain effete notions, which she summarily plays wildly over the top, which is certainly true here. Phyllis does everything according to the books and their notions of independence and freedom and has no discipline in place. What is sort of odd is that the counterpoint isn’t really Mary as disciplinarian, getting the better of Phyllis – it’s Mary as a source of fun and whimsy that Bess is missing.

Mary herself, after winning Bess over in a sequence that is among the best known in first season – a montage of shopping and ice cream that, like the opening title sequence has a certain iconic flair but seems oddly out of place, to me, in the character’s universe. But whatever one might think of it, it establishes, quickly, a bond between Mary and Bess, which starts imploding for same reasons that Phyllis was so ineffective – a lack of any real discipline.

The montage:

Once Mary and Bess are attached Bess doesn’t want to leave and go back to Phyllis, which creates the crux of the dilemma of the episode. This is one of the several episodes this season where I would have been glad to see an idea get a few episodes to build but that is just not the way that this show, or shows of it’s type and time in most cases, operated in these days. So, we get in a half hour episode – Mary doesn’t know if Bess likes her, she wins her over, Bess doesn’t want to leave, Phyllis is mad at Mary, Mary wants Bess to go back and Bess ends up going back. It’s a lot of story and at times it slightly overwhelms. That said – it works.

The B plot mostly seems to be that Ted Baxter is bad at his job and screws things up. Given that’s the premise of the character, well, that’s not much of a plot. That said – the newsroom characters are all very amusing in their roles. The jokes go fast and free and are often pretty funny. Given this is only the third episode they can be forgiven for basically re-stating the role of one of main supporting characters and especially can be forgiven since it’s funny.

And that’s the second thing going on in this episode – we’re just seeing the cast play, seemingly shallow plots that are just there to provide a springboard to small comedy moments, some of which are barely even in any real context, such as Rhoda attempting to get into the Lotus Position, getting stuck and spending perhaps a minute and a half of engaging in the lovely physical comedy by Valerie Harper – who plays what could have been a oddly digressive scene so well that it’s actually one of the highlights of the episode.

And while the Bess plot is interesting and well done and has nice moments from Mary, Bess and Phyllis, I do think it’s the somewhat aimless B-plots that are the funniest bits. And that’s OK, actually – Phyllis and Bess are supporting players worthy of an occasional main plot like this but the honing of the other characters – Rhoda, Ted, Lou – here is actually more important to the show and the fact that they’re so good in small roles, filling in the spaces between the main plot, bodes well for the series moving forward from here. And those characters all, certainly have their big spotlights yet to come.

This is possibly the funniest episode of the season thus far but the pilot was likely a better episode. Still quite good, however.

Grade: B+

Quick thoughts:

The Onion AV Club recently posted an article speaking of a season five episode as part of an ongoing series on adolescents on television through the years and this stands as another Mary episode that strongly features an adolescent even if it’s a bit more about parenting than it is about being a kid.

Speaking of the kid, though, Lisa Gerritson, given a spotlight here lives up to it about as well as you can expect a young actress to- she gives a good performance and never seems out of place.

http://www.hulu.com/watch/668

Adventurous Women – Girls, Season One in review (nearly spoiler free)

16 Jun

GIRLS

In advance of Sunday’s first season finale of ‘Girls’, the HBO comedy staring Lena Dunham which is both my favorite new show of the season (sorry New Girl!) and the subject of an enormous amount of contraversy for a show that has only once recorded over a million viewers. I’m certainly not the first to talk about the show but I wanted to record my thoughts as well, in hopes that maybe even as a drip in a larger pond I might be able to grab a few people’s attention who might at this point be confused at the larger media narrative toward the series.

Let me lead off with the praise, before getting into the criticisms (and their possible merits or lack thereof). ‘Girls’ is big and brash while managing to be specific and nuanced. That’s a heck of a trick to pull. It’s more explicit, realistic and relatable about sex than nearly any show on television. It does cringe humor about as well as anything this side of ‘Louie’ (and in fact seems to share a certain bit of comic DNA with that show). It depicts twenty-something angst in a way that rightfully trivializes it at times and yet takes it profoundly seriously in a way that I can easily and firmly relate to. Finally, importantly – it’s damned funny, every time out.

The main media criticisms coming it’s way (and to be fair, it’s both a lightning rod and a critical darling) seem to be two fold. Both of these criticism seem to come from the place of finding the show to be too insular in it’s viewpoint.

First there is the charge that there are too few minority characters, especially given the show takes place in Brooklyn. It’s hard to know what to say to this, because on the face of it, it seems both to be a reasonable charge and yet a glorification of token-ism. Lena Dunham, the creator, star and main writer (and occasional director) of the series has noted that she both plans to diversify the cast in the second season, to some degree and also claimed that she didn’t include more minorities because she didn’t feel she could accurately represent the viewpoint of them, more than anything. The addition of, among others, Donald Glover of Community fame, to the cast next year should help this but I’m not sure I find it to be a big issue.

