The Pantheon: Scrubs (My Half-Acre / Her Story II)

Netflix doesn't have the greatest catalog for instant streaming right now, but it does have a fair collection of "Laundry Shows". That is, television shows you've already seen and enjoyed, and can put on in the background to pay the barest amount of attention to while you fold laundry or balance your checkbook or whatever. Scrubs is a good example of a Laundry Show, and with a lot of things to do around the apartment lately, I've essentially been able to shotgun the entire series. Freed from the restriction of one episode per week, it was easier to see the overall series as a big picture, and to pick out when it hit its peak. For Scrubs, the pinnacle came in a two-episode arc midway through the fifth season:

My Half-Acre (Season 5, Episode 9):

J.D. gets set up on a blind date with Julie, played by Mandy Moore. I confess that when Mandy Moore first came to my attention, I dismissed her entirely as another bland pop princess. In the time since, though, she's really come into her own as an actress, and I really enjoy her performance here, from the very first moment.

In the B-plot, Turk, Ted, Lloyd, and the Janitor form an air band, and when Turk disrespects Kelso, air-banding is forbidden in the hospital. Turk eventually apologizes, and the band is allowed to reunite. The C-plot is inconsequential, but inoffensive. Dr. Cox has issues showing affection to his son, now that Jack isn't an infant anymore, but he eventually comes around. This storyline is mostly used to fill time, but doesn't drag down the episode, while the air band scenes lead to some fun musical interludes. J.D. inevitably starts sabotaging the relationship with Julie, and reluctantly takes Elliot's romantic advice to slow down, which improves things dramatically.

J.D. wouldn't be J.D without a streak of childish immaturity, though, and he decides to eventually disregard Elliot's sage wisdom by rushing into buying the titular property with Julie, rushing their relationship forward.

Her Story II: (Season 5, Episode 10):

One of the rare episodes where J.D. passes off narration to another character (Carla, in this case), this episode also wraps up the Julie arc. Carla spends the episode obsessing over her inability to get pregnant and her anxiety about her encroaching age. The Janitor tortures her by comparing her unfavorably with a hot, young nurse, and she's embarrassed to admit to the dreamy hospital gynecologist that she fears she's too old to get pregnant. Being self-conscious about her age also drives her to defiantly drag Julie, Elliot, and Jordan out for drinks, protesting that she can still handle a bender like she used to. She cannot.

Meanwhile, J.D. introduces Julie around to everyone. She impresses everyone at the hospital, whether it's sharing embarrassing stories about J.D. with Dr. Cox or revealing to Turk that her godfather is Billy Dee Williams. Things go sour when J.D. starts to become annoyed that Julie always says "That's so funny!" instead of laughing at anything. Turk sees him going down a bad road, and immediately stages an intervention so that J.D. doesn't ruin another ideal relationship over a trivial detail.

The advice doesn't take, and Turk's second attempt to help by trying to overload J.D.'s system with "That's so funny!" by watching Uncle Buck with Julie just drives him crazier. He and Julie get into a blowout fight, but before any lasting damage is done, he manages to dig deep for some emotional maturity, and assures Julie that the trivial stuff doesn't bother him anymore. Their joy is short-lived when they realize that they want fundamentally different things out of life, and they break up for good.

As is often the case with Scrubs episodes, both J.D. and Carla learn life lessons. But enough about all that accepting who you are and what you want out of life! These two episodes are jam packed with zingers, and if you enjoyed this show at all, this is the point that your funny bone will be the most ticklish.

Pop Culture Homework Assignment #3: The Wire

Television over the past few years has been an embarrassment of riches. There have been plenty of crappy shows not worth a second glance, but my current problem isn't that I can't find anything good to watch; it's that there's so much I want to catch up on, certain types of shows have to get put on the back burner. Deep, complex dramas are generally the first to get benched. That's not because I don't like them - if they're done well, there's no better kind of show.

The commitment they take can lead to some issues, though. I don't get HBO. I don't have a DVR. If I happen to miss an episode of a serialized drama, I could potentially be hosed for the remainder of the season. Sometimes, the best method is to wait for the season to end, and then shotgun all of the episodes over a concentrated time-span. It frees up your schedule and keeps details fresh in your memory. The only real hitches are the efforts to remain spoiler-free and the fact that you can't discuss episodes after you see them, because they've long since been dissected by others.

There are many shows like this that I've been meaning to get into. Mad Men was the first experiment, and went swimmingly. I decided it was time to get into another involved drama that everyone praises to the heavens, but that I hadn't seen a single minute of: The Wire. I literally could not find a person who had seen this show and didn't like it. A coworker of mine owns the DVDs, and enthusiastically loaned the first season to me.

