Name That Toon

When it comes to animated shows, I'm not going to go on at length about the shows I watched when I was a kid. That implies that there's a portion of my life during which I didn't watch cartoons, and there just isn't one. Take a spin through the exhaustive list, and you'll see cartoons from multiple eras, including today. It's not that I enjoy purely juvenile shows; the animated programs I watch these days are at least partially (and in some cases entirely) geared towards adults. But I also have to admit to periodically diving back into childhood favorites, and get genuine pleasure from breaking out the DangerMouse DVDs from time to time.

After tearing through Archer - Season 3 on Netflix Instant recently, I noticed in the automatic suggestions that Cartoon Network has made several of their shows available for streaming. Some, like Dexter's Laboratory and The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy, I'd already seen large chunks of, but there were others that I'd missed, and wanted to give a try. That sent me down a big ol' rabbit hole of animated shows that I've heard about at the virtual water-cooler, most of which turned out to be pretty damned good. Most.

Archer - Season 3

I don't think I've ever seen an episode of this show as it aired. It's perfectly-suited to shotgunning, so I tend to just wait until entire seasons are available. Season 3 was just as gleefully subversive as the previous ones, and I loved the guest performances from Patrick Warburton, Burt Reynolds, George Takei, and Bryan Cranston. Seasonal arcs have never been a big focus for Archer, but Season 3 had some great callbacks and multi-part episodes. Standouts include "The Man From Jupiter" (Burt Reynolds dates Malory), "The Limited" (Canadian terrorists on a high-speed train), and "Skin Game" (Kreiger reanimates Katya as a cyborg). Sometimes, it's easy to tell when a show is in the midst of a creative upswing, and Archer is pretty clearly in the zone right now. The Danger Zone.

Adventure Time - Season 1

This may be the weirdest effing show on television right now, and I kind of love it. I don't just like weird for weird's sake - otherwise I'd be a fan of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! which I despise. The stories on Adventure Time may be strange, but they've got a lot of heart, and a surprising amount of world-building goes into them. I've only watched one season, and have a better grip on the creatures and places that make up this universe than I did after two Game of Thrones books. Jake the Dog and Finn the Human keep everything mostly grounded, which is good, because the rest of the characters in Adventure Time are wackadoo. The episodes are incredibly short, so do yourself a favor and check a few out. Any show that features a character named Lumpy Space Princess can't be all bad.

Regular Show - Season 1

I was introduced to this show at my sister's house; my nephew is a big fan. It's a lot like Adventure Time, except much more realistic. I mean, comparatively. I'm not suggesting that a giant blue jay (Mordecai) and his raccoon best friend (Rigby) working for their gumball machine boss (Benson) at the local park is realistic, but they do relatable things like have jobs and resent successful siblings and pine for girls and such. It's a funny, enjoyable show, and only suffers when held up in comparison to its cousin Adventure Time up there. Mordecai and Rigby are gigantic slackers, and all they ever want is to have as much fun while doing as little work as possible. This leads to some very funny stories, but they're not the most likable protagonists on the block. I do really enjoy Pops, though.

Frisky Dingo - Season 1

If I were aiming for accuracy, that heading would have read "Frisky Dingo - Season 1, Episodes 1-3", because that's all I was able to get through. It's not that it was terrible; it's just a show that needed another twenty minutes in the oven, so to speak. This is an Adam Reed show, and you can see clear precursors to Archer in its DNA. Ultimately, though, I can get a little tired of his nihilistic, misanthropic characters; it's why I had to space out episodes of Sealab 2021 so much. Killface is a nice spin on the evil supervillain trope, but the show overall left me cold.

Clone High - Season 1

It sucks that this show only got one season, because it deserved more attention. I can't describe its premise any better than its own theme song does, so go give that a listen. I've been wanting to watch this short-lived little gem for a while now, but wasn't able to track it down on any of the usual rental or streaming sources I use to watch TV. I'm not sure why I didn't think to check YouTube, but once someone pointed out that I could watch all the episodes there, I was on it in a flash. Clone High loved to subvert the ideas we have about hallowed historical figures. Teenaged Abe Lincoln is oblivious and dim. Gandhi is a party animal. Gandhi is infatuated by Joan of Arc, who is hopelessly in love with Abe, who loves the egocentric Cleopatra, who casually dates the sex maniac JFK, who bangs Catherine the Great (or as he says, "Catherine the So-So"). This is all set against the backdrop of a high school with a mad scientist principal and his loyal robot butler. Will Forte and Nicole Sullivan lead a pretty outstanding voice cast, and when the season was over, I found myself searching for a Season 2 I knew didn't exist. Boooooooooo.

In reading some of the descriptions of the shows above, it's no wonder why I like animated shows so much. They grant so much freedom. Show me a successful sitcom that I could write "loyal robot butler" or "gumball machine boss" about. As with "regular" TV shows, some are way more enjoyable with others, but as a genre, I'm glad it's here to stay. And with so much prime time space given over to shows like Bob's Burgers and such, it's pretty clear that unlike Trix, cartoons aren't just for kids anymore. Thanks be to the Robot Devil.

Archer - Season 3: B
Adventure Time - Season 1: A-
Regular Show - Season 1: B
Frisky Dingo - Season 1: C
Clone High - Season 1: B+


I've got a natural streak of curiosity coursing through my blood. It's how I knew by fifth grade that I'd spend a chunk of my adult life working in science. It's why I attempted to engage people in conversation yesterday about the difference between what constitutes a beard and what constitutes a goatee. It's spending five minutes diligently shelling peanuts, then spending the next five minutes looking up what the biological need for those little red skins is. It's why I keep giving the "Freakonomics" podcast a chance. And it's why I keep dropping the "Freakonomics" podcast, as their presented data is often imprecise or incomplete or underexplained.

My inherent need to know why certain things are the way they are makes me a natural fit for Malcolm Gladwell's books. Gladwell writes pop-sociology books that examine societal trends, and he delights in pointing out areas where our collective assumptions may be leading us astray. I don't always fully buy into his assertions (see "imprecise/incomplete/underexplained" above), but at least they're always an interesting take on things. I just finished his most recent book (well, comparatively recent, as it was published in 2009), but instead of just focusing on that one, I thought it'd be handy to mention all of his work. He's always looking at the big picture. Why shouldn't I?

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (2000)

I read Blink first, and since I liked it so much, I backtracked to pick up this first one. The Tipping Point deals with how things (marketing campaigns, rumors, crime statistics, etc.) reach a point where they hit some sort of critical mass or societal boiling point. The most interesting section of the book deals with "The Law of the Few", which argues that a minute subset of people are responsible for the majority of information/trend dissemination. This, of course, was published before social media became a thing, and entities like Facebook have thrown quite an interesting wrench into the source of the stories, products, or causes you'd be most interested in. Another controversial section of the book has to do with the rapid crime decrease in New York City in the '90s. Gladwell posits that this is attributable to the "Broken Windows Theory"; that immediately attending to relatively small problems like subway graffiti or litter can have far-reaching consequences. This is one of those sections that doesn't quite pass the sniff test, but is definitely engaging, and fun to consider.