One of the main things the show has going for it is it’s specificity. Every character, from Lena’s Hannah down to one time guests (such as a memorable appearance by one of my favorite stand-up comedians, Mike Birbiglia) tend to have very strong and specific character traits. And the re-occuring characters grow and change over time, as well they should. But Lena, in her role as the near be-all end-all of the show didn’t feel she could accurately portray the experience of a minority character with that specificity, at least in the first several episodes, well – it seems like arguing against that is an argument for the show to be everything to everyone, which it isn’t going to be and shouldn’t try to be. If anything I’m made nervous by the idea that the show seems to be boxed in to having to try and add token minority characters.

The other major compliant seems to be that these characters are too entitiled and unlikeable. And this seems to miss the boat entirely. I’m not about to say that everyone making this complaint is doing so from a position of mysogony but it’s hard to deny that the places that cover the show extensively seem to be havens for people to make fun of Lena’s weight and percieved lack of attractiveness as a reason in and of itself to dislike the show.

But getting down to the real core complaint here – again, I think it comes down to specificity and the inability of the show to be everything to everyone. This is a show about mid-20s women coming of age in the big city and it is very much warts and all. The show begins with our main character coming off as an unlikeable ungrateful bitch and plays that card often and with aplomb. This is not a show that is afraid to make you dislike it’s characters, from it’s lead to it’s supporting cast. And that’s OK – as much as you frequently might find yourself disliking these people for individual actions, with few exceptions you are likely to be rooting for them, even in spite of yourself along the way. And that, I think, is the mark of an interesting piece of art. It’s fine to wish it was more accessable, if you find it inaccessable for whatever reason (probably most likely is that many people are inclined to want to out and out like the characters in a show they are going to follow, which is their perogative, most certainly) but I have a hard time hearing from people who have already decided they dislike the show and would wish to push the narrative of it’s lack of quality and having been over-rated on any and everyone who will listen. The world might be a better place if these people moved on and offered their opinion on such things, perhaps only if asked, at least at this point.

Hannah GIRLS

Lena’s Hannah is a brat and often worse than that. She’s an aspiring writer (in theory) and a bit of a charity case, from her parents (who cut her off at the beginning of the pilot) to her best friend Marnie who is, for much of the season paying her bills for her. She is engaging in what is, at best, even with recent movement on it’s front, a fraught relationship with a man named Adam who could certainly at most times, especially as the series begins, treat her better. Her aimlessness and mix of being a seeming know-it-all with unaware niaevette, mixed with a pension for pushing things a bit too far are probably her defining characteristics.

Hannah often comes off poorly and this seems, at once, realistic and as a reaction to Lena Dunham, perhaps, overcompinsating for what she is asking the rest of the cast to do by taking the majority of the comedy on the nose. She’s been naked (and mocked for it), cruel, stupid and hurtful at times. She’s also oddly charming. You can see, if you look close enough, a worthwhile person who just hasn’t quite gotten themselves together as best they could and on many ways there is an underdog quality to the narrative that is quite effective. That Hannah is often an underdog because on inherent schmuckiness is actually very true to the character of many twenty-something talented but aimless creative types.

Marnie

The other titular girls include Marnie, Hannah’s roommate and best friend. She’s perhaps, even more than Hannah, the worst person of the group and probably the hardest to sympathize with, even as things happen around her that would seemingly lead one to do so. As the series begins she’s stuck in a relationship with boy, Charlie, who is both in love with her and doting but also, in her mind deeply boring which may have come with the fact that their relationship is several years old and probably a few past it’s natural expiration.

Jessa

Also there is Jessa, a Brit with both a lazie faire cool to her and some serious issues. She seems to get effortlessly into and out of trouble in a way that some people actually do. She seems on some level to be floating through both the show and life, finding no real pathos in spite of pregnancy scares, random drug use and seeming globe hopping. As the show goes on it seems she’s more and more on verge of hitting a wall but of all the main characters she’s the one who seems to have the easiest time in the world. She’s also often very unlikeable, perhaps for that reason above all but also because she doesn’t tend to give much of a shit about most things or people. But it’s also hard for me to argue the voracity of her character. She seems very nearly fully realized. She has flaws running deep but they don’t seem to trip her up much and most people she meets don’t even seem to notice them, entranced as they can be in her effortless cool.

Shoshana Girls

Certainly entranced is her cousin and roommate Shoshana, who might, on any other show be a clear breakout character. She has broken out in the sense that she wasn’t planned initially to be a series regular until actress Zosia Mamet nailed the part in the pilot. If the show can be compared to the other HBO series about women in New York, (Sex in the City, of course), she’d be the show’s Charlotte, although she’d like to prefer to call herself a Carrie/Charlotte/Miranda mix, as she notes in her first scene, technicolor Sex in the City movie poster in the foreground, to a thoroughly confused Jessa.

Shoshana is the comedy relief, on some level, to a show that already has plenty of humor. There has been talk that she seems like a character from another, broader comedy but I think she both rings true in her exhuberant uncool naievete and is a clear scene stealer. She’s given less to do than anyone else but she rarely not a highlight of the show.

