December 25, 2016

Five Christmas TV Episodes You Should Stream Today

The Office - "Dwight Christmas"

I'm nearing the end of my latest watch-through of The Office, one of my all time favorite shows, and I've been reminded of just how phenomenal the final season is. Season 9's holiday episode, "Dwight Christmas" brings that signature Office blend of painful comedy and heart. Plus, it teaches the viewer about German Christmas traditions. A winner all around.

The West Wing - "In Excelsis Deo"

If a heavy and melancholy Christmas episode is more your speed this year, I recommend "In Excelsis Deo," the tenth episode of Season 1 of The West Wing. Richard Schiff delivers a masterful performance in this episode in which Toby makes it his mission to secure a proper funeral for a homeless veteran. The episode is powerful and so meaningful to Schiff that he got choked up when discussing it on The West Wing Weekly podcast. Oh, and it won two Emmys.

Friends - "The One with the Inappropriate Sister"

Sure, you could watch "The One with the Holiday Armadillo," but my pick for a Friends episode worthy of your time this year is "The One with the Inappropriate Sister," solely for the holiday-themed Phoebe storyline. My love for Lisa Kudrow and her portrayal of Phoebe Buffay may cloud my judgement, but the character's devotion to her charity-bucket-bellringer duties cracks me up like nothing else.

Scrubs - "My Own Personal Jesus"

Scrubs is a show that manages to be utterly funny and unexpectedly heartwarming at the same time. In "My Own Personal Jesus," Turk's devotion to hope and belief in miracles in what seem like the gloomiest circumstances make it the perfect episode if you need an emotional lift this Christmas.

Miranda - "The Perfect Christmas"

After getting lost innumerable times in the YouTube black hole of British panel shows, I knew I needed more Miranda Hart in my life. So I binged my way through her self-titled and quasi-autobiographical show Miranda and can I just say - SUCH FUN! If you're a Miranda fan, today is the day to re-watch "The Perfect Christmas." If you haven't discovered this gem of a show yet, I think you'll still relate to Miranda's hatred of forced family Christmas traditions, instinct to hide from carol singers, and frustration with online purchases failing to arrive.

November 2, 2016

Survivor: "I Will Destroy You"

I reject the idea that "generations" can be categorized, labeled, or otherwise divided and classified in any real way. I find the articles and studies that aim and claim to do so belabored and flimsy, even by the already squishy social science standards. To make matters worse, almost every article you read on the subject is laden with bias - usually either derision or defensiveness. So when I heard that the upcoming season of Survivor would pit "Millennials" against "Generation X," I was less than enthused. (Clearly, CBS thinks this premise is a real hit or they wouldn't have also premiered The Great Indoors this year.)

As long as we're stereotyping, I guess these are the two generations to pit against one another, if you have to pick two. You have to have the millennials in there (for the buzzword), and millennials and boomers are really cut from the same cloth. I mean, this song could just as easily be our anthem as theirs. (Oh yeah, I'm a millennial. Did I mention that?)

The generational splits in this game have proven to be far less important than CBS had no doubt hoped. In none of the tribal councils after the tribe swap did the majority generation stick together. Now, I haven't kept Survivor statistic spreadsheets, but as I remember it, that's unusual. And it means that these generational tribes were even less reliable an indicator of unity than tribes of random, unrelated strangers. Which brings me to my main point: This season of Survivor, meant to be an exciting cultural battle between the young and the slightly older (Or, as CBS liked to swing it, the lazy and the hardworking), has quite possibly achieved the opposite of its goal. Instead of proving how distinct these so-called generations are, the show has demonstrated how people are people. No matter their age, you'll find the same weaknesses (arrogance, overconfidence, anxiety) and the same strengths (empathy, loyalty, strategic smarts) within a tribe of five, eight or ten. Those traits will play out in the same unexpected, if predictable in hindsight, ways throughout a season of Survivor. Which makes Jeff Probst's attempts to highlight the generational differences adorably out of touch. (He thinks we still write "u" for "you" when texting! He's such a Gen-Xer!) (←That's a joke, obviously.)

So yeah, I balked at the premise of this season, but then something weird happened. This season became GREAT. There's this cast of interesting, strategic players, many of whom are exceedingly likable. There are interesting home stories, especially for the millennials. There was an ill-advised power coupling that went down in flames. Exciting challenges, fun twists, and oh-so-many hidden immunity idols.

Adam, Jessica, Taylor, and Ken arrive at a challenge.
The Takali tribe surprised the rest when they returned from Tribal Council sans Figgy.

Take tonight's episode for example: Despite it's ominous title, "I Will Destroy You" was a lot of fun. Unexpected comebacks made both the Reward Challenge and the Immunity Challenge exciting. Michaela proved to be a challenge beast once again, which, combined with her football coach-esque plan for the remainder of the game which she all too readily shared with her tribemates, proved that she was entirely too strong to keep around.

