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Published: Sun, 19 Nov 2017 00:00:00 -0500

Last Build Date: Sun, 19 Nov 2017 13:28:19 -0500


Future Man Is Gleefully Sophomoric, and That's Part of the Charm

Fri, 17 Nov 2017 15:30:00 -0500

Future Man. Available now on Hulu. I am officially on record as complaining that television relies on time travel just a tad heavily. But then along comes Future Man, in which a mild-mannered and generally witless janitor has been selected by some tough bastards from the future to interrupt a sexual act in 1969 (and yeah, "sexual act" and "1969" are a smirky non-coincidence), which, if performed, will a couple of hundred years later plunge the world into fascism. The janitor has what passes in Future Man as an epiphany. "We cock block him!" he exclaims. One of the tough guys nods in approval: "Okay, rip his cock off, he bleeds out slow. I like it." How is any past or present 13-year-old boy not gonna cackle in joy at that and break out the popcorn to binge-watch the next the next 12 episodes? Sophomorically funny and hormonally twitchy, Future Man is just too stupidly engaging to pass by. Once you know that Future Man is written and produced by Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Kyle Hunter, and Ariel Shaffir, the team behind the epically uncouth cartoon Sausage Party, further explanation becomes almost totally unnecessary. It's a comic onslaught against video-gamers and their culture of the past 30 years or so, with the occasional random shot at baby boomers so they won't be left out of the fun. The plot—which sounds like it could have been lifted from a video game if it weren't already stolen, as the script gleefully acknowledges, from the 1984 teensploitaton film The Last Starfighter—centers around that janitor, Josh Futturman (Josh Hutcherson, The Hunger Games). Nerd to the very bone, Josh lives in his parents' basement and plays video games 18 hours a day. Well, make that a game, singular; he plays the same one, over and over. His nerd friends are certain it's because he wants to diddle himself while watching one of the game's female characters. (Not that they judge; in a group harboring unnatural designs on Ms. Pac-Man or Mario's brother Luigi, the gender spectrum is pretty wide.) But when an apparently dumb strategy unlocks the game's final level, two of its characters pop out with disconcerting news: The cartridge was really a training and recruitment device to locate the man who could save the future from its enemies. Even if his job is sweeping the floor at a herpes pharmaceutical research facility where the activity seems mainly to consist of jamming cotton swab up the urethras of infected lab animals. The two warriors who escape from the game, Tiger (Eliza Coupe, Quantico) and Wolf (Derek Wilson, Preacher), come from a future where the veneer of civilization has been pretty much worn away from everything, and their sanguinary work habits—Wolf's favorite plan is "Rip his fucking dick off!"—supply much of Future Man's staple humor. (Bodily effluents, emitted in always surprising but ever disgusting ways, are pretty much the rest.) But it's hard to resist a show a show that so relentlessly mocks its own origins. Future Man is a tapestry of withering allusions to everything from The Terminator movies to the Mortal Kombat video games (can you guess which organ gets ripped out of losing contestants?) to Animal House. Even entire epochs get the shiv. When Josh, Tiger, and Wolf take their time machine back to the Age of Aquarius in hopes of stopping the forbidden sexual act, they wind up in the home of Josh's grandparents—who promptly try to kill them, assuming they're drug-crazed hippies. Coupe, Wilson, and Hutcherson all show a nice facility for playing off of one another as well as a sense of balance with the material, deftly avoiding the temptation to overplay. I know I said time travel shows are the stuff of doltishness, but that doesn't mean you can't have some secret fun with this one as long as you do it in secret and remember that no penises were harmed in the making of this series.[...]

BBC Dark Comedy Ill Behaviour Finds Home on Showtime

Fri, 10 Nov 2017 15:00:00 -0500

Ill Behaviour. Showtime. Monday, November 13, 10 p.m. Showtime is intent that you need a laugh. Ill Behaviour is its third sitcom to debut in less than a month, after White Famous and SMILF. And the deranged/debauched underclass comedy Shameless returned for its eight season in that same time span. Maybe somebody at Showtime is trying to eliminate the market for Zoloft so they can short stock in Pfizer. Whether Ill Behaviour, a co-production with the BBC (it aired in Great Britain this summer), will aid in this endeavor remains to be seen. Its combination of black humor and gross-out jokes is a little bit on the hit-or-miss side. Ill Behaviour is about a four-way relationship between four bughouse millennials. The show opens with one of them, professional slacker Joel (Chris Geere, FX's You're The Worst) sitting on the ledge of a skyscraper, scattering cash into the wind, shouting "It's my money and I can do what a want with it." (Bonus points for the allusion to the wise Randian philosopher-queen Lesley Gore.) The money is a settlement from the wealthy wife who has blindsided Joel with a divorce. His tragic dismay is only worsened by the delight of his friends, hippie airhead Charlie (Tom Riley, Da Vinci's Demons) and budding robot-porn writer Tess (Jessica Regan, among the epic numbers of the cast of the long-running Brit soap opera Doctors), whose novel in progress is For the Love of a Synthezoid. It seems they've secretly loathed the now-departed wife since the day Joel met her, and even, long ago, set up a profile for him at a dating site on the grounds that "sometimes wishful thinking pays off." The fruit of the dating profile turns out to be Nadia (Lizzy Caplan, Masters of Sex), a cokehead American oncologist with a yen for sex in public bathrooms. Her presence turns out to be quite fortuitous, since Charlie has just been diagnosed with cancer. Which, he announces, he will not treat with chemotherapy but coffee enemas and herbal remedies of the gloriously cancer-free 19th century. What follows is a blizzard of kidnappings, crossbow fights, macrobiotic-food jokes and gooey body-parts humor, all of it with highly variant degrees of success. Sometimes Ill Behaviour is amusing, sometimes—as the put-down line of my grade-school years had it—about as funny as a stop sign in a polio ward. In Great Britain, that criticism of the show turned nearly literal; there was clamor about the decorum of making a comedy about cancer. The fuss was largely lost on Ill Behaviour's creator-writer Sam Bain, a British TV veteran whose shows (which mostly haven't made it across the Atlantic) have never exhibited an overreliance on good taste. "I've done cancer, terrorism, pedophiles," he parried the complaints. "I'm ticking off a good list." In any event, Showtime broke that barrier long ago in the United States with The Big C, in which a cancer diagnosis liberated Laura Linney from a stifling marriage and job and allowed her to be herself—for a while, anyway. And the subject of Ill Behaviour is not really cancer, but the implications of intervention in somebody's life, even that of a friend. As Joel protests when his buds try to stop him from throwing his money off the roof, "If I wanna be a dick, let me be a dick." Not that you policy wonks are excluded. Joel and Nadia prepare for a toilet-top tryst, her beeper goes off. "Is that an emergency?" wonders Joel. "I guess we'll never know," replies Nadia, clicking the device off. No wonder British healthcare prices are so affordable.[...]