This inaugural season focuses on the drug trade in Baltimore and the police's efforts to stem it. Far from being a black-and-white portrayal of good and bad guys, every one of the multitude of characters is a shade of gray. The drug dealers can be compassionate. The cops can be greedy. The show doesn't shy away from the way that drug addiction tears a community apart, or the way that society tries to combat these problems can be weighed down into irrelevance by bureaucracy and corruption. Those sorts of plotlines can make a show depressing in a hurry, but The Wire also has its moments of levity. As with most dramas of this type, aspects of the story unfold over many episodes, and there are about a thousand characters to keep track of, so this is a show that requires your full attention. I was happy to give it. Though I was worried this show wouldn't live up to its hype, it met every expectation I had for it, and I'm already looking forward to tearing into Season 2.

The Wire - Season 1: A-

I Whip My Hair Back and Forth

When it comes to movies, I like a wide variety of genres, but I'll freely admit that when it comes to documentaries, I'm picky. They must function well as a movie, and not just serve as a filmmaker's lecture to the audience. They must try to engage me on a level beyond preaching-to-the-choir about a particular issue. And speaking of issues... There are plenty of problems in the world that would benefit from having a spotlight shone on them, but I avoid documentaries that feel like homework. I can be sympathetic towards the citizens of worn-torn Wherever, but that doesn't mean I'm eager to settle in for two hours' worth of guilt-inducing depression about it.

To me, the best documentaries take a quirky subject I may not know much about, and spend some time exploring it. The best example of this is Spellbound, which delves into the history and culture surrounding the American spelling bee. It also focuses on a diverse group of kids in that year's national bee, resulting in a movie that's fascinating and exciting, even on multiple viewings, when you already know who wins.

So in the same vein of topics I'm interested in knowing more about, I just watched Chris Rock's documentary Good Hair, in which he travels across the country and across the world to talk with people about all sorts of aspects that affect how African-Americans view their hair. I would guess that I'm not the target audience for this movie, so the fact that I really liked it is a big point in its favor. It's easier to tailor a movie to a specific audience's taste, but this film does not shut out the newbies who don't know a weave from a wig.

The movie's topics are mostly discussed via interviews. Everyday citizens are asked about their hair rituals, of course, but there are also numerous interviews with prominent African-Americans. Everyone from T-Pain to Al Sharpton, from Salt-n-Pepa to Maya Angelou offer their perspectives on hair and its role in our current race culture. It's more important than you'd think. African-Americans are in a constant tug-of-war. If they wear their hair in a natural afro, will they be able to land a job interview? Will achieving a "whiter" style via harsh chemical relaxers betray their community? How do lower- and middle-class women find $1000 to spend on a weave when income is so statistically low for the black community? All of these topics are addressed, but with a light, comedic touch that never descends into being an overly serious screed.

The movie is a little overstuffed, though. In addition to topics I've already mentioned, it covers how barbershops are cultural centers, the export of hair from India, the always amusing tumbleweave, and much, much more. A large chunk of it is devoted to a hair competition in Atlanta, but since there isn't enough time to become invested in the competitors, the outcome seems unimportant. And though Chris Rock did a fantastic job putting this movie together, there are far too many cuts to him during the interviews, when letting the interview subject take center stage would have had a stronger impact.

Overall, Rock lets things play out without pushing the narrative in any particular direction, and approaches the topic with the same genuine curiosity about the topic that I have. For a subject as seemingly inconsequential this one, Good Hair does a pretty exceptional job of demonstrating how much culture and self-identity is shaped by those quirky little follicles that sit atop our scalps.

Good Hair: B+

Tales from the Darkside

It's strange when you become a fan of someone for their side work. It'd be like being into Kevin Bacon for his band, and not really caring one way or the other about his movies. Or not giving a crap about Garth Brooks, but being really excited about that Chris Gaines fellow.

I've recently read three books by Irish author John Connolly, and when I looked him up, I was surprised to discover that none of these three are any of the eleven written for the apparently well-known Charlie Parker series of crime thrillers. I've never heard of that series at all, probably because I tend to lump fictional crime thrillers into one, large, gelatinous blob. The three that I read are off that beaten path, and I appreciate them all the more for that.

I began with The Book of Lost Things, which is one of those books that sticks with you for months after you read it. Distilled to its essence, it's a old-fashioned fairy tale. That is, the brutally gruesome stories before they all got Disneyfied. It's about an unhappy boy who escapes his stepmother's household, and finds himself in a magical land, searching for the eponymous book and encountering creatures both helpful and dangerous. Mark my words, no magic kiss solves everything in this story. People suffer. People die. And while there's a resolution, things aren't tied up in a neat little bow. It's an utterly fascinating read.