The men in the cast are largely excellent and flawed as well. The main male cast member is Adam, Hannah’s would be boyfriend and as we begin the season seemingly regular friend with benefits. Although it’s not entirely clear they are even quite friends. They engage in small talk and then get to, often graphic and embarrasing (especially for Hannah) sex. Adam’s portrayal over the course of the first season is the most radically changed episode to episode – taken at face value in the first few episodes he could be taken somewhat monsterously. And yet, as time goes on he is discovered to have some unexpected layers (while never really shedding the earlier characterization even if he moves you past initial revulsion – for the most part)

I may well come back to this, to write a follow up but I just wanted to put this out there to encourage anyone who might be on the fence to give Girls a fair shake. In a lot of ways, having watched this and the previously reviewed ‘Mary Tyler Moore Show’ at the same time they seem like both pure products of their time in an oddly linked fashion – they are show made largely with a female touch about a female protagonist trying to find her way in a world she doesn’t quite know and understand quite yet. MTM stands as a light, 70s look at the way being a 30something career woman could work and I think Girls, in many respects stands as a far cruder, more realistic look at today’s 20something women and trouble that even what might appear to be among the more privledged have to go through to make it through the world.

Girls LOGO

Girls season finale airs at both 10 and 10:30 PM EST on HBO but I recommend that you check out the pilot episode and make a judgment for yourself – I think it’s maybe one of the finest comedy pilots I’ve ever seen, honestly.

Classic TV Reviews: The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Season One, Episode Two: “Today I am a Ma’am”

30 May

When we’d last left our heroine, Mary Richard’s world was in flux – she was at a new job, with a new apartment, in a new city with an entire cast full of people who seemed, maybe, just maybe to be warming to her. In a lot of ways, the pilot episode of Mary Tyler Moore was the start of a great serialized sitcom – one where over the course of a season or maybe even a sequence of episodes our protagonist would begin to make friends and get ahead in her business life, slowly but surely through a series of comic hijinks.

I think surely, if this show was being made today, that is the direction the show would have moved in. You had everything in place – Rhoda and Lou Grant were both set up as both liking but having reasons to  be wary of Mary. Lou tells her he might just fire her and while we’re meant to take it as a bit of bluster (especially by the end of the episode where he wanders in, drunk and writing a letter to his wife, though that presents a whole different realm of trouble) but he is also seen as ornery and perhaps a bit of a tough nut to crack.

Rhoda, though, especially is left in a place of competition with Mary. They do end the episode chatting and there is a last minute, out of nowhere revelation that Rhoda has an apartment upstairs (undercutting one of the stories at the heart of the busy pilot, that Rhoda wants Mary’s apartment) but there is legitimate dramatic and comic potential that exists to showing and establishing further the roots of a friendship that would be one of the core relationships of the show.

That we get none of these things in the second episode is indicative of where  things stood in 1970 for a new sitcom, no matter it’s ambitions –  it’s well acknowledged that the pilot, at the time it aired and more specifically when it tested with audiences, didn’t go over well. It seems like that audiences probably wanted the cast to just straight away like the likeable Mary and given what television had given them to go by to that date it’s a reasonable (if perhaps flawed) expectation.

So, instead we’re given an episode where it’s established early that Mary is just part of the mix at her job, where the ratings are down, slightly in a scene that starts the episode, gives a quick start to our story, as Lou explains to Mary she’s no longer in the 18-29 demographic and thus no longer young (followed up quickly by a young page calling her ‘ma’am’, which she admits soon thereafter is a first and mortifying) and then is never seen again, as the episode instead focuses on Mary and Rhoda.

Mary and Rhoda are, at the time of this episode, already best friends, in such a way that suggests that maybe the series took a jump in time from the first episode to the second. Or perhaps they just wanted to get to the heart of the show they wanted to make. Or perhaps they succumbed to pressure to make things more ‘likeable’. Nevertheless, not only are they now the best of friends but Mary, who is making a new home as the series begins seems to have a long history in her new home, even in this, our second episode.

This is not to say this is a bad episode. Standing on it’s own, as simply an episode of the show, it’s quite entertaining at times (though a bit hammy as well) and is a small scale establishment of something that would go on to be one of the principle running gags of the show – the disaster that happens any time Mary Richards attempts to throw a party. But it’s incongruous as a second episode and it’s hard not give it some thought.

Our general plot is that Mary, after suffering the embarrassment of being called out on here age at work, grouses about it to Rhoda who suggests they try and find dates, given they aren’t getting any younger. There would be something oddly sexist about the need to sate oneself through a man if not for the fact that it’s driven by Rhoda, who is being established at this point as chronically insecure. And who seems to have an ulterior motive, it seems, not too long after.

Rhoda, as well as Phyllis, with Cloris Leachmen appearing at this point to be a series regular (though she only appears, past this and and the next episode sporadically throughout the season, always billed as a ‘special guest star) try to get Mary to think of someone she might be interested. She comes up with an old flame, Howard Arnell, who Phyllis confirms was crazy about her. Mary tells us he was always quite nice.

Rhoda tells her she ought to give him a call – there is something interestingly striking about the landscape of the 1970s as opposed to now – it’s not to say it’s hard in this day and age to lose touch of someone but there is a definite anachronism about the way the whole thing plays out, with Mary breaking out a phone book and cold calling a man she’d not heard of or from for years and one who would prove to be very interested in her. This all makes sense – even up until the mid to late-90s this is how the world worked but watching it, in 2012, it was hard not to queue up the fact that our lives, at this point, are so interconnected and that there are few 30somethings out there who would lose touch in this way. It’s not a major point and it’s hardly a gripe but, to me, it stands in an odd contrast and actually, on some level, gives us a feel for the world and the era.