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting Turns 50

Tue, 07 Nov 2017 12:23:00 -0500

Fifty years ago this week, Lyndon Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, the law that created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. I've been writing about the CPB for two of its five decades; here's a sampling of those stories: • "With Friends Like These" (July 24, 1997): A paper I wrote for Cato on the ways the CPB has made independent, listener-funded, volunteer-driven community radio stations blander and less accountable to their communities. This is out of date in all sorts of ways, but the history I discuss is still relevant. And there may be some broader lessons in my explanation of a cycle built into the CPB's subsidies: The limited amount of money the state has to offer requires it to discriminate on some rational basis—if the CPB dispensed funds to every small community station in America, it would have to divide its budget so finely that no station would receive enough money to justify the corporation's existence. So the CPB strives to direct its money to the stations with the most powerful signals and the largest measured audiences and shies away from financing more than one outlet in a single market. But the CPB requirements encourage stations to grow and adopt "professional" values, putting further pressure on the CPB's budget and forcing it to further restrict the flow of money, refueling the cycle yet again. If the CPB's budget is expanding anyway—as it did during the Carter years, for example—the cycle might be slowed and the problem concealed. If the budget is contracting, as it is today, the problem only gets worse. Under any circumstances, the professionalization and expansion cycle is built into the federal subsidies; it cannot be eliminated by minor reforms or by putting a friendlier group of bureaucrats in charge. • "It Didn't Begin with Sesame Street" (October 1997): I review Ralph Engelman's book Public Radio and Television in America: A Political History. Among other things, the article discusses the birth of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting; it also looks at the handful of public TV stations that existed before the CPB, when some social engineers at the Ford Foundation argued that "educational television" (as it was then known) could be a force for social uplift, "an instrument for the development of community leaders," even "a form of psychotherapy." • "Independent Airwaves" (March 2001): I interview a man with a plan to "restructure public broadcasting as an independent public trust." His group was split between people who wanted a completely independent institution and people who just wanted to rearrange how the government gives broadcasters money. • Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (2001): The CPB isn't the only topic I cover in this book, but it's a significant part of it. • "The Way to Sesame Street" (November 2009): For Sesame Street's 40th birthday, I looked at the complicated social legacy of a show that "reflected both an antipathy to commercialism and a fascination with commercials, which served not just as a source for its parodies but as a model for its programming." We had to make some cuts to the piece to fit it into a two-page spread; I posted some of the outtakes, including the tale of the time an executive mistook Jim Henson for a member of the Weather Underground, on my personal blog. • "Radio Theater" (February 2011): Republicans have repeatedly threatened to defund the CPB. Not only do these standoffs always end with the institution still standing, but in the long run its budget keeps growing. This article takes a tour through the history of those fights, arguing that the real point of these exercises isn't to cut the broadcasters loose. It's to use the threat of cutting them loose to whip them into shape. The system was still standing after Nixon made his threats, but all save one of the programs he found objectionable went off the air. After the Gingrich-era battle ended, the Republican pundits Fred Barnes, Peggy Noonan, and Ben Wattenberg all land[...]

