Manic Depressive

When television shows want to make an attempt at addressing deep psychological issues, the traditional method would be to produce an intense character drama. Gritty, serious scenes are delivered by actors whose faces are perpetually grim, and the air hangs heavy with weighty dialogue.

Recently, though, television shows have been branching out into a new way to explore mental anguish: Comedy! And it's been working! Last year, I described how Steven Universe could take a simple show for kids and use it to reach in and yank my heartstrings. This year, it's the adults' turn, as two shows mined our common psychoses for giggles.

I've enthused over the first one before. Season 2 of Bojack Horseman ranked among my favorite shows of 2015, and Season 3 is similarly incredible. Bojack is riding a temporary high from the Oscar buzz surrounding his "performance" in Secretariat, and plenty of Hollywoo hangers-on are happy to ride his coattails. Those who know him best, however, know that Bojack excels at destroying anything positive in his life, and despite their best efforts to help, his depression and narcissism continue to drag him down, taking his friends with him. Sounds like a hoot, right? It actually is. Though the show is often intense, it never forgets to throw in plenty of jokes, visual gags, and anthropomorphic animal humor. But just as it builds up a steady stream of laughs, it pulls the rug out and hits you with some truly dark material.

I keep encouraging people to power through the relatively blah set-up of Season 1 to get to this wonderful stretch of episodes, and after watching another strong season, I'm going to keep at it. WATCH THIS SHOW.

The other journey into mental illness comes courtesy of Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), now that the first season of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is finally on Netflix. This show does a lot of off-kilter things. As I mentioned, it uses humor to describe some pretty serious emotions, but that's just the beginning. It also has hour-long episodes, which is unusual for a comedy show, and every episode is peppered with insanely catchy songs.

The songs parody all sorts of styles, from Broadway to Disney movies to rap battles to bubblegum pop groups. But as joyous as those songs usually are, in this show, they can be describing insecurity, terrible advice, or smug arrogance. Though Rebecca is ostensibly the heroine of the show, she's often doing awful things in order to get her hooks into her childhood crush. It's a unique take on the romantic comedy genre, and the fact that the music is so goddamn good turns what would be a clever show into an unmissable one.

Bojack Horseman - Season 3: A-
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend - Season 1: A-

Stars and Bars

Being in an era of "Peak TV" has made master schedulers of us all. We now need to conscientiously put aside time for specific shows to keep up with as they air, time for shows we know we'll need to catch up with later, and shows we'll allow to pass us by. This past week, I was able to put away multiple shows, and feel absurdly good about myself, as if I've just completed an important work project or something.

One of the show I just wrapped was the fourth season of Orange is the New Black, but in looking at this blog, I also realized that I'd never written about a show I watched several months ago, Making a Murderer. Since both shows revolve around the justice system, I figured I'd roll them together now.

I was among the people that rather liked the slower pace of Season 3 of Orange is the New Black, but I do have to admit that raising the stakes certainly got tongues to wag. The tension in Season 4 is significantly heightened. Loads of new inmates have arrived, and the problems they bring with them are far more dangerous than mere overcrowding. Adding to the powder keg is a new batch of guards, most of whom alternate between laziness and sadism.

As usual, there are so many stories to tell in a season that I can't mention them all, lest this wind up being a laundry list of who's up to what. But there are major changes afoot in Season 4. Piper is convinced that she's queen of the yard after her success with the panty business, and is clearly setting herself up for some major comeuppance. A new, famous inmate named Judy King (Blair Brown) appears to be a blend of Martha Stewart and Paula Deen, and is given special treatment, a move that both frustrates the other inmates and gives them ideas about cashing in. A figure from Alex's past comes to menace her, with far-reaching consequences for everyone in the entire prison.

With everything that's been in the news recently about how our law enforcement and justice systems treat African-American citizens, Orange is the New Black does not shy away from depicting the depressing reality of the abuse that minority populations suffer, taking it to a shocking and saddening extent. That doesn't mean that this is a Homework Show, though. It's still thoroughly entertaining, at times hilariously funny, and always a good watch.