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (2005)

This is the book that first turned me on to Gladwell's work. It deals with mental processes that work rapidly and automatically, and judgements that spring from relatively little information. This can be a strength, as in situations where going with your gut instinct is probably the best method of dealing with a problem. It can also be a weakness, as in assuming that everyone with a certain skin color will act a certain way. Again, the science behind his arguments isn't fleshed out enough to be wholly convincing, but there's something to be said that oftentimes, the brain can get overloaded with too much information, and acting on a bare minimum might be preferable. When "thin-slicing" works well, it has led to identification of forged art, just because something seemed off to the experts who glanced at it. On the flip side, we also get the story of an unarmed man sitting on his doorstep shot to death by four police officers operating on false assumptions. Split decisions affect all sorts of arenas, from dating to sports to gambling, and reading this book led to a lot of self-reflection about what I take for granted, and if anything can be done about preconceived notions and ingrained biases.

Outliers: The Story of Success (2008)

Ostensibly, this book is supposed to delve into the factors that contribute to high levels of success. Gladwell describes several examples, including Canadian hockey players, Bill Gates, and The Beatles to outline why certain people excel to such a degree in their chosen field. I say "ostensibly", because this book barely attempts to scratch beneath the surface. All that's really said is that successful people got to where they are with a combination of good luck and hard work. Pardon a simplistic response, but duuuuuuuuuuuuh. Aside from the perceptive question of how much talent is ignored by society, and what we can do about it, this book didn't really seem to have much to say, and involved the most grossly oversimplified science of the Gladwell series.

What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures (2009)

This is the one I just finished. Rather than tacking a grand societal supposition like the other three books, What the Dog Saw is a collection of Gladwell's writings for The New Yorker. The theme tying all of the chapters together is an attempt to step into someone else's shoes, and see the world from a different perspective. It covers many interesting topics, from why types of mustard proliferate (while ketchup is comparatively stagnant), to the unfair discrimination against dog breeds, particularly pit bulls. Part of the reason this book works well is its compartmentalization and anecdotal tone - telling stories about Ron Popeil or the downfall of Enron carries much less of a burden of scientific evidence. The one exception is a contentious and enjoyable chapter about the over-reliance on criminal profiling, and how we may be pinning too many investigative hopes on what may turn out to be glorified fortune telling. It was a refreshing read after the disappointment of Outliers.

When I took a logic class in college, part of our final exam was to take any issue of "USA Today" and outline all the logical fallacies in the articles. There was never a worry that students wouldn't be able to find any; every issue was rife with them. That doesn't mean that "USA Today" doesn't serve a purpose, just that its writers don't represent the pinnacle of critical thinking. If social science is your career or your passion, you'd probably do well to avoid the Gladwell canon. As with Freakonomics, there are too many holes in his arguments and too much cherry-picking of stories that fit within his narrow framework. But just because Gladwell's books should not be used to understand or adapt social policy, that doesn't mean they're not worth checking out. All of them do a good job of making the reader re-examine why we do the things we do, and prompts us to challenge our assumptions. Whether you do or do not wind up agreeing with Gladwell's positions, I always think it's healthy to be able to approach a topic from multiple perspectives, and these books gave me that opportunity in spades.

The Tipping Point: B+
Blink: B+
Outliers: C
What the Dog Saw: B

Summer Movie Preview: May 2013

Why is May considered part of the summer movie calendar? Don't ask me, ask Entertainment Weekly! I just received the preview issue for the upcoming season, and spent a leisurely evening paging through it to separate as much wheat from the chaff as possible. And let me just tell you: There's a lot of fucking chaff coming up. So once you're done admiring the May flowers that the April...snowstorms bring us, let's decide which movies are a Must-See, a Pass, a Rental, or a TBD.

May 3

Generation Um...: I know two things about this one. It stars Keanu Reeves, and it's ostensibly about three adults during a single day in New York City, one filled with sex, drugs, and indecision. That's not enough. (Pass)

Greetings from Tim Buckley: A rock-and-roll biopic about the 1991 tribute show that brought Jeff Buckley into the New York City music scene. Zzzzzz....... (Pass)

The Iceman: Does he cometh? This one is the true story of Richard Kuklinski, a notorious contract killer. When he was finally arrested in the mid-80s, neither his wife nor his daughters had any clue that he'd been caught up in such evil work. It's a fascinating story to consider - I'm thinking about my mild-mannered friends and family, and trying to imagine them secretly being hitmen/hitwomen. Michael Shannon can definitely pull off a creepy, violent character. This one looks like it's worth a Netflix viewing. (Rental)

Iron Man 3: Even if I didn't feel it was necessary to see Iron Man 2 before seeing this (which I do), I doubt I'd have much interest in it. Iron Man works well when he's in a group movie like The Avengers, but like Thor, I don't really care much about him when he's off on his own. (Pass)

Love is All You Need: A widower (Pierce Brosnan) and a married cancer survivor (Trine Dyrholm) meet when their children get engaged, and travel to Italy for the wedding, where they fall in love. This movie is being sold as a romantic comedy, and from the scarce plot details I've seen, it reminds me a lot of Under the Tuscan Sun, which was so-so. There seems little reason to see this in theaters, and I doubt I'll be prioritizing it on the Netflix queue, either. I certainly won't discount it entirely, though. It seems inoffensive enough. (Pass)

Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf's: A documentary on the Manhattan department store with interviews from an array of fashion designers, style icons, and celebrities. The Olsen twins are billed second. Yeah, I don't think so. (Pass)

What Maisie Knew: Alexander Skarsgard and Julianne Moore are a couple going through a bitter divorce, and their daughter is caught in the middle. I'm still trying to get over Kramer vs. Kramer, and that was released in 1979. So by that estimation, I'll feel ready to settle in for this movie in 2047. (Pass)

May 10

Aftershock: In Chile, a group of travelers who are in an underground nightclub when a massive earthquake hits quickly learn that reaching the surface is just the beginning of their nightmare. One look at the promotional photo on IMDb should instantly tell you whether I'm going to see this or not. (Pass)

The Great Gatsby: I don't even know where my head is at on this one. I love the book! But I also love Romeo and Juliet, which Baz Luhrmann ruined. Leonardo DiCaprio has gone up in my estimation! But really just in Inception. His other roles lately have completely turned me off. It's filmed in 3-D! Why? Its release date was pushed back five months! Why? This film has the potential to either be one of the best or the worst of the year, and I have no idea which. (TBD)

No One Lives: A gang of ruthless highway killers kidnap a wealthy couple traveling cross country only to discover that things are not what they seem. It sounds like a hunter-becomes-the-hunted kind of story, which can be cathartic, but it'll all depend on whether this falls on the thriller side of the divide, or the horror. (TBD, but probable Pass)

Peeples: Craig Robinson plays a nice guy with an unimpressive job who goes to his girlfriend's family reunion to impress them and to ask for her hand in marriage. I like a lot of the actors in this movie (Craig Robinson, S. Epatha Merkerson, Malcolm Barrett), but haven't seen any trailers or anything yet. If it looks funny, I'll probably rent it at some point. If it's nothing but wacky shenanigans, a la Meet the Parents, I won't bother. (TBD)

Stories We Tell: If I judged purely on the IMDb summary, I'd be all over this, because it sounds like fiction: "A film that excavates layers of myth and memory to find the elusive truth at the core of a family of storytellers." But it's not fiction. It's director Sarah Polley's documentary exploration of her own family, and frankly, vanity projects tend to leave me cold. (Pass)

Venus and Serena: I'm not interested enough in tennis or the people who play it to have the patience for a documentary about them. (Pass)

May 17

Black Rock: Three girlfriends go camping, and find themselves under attack from hunters bent on committing sexual assault (and probably murder). Rather than hiding or running, the girls launch all out warfare in order to survive. If this were a thriller, I'd admit to being pretty intrigued, but it's being sold as horror, so I'm going to skip it. Even if it's not underdeveloped like most horror movies are, it'll likely be too gory for this wuss. (Pass)