Showtime Comedy SMILF Offers Questionable Authenticity

Fri, 03 Nov 2017 15:15:00 -0400

SMILF. Showtime. Sunday, November 5. If you're making short films these days, it's all about vision and authenticity and postmodernism rather than the ancient and discredited concept of quality. So Showtime's SMILF (the first S is for "single"; you guess the rest), which originated as a popular film-festival short, has to be presented as a chronicle of the actual life of producer-star Frankie Shaw. This seems, well, unlikely. SMILF's lead character, Bridgette, is a gritty South Boston actress wannabe who can hold her own in pickup basketball with the neighbor guys. She lives in a scruffy one-room apartment with her son by an amiable but utterly jobless recovering drunk. The only thing emptier than her fridge is the credit remaining on her charge cards. This doesn't sound a great deal like Frankie Shaw, who went to Milton and Barnard and was already scoring roles in shows like Law & Order: Criminal Intent while she was a college student. I have no idea if Mark Webber, the father of her child, had a drinking problem, but he certainly hasn't had an employment problem: He's an actor with over 70 screen credits in the past 19 years. A little resume puffery by Shaw is not a big deal. (Though only in Hollywood does it take the form of slumming down your actual life.) What makes it noteworthy in this case is there's so much else about SMILF that that doesn't add up. Beneath that indy-film facade of grainy candor is a big pile of canny Hollywood calculation. Start with the title, which is supposed to be ironic, because no one is signing onto the "ILF" part of it—Bridgette's most intimate relationship is with a purple vibrator. Though Bridgette is lithe, pretty and—most importantly—singularly undiscriminating in her quest for a sexual partner, she hasn't hooked up once in the months since splitting with her boyfriend. Prospective pickups flee from the sight of her child as if he's a flea-infested vermin in a time of plague. Which invites the question, "On which planet?" I understand male commitment phobia, but that fear's about commitment, not no-strings-attached offers of quickies from a delectably naked woman standing two feet away. Then there's Bridgette's puzzling timeline. She acts like a new mom jittery about her sexual allure—her gynecologist's advice to do kegels triggers the panicked response, "Why? Did you see something up there?" But her little boy is a toddler, 2 or 3 years old. It seems like Shaw wanted some sexual paranoia wisecracks but not the fidgety concept of a horny mom barely removed from the delivery room. But, despite these conceptual weaknesses—some of which may have been forced on Shaw by suits nervous the instincts of a young, first-time producer, SMILF has a considerable number of merits. Shaw has created a memorable set of characters and assembled an estimable cast to play them. Chief among them is Connie Britton (Nashville, Friday Night Lights) as Ally, the wealthy mom who pays Bridgette to tutor her aimless teenagers. But the fact that Ally pretends to her family that she's going to yoga exercises, then hides out wolfing down prodigious piles of junk food punctuated by terrifying crying jags suggests her life is more complicated than it appears. Another damaged-goods character is Tutu (startlingly well-played by Rosie O'Donnell), Bridgette's weatherbeaten mom, who appears to have taken a licking from life and is barely ticking. She listens to tape's of Frank McCourt's brutal memoir Angela's Ashes to cheer herself up. The best of all is Bridgette, loving the daylights out of her child even as she resents the restrictions he's imposed on her life, affectionately shielding Ally's kids even as she winces at the knowledge of what she could do with their opportunities. Shaw has previously demonstrated her ability to illuminate and even draw cheer from desolation, perhaps most vividly as a doomed junkie in Mr. Robot, but never on a canvas this big. She's an eyeful, even when she's scuffed up by Hollywood contrivance.[...]

Another Margaret Atwood Adaptation Shines on Netflix

Fri, 27 Oct 2017 17:00:00 -0400

S.W.A.T. CBS. Thursday, November 2, 10 p.m. Alias Grace. Available November 3 on Netflix. Whether it's a metaphor or an omen, the confluence of the debuts of CBS' S.W.A.T. and Netflix's Alias Grace this week is painful. Broadcast television is showcasing its antiquary status by wrapping up its fall season with a tepid remake of a failed 1970s cop drama, while Netflix, the model of TV's future, offers a subtle, layered dissection of the nature of truth wrapped inside a macabre double-murder. The most remarkable thing about Alias Grace may not even be its content, though that's quite extraordinary, but that it's the second time in six months that Canadian author Margaret Atwood, now tiptoeing toward her 80th birthday, has had one of her books adapted into a miniseries. Who knew literary feminism could be so profitable? Except that's far too narrow a label to pin on Atwood. The intellectual underpinnings of her work are more complex and elusive than many of her fans recognize. Men often behave badly in her novels, but so do women. Like The Handmaid's Tale, which is as much a critique of totalitarianism as it is of male supremacy, Alias Grace abounds with ideas about a host of subjects in addition to feminism: Class. Poverty. Penology. Religion. Epistemology. All this is packaged in a fictionalized account of the 1843 murder of a wealthy Canadian land owner and his housekeeper by two other members of the household staff. The killers, a stable hand named James McDermott and an oft-mistreated maid named Grace Marks, fled to the United States, but were captured. McDermott, who confessed but blamed Marks for egging him on, was executed. Marks, who said she had lost all memory of the crime, was confined to an asylum. Alias Grace opens 15 years after the murders. A group of Methodist gentry, seeking a pardon for Marks, has hired Dr. Simon Jordan—an alienist, as early psychologists were called—to investigate the case in hopes of proving she was not sane at the time of the crime. After the opening moments, almost everything that happens in Alias Grace is told through the framing device of her lengthy conversations with Jordan. And it's immediately apparent that as a narrator, she's far from reliable, evading some of his questions, falsifying her answers to others. The obvious question is whether Grace's equivocations are an attempt to take back some control over a life that has long been usurped by her father, her employers, and the masters of the bone-breaking penal and mental institutions to which she has been confined. Or is she trying to conceal something? Her own musings are ambivalent. The sincerity of the doctor's gentle and largely sympathetic interrogations, she notes in a letter to a friend, make her feel like an overripe peach, ready to burst and spill its contents. But, she reminds herself: "Inside the peach is a stone." On the other side of this unbalanced equation, Dr. Jordan is increasingly subsumed in fantasies about his patient. But are they born of romance? Or—as she suspects—is the brutality of her life functioning as a sort of misery-porn for a man secretly thrilled by tales of female subjugation? Much of Alias Grace was scripted by Atwood herself, and it shares her literary sensibilities more than any other screen adaptation of her work. What might have been a rather talky script is enlivened by the peerless performances of Sarah Gadon (who played the romantically doomed librarian in the Hulu miniseries production of 11.22.63) as the wan but flinty Grace and Canadian TV regular Paul Gross as the bewildered Dr. Jordan. The story is certainly told in feminist tones—occasionally accusatory, sometimes only chiding. But Grace has more to contend with than the patriarchy. She's afflicted by the British class system, retained to a far greater degree in loyalist Canada than the renegade United States (longing gazes across the border are a regular occurrence). And she's confounded by the dominant Calv[...]

Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Early LSD Guru

Fri, 27 Oct 2017 12:23:00 -0400

(image) One of the odder episodes in the Truman/Eisenhower days of the libertarian movement involves Gerald Heard, a mystic whose ideas took hold in the higher echelons of the Foundation for Economic Education and a now-mostly-forgotten free-market group called Spiritual Mobilization. Heard's syncretic spiritual path eventually led him to mescaline and LSD, which some of his market-loving students then tried under his guidance. In the meantime, Heard's articles graced the pages of The Freeman and Faith and Freedom, journals that were generally associated with the right wing of libertarianism but were apparently open nonetheless to a little proto–New Age thought.