I should have mentioned the Netflix true crime documentary series Making a Murderer back when everyone was talking about it, but it somehow slipped through the cracks. This show explores the story of Steven Avery, a man who was unjustly locked up for 18 years for sexual assault. Two years after he was exonerated, he was arrested again, this time for murder. His trial was a circus of inept police work and prosecutorial malfeasance, and yet he was convicted.

That's not to say that Avery is obviously innocent. Though the documentary goes to great lengths to show just how much reasonable doubt exists in this case, it still seems as though Avery is most likely guilty. That's not how the judicial system is supposed to work, though, and this documentary makes an almost unassailable case that Manitowoc County, Wisconsin did everything in their power to put Avery away, no matter what facet of the system they had to corrupt.

It's a very sad state of affairs, where nobody comes out looking good, and nobody wins. By the same token, though, it's an utterly fascinating case, and an extremely well-made show. It's certainly edited to be one-sided, but hey, it's a TV show, not an affidavit. The saga of Steven Avery continues, and they've announced that they'll be making more episodes, which I'm certainly looking forward to. Though I won't be one of those tiresome internet commentators who proclaim to know the truth of the situation, I will be one of those tiresome internet commentators who urge you to watch this show. It's gripping.

Orange is the New Black - Season 4: B+
Making a Murderer - Season 1: A-

Shaky Premise

I'm fortunate in that 95% of the entertainment I consume is by my choice. Sure, I may not have a loving husband to come home to, but that means I get full control of the remote. No kids means no suffering through whatever Chipmunk claptrap is oozing into theaters. And my circle of friends has diverse tastes, so there's nearly always someone ready and willing to accompany me to whatever happens to be catching my attention, whether it's a superhero blockbuster or an art-house character study.

Once in a while, though, I agree to ride in the sidecar to something someone else has chosen. Sometimes, it doesn't turn out too badly, but for the most part, if I was avoiding or ignoring a property, it's for a reason. That theory was put to the test again this week, when a friend wanted to go see the new Jason Bourne movie, a franchise I have minimal interest in. I dimly remember liking the original movie, but when the sequels got increasingly dependent on the scourge of the cinema known as ShakyCam, I officially checked out.

I keep up on film news, so I'm familiar with the strange path these movies have taken, including an entry without the star or director that made them popular in the first place. That divergence implied that when star Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass returned to the series, it must be because the new movie was simply too awesome for them to pass up.

Nope. Everything that drove me away from the Bourne movies is still present in full force, with the newly-added detriment of making absolutely no sense, plot-wise. Characters ally with each other for no reason. Characters attack each other for no reason. Characters betray each other for no reason. Beyond some poorly-developed daddy issues, Bourne doesn't really have any motivation at all, really. He just reacts to things, and a lot of his decisions are straight-up terrible. At the heart of the movie is a big social media company that supposedly affects more than a billion people. What does the company do? Good question! They never bother to tell us. Want the audience to know that a flash drive has encrypted files on it? How about you just write "ENCRYPTED" in big block letters on the side, with a folder helpfully labeled "BLACK OPS" front-and-center? So dumb. Matt Damon phones in his performance, but I can't tell if that's because he's as bored as I was, or if he was just hung out to dry by the script. Tommy Lee Jones and Alicia Vikander do their best in supporting roles, but again, there's not much there to work with.

If the plot didn't make sense, at least the film-making was cool and exciting, right? Well, I can't really answer that, since hardly any of the shots last longer than 1/3 of a second. As I said on Facebook, a more appropriate title for this movie would be Caffeine-Addicted Parkinson's Sufferer on a Trampoline During an Earthquake. The ShakyCam is horrible, making even non-action scenes a chore to watch. And when the camera finally does settle down for a moment, it only reveals how shoddy the stunts and action beats are.

So really, the only interesting question this movie brings to mind is how fair it is for me to judge. After all, I didn't really want to see it in the first place; is me not liking it just confirmation bias? Well, after reading/listening to some reviews from people who went in ready to be dazzled, I think I'm good. But this movie sure as hell isn't.