Hannah brought the social game, if only briefly, when she identified Bret's ridiculous and shady occupational lie. Identity lies are about as old as the game itself, and they almost never work. But they sure are fun to watch play out. It almost makes me glad that Bret is still in the game, because I want to see what happens when the truth about his lie is revealed.

Jay made the most strategic move of the game so far. And OWNED it! Michaela was right - you want to go to Tribal Council. It is the way to get ahead in the game. You know who took that advice to heart? Jay. His move wasn't a paranoid one; it was a brilliant one that he made in the nick of time. By the next episode, the tribes will merge. Had Michaela been around, she would have dominated the individual game from that point forward. Jay smartly realized that he's got plenty of followers in the Millennial tribe. What he didn't need was another leader. Michaela was that leader that he had to take out. Plus, she knew about his idol. She was much too big a threat. Now, what Jay doesn't realize is that Adam has been making some big moves of his own and has been making ties with the Gen-Xers. See? So many moving pieces! So many clever players! I have no idea where this game will go next and that's what makes it great. CBS might think Survivor needs a gimmick to get us to watch, but all we need to keep us watching is the game itself.

October 10, 2016

No Tomorrow: "Pilot"

No Tomorrow had me intrigued from first look. When ads began billing the show as "From the network that brought you Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Jane the Virgin", I knew I had to give it a try. Those are two of the best shows on network TV right now, and no matter what stereotypical prejudice you may have against the CW, you should check them out. (They're award winning, guys.)

When I sat down to watch the Pilot, the question was: would No Tomorrow deliver on its promise to be another CW show I'd enjoy? For me, the answer was a resounding: Maybe. Here's the premise: A Type-A type woman meets a uninhibited and possibly insane man who thinks the world is going to end in eight months and lives his life accordingly. Naturally, I have a few questions.

Are the characters likable?
Like, Crazy-Ex and Jane, No Tomorrow banks on a relatively unknown cast. Ok, Joshua Sasse was Galavant, but with a shaved head and that beard, did you recognize him at first glance? Me either. Tori Anderson, who plays Evie, hails from Canada and, apparently, teen nick.

Evie meets Xavier at the Farmers' Market.
(Revealing the show's hipster/millennial target audience.)
If we have any question about who Evie is, it's answered by Kareema: "Just don't be one of those women defined by the quest to find the guy." Ah, so she's a hopeless romantic. This is a step in the right direction. It gives the character a subtle sweetness that belies her model appearance. Each line and look makes her ever more the ingenue. Evie forgoes even the mildest profanity and instead says, "Oh my gosh" and "Holy smokes." Her apocalypse "list" contains mild ambitions like putting tinfoil in the microwave. Yes, I like Evie. But what about her leading man?

It takes a little longer to figure Xavier out. Sure, he may look like a charming ladies-man-hipster-player, but it turns out he's a poser. This is revealed not only in the flashback of his former life sitting in a cubicle, but also his internet fame as "Doomsday Man." And more importantly, he's probably out of his mind. And a little stalker-ish there with his telescope.

Furthermore, starting them out with infidelity (or whatever you call cheating when you're on a break) isn't the most likable move. But Evie redeems herself at least a little by confessing her indiscretion to potential fiancé Timothy. So while I like Evie, and can sympathize with her struggles, Xavier is going to have to work a little harder to win me over.

Does this show know what it wants to be? Even if what it wants to be is weird?
This is something I bring up a lot in my reviews, because I think it really matters: Good television shows are self-aware. Though made up of many characters, the world they inhabit must have a distinct sense of humor, or in the case of a drama, a distinct mood. Characters can be dynamic, but they cannot be unbelievable. That's not to say that shows can't surprise us; instead, such surprises must add depth to what we already know about a show - not discredit the show's very premise.

Again, like its sister shows, No Tomorrow isn't a drama or a comedy. It's also not a comedy with heart or a funny drama. It's both and it's neither. It's weird. And some of its characters are really weird, particularly the side characters. Evie effectively plays the straight man both to Xavier's unpredictability and her co-workers standard comedic odd-ball-ness. In fact, the side characters are so much fun, there is a chance they'll outshine Evie.

The most difficult line that No Tomorrow will have to walk is balancing the quirk with the sincerity. Walking that line is possible. Other hour-long so-called "comedies" have done this successfully. Pushing Daisies used bright colors, sweeping camera entrances, and retro-like transitions between scenes to develop a distinctive "storybook" look. Crazy-Ex does it by pairing their stories with song. Toward the end of the pilot of No Tomorrow, when Evie is confronting her bad-breathed boss Deirdre, the camera pushes in on the two of them in incremental jerks as Deirdre breathes right in Evie's face. I thought this was clever, but it caught me off guard. Is the show aiming to make its camerawork distinctive? If so, I'm all for it. I think it matches the mood of the show - but, we'll need more of it. Otherwise, it will just seem out of place. No Tomorrow must embrace its own brand of weird.