Anyhow Mary is unsure it’s for the best to meet Howard but Rhoda and Phyllis both push her with Rhoda doing so because she has someone she wants to give a call to herself. It seems she met a man recently… by running him over with her car. And he gave her his number, after-all he only banged up his arm (though his briefcase was ‘totalled’) she tells us, though one imagines he did it for insurance reasons. When Mary refuses to relent she’s told by Phyllis that it’s OK, she could instead help out with Bess’ (her daughter) sleepover tonight – 19 of her best friends! And 20 air-mattresses to blow up. Mary quickly decides to relent to Rhoda and give him a call. And realizes that Howard is nice. Too nice. The kind of nice that has been counting down the days since they last met. Mary is increasingly unsure this is a good idea.

Rhoda, for her part, gets some bad news as well. When she calls her would be beau, Armond Linner, she learns that he’d be glad to come over. And that he’ll bring his wife along too, if that’s OK. And thus the scene is set for an awkward evening at the Richard’s residence.

As Mary and Rhoda prepare for the ‘party’, Rhoda starts scheming to steal Armond away and when asked if maybe he has a happy marriage, Mary is accused of being a buzzkill. Part of Rhoda’s strategy is to not eat, hoping to lose ‘ten pounds by 8:30’. She’s unsure of her outfit and wonders aloud if maybe she should ‘call her date and ask what his wife’s wearing’. There is comedy to mined her and to this point they’re doing well with it without going too terribly over the top. I’m not sure that continues, however.

Armond, and his beautiful wife Nancy arrive and Rhoda promptly loses all previously held belief this is going to go well. She had said no to the chips on the table when offered, citing her diet and upon having Armond enthusiastically introduce ‘Mrs. Linton’, what he still loves to call her, he say, just weeks after their honeymoon, Rhoda breaks and slovenly inhales chips. It’s a cute moment but I think about the moment the show starts to go off the rails.

Howard arrives next, as he opens the door he takes a shot of Mary with a camera he has around his neck – because he wanted to record her reaction. And he’s over the top affectionate, as established earlier. Richard Schaal plays this all in a manic Steve Martin sort of way that makes him all too much a cartoon, for my tastes and takes things down a notch.

Howard’s obliviousness to everyone else, Rhoda can barely muster his attention to introduce herself as ‘another person in the room’ and introduce ‘my date – Mr. and Mrs. Armond Linton’ and fierce devotion to gaining Mary’s attention and affection are perhaps more annoying than they are amusing.

There is some false drama introduced in the form of the guests expecting dinner when only offered drinks. It’s quickly defused. The drama of how to get rid of Howard is blown off quickly as well – it turns out, as much as he’d love to marry Mary (a suggestion he brings up himself, out of the blue, of course) he needs his freedom and thus ought to really, as much as he’s torn, get going and maybe he’ll see Mary some other time. It’s convenient and odd in a way that makes the character only more annoying.

In the end, it’s decided, by Rhoda, that the moral of the story is that she’s no matter how lonely she’ll only accept a date ‘with a couple I really like’.

I am probably giving this episode a raw deal, there is a number of funny lines and Mary and Rhoda both get some fun moments and the concept of Rhoda’s plot is really fun and funny. But overall there remains not much to this past some funny lines and an arbitrary, silly plot. With all the will in the world I can’t say that it wouldn’t have been a lot more fun to continue the plot from the pilot and get a little more detail into how and why Mary and Rhoda become such good friends. But perhaps that’s asking too much.

Grade: B-

Give it a watch – it is, despite my protests, pretty funny –

Hulu – Today I am a Ma’am

Next time:  in a case of perhaps accidental serialization, Mary does end up watching Phyliss’ daughter Bess and, wouldn’t you know it, troubles arise from there…

Ryan’s Random Reviews – 2012 Capsule Reviews Con’t

27 May

Mount EerieClear Moon

Grade: A

A lovely return to form for Phil Elverum’s second iteration of his band (which you might know better as The Microphones) and the first full record under the Mount Eerie name to really reach it’s potential. After the noisier ‘Wind’s Poem’ a few years ago, his attempt at making a more organic black metal (coined ‘Black Wooden’), this is a no less Earth-y but more focused and arresting record.

‘Through the Trees pt. 2’ kicks things off and sets the quiet, patient course for the rest of the record. In interviews this has been said to be a record about his home town and it paints a lovely picture of Ancortes, WA. There are a few instrumentals and experiments but they’re fewer and farther between than in some of his other records, this is primarily about mood and songwriting and it succeeds (though not to worry if you want more in the experimental vein from Phil, he has another record coming this year that is more in that vein)

The deliberate mood is one of the highlights and is seen well in highlights like ‘Lone Bell’, built around a slow building synth riff and the slightly ominous ‘The Place I Live’. The songs are given time to develop and bloom and it plays best, I think, as a full record (as I think most records ought to)

One of my favorite records of the year so far and a welcome return to form from an artist I’ve longer been enamored of.

Listen to it on bandcamp:

Mount Eerie – Clear Moon – Bandcamp

Rufus WainwrightOut of the Game

Grade: C

Expectations were heightened for some for this new record by perhaps the best known of Wainwright family of singer-songwriters when it was announced that Mark Ronson, producer of Amy Winehouse’s ‘Back in Black’ and Adele’s ’19’ was working on the record. And the influence of that sound certainly shows. But overall the results are less than desirable.