Jason Bourne: C-

Goof Troop

In my last entry, I talked about a pretty serious trio of movies. They were all good, but none of them could be accused of being a bundle of laughs. Let's switch it up today, and talk about a trio of movies meant to tickle the funny bone. How successful were they? Read on!

The first was the new Pixar movie, Finding Dory. Once I finally get around to seeing The Good Dinosaur, I'll have to put them into the Rank and File project, but for now, let's just consider it on its own. Aside from shifting its focus from Marlin to Dory, Finding Dory has pretty much the same rhythm as Finding Nemo. Character sets off on a personal quest and is pursued across the ocean by concerned friends/family, all of whom have adventures along the way. Though the new movie borrows heavily from the old, it doesn't mean it worked just as well. Ellen DeGeneres is as winning as ever as the unfortunate fish with short-term memory problems, but the side characters aren't as compelling, and there are too many scenes that take place far from the aquatic atmosphere we've all come to love. A scene on a crowded highway is particularly egregious in its out-of-placeness. That's not to say it was a bad movie; it was perfectly enjoyable, and Sigourney Weaver's cameo was particularly awesome. But sequels often don't measure up to their predecessors, and this one is no exception.

Wanna hear about a sequel that does measure up? It's called Pee-Wee's Big Holiday. OK, maybe "sequel" is a stretch, since the character of Pee-Wee in this movie doesn't seem to have any connection with the Pee-Wee of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. Still, it's essentially the same structure. In this universe, Pee-Wee is a beloved member of a small town community, who has never ventured outside his own small corner of the world, and doesn't feel any particular need to. That all changes when charismatic actor Joe Manganiello stops by for a milkshake and invites Pee-Wee to his upcoming birthday party in New York. Pee-Wee sets off on a road trip, and encounters all kinds of odd sorts, from a farmer with nine love-starved daughters to a trio of leonine bank robbers who can't help but be charmed by him to an aviatrix who's better at small talk than at staying aloft. I couldn't stop giggling throughout this whole movie. Paul Reubens' sense of childlike humor is still a delight, and every actor in this movie is totally game to share in the silliness.

OK, that brings us to the final movie, about which more internet ink has been spilled than every other film of the year combined. I'll avoid retreading all of the hubbub about the new Ghostbusters and just concentrate on the movie itself. It's funny. Good night, everyone!

Fine, I suppose I owe you more than that. Reboots of classics are always a challenge, and this update doesn't come close to capturing the hilarity and chemistry that the 1984 movie does. It's got structural issues, and there are parts that drag. Rating it PG-13 was good for getting families in the door, but it also meant that actors like Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig couldn't cut loose as much as they usually do. That said, I laughed plenty, which is all I can really ask from a comedy, right? Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones all have a chance to show off their comedic chops, with Wiig somewhat unfortunately relegated to the straight-woman role. Flipping the gender dynamic by casting Chris Hemsworth as a dumb himbo receptionist was a real treat, and most of the cameos by original cast members were cute (Sigourney Weaver was still better in Finding Dory, though). Was this a genius piece of cinema destined to grace the Hall of Fame forever? No. Was it a dumpster fire that ruined anyone's childhood? No. Sorry to disappoint anyone in this culture of thinking everything is either the best or worst thing ever, but Ghostbusters is a perfectly capable, middle-of-the-road comedy. I'm guessing nobody's going to write a thinkpiece with that title, but it doesn't make it any less true.

Finding Dory: B
Pee-Wee's Big Holiday: A
Ghostbusters (2016): B

Summer Catch

There's no escaping it now. We're in the sweltering days of summer, where I'm drenched in sweat by the time I get to work, to say nothing of that state I'm in by the time I get home. Truly, these are the days best spent indoors, watching the movies I should have seen last year, when they were being critically praised and given all sorts of awards. Now the cultural conversation has moved on, but I've finally found enough time to get some of 2015's hits under my belt, though there are still plenty to go. Today, though, let's breeze through a trio of movies that really deserve to have more than a short little blurb written about them, but that I'm just now getting around to.