Is the premise sustainable?
Should Xavier turn out to be correct, this show has only got an eight month shelf-life. (If they make it that far - A to Z only made it to M.) The last show about the end of the world got us to doomsday just in time to break my heart. (I still get chills thinking about the You, Me, and the Apocalypse finale - and not good chills. Not getting a second season for that one hurts).

Maybe it's more like My Name is Earl - each episode will send our heros on a wild quest to fulfil an item on their list. That show managed to eek out four seasons (although I didn't make it past Season 3 when I binged my way through on Netflix.) A procedural format might serve this show well, as long as the characters can grow and remain interesting throughout.

No Tomorrow debuted to less than great ratings. Some critics already list it among the doomed.  I'm not so sure. The CW has a willingness to bet on weird shows that they know are good. In an unprecedented move last spring, they renewed everything. I have a theory: the network knows that they can't compete with the other major broadcast networks for quantity of viewers. Where they can beat them is quality. The leading ladies of Jane and Crazy-Ex each have a Golden Globe to their name. Will Anderson follow? I don't know yet, but I'm willing to keep watching to find out.

October 7, 2016

Brooklyn Nine-Nine: "Coral Palms, Part 3"

Since the beginning, Brooklyn Nine-Nine has been a solid comedy. Last season, the show had a lot of work to do to keep its central will-they-or-won't-they couple Jake and Amy interesting after they, well, did. All while maintaining the show's slapstick wit and giving the rest of the ensemble cast enough to do.

Terry, Rosa, Boyle, Scully and Hitchcock join Jake and Holt in Coral Palms.
The gang is back together!
Throughout Season 3, creative obstacles were devised to sidetrack Jake (Andy Samberg) and Amy's (Melissa Fumero) budding romance, but none so extreme as the finale - which landed both Jake and Andre Braugher's Captain Holt in witness protection in Florida. This is where Season 4 picked up, with a three-part episode titled "Coral Palms." Part 3 aired this week, and it was a doozy.

A clever cold open spoofed a local news report (the sort of classic Michael Schur touch Parks and Rec fans will spot.) The ensemble shines brightest when on a mission, and by Part 3, the squad was together again at last, and they were more than ready to take down the head of a crime syndicate. Jim O'Heir's guest appearance as a local sheriff was a welcome surprise in Part 2, and I was glad to see him again. Against the backdrop of an Arcade/Go-Kart Course, the members of the precinct successfully battle the bad guys, even if both Holt and Jake are rather seriously injured in the process.

Clever writing is another of the show's strengths. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is seldom blatantly political. (It wouldn't want to alienate its audience in an election year.) But it does wink (or at least blink while staring blankly) at political issues. In "Coral Palms," nods to the ubiquity of guns, like Gina's line about where she got hers - "Vending machine at a rest stop" - are either subtle critiques of gun laws, or at least easy punchlines about Florida. Then there was Jake's great one-liner: "Something about lead being in the air and water and ground." Acerbically timely, no?

Jake and Amy's awkward reunion kiss is interrupted by Boyle.
Not exactly love at first reunion.
Part 3 also saw Jake and Amy struggling to get back into the swing of being together, and by the end of the episode, they claimed to be in sync again. Still, I can't help feeling that this episode would have worked better as a set up to a break up. Jake and Amy just aren't working. Lately, when Boyle interrupts them, it doesn't seem like he's interrupting anything at all. I can't pinpoint if it's the fault of the writing, the acting, or the directing, but I don't buy that the two of them are in love. The cliche of breaking them up to renew the romantic tension might be the show's best bet. This strategy seems to be working for New Girl's Nick and Jess, another couple who didn't shine as brightly together as they do when you so desperately want them to be together. Alternatively, the writers could give Jake and Amy a realistic couple problem (other than a lumpy mattress or six months in witness protection.) That worked for Jim and Pam, who were great when they were doing well, but even more heartwarming when they overcame authentic relationship adversity. When Jake and Amy were pining for one another, the tension led to some of the show's greatest moments of sincerity.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine needs that sincerity to sustain the workaday episodes of this workplace comedy. If not with Jake and Amy, perhaps another office romance? Speaking of which, whatever happened to the unrequited love Charles had for Rosa? That thread was still strong at the end of Season 2, when Charles designed a perfect birthday dinner for Rosa's then-boyfriend to present to her. If that's not selfless love, I don't know what is. But somewhere in Season 3, Charles went from being a bumbling buffoon with a heart of gold to being a bumbling buffoon utterly clueless to the ways of the heart. I'd like the old Charles back, especially if that meant Rosa would get him back, too. All in all, "Coral Palms" was good, but Brooklyn Nine-Nine can do better.