I actually very much enjoy the title track, which opens and is the first single – it feels vibrant in a way that most of the other tracks on the record feel flat. It’s pure pop but it’s well mannered, well written pop and it’s a joy.

But yes, the rest of the record falls short. It feels overly produced and by the numbers in a way that it really ought not to. A disappointment.

The lovely video for the aforementioned title track, featuring Helena Bonham Carter:

Santigold – Master of Make Believe

Grade: B+

Featuring guest appearances by Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Karen O & Nick Zinner and boasting guest production from TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek this blends those indie dance influences with the hip hop sensibilities from Diplo and M.I.A. collaborator Switch into an interesting messy mesh.

Lead single ‘Big Mouth”s video took aim at Lady Gaga and Katy Perry and while Santigold avoids bubblegum, for the most part, the results of the record are similarly dance pop confections. The second single ‘Disparate Youth’ is probably the both the best and most complicated to pin down song on the record – it spins itself into what I’d describe a manner tizzy.

Much of this recalls a slightly less ambitious Janelle Monae and that’s nothing to scoff at. An interesting record and one well worth coming back to.

Disparate Youth:

Coke WeedNice Dreams

Grade: B+

Maine  psych-rockers Coke Weed are better than their questionable name would perhaps imply (in looking at rival reviews I see I’m not the first one to point this out). Their sound recalls something akin to the classic 60s and 70s psych scene, recalling things as disparate as Jefferson Airplane and The Velvet Underground but also, in Nina D’s sultry vocals, sometimes a spacier Cat Power as well or in the boy/girl dynamics a (much) less restrained xx.

The highlights here, ‘Pure Pattern’, ‘Gangland’ and especially ‘Golden Apples’ build to a pure enjoyable, controlled mess. And if some songs never quite get off the ground (I don’t quite ever cotton to lead single ‘Magpie’) there’s never a moment that whole-y doesn’t work or any real lowlights.

An enjoyable record beginning to end that shows a band that has a lot of potential going forward. (But really guys, the name? C’mon.)

One of their videos:

To buy or download:

http://shop.cokeweed.com/product/coke-weed-nice-dreams-album-download/

They’ll also be at the 2012 Thing in the Spring, at the Saturday after-show at Harlow’s Pub. 

Spiritulized Sweet Heart, Sweet Light

Grade: A

Jason Pierce returns after spending last year touring behind his now classic record ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, We are Floating in Space’ with a record that might just go on to challenge it as the height of his discography.

Recorded during a long, hazy health scare this is a fairly bi-polar record – it kicks some killer rock and pop notes but it’s nothing if not a bit of a downer, if you’re listening close. With names like ‘Life is a Problem’ and ‘Too Late’, perhaps that shouldn’t be a surprise. But what is surprising is how well it rides both poles, giving you a chugging, propulsive rock record, which also inspiring big questions.

Another thing this record does well is wear it’s inspirations on it’s sleeve – ‘So Long You Pretty Things’ (the closer, a highlight) is obviously a direct reference to David Bowie’s ‘Oh You Pretty Things’ and yet it manages to have a life of it’s own. And lead single ‘Hey Jane’ directly references ‘Sweet Jane’ by The Velvet Underground, as the current of their influence hangs over not just the song but the record overall.

Another one of my favorites of the year – I’ve found it endlessly playable.

Here’s the short-film video for ‘Hey Jane’:

Classic TV Review: Mary Tyler Moore, Season One, Episode One: ‘Love is All Around’

22 May

There are a myriad of shows in the annals of television history which have debuted with an episode not befitting the eventual stature and quality of the show it introduced to the world, however, ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ is not one. Sitcom pilots present creators with several problems, chief among them being that a pilot exists for two conflicting reasons: to prove the worthiness of the shows existence and to also, simultaneously explain the situation driving the comedy. To do so, most, if not all series have to succumb to loading their show with expository dialogue and scenes that weigh down and confuse the more comedic elements of the plot.

That said, if anything, ‘Love is All Around’ the first episode of the series, is one of the best episodes of the first season and a superb example of a sitcom pilot done right. Written by series creators James L. Brooks and Allan Burns, it manages to get across the necessary information to introduce the characters, their world and situation while letting those introductions drive the action of the show.

At the time the show debuted, in 1970, Mary Tyler Moore was not at the height of her fame. Having ended a long run on ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show’ she starred in a few features in a four film deal with Universal Pictures, notably a particularly poor Elvis vehicle ‘Change of Habit’ and had starred, in a failed attempt to bring “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” to Broadway which never made it past previews. However, after a star turn on a Dick Van Dyke television variety special ‘Dick Van Dyke and The Other Woman’ she was suddenly again a hot enough commodity that CBS was interested in giving her her own show.

At the time Mary was married to Grant Tinker, who with her co-founded MTM Studios to produce the show. The original pitch for the show, by Brooks and Burns was for Mary to be a divorced woman in her early thirties adjusting to being single again-  that was shot down by the network, who were afraid, given her stint on the Van Dyke show where she was his wife that audiences would think that the premise involved her not just getting a divorce (a fairly scandalous thing in and of itself at the time) but a divorce from Van Dyke. Instead a compromise was made to make Mary a single, never married woman who was coming out of a break-up of a long term relationship.