Not that movies like Spotlight didn't get plenty of ink devoted to them. I had zero interest in The Revenant, and so I took a degree of smug satisfaction when Spotlight beat it out for Best Picture, even though I hadn't seen either one at that point. Thankfully, Netflix added it to streaming, so I happily set aside an evening to take in a lighthearted flick about child molestation. I took an almost anthropological interest in Spotlight. I have no personal experience with Boston, with the Catholic Church, or with sexual abuse, so it was up to the filmmakers to convey just how entrenched the first is, how powerful the second is, and how terribly transformative the third is. To me, priests aren't anything special. Reporting them for misconduct would be no more difficult than reporting a plumber. To families in Boston, though, a priest showing personal interest in you can be like getting attention from God himself, so when that trust is abused, feelings of guilt and shame can set in. The Church and law enforcement didn't help, shuffling the few priests that were accused around, but taking no real steps to discipline them or change the system.

That finally came to public light with the investigative reporting of the Spotlight team at the Boston Globe, who dug up all the details, and published a series of earth-shattering articles about the abuse the Church allows. In a way, this is a very quiet film. It deals with a very serious topic, but it had to make scenes of reporters finding old newspaper clips or interviewing sources exciting. That's a tough feat, but director Tom McCarthy makes it a very compelling journey. The movie is chock full of terrific actors, but ironically, the one I would single out for not quite fitting in is one of the two to get a nomination. Mark Ruffalo is a shade too hammy in his role as one of the reporters, but everyone else, from Michael Keaton to Rachel McAdams to the always-wonderful Stanley Tucci shines. Spotlight is not a movie that I feel like I'll want to revisit in future, but it certainly accomplished everything it set out to do, even if the problems it elucidates still persist.

Speaking of problems, how about an apocalyptic desert dystopia? My only excuse for avoiding George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road until now was that I was afraid it might be too gory for me. This is where having good friends comes in handy. They explained to me that there was really only one scene I should avoid, and if I watched the movie with them, they'd tell me when to hide my eyes. That sounded good to me, and it worked out incredibly well. I'm not a huge fan of the original movies. The first one was okay, I fell asleep during the second one, and the only other thing I remember from the series is Tina Turner looking awesome and singing an amazing song. So even with the rapturous critical praise and audience adoration this movie received, I went in with measured expectations.

Well. Finally, a Mad Max movie I truly enjoyed. The plot is extremely sparse, but somehow, that seems to work in its favor. A woman named Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) is trying to get back to her home, but must rebel against the tyrant who runs the settlement she works for. She also is working to break a group of female prisoners out, and though she is reluctant to work with the drifter named Max (Tom Hardy), he eventually wins her over, and they work together to outrun their pursuers. It's a gorgeous movie, it's full of thrills, and it doesn't put its female characters on the back burner. Now I can see what all the fuss what about.

Finally, it's back to another quiet movie. I always enjoy movies that try something new and show some ambition, even if the results are mixed. "Trying something new" is a phrase that can definitely be applied to Charlie Kaufman's animated movie, Anomalisa. On the surface, you'd think it's pretty well-worn territory: A visiting motivational speaker meets a woman who sparks his interest, and he pursues a romantic relationship with her, only to discover complications. So what makes this different? A look at the cast list should give you a clue. David Thewlis as Michael Stone. Jennifer Jason Leigh as Lisa Hesselman. Tom Noonan as Everyone else. Michael Stone is so bored by his family and his life that everyone seems to have the same voice. When he meets Lisa, she strikes him as different, so he's naturally enchanted with her.

That's the aspect of the movie that intrigued me most, but if you've heard of this movie, you've probably heard about the other draw: Explicit puppet sex. Yeah, that was strange. Not off-putting or out-of-place, but... Well, it's just tough to contextualize explicit puppet sex when you're not watching a farcical comedy. That said, it was a really interesting movie that I enjoyed a lot. Kaufman is one of the most imaginative filmmakers working today, and this is a character study that is well worth your time. Even with that puppet penis.

Spotlight: B+
Mad Max: Fury Road: A-
Anomalisa: B+

Funny Girl

It's depressing that we're still having a bullshit cultural conversation about whether women can be as funny as men, because it's abundantly clear that neither sex has a monopoly on hilarity. Happily, the walls are crumbling faster than ever, with shows like Inside Amy Schumer, Broad City, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend dominating the watercooler conversation in the past few years. I have limited experience with that trio of shows, though, so today, let's talk about a different trio of female-driven comedy.