September 19, 2016

New Girl: "Wedding Eve"

This summer as always, in addition to the second-rate series that aren't worth our time (and a few great ones that totally are), the networks have been airing reruns of last season to prep us for the fall premieres. That means over the last few Tuesdays I've been reminded of how quietly phenomenal Season 5 of New Girl was.

Jess in the Jury Box.
For a half dozen episodes, the show was without its lead; Zooey Deschanel was on maternity leave, which meant Jessica Day was a sequestered juror. Couple Deschanel's temporary exit with Megan Fox's entrance as a recurring guest star and it's easy to imagine this season going very, very badly. Clickbait headlines even suggested that Fox was replacing Deschanel (as if anyone could). But that didn't happen, and the season didn't tank. Instead, Season 5 was kind of fantastic. Fox's Reagan was a skillfully crafted character, distinct enough from Jess that a comparison isn't fair. Sure, she lived in Jess's room and Nick fell head over feet for her, but she endeared herself to us in her own cold, distant way.

When Jess returned, the hijinks amped up again. While following her ex-boyfriend Sam, Jess found herself in the bed of his truck - as it went through a car wash. After a series of escalating dares, er, pranks, Winston got married. (!!) With "A Chill Day In" and "Road Trip," we got two of the most fun episodes of the season, which cover the same period of time as the group celebrates Cece's bachelorette and Schmidt's bachelor parties.

The gang takes a shot in their loft to kick off a game of "True American."
The gang commences a game of True American.
This brings us to "Wedding Eve," Season 5's penultimate episode, and a brilliant encapsulation of everything New Girl does best: physical comedy, classic sitcom misunderstandings, and love. Also, of course, True American - the show's invented drinking game. True American allows the small ensemble to stretch their physical comedy muscles.  It's also generally used as a device to get two characters in the same space - under a table, on top of a single chair, or "behind the iron curtain." In this episode, the game got Jess together with Sam, whom she'd been avoiding since she found a diamond ring in his jacket and feared he would propose. He wasn't going to, of course. Tell me you didn't realize as soon as I did that Sam was meant to be with Diane?

But between the pratfalls and wordplay, New Girl is a love story. This season, it was mostly Schmidt and Cece's love story, and as the credits rolled on "Wedding Eve," Schmidt left in the dark of night, not as a runaway groom, but in a grand gesture of love. Season 5 also gave us a delightful love storyline for Winston. Lamorne Morris is the unsung hero of the show when it comes to comic timing, and despite the wacky marriage sidetrack, he and his cop partner/new girlfriend Aly shared a sweet "I love you" in this episode. (Which was immediately followed by some food poisoning induced retching because this is still a comedy after all.)

Mostly, though, I think New Girl is the long, slow, beautiful love story of the title character. And just in case we forgot who else's love story it is, Sam was there to give Jess this reminder:

New Girl returns tomorrow night, September 20, at 8:30 on FOX.

June 21, 2016

BrainDead: "The Insanity Principle"

I thoroughly appreciated the perfectly unsettling finale of The Good Wife, so I was ready for another series by Robert and Michelle King. The duo is back with a summer series that moves their brand of dark political wit from Chicago to Washington.

BrainDead is a political... no, wait, science fiction! No, actually, it's a thriller? A comedy? Ok, I'm not sure what it is. My dad described it as "a cross between The West Wing and The X-Files." Whatever it is, it's up my alley. And it's also relevant, or at least it's striving to be. Interspersed throughout the pilot episode, "The Insanity Principle," are clips from Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, and the latter in particular serves to illustrate the intractable mess that is the current American political system.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead, pictured in a promo photo, in front of the American Flag, double fisting aerosol bug spray.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead
BrainDead attempts to make sense of political madness by blaming it on... extraterrestrial insects.

Populating this bizarre tale are television veterans (Tony Shalhoub) as well as veterans of The Good Wife (Megan Hilty, Zach Grenier). Star-on-the-rise Mary Elizabeth Winstead (who is stellar as well as versatile) is Laurel Healy, a relative outsider to DC. Literally relative, as Laurel has agreed to a six-month job in the office of her brother, Sen. Luke Healy (D) (Danny Pino). Here, she is not surprised by the dirty underbelly of politics, a world she says she hates, but she also seems to be the only one who notices that things are a little off-kilter. "The Insanity Principle" has Laurel navigating her new job as constituent caseworker in the midst of a government shutdown. What begins as an effort to help a constituent becomes Laurel's personal "investigation" into the shipping container which brought the alien ants to US shores to begin with. She doesn't know that yet. Just how long it will take for Laurel to figure this mess out remains to be seen. I'll give her six months.