The English Teacher: An English teacher (Julianne Moore) encourages a former student to mount a play in her hometown after failing as a playwright in New York. This looks like it has some promise, based on the cast list. (Rental)

Erased: An ex-CIA agent and his estranged daughter are forced on the run when his employers erase all records of his existence, and mark them both for termination as part of a wide-reaching international conspiracy. Well of course it's an international conspiracy! It's funny that my first though upon reading the plot synopsis for this movie was "Hmm. How much shaky cam can I expect?" If people seem to like it, maybe I'll rent it someday, but since my initial reaction was to assume this is a Bourne knockoff, it doesn't inspire much confidence. (Pass)

Frances Ha: Noah Baumbach movies are always a fraught experience. Characters in a Baumbach film are rife with dysfunction, and the awkward situations they get into can work in a movie's favor (Margot at the Wedding) or just leave me depressed and empty (The Squid and the Whale). In this newest movie, Greta Gerwig plays a dancer whose career aspirations are becoming less attainable by the day, and who cannot figure out how to live separately from a friend. Unless this movie takes the critical world by storm, I doubt I'll need to subject myself to what seems like another huge downer. Hell, I might skip it even if it does take the critical world by storm - I still haven't seen Amour. (Pass)

Populaire: A French secretary in 1958 is encouraged by boss to enter a speed-typing contest. That's not much to go on, but from what little I've seen about this movie, it looks pretty adorable. (TBD)

Star Trek Into Darkness: A full scene of this movie was shown as a trailer in front of something else I saw, and I remember it more than whatever movie I was at the theater to see. It takes a lot these days to really make me sit up and take notice, but this certainly did the trick. I liked the first Star Trek, too, and even though J.J. Abrams' work has been kind of hit-or-miss with me lately, nothing I've seen regarding this movie makes it seem anything other than awesome. (Must-See)

May 24

Before Midnight: Despite being so thoroughly lauded, I still haven't managed to see Before Sunrise or Before Sunset yet. I definitely will at some point, but until I do, I certainly can't watch the third movie of the franchise. (Rental)

Epic: An animated movie about a group of miniscule Leaf Men and a human girl who is shrunk down to their size. So basically, this sounds like an amalgam of Rise of the Guardians and A Bug's Life. If it gets good word-of-mouth, I'll probably toss it on the Netflix queue later down the line, but it's unlikely that I'll feel the need to catch it in theaters. (Pass)

Fast & Furious 6: No. (Pass)

Fill the Void: A devout Israeli woman is pressured to marry her late sister's husband, because she cannot live independently in Tel Aviv's Orthodox community. I've been noticing lately that I'm becoming less and less inclined to watch Important Bummer Movies, which makes me feel stupid and unsophisticated. That still doesn't mean I'm going to force myself to spend two hours on this downer. (Pass)

The Hangover Part III: I have similar feelings about this as Iron Man 3 up there. I never saw the second one, and don't really plan to. The first movie was amusing enough, but not to the point that I felt the need to spend more time with these characters. (Pass)

We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks: As with Venus and Serena, I'm not interested enough in this subject to watch a documentary about it. (Pass)

May 31

The East: A private operative hired by corporate bigwigs worms her way into a radical, anarchist fringe group which has been launching attacks on greedy businesses. The plot summary mentions that the spy's loyalties start to shift once she's ensconced with the group, and the whole thing sounds very V For Vendetta. I like Alexander Skarsgard and Ellen Page, but I'm not sure whether or not I'm really sold on this yet. (TBD)

The Kings of Summer: Three teenage friends, in the ultimate act of independence, decide to spend their summer building a house in the woods and living off the land. If this movie centered around the adults (Megan Mullally, Nick Offerman, and Alison Brie), I'd be at the theater in a flash. I'm not sure I'm as invested in the main storyline, but it's worth a second look when the release date rolls around. (TBD)

Now You See Me: Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson, and Dave Franco pull off a string of bank robberies, and Mark Ruffalo is the FBI agent pursuing them. The twist on this is that the robbers are all magicians. It's an interesting premise, and there's a good chance I'll either catch this with my dad (who is a magician himself, though I doubt he's been robbing banks lately), or at least find myself settling in for it some rainy Sunday afternoon. (Rental)

The Purge: One night every year, all crime is legal, and a family is tested to see how far they will go to protect themselves when the outside world breaks into their home. Now this is one of the most interesting story ideas of the season. I guess it'll all come down to the writing, but if this shows even a hint of promise in execution as well as the concept, I'd like to see it. (TBD, but probably good for at least a Rental, and an outside possibility of Must-See)

Shadow Dancer: Set in 1990s Belfast, an active member of the IRA becomes an informant for MI5 in order to protect her son's welfare. I like Clive Owen and everything, but I'm gonna need to hear more about this one. (TBD, but a probable Pass)

Ya Cahnt Git Theah Frum Heeya

The majority of the television I've watched over the past year or so has been via online streaming or DVDs, which means that I haven't seen as many commercials lately. That is certainly not a complaint. Over the last few weeks, though, I've been watching shows as they air, which means that Madison Avenue is once again free to work its magic on my pliable brain. Or not. Long ago, I confessed my puzzlement/confusion/anger over the "Hi there, loser!" type of ad. Why on Earth would companies want to give a viewer the impression that this is the kind of person they think consumes their product? But hey, I wrote that five years ago. Surely, corporate America has grown and matured. There's no way they're still pushing the idea that their customers are idiotic freaks.

Whoops. YouTube comments are usually a haven for sub-literate, racist assholes, but someone over there pretty much nailed it with the succinct "1 step closer to Wall-E". Seriously, what's the demographic that DISH is aiming for here? Post-football game rioters? People who thought the family in Silver Linings Playbook were role models?

I know there's a school of thought that argues that when it comes to commercials, there's no such thing as bad attention. Any ad that gets people talking about it is, by definition, "good". I'm not sure if economics supports that hypothesis, but I can only react as an individual viewer. And my reaction is "Ew." I hate this ad. I hate the accents. I hate the characters' personalities. I hate the idea that we're supposed to find these people amusing. I hate that they literally rely on toilet humor. I hate the idea that this type of campaign must actually work on consumers.

It's ironic that AMC showed this multiple times during last night's Mad Men episode. True, that show is more about the people who happen to work at ad agencies than the work that those people do, but they've still shown multiple times that there's a lot of creative genius that goes into selling a product. No matter what the original idea of pairing this commercial with Mad Men was, the resulting message comes across the same: In the 1960s, advertisers caught our attention with cleverness and appeals to our emotion. In 2013, it's a man with an obnoxious voice taking a dump. We've come a long way, baby.

Time Keeps on Slippin'

When I was writing my wrap-up posts for the entertainment I consumed in 2012, I was pretty pleased, overall. Sure, there were some disappointments in the mix, but the only truly awful things were a book I chose essentially at random and a movie that's celebrated for being bad. Nothing that I expected to be good (or at least acceptably good) wound up sucking outright.

Daaaaamn, Africa. What happened?

We're only four months into 2013 and I've already suffered through as much bad entertainment as the whole of last year. Television has been a welcome exception - all of the shows I've been watching lately have been at least good, if not excellent. But movies? Ugh. Games? Ugh. Music? Ugh. And here we are at books.