We’re first introduced to Mary Richards, Mary’s eponymous character, via the classic opening credits, set to the song that gives this episode it’s name: ‘Love is All Around’ by Sonny Curtis. In the first season these credits also tell a short origin story for the Mary character – they show a going-away party and Mary driving toward Minneapolis, the setting of the show and finally Mary emerging iconically to the streets of the city where, at the end of the credits, as the song hits the cue to say she will, in fact, make it after all, Mary launches her hat in the air.

If there was anything I knew of the Mary Tyler Moore Show previous to my actually engaging it recently, it would be this sequence, one that, previously had seemed a bit precious and which, even with the best of will still seems to be, just a bit. That said, it works better in context than it does in isolation and I feel I’m solidly in the minority – a statue commemorating the scene stands in the place it was shot to this day. Either way the opening credits do some of the work for the show in establishing who this character is and yet creating some mystery as to her circumstances.

Once they end we’re given an opening shot of another iconic location, Mary Richard’s apartment, which she is welcomed into by frequent guest-star Cloris Leachman playing the role of Phyllis which would go on to star in one of the three spin-offs the show (and MTM Pictures) produced- ‘Phyllis’. Phyllis and her daughter Bess show Mary her new apartment and we establish for the first time the concept that Mary is, largely, playing straight woman to the larger character surrounding her, as Phyllis and Bess bicker about whether or not Mary ought to be referred to as her aunt and then whether Mary ought to have the apartment when Bess would prefer it go to Rhoda (who she gladly refers to as ‘Aunt Rhoda’, to Phyllis’ dismay). Mary is mostly an on-looker in the proceedings, her personal laughs mostly coming from Moore’s exaggerated facial reactions (which rival just about anyone’s, I think it’s fair to say).

Rhoda Morgenstern, as played by Valerie Harper is introduced when the large picture window’s in the foreground of the scene’s blinds are open to show her washing the windows of what she goes on to refer to as “her apartment”. Rhoda, in the pilot episode acts as an antagonist to Mary here and tries to convince her that she, in fact, deserves to have the apartment. It’s a matter of debate throughout the episode and as a running joke Rhoda’s attempts to obtain (retain?) the apartment works very well to introduce the character, who, to my mind is probably the series best supporting character (and, again, one of the three characters to be given a spin-off – ‘Rhoda’ which initially was as or more successful than it’s mother series and remains the only television series to ever debut as the top rated show of it’s week in it’s premiere)

Rhoda and Phyllis plainly do not get along which is a dynamic that would stay in play as long as the two remained on the series but none the less they act as exposition machines to tell the story of Mary Richards to this point. The thing being – the scene is so well played and the exposition done in an almost meta-storytelling way, with Mary begging off having her story be told to near stranger Rhoda, that it actually works quite well.

The story, as it is, is that Mary had been dating a medical student for two years, supporting him, under the promise that he’d marry her once he became a doctor, at which point he told her ‘why rush into things’ which spurred Mary to break things off with him and decide to make the new life we’re being introduced to now.

The scene with Rhoda ends with the pair’s first particularly funny back and forth as Mary works herself into a bluster asking if she thinks she’s a push-over, when Rhoda tells her she is she tells her she might just push back and Rhoda tells her ‘C’mon, you know you can’t carry that off’ and Mary… breaks and says ‘I know’ – it’s a telling moment and does a lot to cement the relationship between the two characters.

Another thing it does is establish Mary as having something of a duality of character – on one hand she is a strong, career oriented and successful 30 year old woman ‘making it on her own’ but she also has a core that is maybe a bit less tough than she’d wish to let on. There is something to be said for that being an anti-feminist statement, that for all her bluster Mary ‘can’t carry off’ being a truly strong woman but I’d rather disagree – Mary is certainly a product of her time but her greatest failings often come from not wanting to be mean, rather than a place of weakness, as seen in the scene described, where she tries to stand up to Rhoda and fails not because she couldn’t show strength but because it’d mean coming off as a bad guy, which is, consistently, shown as a role that Mary is ill at ease with.

The second scene introduces us to both the second iconic set of the series, the WJM-TV newsroom and our final major character, Lou Grant, who yet again, would in end up with his own spin-off series, in his case ‘Lou Grant’, a series which is perhaps more impressive for being a dramatic spin-off for a sitcom character, which may be the first and only one of it’s kind and is certainly the only character for which an actor, Ed Asner, would win an Emmy for both his comedic and dramatic portrayals.

Mary and Lou’s first scene together is a job interview. After we’re briefly introduced to Gavin McCloud’s Murray Slaughter (another series regular, the only one to never be nominated for an Emmy) as Mary asks where she can find Mr. Grant, who she’s scheduled to have an interview with for a secretarial position, only for Mr. Grant himself to tell her, never identifying himself to come to his office, dismissing Murray’s insistence that the position has been filled.

Once in his office and having revealed himself Lou and Mary have the best scene of the episode together. It starts with Lou offering Mary a drink and after she initially demurs she instead says to Lou, brandishing a lone bottle of hard liquor that she would take a Brandy Alexander and is offered, instead a coffee.