When I heard that Connolly had written (is writing?) a series about a clever young lad and his battle against the invading forces of Hell, I was in. So, I read The Gates and the The Infernals back to back. Demonic invasions can be handled a multitude of ways, and these two books have a much more comedic, lighter tone than The Book of Lost Things. The Gates was pure delight. It's the story of Samuel Johnson, his school chums, his dog, and his newfound demon friend beating back the hordes of evil, led by an ancient monster that now enjoys dressing up like a British housewife. In The Infernals, the story is reversed, as Samuel and his dog are pulled into Hell to battle that same lady, who's out for revenge. While The Gates had a witty, satirical edge, The Infernals felt a little thin, as a lot of sequels tend to be. The tone felt too heavily borrowed from a Terry Pratchett Discworld book. It wasn't a bad book, so much as unnecessary. All three of the books are worth reading, but while the Samuel Johnson series is a fun, quick read, the sobering Book of Lost Things belongs on the classics shelf.

The Book of Lost Things: A
The Gates: B+
The Infernals: B-

The Pantheon: Calvin and Hobbes

In a way, it's kind of a cop-out to reserve a spot in the Pantheon for something that is universally adored. The whole point of the Pantheon is to highlight things in entertainment that achieve metaphorical induction into my personal Hall of Fame, despite what the rest of the world thinks. But when it comes to Calvin and Hobbes, I have literally never met a single person who dislikes it. It's in everyone's Pantheon.

It's not hard to see why. There's the obvious reason, of course: It's hilarious. That's really all you need out of a comic strip, right? Calvin and Hobbes didn't stop there, though. It was funny, yes, but it could also be emotionally heartfelt. Or deadly serious. Or slyly political.

Thanks to Calvin's active imagination, the strip could go in any of a thousand directions, from monster snowmen to the farthest reaches of outer space, but it always came back to a bratty kid and the unshakeable bond he had with his best friend. The comics page hasn't been the same since they left.


Act By Numbers

Consider me successfully fooled. I have no use for the current crop of disposable rom-coms, but all the evidence seemed to suggest that Crazy, Stupid, Love was different. Smarter. Plus, it contains Steve Carell, Julianne Moore, Emma Stone, and Ryan Gosling, all of whom I really like, so what could possibly go wrong?

Oh, I know! It could have a terrible, hackneyed script! No tired, recycled plot isn't chucked back up on screen. Drunk character getting out of hand in a bar? Check. Noted womanizer intrigued by the one woman who doesn't fall for his schtick? Check. Depressed person in the rain? Check. Stalking presented as cutesy romantic wooing? BIG check. Wacky physical confrontation? Check. Overheard message on an answering machine? Check. Heartless character tapping into their reserves of emotion? Check. Wacky hijinks? Check, check, check.

It's not the worst movie ever. The actors are affable, and hey, who doesn't want to stare at Ryan Gosling's abs for a while? It's just that nothing stands out. This movie was sold as a thinking man's/woman's romantic comedy, but this particular man thinks it was pretty mediocre.

Crazy, Stupid, Love: C

Save the Date: Around the World in 80 Plates

Event: Around the World in 80 Plates premiere
Date: Wednesday, May 9

I just finished saying that all reality shows have expiration dates. What's the cure for that? Finding a worthy replacement! Of course, there's no way of knowing if a new show is worthy until we actually see it, but taking two old favorites and combining the best parts of them sure sounds promising.

Around the World in 80 Plates appears to be a combination of Top Chef and The Amazing Race, in which a group of chefs go from country to country and attempt to replicate the local cuisine. That's an awesome concept, so everything's going to come down to the execution. I haven't done a ton of research, so I don't know if Curtis Stone is the judge and Cat Cora the host, or vice versa, or what. I've always liked her on Iron Chef, and he's... Well, he's easy on the eyes, anyway.

Handled correctly, this show has the potential to be a new favorite. Handled incorrectly, it'll be the next Shear Genius. Either way, my Top Chef viewing party is already stockpiling wine in eager anticipation of the premiere.

This Needs More Spice

I really should have written about the most recent season of Top Chef when it ended a couple of months ago, but couldn't work up the interest, which should tell you something about how Season 9 went. I've mentioned before that all reality shows, no matter how beloved, start to show their cracks after a number of seasons. Top Chef has had its up seasons and its down seasons, but never have I seen one that made me think the beginning of the end was at hand. Until now.

Setting. I'm not sure whose idea it was to have the chefs traipse around Texas, but with all due respect to the Lone Star State, nobody ever equates fine dining with cowboy boots and line dancing. Sure, they have their regional speciality, but Tex-Mex and barbecue gets mighty old after six episodes.

Challenges. They weren't bad towards the beginning, but got worse as time went on, culminating in the most ridiculous one this show has ever dreamed up: forcing chefs to compete in an athletic relay (ice chipping, trekking across the snow, and shooting at targets) before they could cook. I'm all for a challenge with a twist, but that was grossly beyond the pale.