First up is the sophomore season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. The inaugural season landed on my Top Five of the Year, and I came into this new batch of episodes with high expectations. If the first season was about Kimmy's wonder and delight at the world that she's been locked away from for 15 years, this new season is about her starting to deal with the trauma her kidnapping caused.

That makes it sound like a super-serious batch of episodes, but the show never strays far from the absurd laughs it's so good at wringing out of people. Still, Kimmy takes concrete steps towards putting the bunker behind her, from working with an alcoholic therapist (Tina Fey) to confronting her negligent mother (Lisa Kudrow). Meanwhile, her friends are dealing with their own issues. Jacqueline is trying to scheme her way back to financial security. Lillian is fighting encroaching gentrification. And in the most welcome change, Titus finds himself in a confusingly stable relationship.

Not everything works - Jacqueline has some bright spots, but is mostly wasted throughout the season - but Kimmy and the gang are as hilarious as ever, and the third season can't come soon enough for me. That show is all about subverting expectations with insanely clever writing. Something, though, all you want is a string of goofy sight gags. Angie Tribeca to the rescue! Think Police Squad! but set in modern day Los Angeles, and with Rashida Jones taking point as the titular character.

Dad Jokes and puns rule over this show, and for anyone who's a fan of such ridiculous humor, you're going to have a great time. In fact, I showed it to my actual dad, confident that he'd love it, and he dissolved into a puddle of giggles within five minutes. It would be a waste of time to even try and describe any plot beyond the basic framework of it taking place in a police station, because the entire show is just a joke delivery system. The second season just started, but as a cord-cutter, I've only been able to watch the first one so far. I'm looking forward to catching up with the new episodes as soon as they're streaming somewhere, but in the meantime, go check out that first absurd season on Hulu.

When I talked about Bojack Horseman last year, I alluded to the fact that one of its biggest strengths was that it was able to find the comedy in crippling depression. Still, even at his lowest points, Bojack could always take comfort in one thing: He's fictional. What about trying to tell the real story of a real person with bipolar disorder? And make it funny at the same time?

Enter Maria Bamford and her Netflix show, Lady Dynamite. Created by Pam Brady and Mitch Hurwitz, it's loosely based on Bamford's life, including her popular, manic commercials for Target (called Checklist in the show) and her time away from the entertainment industry as she tried to recover from a breakdown. Doesn't sound overly funny, does it? Indeed, it starts off a little rough, but around episode 3, it suddenly snaps into one of the most remarkable shows I've seen in a long time.

Just about every name in comedy stops by to guest star, whether it's as a character or as themselves. Just about all of my favorites pop up (Sarah Silverman, Tig Notaro, Jenny Slate, Missi Pyle, and many more!) and the antics surrounding Maria's failings and her attempts to atone for them and to pull her life together get funnier and funnier as the show goes along. Given the subject material, I honestly don't know if there's enough to put together a second season of this, but even if this show exists as just a small little capsule of what the state of comedy is like in 2016, we should count ourselves lucky.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt - Season 2: B+
Angie Tribeca - Season 1: B+
Lady Dynamite - Season 1: A-

Top Chef

Back in 2012, I listed the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi as my #3 favorite movie of the year. It's not hard to see why. Combine a compelling topic with an innate love of sushi, and toss in some fantastic food photography, and of course I'd be magnetically drawn to it. When I heard that director David Gelb was developing a similar documentary style as a television series for Netflix, I was overjoyed.

That first season of Chef's Table has been out for a while now, but it wasn't until I heard that Season 2 episodes were being released that I finally carved out some free time to wrap up those first six episodes. Each of the episodes focuses on a single chef, and delves into not only his or her most well-known dishes, but their backgrounds and what made cooking such an important part of their lives. The overwhelmingly beautiful food photography is back, and it's fascinating to see how fine dining has diverged into such wildly different concepts, depending on the creative mind behind it.