During the course of their extremely chemistry filled scene together we see Mary assert a backbone, telling Lou that she shouldn’t be asked her religion in a job interview and the subtext of the scene works well to create Lou as both a likeable figure and one that is slightly intimidating to Mary. She ends up being offered the job of, rather than secretary (Murray is right – the position is filled) Assistant Producer. Mary is instantly impressed but is told that the job pays a fair amount less than a secretarial one would (and that for 15 dollars less she can be a full producer, which she shoots down by saying she can probably only afford Assistant Producer).

The scene works on several levels and is the germ of much of what works about the show as a whole. Much of the scene is given to a running joke of Lou asking a question, Mary demuring or refusing to answer, only to confusingly provide the previous answer when given an even tougher question (example: ‘What is your religion’ ‘You’re not allowed to ask me that’ ‘Why aren’t you married’ ‘Presbyterian’) which builds to a lovely climax. And upon recieving the job she’s told, in one of the series (again) iconic moments, that she has spunk… and that Lou Grant HATES spunk. She’s told she will be given a trial at the job and that if he doesn’t like her and she doesn’t like him, he’ll fire her.

Much like the scenes with Rhoda this sets up a dynamic that seems promising for the future and in fact would have, one imagines, set up in modern sitcom storytelling, a rather interesting ongoing storyline about the attempts to assert herself worthy of the job. But such concerns I’ll cover in more depth in my next review.

Mary, then, comes home and excited about her new job tries to inform Phyllis, more concerned with telling her some big news. Phyllis’ fun is spoiled by Bess, however, who spills the beans – Mary’s ex- called and he wants to get back together. Phyllis is then more interested in chastisizing Bess for stealing her moment than comforting a very shocked Mary but eventually offers than she knows how she feels, to which Mary responds that she doesn’t even know how she feels. For a pilot episode it certain offers a pretty weighty hook, right off the back and one has to wonder if it went to this well so early to ease the fear by the network that we’d think her ex-lover was Van Dyke.

Never the less, we’re off to Mary’s first day at the newsroom, where she meets lead anchor Ted Baxter (who, again, in disagreeing with general wisdom, I do tend to see as being a bit overly broad and less funny for it) and tries to find something to do, finally contenting herself with breaking the tip off her newly sharpened pencils and sharpening them anew. It’s established as well that Lou’s wife is out of town and he refuses to take her call, saying he’ll talk to her when she gets back – in a month.

We’re then given one more scene with Rhoda – she has a locksmith open the door (who then, in an odd, broad and amusing moment, takes a moment to ‘memorize her face’, in case any wrongdoing has occured and exits) and re-asserts her want for the apartment and gives a bit of her own backstory – she was a New Yorker (of which, Valerie Harper’s performance gave no doubt, playing the character as a boisterous New York Jew in a way that makes it all the more odd that the characters latent Judaism is swept under the rug in her spin-off) but couldn’t find a New York apartment and having found this one in Minneapolis isn’t about to leave it. In spite of their grousing Mary concedes after some banter that she’s having a hard time disliking Rhoda, who agrees and says they’ll have to work on it. (Another element that could have well spawned longer stories, another element I’ll serialize into my next review, even if they refuse to serialize it into the episode in question)

Finally, we have our climactic scene, as Phyllis prepares Mary for her ex- Bob to arrive and tells her, in a lovely subversive moment about the joys of marriage and it’s wonders, as long as you’re ‘realistic’, ‘sacrifice’, ‘accomidate’ and finally in a lovely played moment by Leachman, who by this time is harshly squeezing Mary’s hand ‘sublimate’.

Once Phyllis makes her exit Mary prepares with one of the lovelier and dynamic throwaway sequences of the episode, unbuttoning her shirt to show a little cleavage, before rebuttoning it and declaring herself a coward. The door rings and she finds, not Bob but Lou, completely drunk. Mary puts together that he’s there to proposition her and that that’s why she got her job and is informed that she does indeed have ‘a nice caboose’ but that in fact he’s there because he misses his wife, who has the finest caboose of all.

He asks Mary to use her typewritter and she attempts to get him to leave but fails and he begins writing. The running gag of the scene is that he drunkenly finds the words to say in whatever Mary happens to say. He remains there as Bob rings the doorbell and enters, with rose in tow.

The roses, however, turn out to be stolen (or, at least traded) from a patient of his and the empty gesture only gets him so far. She mentions the Grant’s marriage in reference to being asked about Lou’s presence (she gets him out of there hair soon enough by saying ‘All My Love, Lou’ which he dutifully repeats and types and then leaves ‘to go tie one on’) and he gets very defensive about the subject. Once it’s clear he has no intention of proposing, as she’s supposed he might, he offers her a conciliatory offer of his love which she’s right to catch as being rather insincere. Then  in a sequence that could be trite but shows the lovely chops of Brooks (who’d go on to be quite the big name in sentimental comedy, from ‘Terms of Endearment’ to ‘As Good as It Gets’ but also is given credit for several of the best dramatic moments of ‘The Simpsons’ which he also helped create – a personal favorite being the climax of ‘Lisa’s Substitute’ where the titular character exits and leaves behind for Lisa a note, asserting simply ‘You are Lisa Simpson’) he chalks it up to her being better at saying things and she tells him she’s simply terrible at saying goodbye and when he realizes he’s been dismissed he tells her to take care of herself and she responds that she just did.