At least in the first episode, the politics of the show are not partisan. The madness, and the bugs, infect both sides of the aisle. In fact, if there's a second protagonist, it's Republican congressional aide Gareth Ritter (Aaron Tveit). So what's next? By virtue of her position as heroine, Laurel will have to remain uninfected, or somehow immune, to the brain eating bugs. I expect we'll see Laurel and Gareth explore this mystery together. The two have been specifically (if a bit obviously) positioned as the only characters with a conscience.

To watch this show not only do you have to get past bugs crawling into ears and brains falling out of ears and heads exploding, you also have to be able to stomach politics. That is difficult to do in this age in which, to quote one of BrainDead's fictional pundits, "Bipartisanship is dead."If you can bear all that, you might be in for a fun summer ride. The acting surrounding Winstead's well-played sanity is delightfully absurd. The tone and color, uniquely muddy.

"But what is a Democrat, these days? What is a Republican? A brand." That's how Shalhoub's character, Sen. Red Wheatus (R), describes Congressional gridlock. So, ants from outer space? Surely as good an explanation as any.

You can watch BrainDead on Monday nights on CBS, or Fridays on Amazon.

*Update: Beginning July 24, BrainDead will air on Sunday nights.

February 23, 2016

Superstore: "Labor" - The Exodus is Here

Store Manager Glenn (Mark McKinney) and Cloud 9
Employee Cheyenne (Nichole Bloom). Source:
 Superstore is the new NBC comedy you really should be watching. In just 11 half-hour episodes, the show has proven that it knows exactly what kind of comedy it wants to be. Set in a big-box department store called Cloud 9, Superstore shows us the personalities behind the blue vests - employees who get their backs into their living. From sarcastic Garrett (Colton Dunn) to brash Dina (Lauren Ash), Superstore is stocked with comedic talent. The show manages to highlight each character's wackiest traits without making fun, a skill series Creator Justin Spitzer exercised as a writer for The Office.

The customers of Cloud 9 are not given much dialogue, but each episode is interspersed with cutaway gags featuring customers doing ridiculous things in the aisles of the store. (My favorite is the one where a pageant mom is applying spray tan to the arms of her fully-made up, already-in-her-sequins toddler daughter.) These scenes neatly subvert the easy punchline of bad customer service by showing us bad customers.

In this week's cleverly titled episode, pregnant cosmetics counter clerk Cheyenne nearly gives birth to her baby in the store. This inspires her co-workers to approach corporate about paid maternity leave. Corporate hears "union" and sends in a "labor relations consultant."

Jonah and Amy make a fateful phone call.
"Labor" was the culmination of character development for the series. Jonah (Ben Feldman) and Amy (America Ferrera) are written to be the smartest, or perhaps just the least wacky characters of the show. But the two of them (and their alter egos idealism and pragmatism) get so caught up in an argument, they're almost oblivious to the fact that Cheyenne is in labor just a few yards away. For all their intellect, these two can be dense. But "Labor" also gave both Jonah and Amy a chance to become what the show has set them up to be. Jonah becomes the hero he's imagined himself to be, and Amy becomes the leader she was going to have to be eventually. Similarly, Dina becomes the inevitable villain. Of course Dina deserts her fellow employees and takes a deal from corporate to manage the store. It's not like we can even be mad at her - she's had a lust for power since the first episode. We should have seen it coming. These moments managed to be unexpected and yet grounded in everything we've been shown about them until now.

In the episode's final scene, the Cloud 9 employees stage a walkout and emerge from the store in their royal blue vests and a cloud of victory. The moment, perfectly punctuated by a remix of The Who's "Baba O'Riley," was, frankly, moving.

Like nearly every other show worth watching right now, Superstore airs on Monday nights. Even though NBC's viewership was lower than the other three major networks for the 8 o'clock time slot last night, considering Superstore was up against The X-Files finale and The Bachelor, 4.68 million viewers is not a bad haul. Today, TV Line reported that the show will get a second season. All the more reason for you to catch up now!

So, what kind of comedy does Superstore want to be? A clever one. One with heart. One that will surprise you. It's the kind of NBC comedy I wasn't sure we'd ever see again. But it's here. Get together with Superstore before you get much older.

January 24, 2016

Mercy Street: "The New Nurse"

Mercy Street, a new scripted drama on PBS, sets out to tell an untold story of the Civil War.  In a makeshift hospital in the Union occupied Southern city of Alexandria, Virginia, doctors and nurses tend to the wounded soldiers - from both sides - at a time when and in a place where efficiency was prized over quality of care. Around every corner we see an amputee, and morphine is still "experimental."

Here, doctors and nurses, rather than soldiers, are the war's voice. But the series uses cinematography, as much as its characters, to tell the story. This is especially evident in the deliberate use of color and light to enhance the mood. In one scene, young Southern belle Emma (Hannah James) glides through a filthy brown alley in a billowing white gown, matching parasol extended above her. Her clean dress symbolically shows us her innocence. As you might expect from a PBS drama, the costumes and sets are exquisite, and they serve to show the audience what the characters see.