Heard was also a novelist, and his corpus includes three books about "Mr. Mycroft," a retired Sherlock Holmes living incognito under his brother's name. And the first of those books, 1941's A Taste of Honey, was adapted in an ABC anthology series called The Elgin Hour, with Boris Karloff as Mr. Mycroft. I haven't read the novel, but as told here the story is a lightly comic, lightly horrific tale about a man who murders his victims with specially engineered killer bees. The plot is a bit on the thin side, but it's fun to watch Karloff, who plays up his character's eccentricities so much that at times he feels less like Sherlock Holmes than a lost incarnation of Doctor Who.

The show originally aired on February 22, 1955, but I think it makes better viewing in the week before Halloween:

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The novel was adapted again in 1966 as a movie called The Deadly Bees, this time without the Mr. Mycroft character. To see the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version of that one, go here. For past Halloween installments of the Friday A/V Club, you can watch haunted-house comedies here, vintage Halloween safety films here, and a punk show at a mental hospital here. Yet more Friday A/V Club posts are here. And Gerald Heard's articles for The Freeman are here. I find them almost unreadable but your mileage may very.

Nova Offers an Unusual Environmental Whodunnit Starring Volcanoes

Fri, 20 Oct 2017 15:30:00 -0400

Nova: Killer Volcanoes. Wednesday, October 25, 9 p.m. After two wretchedly solid months of hurricanes, everybody who lives on the U.S. coast anywhere east of New Mexico will welcome a chance to wallow in somebody else's misery at the hands of nature. Which makes Killer Volcanoes, an episode of the PBS science series Nova, perfectly timed. The hell with tropical depressions and vortex fixes! We salute you, magma chambers and explosive caldera eruptions! Admittedly, I may be showing signs of post-Irma stress disorder. But Killer Volcanoes is an interesting piece of work, the tale of a hunt for the source of a monstrous 13th-century eruption so cataclysmic it would eventually claim the lives of about a fifth the population of a European capital half a world away. The story begins in the 1980s, when British archeologists excavating what they thought was an ancient Roman cemetery—Brit fascination with Roman mortuary science is as endless and inexplicable as their conviction that offal is the foundation of gourmet cuisine—discovered mass, unmarked graves containing 4,000 or so skeletons. Radiocarbon dating placed their deaths around 1250 AD, several hundred years past the Romans, but also a hundred or so years before the next most logical suspect, the black plague. From there, Killer Volcanoes assumes the trappings of a noir-tinged CSI episode. Somebody remembers an ancient British monk's description—not on his deathbed, unfortunately; nobody was reading Agatha Christie yet—of a frigid summer around that time that triggered a famine that killed 15,000 people in London, something like a fifth of the city. Other reports surface of lethally cold weather across Europe and even into Japan. The most likely culprit for anything like that is a volcanic eruption, which spews ashes and gases into the air, blocking sunlight for days, weeks, and even months at a time. The 2010 eruption of a volcano in Iceland with an unpronounceable (and, more importantly for the purposes of this review, unspellable) name spewed so much subterranean crud that some people seriously wondered if it might lead to global cooling. (No word on what that would have meant for Al Gore's Nobel Prize.) And an earlier Icelandic volcano's temperature is said to have touched off the French Revolution and frozen part of the Mississippi River. Great as it might be to declare Iceland a geologic war criminal and impose U.N. sanctions on reindeer poop or whatever it is they export, it turns out the earth is riddled with sociopathic volcanoes, some 1,500 of them, going off 50 times a year, according to Killer Volcanoes. Consider Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, whose 1991 eruption sent a plume of gas 22 miles into the air and dropped the entire planet's average temperature one degree Fahrenheit for two years. Or Indonesia's Mount Tambora, whose eruption so befogged the earth with sulfurous clouds that 1815 would be remembered as The Year Without Summer, with 200,000 dead of famine. Or even Italy's Mount Vesuvius, which not only obliterated the city of Pompeii in 79 AD but saddled us for all eternity with the literary works of Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, whose very name has become synonymous with barbaric hackdom. The indefatigable volcano nerds of Killer Volcanoes work through all these suspects and more by, among other things, digging into the polar ice caps in search of frozen atmosphere samples that contain volcanic gases and ash. Comparing its location to known wind patterns establishes that the guilty volcano must be located along the equator, and the sulfur content provides a sort of fingerprint that will identify the volcano positively when it's found. No spoilers here, just my assurance that there's lots of fun faux-tabloid narration ("it seemed the trail had gone cold until a clue appeared in the frozen polar ice") and even what passes for PBS dirty talk: The description of the earth's tectonic [...]