It’s a lovely moment that sets the tone of Mary’s character, who has been shown till now as having perhaps a deficit of backbone, instead being able to come through when it counts and muster the strength to make a big move and not, in fact, be pushed around. The scene works big, in showing Mary’s character and also in spotlightling that Lou might have more heart than we gave him credit for – the fakeout where we think he might be hitting on her is another big highlight of the episode. It’s a big profound and well played scene to end a terrific episode of television on – showing the heart, the humor and the independent spirit that was the heart of the show.

There are few television pilots that truly spell out to the viewer just what they’re in for with the series better than ‘Love is All Around’. It’s a delight and I heartily recommend giving it a watch – it’s available to be watched instantly on Hulu and I’ve provided a link at the bottom of the page.

Love is All Around on Hulu

Grade: A

Next time we’ll be dealing with Rhoda and Mary, serialization or lack-there-of, the shows portrayal of Mary’s dating life and the series second episode: ‘Today I am a Ma’am’. Hope to see you then…

Introducing: Retro TV Reviews featuring The Mary Tyler Moore Show (and explanation of why)

21 May

It’s a wonder to me, as an appreciator of good television and good sitcoms especially, that The Mary Tyler Moore Show is not better remembered. Sure, it turns up in lists of great television shows here and there but you hardly ever hear of it otherwise. It’s a shame not only because it’s a classic of the highest order when it comes to sitcoms but because, like many an old film it stands up as being tremendously good.

There seems to be a divide in the world of movies and television when it comes to appreciation of the classics. It’s seen as a shame if someone hasn’t seen a classic 70s film like ‘The Godfather’, ‘Taxi Driver’ or ‘Annie Hall’, especially if that person is a serious film fan. But old television is seen, oftentimes, as disposable. There is an audience for it, in re-runs, for a certain amount of time and there exists such things as ‘TV Land’ but it isn’t viewed as something that people with good taste gravitate toward.

Reasons exist for this, of course. Television is seen as a medium that exists to sell advertisements. And what is popular in television is often not very good. Not to mention that some of the finest television produced, when it disappoints the bottom line and doesn’t draw ratings can tend to be cancelled despite being at it’s creative peak. The cream doesn’t always rise to the top in television and while that’s true for  movies, as well, and all of pop culture, it can be more pronounced in television, especially broadcast television.

This is reason to celebrate those shows that maintan a level of high quality and manage to connect with a large audience. The Mary Tyler Moore Show is one of those shows. And yet it feels as though it’s been largely forgotten. For a show that lasted seven season, spawned three spin-offs and won and was nominated for more Emmys in it’s seven seasons than all but one other show in the history of television, this seems quite odd. And yet it’s consistent with how television, especially what is seen as old television, is treated.

I would argue that the shows contemporaries, most notably ‘All in the Family’, seem to have faired slightly better in the memories of the general public, but not by much. Old television is put out to pasture in a way that old movies never are. Even something like the aforementioned TV Land, that is supposed to celebrate the best of old television, is more interested in promoting things like Everyone Loves Raymond or The King of Queens and, it seems, see it’s older shows as more filler than filet mignon. This may have to do with the fact that there are more Film Aficionados out there than anyone who much care about the history and quality of television, especially when it comes to the sitcom, a form that is disrespected not only by audiences but by, in many cases, creators as well.

In this day and age, however, television and the criticism of it have become something that has an audience on the internet. Websites such as The Onion’s AV Club and web personalities such as Alan Sepinwall take television seriously and review it on an ongoing basis. There are flaws with this, of course, as many programs have a level of serialization that makes week to week reviews a hassle but the rise of shows ranging from Community to Mad Men have the presence of the web to make these reviews things that people (such as myself) will read and enjoy and debate. And while the AV Club’s TV Club does have a selection of ‘classics’ it reviews, as of yet there is many a fine series that has not gotten such treatment – ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ being a prime example.

Until recently, I’d not even seen the program, I’m willing to admit. It’s been a few months now since I really gave myself up to the fact that I very much enjoy sitcoms. On some level it was something that I felt a certain level of shame about. The sitcom is not the most revered of forms – it’s often viewed as a hacky, laugh tracked bad joke. At a certain point, however, I had to admit that the vast majority of what I liked on television existed in the medium of the sitcom or at least something resembling it – modern shows as distinct and interesting as ‘Parks and Recreation’, ‘Louie’, ’30 Rock’, ‘Happy Endings’ and a myriad of others are among the best things going on television today and the classic early seasons of ‘The Simpsons’ to ‘Seinfeld’ to even such things as ‘Friends’ exist as being as beloved as most any movie. I’m a sitcom fan and as one, I have recently felt a need to give myself a history lesson and one of the places I started was getting the first season of Mary Tyler Moore from Netflix where I was pleasantly surprised. So much so that I decided it needed to be shared…

It’s with these things in mind, I welcome you to an ongoing series of reviews of the first season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which will start soon with the pilot episode: ‘Love is All Around’. I’ll have further thoughts on the series and why I think it’s important and even, in fact relevant to today’s culture in that review, which I’ll be posting in the next few days.