I picked up Sean Ferrell's Man in the Empty Suit from the library after reading a review that mentioned its fascinating premise: A man who has mastered time travel attends a yearly party where he is the only guest. That makes it sound like he's there alone, but no. The other partygoers are him, too. In fact, all of the guests are him, but from different years. The book starts off with some promise, as Protagonist Him tries to navigate the tricky cause-and-effect traps that dealing with past/future versions of yourself can create. Things get even hairier when a murdered guest falls into the mix, meaning that the victim, the killer, and the reluctant-detective are all the same person. Intriguing, right?

And then it all falls to shit. Having spotted a mysterious woman in attendance at what's supposed to be a Him party, Protagonist Him decides that she's the key to the murder. And then we wander away from the hotel where the party is taking place so that we can devote a bunch of chapters to her origin story and how the people out on the street subsist in this destitute future. WHY? By the time Protagonist Him gets back to party to see the same events from a different perspective, I'd lost all interest. Ferrell has a terrific concept on his hands, but the execution was sorely lacking. I'd love to see what a heavily-rewritten version of this book would look like, but I'm stuck in this timeline. And in this timeline, this book kinda sucked.

Man in the Empty Suit: D+


I just got through watching the rushes of Bachelorette, the 2012 movie adapted/directed by Leslye Headland, who wrote the original play. I can't wait until they release the version with actual characters and some jokes! What's that? There is no other version? The thing I just watched was the actual movie? Oh. Well, it's not a total loss. If it accomplishes nothing else, Bachelorette serves as a healthy reminder that you can stock your film with some of the funniest, most likeable actors currently working, and still deliver the cinematic equivalent of a chili fart. The movie revolves around three maladjusted bridesmaids (Kirsten Dunst, Lizzy Caplan, and Isla Fisher) who have reluctantly allowed themselves to be recruited into the wedding party of their high school friend (Rebel Wilson). In the midst of a joke about taking a picture of two of them in the voluminous wedding dress, the garment is shredded, sending the three bridesmaids on an all-night quest to get it fixed.

This movie has been held up as the female equivalent of The Hangover, but there are important differences. For one thing, The Hangover was pretty funny. Not funny enough to warrant two sequels, but the first one at least made me laugh. I think I cracked one wan smile during Bachelorette. Although both movies feature out-of-control debauchery, wacky hijinks, and raunchy language, the characters in The Hangover genuinely like each other (or at least want their marrying friend to be happy). Everyone in Bachelorette hates each other. In its hurry to push buttons and envelopes, Headland forgot to give her characters any sort of depth. They're exactly the kind of over-dramatic, emotional wrecks that you cross the room to avoid at a party, and are never balanced out by anything human, except during an unearned happy ending. I cannot improve on the AV Club's description, which is that no matter how adept Headland was at making her play work as a movie, "it’s almost possible to look past the crippling flaw at its core: Spending time with these people is hellish."

Simply put, there's nobody to root for here. Everyone is completely obnoxious. I don't need characters to be all-around swell people in order to like a movie, but there should be someone with at least some kind of redeeming characteristics, or there's just no enjoyment to be wrung out of it. Sometimes, a talented actor can elevate weak material, but even with Adam Scott and Lizzy Caplan and Rebel Wilson and Isla Fisher and James Marsden all doing their damndest to make a group of assholes acting horrible seem like naughty fun, their combined muscle can't lift this dead weight. Or, to put it in terms that the characters in this movie would understand: Nobody can polish this turd into a diamond; it's just a polish-drenched turd.

Bachelorette: D-

The Rewatch: Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Season 1

All of the shows I've been posting about lately are either shows I'd never seen before, new seasons of favorite shows, or completely brand new shows. That's all well and good, but I thought there should be a category for shows that I've sat through at least once, and want to revisit (in their entirety, if possible). And lo, the Rewatch was born! No surprises lurk here; I already know exactly what's coming up, what happens to the characters, and how long the show will last. Lots of shows are still plenty entertaining the second (third, twelfth...) time through, but not every episode can be a home run. I was curious to know what I'd catch on a repeat viewing, if my attitude towards certain characters has changed, and which episodes really rise to the top.

First up on "The Rewatch" is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a show that had a lot of ups and downs over its seven seasons. When it was good, nothing else on the air at the time could match it. When it was bad, you'd wonder if television characters could ever be this annoying again. The show had plenty of standalone episodes, and plenty that advanced a seasonal arc, usually revolving around the particular villain (or "Big Bad" in the show's parlance) threatening our intrepid Slayer and her gang of Slayerettes. Oh, and the world. Shall we dive in? Obviously, there are massive spoilers ahead.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Season 1
Big Bad: The Master

Episode 1: "Welcome to the Hellmouth"

Introduces: Buffy Summers, Rupert Giles, Xander Harris, Willow Rosenberg, Cordelia Chase, Angel, Joyce Summers, The Master, Principal Flutie, Darla

It takes balls to kick off your brand new series with a two-parter. In this first hour, Buffy arrives in Sunnydale and we meet the whole gang. Buffy isn't thrilled to leap back into slaying, since it led to such trouble in Los Angeles, but between Giles' nagging and a warning from the mysterious Angel about the Hellmouth under her feet, she reluctantly takes up her stake. I'd almost forgotten about Principal Flutie, since Principal Snyder was much more of a presence, but it tickled me to get reacquainted with this you-can't-spell-principal-without-PAL kinda guy. The episode thankfully doesn't waste much time bringing Xander and Willow into the supernatural fold, as Xander overhears Buffy discussing vampires with Giles, and Willow is attacked by one. And of course, who doesn't get a kick out of the bitchy Original Recipe Cordelia? Original Recipe Joyce is a lot more forgettable. They really had no idea what to do with her at first, did they? Naturally, there's a lot of exposition which comes across as padding on a rewatch, but all in all, this isn't a half-bad introduction to the series. The Master is awakened and sends his acolytes out to get some blood, and the episode ends as his main henchman corners Buffy in a crypt and goes in for the kill.

Episode 2: "The Harvest"

Introduces: Harmony Kendall

We pick up with Buffy escaping Luke (the main vampire henchman) via a silver cross that Angel gave her, and then it's back into exposition as she and Giles give Xander and Willow an introductory lesson in Slayer lore. This is the moment Willow happily slides into her role as researcher/computer whiz, a position she will occupy for several seasons. Buffy makes an effort to save Xander's friend Jesse from the vampires, but finds that he's already been turned, and has been used as bait to lure her to the Master's lair. She escapes with Xander's help, and Giles informs the group that during the titular Harvest, the energy from anyone that Luke drinks will be transferred to the Master. Luke, Darla, Jesse, and some other vampires attack the Bronze, and in a rather anticlimactic fight, Buffy dusts Luke and Xander accidentally stakes Jesse. This was another important episode for establishing the show's universe, but for rewatchers who already know the backstory, it doesn't really distinguish itself.

Episode 3: "Witch"

Introduces: Amy Madison

The first standalone episode of the series, and one that I really enjoy. Buffy continues her efforts to live as normal a life as possible by trying out for the cheerleading squad, alongside Cordelia and Amy Madison. Elizabeth Anne Allen does a great job as Amy, and I'm chuffed that a character who could easily be written off in one episode was later rewoven into the series. A series of mysterious calamities befall the cheerleaders, from spontaneous combustion to mouth removal, which bumps the rejected Buffy and Amy up the list. Buffy manages to save Cordelia yet again after the latter is struck temporarily blind. Giles figures out that a vengeful witch is at work, and Amy is the top suspect. Buffy, already established as the leader, is rendered useless by a spell, so Willow, Xander, and Giles must take point on putting a stop to the mayhem. Joyce is finally put to good use, as the episode trades heavily in the often-fraught relationships between mother and daughter. Amy's mother is the real witch, you see, and swaps bodies with her daughter to recapture her past glories. Working together, the gang (plus Amy) is able to fight back, and Catherine Madison's final spell is reflected back onto her. This leads to one of the coolest episode enders of the series, as we see her imprisoned forever in the cheerleading trophy that bears her name.