Southern Belle Emma Green (Hannah James).
Similarly, the script endeavors to tell the audience what the characters believe. We are offered pithy explanations of the social mores of the time: "Men fight and women pray." And arguments surrounding complex questions about what lies at the root of the war: "Pardon me, but aren't we fighting to free men of color? Isn't that what this war is about?" asks one character. "No, it's about preserving the Republic. Even Lincoln says so," responds another.

Of course, history is written by the victors, and no 21st century retelling of the War Between the States can escape the knowledge of a Northern victory, nor the moral rightness of the abolitionists. But from its first episode,  Mercy Street takes pains to present sympathetic characters from both the North and South. Likewise, there are villains on both sides. For example, smarmy Dr. Byron Hale (Norbert Leo Butz) may be a Union man, but he's not a man who's side you'd otherwise take. The series presents Nurse Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the titular "new nurse," as de-facto heroine, and our eyes through the episode. She fancies herself an enlightened abolitionist, but even she is hesitant to allow the free black man Samuel Diggs (McKinley Belcher III) to tend to a dying Union soldier, despite the fact that Diggs has the expertise to save the man's life.

Dr. Foster (Radnor) confronts Nurse Mary (Winstead).
It is through Mary, then, that we as an audience are pre-emptively chastised for our preconceptions of right and wrong. Mary is loath to treat the Confederate soldiers, who she sees only as adversary. "Are there no sinning Yankees in these beds?" Emma asks her, "Atrocities are only ever committed by the enemy?" Mary tells Dr. Jedediah Foster that she finds his views on race "unenlightened." But this Union doctor, who grew up on a slave-holding plantation, finds her treatment of the Confederate soldiers equally offensive. "Blood is not gray or blue, madam. It is all one color." "The New Nurse" makes it clear that Mercy Street will not shy away from issues of race, but I expect it will address them within the complex socio-political context of the 1860s.

Speaking of Dr. Foster, I will admit that it was the screenshot of a bearded Josh Radnor that drew me to this show. How would this How I Met Your Mother alum fare in an historical drama, I wondered? Turns out, he fares quite well. Perhaps not at first, but with a second viewing of the episode, I realized with some amount of surprise that thoughts of HIMYM had left my head. Dr. Foster has all the sincerity but none of the naïveté of Ted Mosby. Moreover, if Mercy Street makes time for romance, Radnor is a ready made leading man.

The show's pace is steady and deliberate. It gives both the viewer and the characters a chance to reflect on what's happening inside the hospital walls. It is at once tender, as in the scene where Mary takes down a letter dictated by a 15-year-old soldier to his mother and sisters, and tragic, as in the scene where that same soldier dies, still clinging to the flag he promised his father he'd not let touch the ground. As if to emphasize the futility of war, a bugle plays the young boy a funeral dirge while soldiers outside the window celebrate a victory on the battlefield.

The six-part series Mercy Street airs Sunday nights at 10 PM on PBS.

January 23, 2016

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: How a quirky, irreverent, musical comedy became my favorite new show of the year

Back when the new fall shows were premiering, I wrote about Supergirl. Since that first episode, though, I've had to catch Kara online later in the week. That's because on Monday nights at 8, my rabbit ears have been tuned to the CW, to take a trip to West Covina, California with a crazy character named Rebecca Bunch.

Rebecca (Rachel Bloom) sings the praises of West Covina, California on the CW's Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a critically acclaimed little gem, but it hasn't gained the ratings it deserves. The first episode left me wondering where Rachel Bloom has been hiding. (Apparently, the answer is YouTube.) Bloom has created one of the most original shows to hit network TV in a long time. It's unfair to simplify this show to a one sentence summary, but here goes: Successful lawyer Rebecca Bunch gives up her career in New York City to move to West Covina, California, the hometown of her one-time summer-camp-boyfriend, for, she will assure you, completely unrelated reasons.

If you haven't seen the show, and you hear that it's a network TV musical, you probably have an idea in your head. Throw that idea out. This show is not Glee. It's not Smash. It's not Nashville. Particularly in its musical numbers, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend delivers perfectly timed - and timely - satire. Yes, it's irreverent and explicit. But it's also colorful and weird. Even better though, it's smart. And it expects its viewer to be smart, too. The show doesn't explain its jokes, and it won't give you extra time to get them before it's on to the next bit. 

In an few interviews, Bloom has said that the theme of the first season is "The lies we tell ourselves." Yes, the characters are a little delusional. Perhaps that's why there's not really a villain. There doesn't need to be. After all, we are our own worst enemy.  There's a moment in the pilot where you think that Paula is out to get Rebecca; turns out she's just a really stalkerish sidekick, brilliantly portrayed by Donna Lynne Champlin.

