Archive for the ‘ Comedy ’ Category

The Good Place: Season 1

As a quick browse through this site will show, I don’t really watch many sitcoms. I seem to have a very specific type of humour which doesn’t seem to match mainstream television. I can’t abide stupid people, particularly characters who have to act stupid just to drive a plot or get a laugh. That feels cheap and I’m more likely to cringe at their poor choices than I am to laugh at the punchline. If I’m looking for comedy I’ll usually head towards one of the middle-of-the-road dramas which tend to have humour embedded around the serious stories. I’m more likely to laugh at The West Wing, Grey’s Anatomy or Agents of SHIELD than I am at most sitcoms.

So I approached The Good Place tentatively. I was approaching it at all because it has Kirsten Bell (who delivered the perfect mix of comedy and drama in Veronica Mars) and Ted Danson (who I’ve loved since Cheers), plus I had got incredibly bored of dismissing everything on Netflix as “not quite what I felt like” and this at least was only 1/2 hour. A few hours later I’d watched the whole of the first season, pretty much back to back.

That’s not actually as impressive, or as big an endorsement as it sounds. Each episode is in fact only 22minutes long and there are only 13 episodes, so it’s less than 5 hours long, about two films worth. Even taking a few breaks to putter and do some chores it was easy to watch it over the span of a day. The episodes are so short, and the episodic elements so minor, that I would imagine watching one episode per week would be incredibly unsatisfying and dull. But there’s a well paced arc playing out over the season as a whole, with some satisfying twists and developments towards the end, which makes it very well suited to box set viewing.

I wouldn’t say it’s a show that will go down in the annals of history as one of the greats. It’s got some funny moments, some clever observations, and a couple of chuckle-worthy recurring gags, but nothing that’s really going to be replayed over and over as comic genius. The characters are built from stereotypes, but most of them add a level of richness that elevates them into the realms of interesting and natural feeling. The world that’s created is a fun one, although if anything it’s slightly underused in the middle episodes. It’s a series that was nice to spend a weekend with, but probably nothing more. I won’t be rushing to watch each episode of season 2 as they arrive, but I will quite look forward to the weekend when I eventually have all of them available.

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Orange is the New Black: Season 5

This show still can’t seem to decide whether it wants to be a drama or a comedy. Some shows manage to blend both together (I loath the word ‘dramedy’ but it is sort of useful), but this one just swings from one side to the other, with very little in the way of elegant merging. That problem is exacerbated by the fact that it’s not just nudging back and forth on the natural boundaries between funny and sad, but lurching from extremes of tragedy to absurdity of farce.

The season also feels like it’s using a cast of characters so huge that individuals get completely lost in the noise.

The wikipedia page for the season lists 17 main cast and over 40 recurring characters. For thirteen episodes. That’s not including guest stars or bit parts, almost all of those characters get some kind of storyline and attempt at development. That’s insane and it just doesn’t work. To even attempt to cover that ground meant the flashbacks were hardly used at all, and I really missed the structure of giving each episode a focus on one character and telling their history at the same time as their present.

The other mistake of the season is focusing the time down on just a few days at the prison. That should bring some element of focus to the season, but because there are so many threads going on, it’s no more focused and just opens up confusion. I don’t think the writers plotted and structured it as well as they could, it felt like time was passing differently for different characters and there was no satisfaction to be had from interweaving of different strands.

Frankly, the whole thing was chaotic. And not in a good way. Characters had so little time – both screen time and actual passing time – to do anything, that they each got boiled down to just one or two aspects. The wavering tone made it impossible to either laugh at the comedy or allow yourself to really feel the impact of the tragedies. They continually undermine the weight of any of the serious messages they’re trying to introduce and it cheapens the whole thing. I was really disappointed.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency: Season 1

dirk_gently_2016_logoI’ve never read the Dirk Gently books. That’s a terrible thing for a sci-fi fan to admit, but for some reason I’ve just never picked them up. I also hadn’t seen any press at all for this new Netflix series, I vaguely recall some mention that it was being made, but it appeared on Netflix with absolutely zero fanfare.

Which is a shame, because it’s great.

2016 seems to be the year of many things, but one of the more pleasant themes is a glut of quirky television series, and I’m loving it! Braindead was one of my favourite shows of the year (so of course it got cancelled) and while I don’t quite think Stranger Things was the revelation that others did, it was still entertaining to watch. Dirk Gentley sits nicely alongside them in a sort of insane trinity.

The story is… well… complicated. I’m not really sure I could explain it if I tried. I’m not entirely sure that I followed it to be honest. There’s definitely body swapping stuff, weird visions, various types of superpowers and, well, just weird stuff. There are a lot of different sets of people that we follow and watch them gradually intersect but it’s nicely spaced out, so unlike other shows I could complain about (The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones) I never felt impatient spending too much time, or not enough time with any one group. If one group don’t appear in an episode I didn’t tend to notice until they appeared in the next one and I suddenly realised I’d missed them.