Episode 4: "Teacher's Pet"

Another standalone episode, but this one is not half as good, in my opinion. Xander (along with the rest of the male student body) is smitten by Ms. French, the substitute biology teacher. What they don't realize is that she's kind of...a giant praying mantis. For some reason, her being a big insect terrifies the entire vampire populace. Her goal is to kidnap male virgins and have them fertilize her eggs. How this works biologically is never explored, but whatever. Angel is shoehorned into the episode to offer a cryptic warning, but serves no useful purpose. Xander and another student are imprisoned in Ms. French's basement dungeon, and are eventually rescued by Buffy, Willow, and Giles. Though Ms. French and her main cluster of eggs are hacked to death, the episode closes on a hatching egg cache at the school that our heroes missed. This isn't a wholly unenjoyable episode, but it is wholly unnecessary.

Episode 5: "Never Kill A Boy on the First Date"

Introduces: The Anointed One

The quest for normalcy continues! Buffy just wants to have a normal date with a normal boy (Owen), but slayage keeps getting in her way. Stupid Hellmouth! The Master tells of a prophecy in which the Anointed One will lead the Slayer to her doom. Giles is aware of the prophecy too, and when a charter bus is attacked by vampires, Buffy has to investigate the funeral home, dragging the confused Owen along. Xander, who's had a crush on Buffy since the series began, exhibits what is going to become his trademark jealousy that gets him in trouble before too long. Cordelia, Angel, Giles are also not thrilled with Buffy's new beau, all for different reasons. After Buffy roasts a vamp that attacked Owen, she realizes that although he's totally into the Danger Girlfriend, any relationship with him will likely end in his death, and she calls it off. The gang takes comfort in the fact that at least they were able to slay the Anointed One, not realizing their target wasn't the burly, tattooed religious weirdo that just got smoked, but the sweet-faced kid, who goes and joins the Master in his lair. This was a good episode in terms of balancing Buffy's desire to be a regular teen with her status as the Chosen One. It's a shame we'll never see Owen again; it would have been interesting to run into him later down the line after Buffy has gone through so much more.

Episode 6: "The Pack"

This would have been an isolated standalone episode, but for being the first instance of Buffy establishing its universe's stakes by killing off a (semi) main character. True, more important people will meet their ends as the seasons progress, but this was the first time the victim isn't an extra. First things first, though. Sunnydale High students go to the zoo, and whilst there, a group of bullies gets possessed with the spirit of demon hyenas. Xander, who's there to protect a weaker student from the bullies' harassment, also gets infected. He and the bullies all begin to get meaner and more predatory. At first, this is just shown through the lens of high school cruelty, from vicious insults to dodgeball attacks. Poor Willow gets the brunt of it from Xander, who is not only supposed to be her best friend, but who she's had a crush on since childhood. This is the first episode that Alyson Hannigan got to shine in an emotional breakdown scene; it certainly won't be the last, as she completely crushes every single one. Xander and the bullies get more feral, and wind up eating the school mascot (a pig). As Buffy and the gang attempt to deal with Xander, Principal Flutie calls the gang of bullies into his office for a good talking to. And... Well, goodbye, Principal Flutie (*buuuuuuurp*). The zookeeper turns out to be behind the possession, and attacks Willow to gain the power for himself - leeching it out of Xander and the bullies. It doesn't last long, as in the ensuing fight, he's knocked into the hyena enclosure, where he is eaten. Buffy often used supernatural stories as an allegory to examine social issues, but this episode's treatment of high school bullying was kind of weak. The bullies run off, and never get punished, while Xander feigns memory loss about the whole incident. Although this episode was cool in that it begins to reveal how far this show is willing to go, its main storyline lands with a thud.

Episode 7: "Angel"

So long, standalones! It's time to seriously advance the season's arc. The Master sends a group of vampires known as the Three after Buffy, and Angel helps her fight them off. The two of them begin to get closer and closer, and Buffy invites him to stay at her house. They kiss, and as Angel pulls away, his vampire face is revealed. Dun dun duuuuuuun! Buffy is horrified, and Angel vanishes into the night. Later, through Giles' research, we learn that Angel used to be a vicious killer (Angelus), but has not preyed on humans for years. Darla kills the Three at the behest of the Master, and asks for permission to take on Buffy as well. She cons her way into the Summers home, where she bites Joyce. Angel arrives and goes into vamp face, just in time for Buffy to come home and misconstrue what happened. Joyce recovers (meeting Giles for the first time in the hospital), and everyone else winds up at the Bronze for the big fight. Darla eschews traditional vampire attacks, and tries to gun Buffy down, while revealing that she was the one who sired Angel (that is, she turned him). Although Angel has had a bond beyond closeness with Darla for hundreds of years, he can't bear to see Buffy killed, and stakes Darla into dust. Now that everyone is safe, he explains his background - he once fed on a Gypsy girl, and as punishment, her clan put a curse on him, restoring his soul. He's still a vampire, but his conscience and morality have come roaring back, so he hasn't killed or fed on a living person since. He and Buffy realize that a relationship between them would never work, but they can't resist sharing one last kiss. Although it's not one of my favorites, I have to admit this was a pretty powerful episode, and I'm saying that as someone who never had much use for Angel.

Episode 8: "I Robot... You, Jane"

Introduces: Jenny Calendar

And then there's this. When I ranked the episodes of Season 1, picking the best required some contemplation. Picking the worst was simplicity itself. It's this one, dummy. While "Teacher's Pet" is kind of an ignorable episode, it was at least fun to watch. "I, Robot..." is just dumb. There is an ancient demon named Moloch who influences followers into willingly dying at his feet. A group of monks trap his spirit into a book, and centuries later, when that book is scanned into the Sunnydale High computers, Moloch is unleashed onto the internet. He mesmerizes the school's computer nerds (including Willow), who quickly fall under his thrall. Moloch also hypnotizes scientific engineers, all for the aim of putting his essence into a giant robot so he can wreck up the place physically as well as technologically. So the grand, evil force that Buffy must face is... A scientist, some sweaty nerds, and a robot. The one thing this episode is noteworthy for is the introduction of Miss Calendar, who plays off of Giles nicely. Their barbs back and forth about technology versus books are a fun setup for their eventual relationship, and this is one of the few episodes that suggests that modern conveniences are just as effective a vessel for evil (and the fight against it) as ancient tomes and rituals. Otherwise, though? Bleh.