But of course, that doesn't mean the characters are shallow. Quite the opposite. With the exception of Rebecca's ex-boyfriend's new girlfriend Valencia, West Covina is populated with multi-dimensional people who are, sadly, relatable. These characters may be lying to themselves, but if we're being unreservedly honest, their flaws are just exaggerations of ours. They make all the worst mistakes we've ever entertained.

Greg is as close as this show gets to a comedic straight man. He's played by Santino Fontana, who voiced Hans in Disney's Frozen, which isn't often publicized, I imagine, because there isn't a demographic crossover in viewership. (Give it a couple years, though.) Anyway, Greg's musical numbers have been my favorite so far, and the season's best moment was undoubtedly his song and dance duet with Rebecca, "Settle for Me."

When I first started watching the show, I told friends that even if Crazy Ex-Girlfriend gets cancelled, I'd rather have a few episodes of this gem of a show than none at all. After a spring episode order, and a win for Bloom at the Golden Globes, it looks like I have little to worry about. Mark Pedowitz, president of the network, recently heaped praise upon Crazy Ex, and suggested it might be one of those shows that defies the odds. I'm keeping my fingers crossed, with the knowledge that the Cancel Bear isn't always right, and that there was once another oddball show that the CW gave a shot, and because of that, two comedy actresses from the network earned Globes. Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend have started a trend that I can only hope continues: smart, innovative shows being given a chance on the only channel that seems to value quality over popularity: The CW.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is BACK this Monday night at 8 PM. 

January 4, 2016

The Rabbit Ear Reviews Guide to Can't-Miss Episodes of The X-Files

In previous posts, I've written about my appreciation for The X-Files and passed my X-Files binging tips on to you. Now, with new episodes of the show airing later this month, you're probably thinking it's too late to get in the game, right? Wrong! Ok, there may not be enough waking hours to watch every episode before January 24. But lucky for you, I've prepared this list of the dozen or so episodes that will get you in the spirit and leave you wanting to believe the truth is still out there.

Season 1 - Episode 1: "Pilot"

Mulder and Scully in the Pilot episode.
Agent Dana Scully, a medical doctor, is tasked with "debunking" the work of FBI Agent Fox Mulder. The two meet and travel to Oregon to investigate a series of deaths that Mulder attributes to alien abduction.

Why it's awesome: As pilots go, this is a great one. The characters and universe are immediately established, and viewers even get a glimpse of Mulder's all important family history. Plus, oh my goodness. There is so much 90s fashion and technology.

Why it matters: Foundation. The first episode sets the stage for all that is to come: the relationship between the two agents, the nature of their investigations, and what will become the ongoing alien mythology arc.

Season 1 - Episode 2: "Deep Throat"

Deep Throat confronts Agent Mulder.
The agents investigate missing Air Force test pilots, and Mulder is contacted by an anonymous source advising him to drop the case.

Why it's awesome: In what has to be one of the most chilling scenes ever filmed in broad daylight, "Deep Throat" confronts Mulder to offer another word of warning in the final scene of the episode.

Why it matters: Plot. It develops the government conspiracy thread of the story and introduces Deep Throat, who will become a vital secondary character.

Season 1 - Episode 8: "Ice"

In this "Monster of the Week" bottle episode, Mulder and Scully visit an arctic research station to investigate the mysterious deaths of scientists working there.

Why it's awesome: Paranoia. A parasite begins to infect the crew at the station, and it leaves the characters and even the viewer wondering who's got the virus, who can be trusted, and who's about to fly into a fit of rage. Plus, there's an infected dog. It's very Cujo.

Why it matters: Guest stars! You'll see a 1993 Felicity Huffman and Steve Hytner (Seinfeld's Bania). Over the years, The X-Files featured an amazing collection of "before they were famous" guest stars, from Jack Black to Lucy Liu to Bryan Cranston. More impressive than the slate of actors who appear, though, is the way The X-Files utilizes auxiliary characters in a meaningful way. "Ice" is a great example of that.

Season 1 - Episode 20: "The Erlenmeyer Flask"

In the Season 1 finale,  the agents encounter a scientist working on the mapping of the human genome.

Why it's awesome: Dana Scully is our resident skeptic. But in this episode, her cynicism begins to break down. This episode turned a skeptic into a believer.

Why it matters: Establishment. By the end of the first season, The X-Files had secured its spot in the zeitgeist of the 1990s. "The Erlenmeyer Flask" was the most watched episode of Season 1, received an Edgar Award nomination, and scored a Neilson rating of 8.8 (according to Wikipedia). The first season of the show as a whole, and this episode in particular proved that The X-Files wasn't a one-season wonder. This episode turned viewers into fans.

Season 3 - Episode 20: "Jose Chung's From Outer Space"

Scully, looking characteristically skeptical.
Scully sits down with science fiction writer Jose Chung to recount the story of an X-file investigation he's using as inspiration for his next book. Their conversation, interspersed with other interviews Chung conducted, unpacks the tale of one abduction.

