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).
Source: pbs.org
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).
Source: pbs.org
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
Source: cwtv.com
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.
Source: x-files.wikia.com 
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.
Source: x-files.wikia.com
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.
Source: x-files.wikia.com
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.
Source: x-files.wikia.com
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: avclub.com
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.
Source: x-files.wikia.com
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!