White Famous Hilariously Tackles the Racial Tensions of Comedy

Fri, 13 Oct 2017 15:00:00 -0400

White Famous. Showtime. Sunday, October 15, 10 p.m. Young black comedian Floyd Mooney is unfamiliar with the concept of "white famous," so his agent explains it for him: a fame so singular that the name alone obliterates all ethnic boundaries: "Obama. Tiger Woods. Will Smith before the Jada shit." And it is within Floyd's grasp, the agent cheerily adds: "All you gotta do is be willing to wrap your lips around a little white dick now and then." That exchange pretty much sums up White Famous, a scathingly funny cocktail of hardball racial humor, caustic Hollywood self-lampoon and general filthy talk. It hits gender and race hot-buttons like Ali and Frazier hit each other—fast, hard and bloody—and if you're interested, you might want to see it soon, because even on premium cable, its life span may be short. Jay Pharoah (whose impressions of Barack Obama, Kanye West, Chris Rock and others have been a staple of Saturday Night Live the past few years) plays Floyd, an Eddie Murphy-ish stand-up comedian who's popular in Los Angeles' black clubs but hasn't had much crossover success. Still, with a steady income, a little son he loves like crazy and a pretty ex-girlfriend (Cleopatra Coleman, The Last Man On Earth) he can talk back into bed on a semi-routine basis, Floyd's life rolls along on a pleasant-enough track. His biggest challenge seems to be deadpan during his regular encounters with white Hollywood big kahunas who cringingly try to show how woke they are by saying "motherfucker" a lot and botching attempts at giving dap. When a tape of a particularly surreal exchange with a director finds its way onto the Internet, Floyd quickly becomes a viral sensation and even gets a movie offer. The catch: He has to play the role in drag, a prospect that horrifies him. "Every time there's a funny black brother in Hollywood, they try to emasculate him," Floyd complains to his sharkish agent Malcolm (Utkarsh Ambudkar, The Mindy Project), who responds with his definition of "white famous" and his prescription for what's required to attain it. Floyd doesn't buy it, and the ensuing argument—like virtually every frame of White Famous—is drenched in profound obscenity and scorched-earth racial invective until it ends with Floyd firing his agent in the middle of a posh restaurant while screaming, "Go ride a carpet!" (Malcolm's shrieked rejoinder: "How is that insulting? You know how dope it would be to have a carpet that flies?") White Famous was created by Tom Kapinos, and it embraces ethnic obloquy with the same manic zeal his show Californication did sexual depravity. Likewise with its gloriously cascading tides of obscenities, embedded in even the most mundane dialogue ("The heart wants what the heart wants, motherfucker") with such frequency that it may revive the fucks-per-minute meters that many websites used to monitor the old HBO Western Deadwood. Another meter may be necessary to track—or even identify—the political agenda of White Famous. Some gender warriors, for instance, have already identified Floyd's complaint about having to cross-dress to get a role as hetero-norming fascism. Others may think it's a shot at Tyler Perry's crotchety grandma character Madea, who's either an appalling modern incarnation of the mammy stereotype or the heroic, politically incorrect voice of the black working class, depending on which side of the debate you fall on. Actually, though, there's a tradition of male black comedians in cross-dressing roles going back at least half a century to Flip Wilson's Geraldine. Whether they've been a cultural positive, allowing for the presentation of alternative voices, or just a modern Stepin Fetchit device to give white people a laugh at the expense of blacks is a long-standing debate that's a lot more complex than modern moralists will acknowledge. But whatever Kapinos or his characters really think about putt[...]

Nathan for You Tackles Uber, Finds the Free Market Always Wins

Fri, 13 Oct 2017 13:25:00 -0400

Last night's episode of Nathan for You—the reality show where Nathan Fielder tries to help struggling businesses by coming up with zany ideas to reinvigorate them—tackled the effect of Uber on the taxi business. "Love massive corporations," Nathan tweeted before last night's show, "but tonight I make an exception and help cabbies take on Uber." (Spoilers ahead.) The episode revisited Andy, a taxi driver Nathan first tried to help back in 2014. Even then, Andy was struggling to compete with Uber. Nathan's idea was to find a pregnant woman to give birth in Andy's cab, reasoning that such publicity would be good for business. It didn't work. Three years and countless Uber expansions later, Andy was still chugging along, barely, as a cab driver. Nathan returned to Andy because, a few months after the first episode aired, Uber started a promotion where babies born in the back of Uber rides received Uber onesies. Nathan was convinced the idea was cribbed from his show. Last night's episode sought revenge. As in every episode of Nathan for You, Fielder's plan is needlessly complicated and over-the-top. Nathan and Andy try to form a "sleeper cell" of cab drivers within the Uber network who could sabotage it at any minute. With that leverage, Nathan hoped to force Uber to stop its pregnant woman promotion. Recruiting cab drivers was easy—most of them resented Uber and blamed it for steep revenue drops. At a group meeting, many of them called Uber "unfair competition," while a few pushed the myth that Uber was less safe than a taxi. (Given that you know the identity of your Uber driver and they yours before the ride starts, that the ride is tracked on GPS, and that each ride ends with a rating for both driver and passenger, this common claim stretches credulity.) Nathan ended up signing up more than 60 cabbies. They didn't know his ultimate aim was to end an Uber pregnancy promotion, just that they were supposed to provide subpar service to lower Uber's reputation. But at the end of the episode, after Nathan had produced a video of demands for Uber that almost certainly would've been flagged to federal authorities, he hit a big road block: Andy had realized that Uber was a viable alternative for him to make a livelihood. Nathan signed Andy up for Uber for a day to test the system and see which strategies (farts in a bag, Mambo #5 on blast, getting lost) could yield the lowest ratings in the fastest times. Andy performed admirably, earning a series of one-star reviews. But at some point after that, unbeknownst to Nathan, Andy gave Uber a try for real. In his last days as a cabbie, Andy installed a karaoke machine in his taxi, claiming it was the first karaoke cab. He was so sold on Uber he moved it into his personal car, claiming he was now the first karaoke Uber. Andy asked Nathan not to proceed with their plan, since he was worried it would affect his rating. Nathan reluctantly agreed, deciding that just as telephones replaced telegraphs and cars replaced horse and buggies, Uber was replacing taxis. "The free market had again chosen a winner," Nathan said in the wrap-up narration of the show. "The real enemy wasn't Uber. It was progress." Andy's experience reveals the futility of the taxi industry's fight against ride-sharing services. There's nothing inherently unfair about Uber's competition—if anything, Uber is making the playing field fairer by breaking up the old cartel. And the idea that an Uber is less safe than a taxi is not held by anyone who isn't already anti-Uber. And so Uber's share of the marketplace grows. Uber is not guaranteed to last forever, of course, but ridesharing apps are here to stay. As when the car displaced the horse and buggy, there's no going back for taxis. Cabbies who hold on to their old business models because they've spent money on licenses, medallions, and so forth are fa[...]