The cast is a mix of very famliar faces who bring reassurance, and relative unknowns who keep things fresh and interesting. They all deliver performances that are completely solid and believable in their delivery and involvement in utterly ridiculous and unbelievable situations.

I really enjoyed watching this series. It’s properly bonkers from start to finish, but it never feels out of control or as if things are being dragged our or manipulated just to make a television series. The series is renewed for a second season next year which is great news. There are plenty of ideas planted that could be developed although it might be tricky to bring some of the characters back which would be a shame, but I’m intrigued, mystified and slightly scared of the level of insanity that the series could rise to.

Braindead: Season 1

braindeadThis is easily the most unexpected show I watched this year. It’s one of those times that I wish I could just tell people “watch this” without having to explain why, as it’s just so much better an experience if you have absolutely no idea what it is going to be. I don’t think anyone would regret watching this show, it’s one of my favourite shows of the year and one of the most original things I’ve seen in ages. Go on, give it a try. But for those of you that either won’t listen to me, or have already seen it and just want to know what I think, I guess I’d better expand a bit.

The premise of Braindead is incredibly, perfectly current – why is politics suddenly so nuts? How come everyone seems to be turning into idiots and fighting? The idea that it’s some sort of brain eating alien is really actually no more stupid then some of the things our politicians are actually coming up with. So let’s run with that and do The West Wing with… I dunno, Mars Attacks? That’s probably the closest I can think of in terms of wacky, slightly gross insanity.

There are moments in this series that are just jaw droppingly unexpected. Some of that stems from the ridiculousness of the plot, the pretty disgusting shock moments or fairly horrific implications of what’s happening. But actually, there are just as many moments of “I can’t believe you just did/said that” which are really about politics in 2016. Sharp observations of current events which are beautifully summed up in cutting lines of dialogue.

Individual lines of dialogue that perfectly cut through to the heart and true insanity of modern politics, shock moments of pretty disgusting gore,

Ok, so it does occasionally get a bit bogged down. The politics angles are definitely latter series West Wing with a lack of any real depth or teeth to it. This is by the people that brought you all the seasons of The Good Wife, and there were plenty of occasions there where complexity of arguments was abandoned just to get the plot moving along in the direction they wanted. So there are also few loops of plot that just draw things out a couple of episodes longer, while some plot threads are just abandoned or side-lined until needed. Oh and the romance elements are a bit tedious and high school and the budget was clearly underwhelming.

But, I don’t care. Do you know what I’m going to use to sum up how good this show was – the “previously on” segments. Yup, you know those bits that are really tedious on a weekly basis and even more pointless when you’re powering through a box set watching episodes back to back? The “previously on”s on Braindead should win awards. They’ve managed to make the most fast forward-able part of the show the bit that I actually rewound to watch again and again. I found one that was relatively spoiler free (don’t focus too much on the opening pictures). Seriously, Jonathan Coulton is a genius and if this is how good the “previously on” is, just go and see how great the rest of the show is.

The Muppets: Season 1

The_Muppets_(TV)_title_cardThe Muppets mean something to me. I think the world is a much better place because Jim Henson shared his dream with it. I’m far from the only person to feel this way and I’m sure I was not alone when I was simultaneously excited and nervous about this latest incarnation of the Muppet Show being brought to prime-time television. 16 episodes later, my overwhelming emotion is relief that the show stayed true to the fundamentals of Jim Henson’s vision and didn’t trample over that nostalgia. That relief though is tinged with some disappointment and regret that the show just wasn’t… well… better.

I liked the concept; it seems natural to bring the theatre variety show up to date and make it a late night chat show with sketches and guests. It also seems natural to age the target demographic of the show, targeting a more adult market who are nostalgic for the old show, but don’t really want to watch a kid’s show. So the Muppets now not only have to deal with the day-to-day running of a show, but also have lives and relationships of their own. It’s aiming to be less zany and slapstick, and more witty and satirical.

When that worked, it worked really well. Some of the characters moved very easily into that new context, Kermit in particular with his dry wit felt like a perfect fit. The use of the documentary style pieces to camera worked well, giving a window into a bit more of the characters’ personalities. I liked the moments that addressed the fact the characters are all sorts of different animals living in a human world, it was never really dwelled on, but made some amusing asides. Mostly though I liked the nostalgia, I liked the little references back to the original series and that the characters all felt like old friends.

