School's Out for Summer

This is the Age of the Showrunner. Back in the '80s and '90s, nobody in the audience gave a good goddamn who was writing/directing television shows. Nowadays, though, you can't talk about Mad Men without talking about Matthew Weiner, Breaking Bad is inexorably linked to Vince Gilligan, and the heart and soul of Community lies within Dan Harmon. There's a lot of analysis and debate about how much of an effect these people have on the show. Sure, it takes talent to do the job, but showrunners aren't in charge of all the writing or directing - would a show really change that noticeably if someone else were in charge? Well...yes.

When Dan Harmon returned to Community after an extremely disappointing season without him, the real test became less about whether the show would change without him, but if he could rebuild a show that had gone off the rails. And if that wasn't enough of a challenge, he (and we) also had to contend with cast changes. Not having Pierce (Chevy Chase) around isn't a huge deal to me, but could I still enjoy the show when Troy (Donald Glover) took off as well?

Well...yes! Fortunately, Glover stuck around long enough to have his character sent off in style. It also helped when the "Pierce Spot" was filled by Jonathan Banks as Professor Hickey, because he integrated himself seamlessly into the ensemble, and his crankiness is a ton of fun. Harmon has taken some heat for having too many "concept" episodes this year, but I didn't mind it. There's a definite point at which I'd feel the zany episodes could overwhelm the character and story arcs, but I don't think that's happened yet. Besides, the concept episodes are what made Community fun in the first place; nobody paid attention until "Modern Warfare".

Those concept episodes comprise my favorites of the season, too. "Basic Intergluteal Numismatics" was a brilliant take on David Fincheresque dramas. "Geothermal Escapism" found a way to reinvigorate the paintball motif by avoiding paintball altogether. And my absolute favorite of the season, "App Development and Condiments", turned review culture and social media into the dystopian caste system it often comes off as. Some of the non-concept episodes were great, too. As someone who had an unhealthy appreciation for old-fashioned VCR games, "VCR Maintenance and Educational Publishing" was a clever skewer of the labyrinthine rules they always had. And "Cooperative Polygraphy" put a new spin on the old sitcom chestnut of a lie detector test while simultaneously setting up Troy's departure.

While the season definitely has some episodes that will rank among my most favorite, it didn't get everything right. Chang was used better and more judiciously, but aside from the aforementioned "App Development and Condiments", Shirley was almost entirely ignored. John Oliver made a welcome return, but wasn't given much to do but moon over Britta. And as the season came to a close, the show seemed to suddenly remember that these characters belong to a committee dedicated to saving the school, so maybe they'd better do something with that idea.

As of this writing, it's unknown whether or not Community will get renewed. I certainly hope so; it certainly bounced back to being great television, and I want them to fulfill the six-seasons-and-a-movie rallying cry. I'm not too worried about it at this point. NBC doesn't have anything better to replace it with, despite its middling ratings, and it seems likely they'll order another season. And when the premiere date is announced, we can all gleefully add it to our calen-deans.

Community - Season 5: B+

Pop Culture Homework Assignment #10: Night of the Comet

You know what the best motivator for finally catching up on my Pop Culture Homework is? A notification from Netflix that something is about to expire. Something will be sitting on the list for months and months, to the point that I might not ever get to it, when suddenly, someone tells me I only have a week left, and I immediately start to carve out time to watch it. Pavlov's dog would be proud. One of these hurry-up notifications came the other day, and is what finally got me to settle in for the 1984 cult classic Night of the Comet.

Some preliminary work needed to be done. I knew that this was classified as a horror movie, so I fired off a tweet to the illustrious Hardcover Honey (AKA - my sister) for a report on how gory I could expect this thing to be. I remembered that it was a favorite of hers when she was younger, and figured she'd know if I could handle it or not. She scoffed, and told me that I'd be fine. No exploding skulls or stray viscera to worry about, here. A grim evening of terrible weather arrived a few days later, and I figured this was the moment to take advantage of a good doomsday flick.