Episode 9: "The Puppet Show"

Introduces: Principal Snyder

Here's a much better standalone episode. Sunnydale High is having a talent show (which the new discipline-obsessed principal forces Buffy, Xander, and Willow to join), and someone starts harvesting organs from its participants. Suspicion immediately focuses on the socially-maladjusted ventriloquist Morgan, who appears to be lashing out rudely via his creepy dummy, Sid. In a regular horror-style show, Buffy would learn that the dummy is sentient (and evil, of course), and would fight it to the death. In a Twilight Zone twist on the story, she would believe the dummy was sentient (and evil, of course), but learn that she was mistaken after violently attacking Morgan and Sid, winding up horrified at her own paranoia. This show is too smart for that, though. It turns out that Sid is, indeed, sentient, but even as Buffy is convinced he's the murderer, he's convinced that she is. Sid is actually a demon hunter, cursed to live in the body of a dummy until he kills off the last of the Brotherhood of Seven, who is responsible for the organ harvest. The real culprit is the talent show's magician, who kills Morgan for his brain, but rejects it when he learns that Morgan had cancer. Buffy and Sid are able to take him down before he manages to scalp Giles, and Sid is able to finally rest in peace. This is an extremely clever episode, and a welcome introduction to the snide, bureaucratic Principal Snyder, who despises all of the students, and Buffy in particular.

Episode 10: "Nightmares"

Introduces: Hank Summers

It's only visible in hindsight, but there comes a point in every good show where everything clicks into place, and you realize you've got something special. Though there were episodes before this one that I really liked, "Nightmares" marks the point in Buffy the Vampire Slayer where it turned from a good show into must-watch TV. Not only is it a fantastic episode, but it typifies a lot about what the show did so well. It blends comedy and stark drama. It blends a standalone plot with the season's arc. It takes a heavily-used entertainment trope (nightmares becoming real), and puts a fresh new spin on it. The episode's story originates with a mysterious boy that only Buffy seems to see. Every time he appears, someone's worst fear/nightmare manifests. Although the nightmares are kicked off with something physical (a swarm of spiders), plenty of the students' nightmares understandably revolve around panic or embarrassment. A "cool" guy is horrified by his mother showing up and showering him with love. Xander's clothes disappear. Buffy flunks a test she didn't prepare for. Cordelia's hair goes all frizzy. In one of the episode's funniest bits, Willow is dragged on stage as a opera soprano. These are just precursors to the darker fears that lie within the characters. In a wrenching scene, Buffy's distant father shows up, and blames her for his divorce and for being a huge disappointment in general. The fact that nightmares can now be incorporated into the real world gives the Master a chance to break the bonds of his lair and go up to the surface, where he buries Buffy alive. Her nightmare is thankfully counteracted by Giles', and she's able to survive because she has been turned into a vampire. All of this is being caused by the little boy, who is in a coma and is astral projecting. Sunnydale is on the verge of completely collapsing, but the gang is able to wake the boy up and help him face his fear - the little league coach who beat him into his coma. This is an outstanding episode from start to finish, and cemented my love for Buffy for all time.

Episode 11: "Out of Mind, Out of Sight"

The core cast is generally the reason to tune in to Buffy. Plenty of one-time guest stars handled their roles competently, but I don't think anyone's doing backflips over how awesome the actors who played Ms. French or Morgan were. This episode is a notable exception. Clea DuVall has been amazingly good in everything I've ever seen her in, and that definitely includes "Out of Mind, Out of Sight". She plays Marcie Ross, a girl so ignored at Sunnydale High that she eventually became invisible. Buffy and the gang are sympathetic at first, but when Marcie starts launching violent attacks against the people who ignored her, they must fight to stop her. Cordelia is Marcie's main target (for what should be obvious reasons), and this episode marks the first time Cordelia drops the bitch veneer and starts working with Buffy's crew as an ally. Not that it lasts. In seasonal arc news, Angel drops by to offer Giles help in tracking down a book that contains a lot of lost Slayer lore. Marcie gets increasingly unhinged, and once Buffy stops attempting to apply super-strength to the problem, and just starts listening carefully, she's able to defeat Marcie with a single punch. Things don't end too badly for Marcie, though, as she's bundled off by FBI agents to a new life as a government assassin alongside other invisible, ignored teens. This would probably be a fine-but-ultimately-unimportant episode like "Teacher's Pet", were it not for DuVall's performance. As it is, it wound up being one of my favorites of the season.

Episode 12: "Prophecy Girl"

This season finale packs a wallop. The spring dance is coming up, and Xander finally acts on his crush, asking Buffy to go with him. She rejects him, as does Willow when he assumes she'd be happy to be his backup choice. Giles analyzes the book that Angel gave him in the last episode, and determines that Buffy will face the Master, and that she will die while doing so. Buffy overhears him telling Angel about this, and refuses to embrace destiny, "quitting" her Slayer duties in hysterics. Vampire attacks on the students are getting more vicious, and after they slaughter the guys setting up the dance, Buffy accepts her fate and agrees to face the Master. The Anointed One leads her to the Master's lair, where she puts up as much of a fight as she can before the Master bites her, then drops her face-down into a puddle, where she drowns. The Master is now free to leave his lair, and heads for the Hellmouth, which has opened into the school library. It spawns monsters that Giles, Willow, and Miss Calendar attempt to fight off. Xander, still stinging with jealousy and rejection, reluctantly enlists Angel's help, and the two of them head to the Master's lair, where Xander is able to revive Buffy with CPR. She heads back to the school, where she hurls the Master onto a huge, jutting chunk of wood, finally dusting him and closing the Hellmouth. The world saved (for the time being), the gang is free to head to the dance. It's a very strong finish to the season, and imparts the massive emotional weight that always rests on Buffy's shoulders. However, it also solidifies the group as a whole, so that emotional weight needn't be shouldered alone - Buffy is the first Slayer in history to have a genuine support system, and her quest to have a normal life is at least partially fulfilled.


Fun fact about Season 1: It contains four of the eight episodes to not feature a single vampire ("Witch", "The Pack", "I Robot... You, Jane", and "The Puppet Show"). In looking back at the full episode list, it appears that I prefer strong standalone episodes to the ones with a lot of character building, but that may be a symptom of this being a rewatch. After all, I already know where/how the characters end up, so of course I'd be more interested in plot-driven stories. I assumed going in that Season 1 would suffer in comparison to the ones that come later, because it needed to introduce the universe and all its characters, and I figured there would be a lot of bloated exposition. And sure, future episodes were able to go straight for the meat of the story, but I was still surprised at how deft this inaugural season was. And now, the inevitable rankings:

Best Episode: "Nightmares"

Worst Episode: "I Robot... You, Jane"

Must-Watch: "Witch", "Out of Sight, Out of Mind", "Prophecy Girl" (These are "Musts" from a rewatch perspective - they may not fill newbies in on the plot, but they're the most enjoyable.)

Free-to-Skip: "Teacher's Pet", "The Pack" (Converse here. Skippable episodes may be very important from a story perspective, but struck me as weak, entertainment-wise.)


Hannibal - Season 1, Episode 1

Getting to the heart of a television show is more easily done when we consider an entire season at a time, but it's been a while since I got down to an individual episode, and the premiere of a new show is always a good opportunity. Still, it's a risky maneuver to start discussing a show at Episode 1, because you never know if the show will blossom into a seven-season smash hit or will be quietly snuffed after two episodes. It's especially fraught when talking about Bryan Fuller shows, because the networks tend to squash his work like a mosquito.

Despite my anxiety about the gore factor and my general disinterest in the Hannibal Lecter character beyond Silence of the Lambs, I made sure to tune in for the premiere episode of Hannibal. That's what happens when you give someone a Lifetime Pass. Was my faith justified? Well, it's probably impossible to tell after a single episode, but it's off to a very promising start. Hugh Dancy plays Will Graham, an FBI special investigator who has a talent for empathy. That's not the complimentary sense of the word; he can actually put himself in the mindset of a serial killer, which is not pleasant for him. His talent not only gives him insight into murderers' personalities and patterns, but makes him adept at sizing up crime scenes. This makes him a very fragile-minded kind of man, who must be handled with kid gloves by his boss, Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne).