The six chefs that the first season revolves around are from all across the world, and all have different motivations for wanting to excel in the food world. One will want to spread a message of sustainable eating and how the next generation will source its ingredients, while another got her start just wanting to prove to her family that she has the skill and drive necessary to be a success.

As with Jiro Dreams of Sushi, part of the appeal is getting behind the magic of the beautiful food to get at the stories behind it. Food as a business is constantly locked in a struggle between artistry and commerce, and I'm always interested in seeing how people succeed or fail at threading that needle. Here are six stories of people who hit the bullseye, and whose cooking has attracted worldwide attention. It's wonderful to see people achieve their dreams and achieve such a vast measure of success, of course, but in a weird twist, these chefs' prominence is also the series' biggest flaw.

In Jiro Dreams of Sushi, there was no illusion that Jiro was an ordinary guy. He is rightly depicted as the king of his castle. He may be artistic, but he's also a stern and demanding taskmaster, whose rigidity has made him a reliable and consistent force in the culinary world. Chef's Table takes the weird tack of trying to sell a "common thread" narrative, positing that since food unites us all as people, these chefs should be hailed for building strong fellowships and a sense of community.

That just doesn't work. As nice as some of these chefs are (and most seem like perfectly decent sorts, if a little emotionally distant), they are not "of the people". These are the best of the best, and while it's perfectly acceptable to celebrate their talent, that talent is only shared with diners with sizable bank accounts and the connections necessary to getting a sought-after seat in a very small dining room.

That misstep aside, this is still a must-watch for anyone as obsessive about the world of food as I am, or for those who like to see what drives the creative spark behind some truly impressive art. I just wish the show would stop pretending that any of us plebeians will ever get to experience it.

Chef's Table - Season 1: B

Mini Movie Review: X-Men: Apocalypse

Hello, gentle reader! Have you seen the new X-Men movie yet? Are you going to? Do you wish to avoid spoilers? Then turn back now! Rather than parcel out the little observations to timepoints like usual, I'm going to do something different today, and just point at the scenes that stood out for being either awesome or... less so. The reviews for this movie have been brutal, and though I'm about to nitpick the everloving shit out of it, I can't agree with the detractors. Yes, it's deeply silly in parts, but I thought it was perfectly enjoyable, overall. That said, let's get to the fun part. Pointless complaints!

-So, wait. I can totally accept that humans have developed some impressive futuristic technology and that evolution has led to mutated humans with special powers. That said, this world is still based on science and technology, right? Not magic? Because I don't understand how all this upward-gold-flowing-glowing-pyramid bullshit is happening in the first scene.

-And this ancient relic has lain silent and undisturbed for centuries, despite the fact that it is literally twenty feet below the streets of Egypt. Like, you could open a manhole cover and see it.

-Apocalypse awakens and wants to wipe the world clean because...REASONS.

-Cyclops gets in trouble for asking to leave class early. Literally ten seconds early. So #1: See if you can hold in that burgeoning power for five seconds, Scott, and #2: Shut up, teacher.

-I know Jennifer Lawrence hates the makeup, which explains why there's very little blue Mystique in this movie. What it doesn't explain is why there's so little Mystique-in-other-forms. I think I counted two impersonations in the 144-minute running time.

-"Hi, Psylocke! Want to join the evil team?" "Sure." "Why?" "Because...REASONS."

-Stop leaving Jubilee out of stuff! Yes, her powers are useless, but I like her for no discernible reason!

-Hey, soldiers? I'll accept that the first three to five of you die because you didn't realize that the bullets aren't hurting Wolverine. But maybe the twentieth guy shouldn't just stand there blasting away?

-There was really no need for Magneto to be in this movie at all, but I understand why they wanted Michael Fassbender back. That said, it's getting worse and worse the amount of shit they need to shovel onto him to put him in enough pain to turn evil yet again.

-Though his initial re-entry into evil is a cool scene, the foreshadowing could not have been more blatant. Here's Erik in a sun-dappled cottage with a loving wife and adorable daughter! Nothing bad could possibly happen to them!

-He's a smart guy. How come a handful of bad people = Let's wipe out the human race, but a handful of bad mutants = NBD?