Dynasty Reboot Is Trashy Good Fun

Fri, 06 Oct 2017 15:00:00 -0400

Valor. The CW. Monday, October 9, 9 p.m. Dynasty. The CW. Wednesday, October 11, 9 p.m. The last real week of the broadcast television's fall rollout (the only remaining new show after this is the November CBS resurrection of SWAT, for which the words "new" and "show" both require the use of quotation marks) is, surprisingly, the best. The CW, which, generally speaking, is the network you'd expect to be tuned in on the TV set in Barbie's dream house, is only debuting two shows. But they're both welcome additions to the prime-time lineup—which, this thoroughly execrable fall, is worth boasting about. I understand your suspicion that anybody touting a remake of Dynasty—a nearly-four-decades-old soap mainly known for introducing the concept of haute couture catfights to nighttime television—should probably be under lock and key. But before turning me in to the culture police, consider a couple of things. One is that when Dynasty first appeared on ABC as a winter replacement in 1981, it was an interesting and unusual show, a soap opera where the seamy sexuality blended in with subplots about politics, economics, and sociology. Rival oilmen Blake Carrington and Matthew Blaisdel were fighting not just over Carrington's wife (and Blaisdel's former lover) Krystle, but philosophy. Blaisdel was an independent, self-reliant wildcatter, Carrington a corporate-state protectionist. Carrington's daughter Fallon, an unrepentant believer in market economics, should have played a major role in running the company, but her sexist father favored her husband Jeff Colby, given to nauseatingly paternalistic soliloquies about social responsibility and noblesse oblige. And Carrington's son Steven was the first gay character in a primetime TV series. Unfortunately, viewers found the sumptuous gowns and plunging necklines a lot more interesting than oil rigs or Laffer curves, and by the second season, Dynasty ditched everything else for soap-opera super-camp, including characters being randomly murdered by Moldavian separatists or abducted by space aliens. A second reason to give the Dynasty remake a chance is the producers behind it, Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage, whose teen dramas like The O.C. and Gossip Girl have punched way above their weight. Their series skillfully employ outside-looking-in themes, with kids too geeky or poor trying hopelessly to break into the "in crowd," while embedding sub-rosa send-ups of their own genre and even their own viewer. (Hot rich chick in Gossip Girl complaining that studying geometry is a waste of time: "What do you use it for? 'I'll have eggs and a Pythagorean theorem, please?'") I knew Schwartz and Savage were onto something more than a video version of Tiger Beat in 2003 when freakish circumstance led to me watching The O.C. pilot three times in two weeks and I still liked it. So: What about the 2017 version of Dynasty? Its opening plot lines—essentially Carringtons vs. Colbys—are pretty similar to 1981. But the characters serve as an interesting index to the way television's version of America has evolved over the past four decades. Blake Carrington's Nordic blonde trophy wife Krystle has become his Latina fiancée Cristal (Nathalie Kelly, The Vampire Diaries), a possible gold-digger and certainly the chief rival of daughter Fallon (Elizabeth Gillies, Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll) for control of the family energy empire. It takes just 28 minutes for their first hair-pulling, bodice-ripping bitchfight to erupt. (Oops, there goes the office pool.) Fallon's chief debating partner is now her brother Steven (James Mackay, The Leftovers), who's a good deal more politically conscious than in his previous incarnation. "When the revolution happens, it'll be your head they come for first," he warns his sister, who airily dismisses him: "I'll be sure to get my[...]

Rick & Morty Takes on the American Presidency

Tue, 03 Oct 2017 10:15:00 -0400

This weekend's season finale of Rick & Morty (S3 E10, "The Rickchurian Candidate") challenges the very institution of the U.S. presidency. In it, Rick, the mad scientist, confronts the president over the abuses of power his office allows him to commit. By choosing not to model its president on any specific real-life equivalent, the show avoids being a commentary on any specific officeholder and instead becomes a stinging commentary on the office itself. (Warning: spoilers ahead.) Early on, the story establishes that the president, who first showed up in Season 2, has called on Rick and Morty countless times offscreen.This time, the president wants the duo to exterminate "some kind of alien googa" from the "Kennedy Sex Tunnels." He also ticks off a number of other secret White House locations, "in order of national embarrassment: the Truman Cocaine Lounge, the McKinley Hooker Dump, and the Lincoln Slave Coliseum (he didn't free them all)." Rick and Morty quickly grow tired of the menial task assigned them and blow it off. They're caught on camera by a couple of Secret Service agents. What do we tell the president, one asks the other. "Tell him the truth—tell him Rick and Morty just blew off America." Before the title sequence, Rick describes the president, who is never named, as "a spoiled control freak that thinks he runs the world and orders drone strikes to cope with his insecurity"—a largely apt description for each of the three presidents known to have the capability of launching drone strikes. Replace "drone strikes" with "air strikes," and it covers even more modern presidents. "I'm president of America, which is basically the world," the Rick & Morty president says at one point, "but you didn't hear that from me." That articulates an idea that has driven more than half a century of U.S. foreign policy. The episode also poked fun at the cult surrounding the presidency in the political class and those aspiring to be a part of it. "I thought young dumb people considered it an honor to work for presidents or whatever the shit," Rick tells Morty. But Morty, jaded by three seasons of his grandfather Rick's nihilism, is no longer impressed. "Maybe the first few times, but this just sucks." The episode also shows the president abuse the federal government's surveillance capabilities, a real and persistent threat, and depicts profligate military spending. "I'm protecting my country," the president declares at one point, refusing to compromise and deescalate a confrontation with Rick. Since at least 9/11, U.S. presidents have insisted their first priority is "keeping America safe." Some of us would prefer they keep America free. In practice, the obsession with safety has left Americans less free but no more safe. To add insult to injury, U.S. foreign policy, pursued under the pretext of advancing "national security interests," has made the world, and Americans, less safe. "I learned about your job at school. You're a civil servant, we're technically your boss," Morty tells the president during one argument. This may have been how the founders envisioned the presidency when first creating it, but it's far from that now. The decades-long project of amassing vast powers in the office of the president has created an imperial presidency. The election of Donald Trump should have been a wake-up call about the dangers of such a powerful office. Unfortunately, the so-called "resistance" that has coalesced against Trump has, so far, largely focused on what it perceives as Trump's unique threats rather than the danger of centralizing so much power in one place. Even after Trump's election, outgoing president Barack Obama, who campaigned actively against Trump and warned that he was "uniquely unqualified" to hold the office, continued to expand presidential power[...]