In this first episode, Will starts to go to pieces a bit when he begins investigating a series of missing/dead girls who all have the same type of look, so Jack brings in psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) to help. Hannibal senses a kindred spirit, and the two forge a delicate partnership. Please enjoy this picture of the good Dr. Lecter, but know that episode spoilers follow.

So after the investigators stumble across what Will is able to intuit as a copycat murder, he's able to figure out a lot more about the real killer, and after a bit more investigative digging, they're knocking on the murderer's front door. Only two eensy, beensy complications: The first is that Hannibal sneaks off for a private moment to call and warn the guy that the FBI will be arriving on his doorstep any minute. And the second? It's obliquely indicated that Hannibal himself is the copycat killer that set Will on the right path.

"Apéritif" has some beautiful, symbolism-laden imagery (very Twin Peaks), and is extremely well-written and well-acted. The two leads look like they'll mesh well together, and Fishburne puts a nice spin on what could have easily been another boring, put-upon administrator character. It's always nice to see Caroline Dhavernas (who plays a consultant profiler), and I also want to make special mention of Hettienne Park, who stands out as a crime scene investigator who appears to really enjoy her job. Will Hannibal make it on a struggling NBC? Will Bryan Fuller finally have a hit on his hands? Will this become appointment television for me like his other shows have been? Will I be able to handle the ick factor? I have no idea. But judging purely on this ambitious premiere, I'm hoping it's a "yes" for all of the above.

"Apéritif": A-

Garden Variety

Not all of the shows I just wrapped up were deep, weighty dramas. I'm just as happy kicking back with a show that has much lower stakes, as long as it can hold my attention. I'm always on the lookout for something different, and found it in a little show called Rosemary & Thyme, which could easily be summed up as "English garden-themed Murder She Wrote". Three seasons of this show aired between 2003 and 2007, and after watching the first couple of episodes, I decided to jump in and watch the whole damn thing.

Instead of being a writer like Jessica Fletcher, the core characters in this murder-of-the-week show are Rosemary Boxer (a plant pathologist) and Laura Thyme (an ex-policewoman). The two of them have teamed up to form a small business renovating gardens and solving botanical mysteries like why a private school's rose garden won't grow. Invariably, wherever they've gone to lend their green thumbs is rife with murderous characters, and there is sure to be a body or two by episode's end. And just as in other "cozy mystery" shows, the audience is required to ignore the biggest mystery, which is why everyone falls all over themselves to confess their innermost secrets to two strangers who have stopped by to plant some hydrangea or why nobody notices that two nondescript women are solving more murders than Scotland Yard or why death seems to follow them wherever they go. The protagonists never really change or develop as people, so this type of show relies purely on the strength of the week's mini-story. That's fine; it's what you sign up for when you watch this or Murder, She Wrote or Psych or whatever.

Well, I wouldn't have watched three seasons of this show if the stories were crap. Most of them were pretty engaging. Felicity Kendal and Pam Ferris have a natural, easy chemistry, and it was pretty fun to watch them root out the evildoers of small English villages. It's nothing that you'd want to throw a million Emmy nominations at, but the majority of episodes were quite entertaining. And if you're into beauty shots of of colorful, English gardens, and rolling, green countrysides, you need to jump on this show immediately. Though there were a few disappointing episodes, at least one in each season was impressive enough to not only serve as the visual comfort food this show could usually manage, but broke through into being good television, full stop.

Season 1: "A Simple Plot" - Rosemary and Laura go to visit an old professor friend of Rosemary's who lives in a garden district composed of several privately-owned allotments. Random patches of his flowers are dying, but the professor's real problem is the nearby building site, which he vocally opposes. Someone bumps him off, and there are plenty of enemies to sift through. The murder methodology in this episode is more intricate and well-thought out than shows like this usually attempt, and the suspects actually have feasible motives.

Season 2: "The Gongoozlers" - A local celebrity known for her sailing prowess is brought in as a new host of a home and garden show that needs a ratings boost. Rosemary and Laura are doing the grunt work, and witness all the petty jealousies among the crew. Rosemary is sent to the hospital when a scaffold the hostess was supposed to be standing on gives way beneath her, so it's up to Laura to connect the dots when a visiting snoop reporter is electrocuted in the swimming pool and a car goes up in a fiery crash.

Season 3: "The Cup of Silence" - Rosemary and Laura are brought to a vineyard to assist with a nasty weed problem, and find themselves stranded there when their rickety old land-rover gives out. The situation gets even more complicated when a lifestyle critic there to rate the hotel and restaurant dies of apparent heart failure, but scrawls MURDER on his mirror before collapsing. The actors who play the warring brothers that respectively run the hotel and vineyard really sell their hatred of each other, and some time is taken to devote to our heroines working through the various mysteries, rather than just assuming they can pull answers out of thin air, which is sometimes an issue.

I don't want to oversell it too much, because it's not like this series will be showing up on anyone's Top 100 Shows of All Time or anything. But there's genuine pleasure to be gotten out of the combination of dastardly murder, bucolic scenery, and kind, clever lead characters. And on those fronts, this show delivers admirably.

Rosemary & Thyme: B

First Term

Hints have been popping up here and there about another one of the many shows I've just wrapped up a full season's worth of watching, so here we are. If Mad Men is an example of a show that succeeds at character-driven storytelling, then The West Wing would be up there as an example of one that succeeds at plot-driven storytelling. Writing episodes based on real-life policy issues may not be as difficult as finding inspiration for fictional ad execs in the 1960s, but adapting the grist of the Washington, D.C. mill into actual entertainment clearly carries its own set of challenges.

Reading things about Aaron Sorkin can be as interesting as seeing things written by Aaron Sorkin, and I knew a lot about his talent, his quirks, and his foibles long before I consumed any of his actual work. I enjoyed The Social Network, but as I mentioned in one of the links above, my only experience with his TV shows was the dreadful Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Now that I've finished the first season of The West Wing, his batting average has gone way up. I don't know if I'd feel the same way if the fictional president and his staff didn't have a lot of the same liberal leanings that I do, but in any event, watching the Bartlet administration struggle through political opposition and wavering public opinion was pretty addictive. Plus, as a new viewer, I can play a little mini-game in which I spot guest actors with tiny parts that would go on to become stars in their own right. Hey, there's Ron Swanson! Hey, there's Sara Sidle! Hey, there's Peggy Olson!

Speaking of Peggy Olson, I didn't pull out individual episodes of season 5 of Mad Men for discussion, because all of them were pretty stellar. And although I enjoyed this inaugural season of The West Wing (no pun intended), it had definite high and low points. Standouts include "Mr. Willis of Ohio" (which includes an interesting debate about the methodology of census-taking), "Celestial Navigation" (gee, who would ever think there would be backwards racial politics surrounding a Latino Supreme Court nominee?), and the aforementioned "Let Bartlet be Bartlet".

Not every episode struck a chord, but it's pretty amazing how topical many of them still are these fourteen years later. Any episode that puts Allison Janney (as White House Press Secretary C. J. Cregg) in center stage gets an automatic bump, because as with most things she appears in, Janney is absolutely fantastic in this show. The rest of the cast is also very good, but Janney is one of those actors who always manages to give her characters that extra something special that makes them truly memorable. So all in all, I'd consider the first season a pretty unqualified success, and I'm definitely looking forward to diving into season 2. It sure beats the hell out of following real-world politics.