-And what's his plan, anyway? Destroy the world, and then what? What comes next for him? It doesn't matter, because...REASONS.

-Oh, it's not fair. The Quicksilver scene was the best thing about Days of Future Past, and guess what? It's the best thing in this one, too. Sure, it's a blatant rehash, but it totally works.

-I know there was some timeline resetting in the franchise, so maybe it's not a giant plothole that Mystique and Nightcrawler meet in this movie. Because they don't know each other when they meet in X2. And that's entirely leaving out the comics canon of her being his mother, because in both movies, they're basically the same age.

-I sure hope Storm gets more than four minutes of screentime in the next one.

-Jean, since you're the most powerful mutant on Earth or whatever, maybe you could do something besides standing around looking perturbed until someone asks for your help. Take some initiative! Even if it's not mutant-related, you could maybe try to aid your wounded friends!

-If we must have an origin story for Dr. Xavier's baldness, you could do a lot worse.

-Dr. Xavier immediately forgives Magneto and wants him to stay on at the school. I guess no repercussions for those thousands of people he just killed, because...REASONS.

X-Men: Apocalypse: B


It's becoming more and more difficult to keep up with all the television shows that interest me. The TV landscape has become so fractured that I'm in danger of missing out on something that might be tailor-made to my tastes. That's the grim reality, so it's nice to have an oasis of quality that I know won't let me down.

The oasis I'm talking about is the dependable trio of B-shows that I adore. By "B-show", I don't mean that they're second-rate. By happenstance, they all start with the letter B. All three of the B-shows just wrapped up their seasons, which were excellent as always. But how did they stack up, overall?

Let's start with Black-ish, which took the concept of a sophomore slump and kicked it into the sun. There were some seismic shifts in both the cast and the tone of the writing, but happily, both were for the better. Deon Cole got a gig on another show, so we were sadly bereft of Charlie for most of the season, but Wanda Sykes was a welcome addition to Dre's office as his new, brutally-direct boss. On the home front, Regina Hall plays the new nanny with the perfect blend of competence and judgmental condescension. Laurence Fishburne is a busy fellow, so Jenifer Lewis has reigned supreme as the cantankerous elder stateswoman of the family.

But even taking the talented new cast members into consideration, it's the writing that makes this season really soar. Season 1 took on aspects of racial disparity, of course, but always had a tongue firmly planted in cheek. Season 2 digs a lot deeper. There are funny jabs at the usual black and/or sitcom tropes, such as an inability to swim or how to reign in the family's spending. But then there are those episodes that really grab society by the shoulders and give it a good shake. There was an episode about gun control, which aired right before another one of America's increasingly routine mass shootings. There was an episode about the N word and its shifting significance to all races. And in the biggest punch, there was an incredible episode about police brutality that should be required viewing. Even as Black-ish tackled these topics, it never lost its sense of humor, and this season will almost definitely be showing up on my Top 5 of the year.

Favorite Episode: "Hope" (Episode 16)

Meanwhile, over at Brooklyn Nine-Nine, things have settled. Once the audience gets used to a sitcom, the best we can ask for is that it establishes a comfortable routine. Maybe it won't wow us anymore, but it's still a reliable source of belly laughs and good characterization. Brooklyn Nine-Nine has found that rhythm, and while it's not the freshest material on the block, it's still incredibly funny. In Season 3, we get all sorts of zany shenanigans (not least of which, the show's amusing methods of hiding Melissa Fumero's real-life pregnancy). A cop who has been undercover for so long he's been driven partially insane (Jason Mantzoukas) drops by long enough to woo Rosa. Amy goes undercover in prison to get information out of a mob boss' sister (a nice turn by Aida Turturro). Charles' sperm is held hostage by his ex-wife. You know, boring stuff like that!

The show is bravely trying to extend the Jake/Amy romance, but is smart enough not to refer to it too often, since it doesn't seem to be a particularly natural match. That little glitch aside, the comedy is as strong as ever, and the ensemble meshes together seamlessly.