Is There Any Hope Left for a Good Sitcom?

Mon, 02 Oct 2017 15:00:00 -0400

9JKL. CBS. Monday, October 2, 8:30 p.m. The Gifted. Fox. Monday, October 2, 9 p.m. The Mayor. ABC. Tuesday, October 3, 9:30 p.m. Kevin (Probably) Saves the World. ABC. Tuesday, October 3, 10 p.m. Everybody from Jerry Seinfeld to Mel Brooks is saying comedy is dead, strangled in its sleep by political correctness. I'm not entirely convinced, but most of the new comedies of the TV season are on life support and need to have their plugs pulled in every sense of the phrase. You start to get a sense of how bad the comedy problem is when, in a week when three sitcoms debut, the best of them is amiable piffle like ABC's The Mayor. Brandon Michael Hall (lately of the oddball TBS millennial comedy Search Party) plays a rapper named Courtney Rose, whose career is going so well that he's still living with his mom at age 27. Desperate to start some buzz, he runs for mayor of his small California hometown, and when the grown-up candidate badly flubs a debate, he wins. "Russia clearly tampered with the voting machines, right?" the puzzled Rose asks when he gets the news. From there, the show turns into a hip-hop version of Capra-corn like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, with the new mayor pursuing his mildly populist do-gooder agenda and defying any attempt by his staff to impose adulthood on him. When his chief of staff (Glee's Lea Michele) suggests making a push-pin chart of his program, he retorts, "No revolution in history has ever started with the words 'index cards.'" Faintly charming and landing an occasional punchline like that one, The Mayor is somewhat more amusing than open-mic night at a college pub, but that's about as extravagant as the praise is going to get. And remember, this is the best of the bunch. It's a long tumble down an abyss to reach CBS' 9JKL, in which a divorced and jobless Mark Feuerstein moves home to live in an apartment sandwiched between his parents on one side and his brother's family on the other. On the show, family hijinx ensue; out in the audience, it's more like self-lobotomies with machetes. Feuerstein, who has starred in an astounding number of awful sitcoms (including but not limited to 2002's epochally awful Good Morning, Miami, in which a Cuban-American news anchor was always saying something like "Leesen, meester prrroducer man..."), is also the producer on this one. It consists mainly of nonstop sexual jokes, mostly about seeing the nether parts of loved ones. 9JKL's target demo appears to be people who have seen Feuerstein's testicles, would like to see them, or wish they hadn't. And for variety, there are also a few jokes about the testicles of Elliot Gould, who plays his father. To be fair, 9JKL does raise some important questions: principally, what bridge is Gould living under that he had to take this show? ABC's Kevin (Probably) Saves the World, by contrast, is relatively testicle-free. (Though all bets are probably off during the Nielsen sweeps in May.) Unfortunately, the show is lacking not just gonads but an original premise, a credible cast, a watchable screenplay or any discernible reason to exist. I should interject here that ABC is actually calling Kevin "light drama," which sounds a lot better than "tepid comedy," which is what it is. Quibble over the categorization all you like, but that won't make Kevin any less of a chore to watch. A variant of the tasked-by-an-angel genre that stretches back to It's a Wonderful Life and perhaps beyond, the show is theologically unglued and emotionally dopey. Jason Ritter (who, ironically, had a key role in one of the best of the God Squad shows, Joan Of Arcadia), plays Kevin Finn, a busted-and-bounced hedge fund swine who, after botching a suicide attempt, has come home to live with his widowed twin sister Amy (JoAnna Garcia Swisher) and her re[...]

TV Crime Procedural Discovers Social Media Crowdsourcing—Awfulness Is the Result

Fri, 29 Sep 2017 15:30:00 -0400

Ghosted. Fox. Sunday, October 1, 8:30 p.m. Ten Days in the Valley. ABC. Sunday, October 1, 8:30 p.m. Wisdom of the Crowd. CBS. Sunday, October 1, 8:30 p.m. As we hit the two-thirds mark of the roll-out of an amazingly drab fall television season, it's only fair to note that a major blow has been struck for TV diversity: Fox's Ghosted features a character crippled by the dread but unspoken condition anatidaephobia. This clears the way for TV to move ahead and attack the taboo on mention of the even more fearful omphalophobia. The FCC public service requirements for this review thus satisfied, we can get about discussing the shows, which range from Ten Days in the Valley, one of the new season's better ones (much less of an achievement than you might think), to Wisdom of the Crowd, which will probably win an Emmy for sheer idiocy for its idee fixe of contracting out the criminal justice system to Twitter. Ten Days in the Valley is not, on the face of it, terribly different than the crime-conspiracy thrillers like Secrets and Lies and American Crime that ABC has been using as fun and forgettable summertime popcorn fodder the past few years. A pretty girl or maybe even a little kid gets murdered; everybody in the cast is revealed to be a creep or nut case with the motive—but not, it eventually turns out, the means—to do the killing; and in the end, the least likely suspect is the guilty one. The trigger mechanism in the case of Ten Days is the kidnapping of the little daughter of frazzled single mom Jane Sadler, a TV producer whose bosses think nothing of calling her up in the middle of the night to churn 30 pages of new scenes by the time of a 4 a.m. shooting call. Sticking to the formula, Sadler's producer, sister, drug dealer, ex-husband, personal assistant, and gardener all turn out to hate her for one reason or another. And why not? She's a heedless hophead who, it turns out, lost track of her daughter while on an Ambien-and-chardonnay bender. Even the seemingly decent LAPD detective John Bird assigned to the kidnapping has to be considered a suspect (by the viewer if not the authorities) because the TV show for which she writes is a sleazy roman-a-clef drawn from secret scandals within the police force, which has everybody in the department worried that he or she will be the next to be fingered. That's the little twist of Ten Days—that the narrator is not only unreliable but actively detestable. If that seems like an unpromising premise for a TV series, you've got to see the intensity of Kyra Sedgwick as Jane Sadler, juggling ignominy, scandal, and disaster—not to mention the life of her missing daughter—as she tap-dances along the edge of an abyss, wondering if she's already toppled over the side and doesn't know it. If Ten Days seems familiar but intense, Ghosted seems about 15 years too late. A wacky sitcom in which two investigators, one a cynical skeptic and the other a true believer, pursue space aliens and psychic phenomena? What's next? A searing social satire in which in-bred Appalachian moonshiners move to Bel Air and mock the Beverly Hills elite? Actually, Ghosted isn't all that bad, even if satirizing The X-Files feels a little bit wet-noodley at this point. Adam Scott (Parks and Recreation) and Craig Robinson (Mr. Robinson) play a couple of lunkheads who've been recruited to help a secret government agency called the Bureau Underground look into weird doings around Los Angeles. Scott is a former Stanford professor sacked for research into the paranormal. (Or, "fired space cadet," as the tabloids deliciously put it.) More recently, he's been trying to convince people his wife has been abducted by space aliens, though she was last seen packing her bags after a vicious marita[...]