Why it's awesome: Humor! And a cameo appearance by Alex Trebek.

Why it matters: Perspective. This episode is less about the story than it is about the nature of storytelling. An episode about the sheer lunacy of abduction stories could discredit the show's entire premise. Instead, this episode uses that lunacy to enhance the importance of seeking truth in a world of uncertainty.

Season 4 - Episode 2: "Home"

The agents investigate a reclusive small-town family of in-bred brothers. The result is akin to a horror film the likes of which I've never seen.

Why it's awesome: It isn't. It will give you nightmares. You should watch it anyway.

Why it matters: Controversy. The episode is so unsettling that after its first airing, Fox reportedly chose not to air the episode in reruns. It'll also ruin the song "Wonderful, Wonderful" for you.

Season 5 - Episode 5: "The Post-Modern Prometheus"

Scully and Mulder share a dance.
This is the 'Frankenstein' episode of the show. It's got a monster, a mad scientist, perfectly timed lightning strikes, and townspeople with torches and everything. 

Why it's awesome: The episode was filmed in black and white. Your response to the episode will be similar - You will love it or hate it. But the most interesting (and best) part is that the music of Cher serves as soundtrack.

Why it matters: Beauty. The episode won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Art Direction. Personally, I love the way the episode combines classic storytelling tropes from film, television, and comic books.

Season 5 - Episode 12: "Bad Blood"

Mulder and Scully offer hilariously disparate accounts of an investigation into "vampiric activity" in a small Texas town.

Why it's awesome: Where do I start? The hilarious juxtaposition of Mulder and Scully's recollections of the investigation? The cameo appearance by a young Luke Wilson? This moment that so perfectly encapsulates Scully and Mulder's relationship? There is nothing wrong and everything right with this episode. It's also the episode I've rewatched the most times.

Why it matters: Popularity. It's the highest rated episode in the show, according to IMDb users, and that's a distinction it well deserves. It is also probably the best example of the comedic capabilities of the cast and crew.

Season 6 - Episode 3: "Triangle"

This split screen of Scully and her parallel was supposedly
inspired by the music video for the song "Closing Time."
Image source:
While investigating the mysterious appearance of an ocean liner on the edge of the Bermuda Triangle, Mulder stumbles back in time to WWII. He and a parallel-universe-Agent-Scully-lookalike take on Nazis. It's not as weird as it sounds.

Why it's awesome: Time travel, obviously! Or, space-time-continuum travel. Whatever. And a fantastic closing line. Also, Skinner got there first (spoiler here).

Why it matters: Originality. Both in the way it was filmed, and in its content. The A.V. Club's Todd VanDerWerff writes, "The episode is a triumph of production values and sheer technical craft." He goes on to praise the episode for being unlike anything else the show had ever done saying, "this is an excuse to abandon the show’s usual formula and take it into another genre altogether."

Season 8 - Episode 14: "This is Not Happening"

The episode title seems to be an allusion to a recurring line from "Jose Chung's From Outer Space," and it is also the closing line of the episode. In it, Scully and her new partner John Doggett continue the search into the disappearance of Agent Mulder after other abductees mysteriously return.

Why it's awesome: Gillian Anderson gives an honest, emotive performance. Through seven and a half seasons, the actress has skillfully maintained the same authentic character, all the while growing from skeptic to reluctant believer in extraterrestrial phenomena. There are few better examples of that growth than this episode.

Why it matters: Mulder. Ok, let's be honest. The show goes suffered with the departure of David Duchovny in Season 8. His appearance in the 14th episode is significant. Viewers noticed. With a Neilson rating of 9.7, it was the most-watched episode of Season 8.

Season 9 - Episodes 19 and 20: "The Truth" 

Mulder, looking pensive.
In the series finale, Mulder returns again (Duchovny was absent for much of the final season as well.) The episode centers on a military tribunal in which Mulder is put on trial for murder, and Mulder "puts the truth on trial."

Why it's awesome: Watch this episode when you are in the mood for a lot of explanation and when you're not itching for a happy ending, because exposition and explosions are this episode's strengths. Duchovny is the champion of the episode, because he's a phenomenal actor, but also because all the best lines are his.

Why it matters: Conclusion. As finales go, this is not the most highly regarded. The A.V. Club gave the episode a C-, and at 8.5/10 stars, it's the lowest rated of all the series' season finales on IMDb.  Nonetheless, this was to be the show's final curtain, and for that reason alone, it's worth watching.

This list is markedly incomplete. There are so many other great episodes that could or should be on this or any other list of highlights. (Notable also-rans: "EVE," "Paper Clip," "One Breath," "Requiem," "Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man," "Small Potatoes"... I have to stop!) Have a favorite episode you'd like to add to my list? Tell me in the comments!