The West Wing - Season 1: B+

Perfect Pitch

As I mentioned on marathon night, I've been working through multiple seasons of multiple shows concurrently. I've finally wrapped a bunch of them up, and can move on to the next batch! While all of the shows were successful to some degree (I wouldn't watch an entire season of a show I found unbearable), one stands head-and-shoulders above the crowd. Season 5 of Mad Men will likely rank among my favorites that the show has done, and will definitely find its way onto my best-of list at the end of the year. This season was utterly engrossing from start to finish. There wasn't a single bad episode in the bunch, and several were out-and-out brilliant.

I tried to impose a rule on myself that I'd only watch one episode per day - An hour of Mad Men is always so crammed with meaning and symbolism that it benefits from some time to digest and reflect on the theme. I have to say, though, that towards the end of the season, I couldn't stop myself from plowing through episodes; the season arc was so engaging that I just had to know what came next. Naturally, the show tackles multiple stories and themes, but if there was one central idea to Season 5, it's that everyone is always aching for something or someone that they don't have. And even when we achieve what we want, it doesn't stack up to the ideal we imagined it would. And there are always more things to want. If only we had that job. If only we had that house in the country. If only we had a wife and 2.5 kids and a mistress in the city, we'd surely be happy forever. Except life doesn't work like that, and the show's characters spent the season learning that in a multitude of ways.

This isn't a show that people can jump into at any random episode. The characters are so layered that I think it's important start at the beginning. Hell, the entire first season was largely just the laying of a massive amount of groundwork. Fortunately, anyone with access to Netflix Instant can catch up, though they'll have to do it quickly. That's right, it's Save the Date time!

Event: Mad Men - Season 6 premiere
Date: Sunday, April 7

I canceled cable a few months ago, and haven't regretted it for a moment since. Until now. I didn't mind waiting for this most recent season to be available on DVD before diving in, but I'd really like to watch Season 6 along with everyone else. It's time to do some scheming. Pete Campbell would be proud.

Mad Men - Season 5: A

Shorties #8

Here it is April already, and if the entertainment world put out quarterly reports, the stockholders would be running for the hills right now. Movies, books, games... All of them have been disappointing so far this year. My next several posts will be about television, which has been a nice exception to the drudgery, but you'll note that all of the praise I'm about to heap only applies to shows that came out no more recently than last year. There are some promising things on the horizon, but since most of this year's entertainment could be summed up with a shrug so far, I've had plenty of time to go back and grab some of the movies in recent years that I missed when they first came out. Come on, 2013. Get it together.

#1: Ruby Sparks: When this movie made the rounds last year, the reviews didn't fill me with hope. But the premise of a lonely, frustrated author who starts writing about his ideal woman, then discovers said woman in his kitchen, really appealed to me. Paul Dano is a really intriguing actor who unfortunately doesn't get a lot of attention, and his performance here makes the protagonist pretty relatable, even if he sometimes falls into the trap of being the most literal kind of controlling boyfriend. Some of the plotlines are a bit rote - people who see a lot of movies are already intimately familiar with the trying-to-convince-others-of-extraordinary-circumstances schtick - but overall, it was a pretty cute movie. (Grade: B-)

#2: The Perks of Being a Wallflower: Another 2012 movie, but unlike Ruby Sparks, this one was always on my to-watch radar. The author of the novel it's based on got to direct the film, which is about a shy, insular high school freshman (Charlie) with some mental illness that his family is forever tiptoeing around. He befriends two seniors (Patrick, who is not-so-secretly gay, and Patrick's step-sister Sam), and with their support, slowly begins to come out of his shell. He falls in love with Sam, and his problems come roaring back when Patrick is harassed at school and Sam goes out with guys who treat her like dirt. It's a film that hits close to home for anyone who was wedged firmly in an offshoot clique, neither lonely nor popular. The basis of Charlie's mental problems is revealed at the end, and while I won't spoil it, I will say that it felt wedged in unnecessarily. This may be the case for the book as well, but at least as far as the movie goes, there are plenty of people like Charlie who don't need traumatic past events to enter high school as a shrinking violet. (Grade: B)

#3: Election: I probably haven't seen this movie since it was released in 1999, so I got a welcome reminder of how good it is. I generally enjoy Alexander Payne movies, but didn't realize that Election was based on a Tom Perrotta novel, so there's some nice redemption. And though Pleasantville was a terrific movie, and there were lots of excited whispers about Cruel Intentions, this is the movie that really established Reese Witherspoon as a movie star, and for good reason. She nailed the role of Tracy Flick, an over-ambitious high school senior willing to step on anyone to achieve her goals, even if the goal is a mostly-symbolic student presidency. Matthew Broderick plays the civics teacher who feels she desperately needs to be taken down a peg, and begins to scheme against her. As with many Payne movies, the story is more interesting because there are no purely evil characters, nor purely good characters (possibly excepting Chris Klein as Tracy's opponent, who is too naive to be devious). You truly can root for and against everyone. (Grade: B+)

#4: Film Critic: One of the recent episodes of the /Film podcast was ostensibly supposed to be a review of Oz the Great and Powerful, but turned into a much more interesting discussion of the monetization of podcasts in general, and if/when/how an audience should support shows they find entertaining. The guest was film critic Laremy Legel, whose opinion I'm always interested in. After hearing his views on the need to toss a few bucks to the niche entertainment outlets I want to see continue, I was energized to jump on Amazon and buy a copy of his book. I'm always curious to get a peek behind the curtain of film criticism. Hmm. You know those silent film stars that couldn't make the transition to talkies? Or a musician that's amazing in the studio, but can't put on a decent live show? I'm afraid Legel is one of those people who comes off better when they stay in their niche. On podcasts, he's compelling, amusing, and persuasive. His writing, however, is scattershot and a little dull. I like all the topics he gets to, but he doesn't stay on any of them long enough to do anything but scratch the surface. One thing he does go into depth about is his peeve over movies that don't feel the need to aspire to quality because they're for kids or dumb summer blockbusters. We don't excuse people who make bad cars or bad sandwiches, he argues. Only filmmakers seem to be able to get away with saying something like "It's a G.I. Joe movie! Of course it's crappy!" I wholeheartedly agree with that stance... Which is why it's so unfortunate that his book is riddled with typos and syntax errors. If a movie-maker should be held accountable for not giving any thought to plot or character development, then it's also time to put the smack down on books that didn't get proofread. (Grade: C+)

#5: Young Adult: I was bummed that this movie passed me by in 2011, since I enjoyed the Jason Reitman/Diablo Cody collaboration that resulted in Juno. I sometimes have issues with "cringe" movies; the awkward social situations cause me to get more and more progressively embarrassed for the characters. I stuck it out for this one, in which Mavis (Charlize Theron) is a ghost-writer for a soon-to-be-canceled young adult series (think along the lines of Sweet Valley High). When she gets an email blast from an old boyfriend about his newborn baby, she resolves to go back to the hometown where she was once queen bee and steal him back, if for no other reason than validation. When she gets back, she runs into Matt (Patton Oswalt), the prototypical nerd, who is partially disabled from the beating he got back in high school for being perceived as gay. The two strike up an unlikely friendship, and Matt tries to be the voice of reason to dissuade Mavis from attempting to homewreck her old flame's happy life. This being a pretty dark comedy, it goes about as well as you'd expect. Despite having to fight the urge to watch a lot of scenes through my fingers, this was a very good movie, and I can easily see why it ended up on so many people's best-of-the-year lists. (Grade: B)
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