The Prisoner Turns 50

Fri, 29 Sep 2017 11:45:00 -0400

The Prisoner—a science fiction series about a former spy confined in a mysterious totalitarian enclave—was both the most experimental and the most anti-authoritarian TV program of the '60s. It first aired 50 years ago today, so I'll mark the occasion with one of my favorite installments: "Living in Harmony," the episode that answers the question, "What would a western written by Philip K. Dick look like?"

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If you've never been exposed to this show before, this would not be the place to begin; half the story's pleasure comes from seeing a familiar series reimagined in an entirely different genre. But if you've experienced the series a few times but never encountered this episode, you're in for something wonderfully weird.

For yet more from Reason on The Prisoner, check out this article by Larry Niven, this article by Emmanuelle Richard, and this video by the fine folks at Reason TV. And last year, when we hit the 50th anniversary of the day the series started filming, I devoted a different Friday A/V Club post to another Prisoner episode. I make no apology for taking another bite at the apple: Surely this is a show worth watching at least once a year.

Dick Wolf Takes on the Menendez Murders in New Crime Anthology

Tue, 26 Sep 2017 15:00:00 -0400

Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders., NBC. Tuesday, September 26, 10 p.m. SEAL Team. CBS. Wednesday, September 27, 9 p.m. Fred Allen is usually remembered as one of the great comic voices of the golden age of radio in the 1930s and '40s. (If for no other reason than that he drove NBC censors of the day clinically insane. Convinced there was something, somehow dirty about his running gags about the dimwitted foibles of the populace of a town called North Wrinkle, the network forbade him to ever mention it again unless he could prove it didn't exist.) But though Allen didn't have a lot of success on television, he was a one-man factory of witty aphorisms on the subject of the tube. Consider this: "They're calling TV a new medium. Why medium? Because nothing on it is well done." Then there was his anticipation of reality TV ("people who haven't anything to do watch people who can't do anything") and, the subject of this week's TV programming observation, "Imitation is the sincerest form of television." Here in the second week of the new fall broadcast season, the top two offerings are the (at least) third miniseries adaptation on the ineptly parricidal Menendez brothers and a seemingly flawless clone of a bang-bang drama about U.S. special forces operations, it's pretty hard to argue with the astuteness of that last Allen observation. Yet before dismissing this week's shows as beneath even the contempt of a TV critic—which would be a truly Olympian achievement, by the way—some careful consideration must be given to Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders. For one thing, it represents the most audacious branding effort since back in the 1950s when entire shows were named after the products that sponsored them, like The Texaco Star Theater. In this, executive producer Dick Wolf is employing the name of his cookie-cutter Law & Order series (at least seven of them so far, not distinguishable from one another by the human eye) to launch an entirely unrelated anthology true-crime series. If this works, I expect Law & Order: Chupacabra and Law & Order: Kardashian Butt-Sculpting to follow shortly. Even more startlingly, The Menendez Brothers is not a bad show at all. Wolf's laconic just-the-bloodily-murderous-facts-ma'am approach mixes surprisingly well with the tabloid-trash genre. When your show stars parent-killing sociopaths who raise incestuous child-molestation as a defense, you don't need to toss Lady Gaga or Siegfried and Roy into the mix. Before O.J. and the white Bronco drove into our lives, the Menendez brothers seemed like the made-for-TV true crime couple of the century. Vacuous Beverly Hills brats, they were accused in 1989 of shotgunning their wealthy parents to death so they could buy Porches and tennis coaches without taking a lot of lip about it. Their first trial, broadcast daily by Court TV (the early incarnation of what is today TruTV) was a national sensation—or so we thought until O.J came long and redefined the term. Regardless of what you think about the Simpson case, it hit a lot of cultural touchstones—race, celebrity, domestic abuse, the 24-hour news cycle—that lent a serious foundation to its tabloid glamour. The Menendez story, though, was pure sleaze, wealthy sociopaths cannibalizing themselves. And aside from a slight populist tinge ("Mercedes loaners!" exclaims a homicide detective as he and his partner pass a line of luxury cars while walking up the driveway to the crime scene in the Menendez mansion. "My wife takes the car in for service, she gets a bus ticket"), Wolf refrains from trying to imbue the spectacle with substance. And why bother? He's got a pulp-Shakespearian cast of characters to pl[...]