Favorite Episode: "Paranoia" (Episode 20)

Finally, there's Bob's Burgers, which has now wrapped up Season 6. Like Brooklyn Nine-Nine, this is a show that has settled into a nice routine, and like The Simpsons, once it was established, it can now spend its time developing the universe's secondary and tertiary characters. It's also given the kids a chance to mature a bit. Tina was once a nervous, horny, maladapted mess, but is beginning to display some confidence, so she can just be nervous and horny. Louise is beginning to realize that she can be held responsible for her actions. Gene... Well, he's still Gene, thank goodness.

There weren't as many home runs this season as there have been in seasons past, but there are definitely standouts. The Halloween episode is always a treat, and this season's is no exception, as the rest of the Belchers attempt to scare the unflappable Louise. Tina must weigh social status against stardom in a school play about the evils of kissing. Gene leads a group of naysayers on a quest to find a goat with two buttholes. If I have one big complaint, it's that Linda was mostly sidelined this season, and I found myself missing her presence. The kids at school have taken a nice step up, though, especially with the development of the air-headed Jocelyn, who's a delight.

The final episode of the season could almost function as a series finale, with the entire town stepping up to help Bob in his hour of need. Thankfully, that won't be the end, though, and Bob's Burgers, along with the rest of these wonderful B-shows, will be back next season.

Favorite Episode: "Stand By Gene" (Episode 12)

Black-ish - Season 2: A-
Brooklyn Nine-Nine - Season 3: B+
Bob's Burgers - Season 6: B+

Grind it Out

I owe myself an apology, because one of my New Year's resolutions for 2016 was to consume less "homework" entertainment. I found that I was watching and reading too many things that I didn't enjoy, simply because I wanted to be part of the cultural conversation. Once I accepted that I was just never going to like Breaking Bad as much as everyone else, or that maybe it's time to finally let House of Cards go, I felt like a weight had been lifted.

We're spoiled, in that there's a wealth of great entertainment out there right now, and there will never be enough time to get to it all, so why take up valuable brain space with things that don't appeal to us? Well, that's a question I should have kept in mind as I slogged through the first (and only) season of The Grinder. It will not survive to a second season, and to that I say... Okay.

That makes it sound like I hated it, which I didn't. I wouldn't watch a full season of an overtly bad show. It was just so thoroughly blah, and yet I kept on watching for no discernible reason. The Grinder is about Stewart Sanderson (Fred Savage), a lawyer who is struggling to connect with judges and juries, and his flashy brother Dean (Rob Lowe), who until recently, was a huge television star as a charismatic lawyer. The famous brother moves to town, wants to help out with actual law, and "hilarity" ensues.

I think I can pinpoint the show's major problems to two sources: Repetition and weak secondary family characters. I'm not sure how repetition can arise in a show that isn't even a season old, and yet here we are. Far too many plotlines recycled themselves right off the bat, with the beleaguered Stewart trying to talk sense into his egocentric brother, only for everyone else to be so star-struck that they side with Dean. It's cute as a throwaway joke, but it seemed to be the only big one in the show's arsenal.

The secondary family characters didn't help, either. Savage and Lowe were perfectly fine, as were their office colleagues Todd (Steve Little) and Claire (the always great Natalie Morales). Mary Elizabeth Ellis also provided a nice counter-point as Stewart's wife Deb. That leaves the kids and grandpa.

I really thought we were past the whole Inexplicably-Precocious-Worldly-Little-Kid era, and wasn't sorry to see the back of it. The trope is revived here with Stewart's son Ethan (Connor Kalopsis), who brings every scene he's in to a grinding halt, as does his milquetoast sister Lizzie (Hana Hayes). Neither actor is at fault, but the writing doesn't give either kid anything to do except spin their wheels and exhibit personalities that are either too bland (Lizzie) or too hammy (Ethan). William Devane doesn't do the older Sanderson generation any favors, either. He plays Stewart and Dean's father, and is played with a single note: Obnoxious Crank.

I don't want to sound overly harsh on the show. Like I said, it was somehow compelling enough to keep me engaged for the whole season. But when it comes time to start bemoaning one-season wonders that should have never gone away, save your tears for Trophy Wife. This one belongs on the cancellation pile.

The Grinder - Season 1: C+
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