But when it didn’t work, it was really awkward and uncomfortable. Some of the more frat boy antics of the ‘writers’ (Gonzo, Rizo and Pepe) were just painful. Also after the novelty of it being the Muppets wore off, elements such as Piggy and Kermit’s complicated relationship just became the usual tedious, contrived back and forth, except with furry puppets. Many of the guests were quite awkward, not really seeming to know whether to play it straight or play a role. And just like other series with “shows within shows”, (Studio 60, I’m looking at you) the sketches that were supposed to be part of a successful late night show just weren’t funny.

I enjoyed the show, but predominantly, only as filler. At less than 30 minutes, it became an easy choice when I didn’t want to commit to a full length show that might require concentration. I’m not sure that I would have stuck with the series the whole way through if it had required more time or mental energy. That doesn’t sound like a particularly enthusiastic thing to say, but in recent years I haven’t found a half hour sitcom that I could actually stand for as long as I did The Muppets. For all that there were moments that made me cringe every episode, there were also moments that made me smile and it had almost as much heart as the original series. For that, if nothing else, I will miss the show.

Jane the Virgin: Pilot Review

Jane_the_Virgin_logo (1)Jane is saving herself for marriage for various reasons including god, a terrifying grandmother, a mother who got pregnant at 16, and a heartfelt belief in romance. But then she is accidentally artificially inseminated with her boss’s sperm. Obviously.

To be honest, the accidental artificial insemination is one of the least far-fetched things in the whole of the first two episodes. The ludicrous network that’s built up between a relatively small pool of characters is truly stupendous. It is immediately clear that it’s based on a telenovela (like the one that actually appears in the show), with tenuous plots, shock reveals and manipulative cliff hangers. But those tricks keep soaps on the air for decades, and they work just as well here.

While the plots and several of the characters are ridiculous the show is completely grounded by the utterly charming Gina Rodriguez as Jane. In the face of all the insanity, she behaves exactly as you’d expect a normal person to behave. With tears, inappropriate jokes, embarrassment and a huge amount of heart. She’s the eye of the storm from which all the craziness emanates and focusses back, but she remains a point of normalcy.

I watched the first two episodes back-to-back which I think was actually a mistake, and a good indicator that this is a show best watched in small chunks. When you watch one episode the quirky narration is charming, the rollercoaster plots exhilarating and the over-the-top characters are entertaining. But despite the fact that fundamentally nothing changed for the second episode, I found the narration just frustrating in the way it dropped hints and/or restated the obvious, the larger characters were irritating, and the bouncing plot was just too much.

In moderation I think this could be a really entertaining and diverting show. It is refreshing in its enthusiasm and vibrancy, with just the right levels of comedy and melodrama to make it a guilty pleasure or comfort watch. If it settles down a bit it may have the potential to be a bit more than that and tell some original stories about colourful characters. Like a great desert though, you just have to make sure you don’t eat too much in one sitting.

The Big Bang Theory: Season 7

The Big Bang TheoryThe Big Bang Theory, like every other long running comedy, has had problems with turning its characters into stereotypes. I don’t know why it happens, maybe it’s laziness on the parts of the writers and/or actors, or maybe it’s something they think the audience wants “they laughed when X happens, so do it more and do it bigger!”. Either way, that’s where they start losing me. Too often it pushes the characters from being extreme but credible to being charicatures and unrealistic.

The Big Bang Theory has been heading in this direction for a while. Characters could reasonably be expected to mellow with age, with the extremes of their personalities rounded off a bit as they meet more people and experience more life, but instead they get odder and odder. It makes the characters seem alternately stupid and cruel. Sheldon, despite supposedly being in a relationship and being surrounded by ‘functional’ people like Penny and Leonard who have repeatedly told and shown him that his behaviour is inappropriate, continues to be selfish, rude and hurtful. It makes him seem mean, and it makes the other characters seem foolish for continually associating with him and trying to change him.

But then, as if an alarm goes off in a character’s head, they take a step forward – Sheldon inches his relationship with Amy closer, Penny realises what she wants in life, Raj learns how to be in a relationship. It feels like fireworks should go off. These moments are so sweet and lovely, so elegantly written and true to the soul of the characters that other missteps are forgiven. Until the next time and then with a sigh I find myself seeking out a clip of a highpoint and remind myself of the good.

The writers have made some improvements at least. Amy’s obsession with Penny has been toned down and Penny’s increasing familiarity with science and geekery are a refreshing acknowledgement of how long she’s been with the group. I wish they’d smooth Stuart’s character out a little and make more use of him, I like his addition to the group, I guess we’ll have to see how integral Raj’s girlfriend becomes but I hope it will last as that will be an interesting direction for the character.

I don’t really see myself giving up on the series, it’s pretty much the only sitcom I watch and it’s easy to slot in during the week. But they need to make sure that they keep hitting those highpoints regularly enough to keep me forgiving the low points, and if they could maybe avoid the low points a bit more often, that’d be great too.