Personalities. Meh. I liked Paul, and with his challenge record, it seemed clear that he merited the win, but there was nobody we could really sink our teeth into. The nice people were blandly nice. The mean people were blandly mean. Nobody was really worth rooting for or against.

Judges. Unibrow was fine, if not very noteworthy (sensing a theme?), but adding Emeril Lagasse to the panel was a mistake. Not a single opinion he offered, either complimentary or critical, was worth remembering three seconds later, unless it was the laughable time he snidely deemed chicken salad out of place at a block party. Right, nobody ever eats chicken salad at one of those. Next thing you know, people will be expecting turkey on Thanksgiving!

I can't decide if I'd have rather seen an out-and-out bad season than one so aggressively boring. I guess we'll see on the next go-round whether this was just a fluke, or if it's time to shuttle Top Chef off to the garbage disposal.

Top Chef - Season 9: C+


What I'm Watching: Bob's Burgers - Season 2

I'm generally willing to give a new television show a shot, even if it's something as blatantly terrible as Are You There, Chelsea? There are exceptions, of course (I could smell the stinking corpse of Work It months before it even premiered), but I do like to get in on the ground floor in case something winds up being tailor-made to my tastes. Bob's Burgers was one of the ones I thought I'd take a shot on, even as I find most of the newer animated shows to be pretty subpar. Thank goodness I did, because it was hilarious, and I wound up choosing it as my favorite new show of 2011.

You can bet I'm glued to my chair every Sunday evening for the current season, and judging by the few episodes that have aired already, they've got no worries of a sophomore slump. Any show that has Cyndi Lauper in to sing a parody of the Goonies soundtrack with a song called "Taffy Butt" is doing something right.

I Know All There Is To Know About the Hunger Games

Instead of going through all the work it would take to coordinate schedules with all the friends who wanted to see The Hunger Games, I slipped out one Tuesday evening and made it a rare trip to the movies by myself. I'm glad I did, because I really wanted to let this movie soak in afterwards, and to think about how I liked it as a film and as an adaptation.

Getting into plot seems silly, because you've no doubt heard a gazillion summaries by now, but it suffices to say that in a futuristic America (or Panem), the government forces each of the country's districts to offer up a boy and a girl to fight to the death in televised arena combat. Jennifer Lawrence plays the protagonist, and I'm happy to say she does a great job at making Katniss a person with actual complicated feelings and motivations, and doesn't just run around wringing her hands over which boy she should take to the vampire sock hop or whatever the fuck.

In The Hunger Games, there is still a love triangle, but it's wisely downplayed in many parts, and downright unreliable in others - is Katniss really in love with fellow District competitor Peeta, or are they playing up their relationship for the sake of getting life-saving materials from the viewing audience? There are naturally several other characters, both within the arena and without, and the movie does a good job of making sure all their bases are covered as far as filling in the story for each of them, although it gets a bit thin at times. At least they didn't skimp on my favorite character. Shout-out to Foxface!

If there's a big problem I had with The Hunger Games it's that the excitement and suspense in the build-up to the combat is more effective than the combat itself. I'm not asking to see arterial spray spewing out of eleven-year-olds, but some of the struggles were downright tame. Other minor issues presented themselves, from disappointing CGI to puzzlingly low-key characterizations of Katniss' drunken mentor (Haymitch) and stylist (Cinna).

Taken in total, though, The Hunger Games had far more good than bad, and certainly lived up to the massive hype it set up for itself. As of this post, it's the third-highest opening weekend film ever. It was a faithful adaptation that had some truly heart-pounding scenes, and I'm looking forward to seeing how the trilogy progresses from here.

The Hunger Games: B+

You Can Be A Winner At the Tree of Life!

I always feel a slight twinge of guilt when there's an entertainment entity that everyone loves and I just don't get. There's really no reason for it; not everything is going to be to my taste, no matter what its pedigree. When it comes to Terrence Malick's Tree of Life, though, the guilt is a little worse than usual. It's a beautiful film, and has clearly deep messages about human nature and our complex emotional lives. It's also a crashing bore. Normally, I'd blame that on the filmmaker, but it's entirely possible that the blame for me not loving this movie falls squarely on my own shoulders.

A friend gave me a small challenge: Sit and watch the "formation of the world" sequence with no distractions. No bathroom breaks. No pausing to go make a sandwich. No checking to see if someone has made a move in a Words With Friends game. Just sit and watch and absorb this film. I accepted, and popped the DVD into the player. Fifteen minutes later, I was fast asleep in my chair. It didn't improve much from there. Feel free to take the following grade with an industrial block of salt, because my disappointment may have nothing to do with Malick, the script, or Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, both of whom were just fine. Sometimes, a movie comes along that just isn't your speed, and this one left me snoozing in its wake.

Tree of Life: C-
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