I tend to like disaster movies and end-of-the-world stories, provided they're done well; my copy of The Stand has permanent oil spots from my thumbing through it so often. Night of the Comet is in the same vein. Some catastrophe has wiped out the majority of the world's population (in this case, the titular comet), and the remaining survivors struggle to adapt to the new world and the other people in it. The movie's protagonists are a pair of teenaged sisters, Reggie (Catherine Mary Stewart) and Sam (Kelli Maroney). Anyone who misses the big comet show and is protected by a layer of steel lives on, so Reggie is spared by having sex with her boyfriend in a projection room, and Sam by spending the night in a garden shed after getting punched by her stepmother. No, really!

People out in the open are turned to dust, but those who had minimal protection go through a more protracted downturn, marked by some mild zombie-ism. After Reggie's boyfriend is eaten by one of these skin-munchers, she and Sam head for the local radio station, where they meet another survivor, Hector (Robert Beltran). From there, the three of them face off against hungry zombies and evil scientists eager to drain their blood in order to find a cure for impending zombification.

Let's get two quick things out of the way. One, this is a very '80s movie. The clothes, the movie, the slang... All of it brings back fond memories of Lite-Brites and DangerMouse cartoons. There's even a shopping montage, because end-of-the-world be damned, this is an '80s movie, and OF COURSE THERE'S A SHOPPING MONTAGE. Secondly, you should know that everyone in this movie is an idiot. The heroes? Idiots. The villains? Idiots. The side-characters? Idiots. Surprisingly, the characters' idiocy detracted very little from the fun. That's probably because every niggling little thing that's wrong with this movie is counter-acted by the one thing it did very right.

This is a horror movie made in the '80s featuring female characters with actual agency. That's a deceptively simple idea, but it kept striking me over and over how refreshing it was to see a movie from this time period revolve around two girls navigating the apocalypse by being capable. Neither of them breaks down into hysterics. Neither of them goes running for a man to solve all her problems. When Reggie's boyfriend is eaten, she does not cower in a corner; she takes out the zombie with a wrench. I stand by my claim that both sisters are idiots, but at least they're idiots with senses of self-preservation, who clearly love each other and want to protect the other from harm.

I'm not quite sure what made this film catch on, and why it's considered a cult classic. It's a fairly simple story, with none of the gore that made the slashers of the '80s so popular. That said, I can certainly think of less deserving titles to become cherished. It's a silly movie, but at least it's silly and fun. It was, like, totally awesome! Oh, gag me with a spoon! I've become infected with '80s slang! Radical!

Night of the Comet: B+

The Kids Are All Right

In movies and television, overly-precocious kids are a red flag. They can easily come off as smug and obnoxious, and there's no faster way to get me to lose interest in a film or TV show. Wisecracking kids are the worst. In books, however, a clever child is a lot more palatable. There's a reason that Harriet the Spy ranks among my favorite books of all time. It's only by chance, though, that both of the books I just finished feature one of these wise protagonists. They're also both mysteries of a sort, and both belong to series that I've been following with interest.

The first was Speaking from Among the Bones (2013), which is the fifth book in Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce series. It's odd that I've never mentioned the character on the blog before, since I've been a fan since the beginning. I'll have to do a more comprehensive post on the series as a whole, but for now, I'll just talk about Book #5. Our intrepid protagonist is Flavia de Luce, a pre-teen girl in England in the early 1950s. Flavia has one great love, and that love is chemistry. She spends countless hours in the laboratory one of her ancestors built in the family's palatial estate, concocting poisons to her heart's content. She also spends a great deal of time sparring with her older sisters, with whom she has a very fraught relationship. As in the previous four books, Flavia sticks her nose into a local murder, thrilled by the danger and the challenge of solving a tricky puzzle. In this case, it involves a dead organist, hidden tunnels, locked-up lunatics, and a priceless missing jewel.

The Flavia de Luce series has been sagging a bit lately, but this was somewhat of a return to form. Naturally, it helps when the central mystery is more interesting than it has been in a couple of previous books. This one is also set higher by advancing the de Luce family story arc, as it were. Flavia's adventures throughout the local village do not take place in a vacuum. Things are happening back at the homestead, and those obstacles keep interfering in Flavia's fun with blood samples. One of these revelations happens at the very end of the book, and instead of being as annoyed as I usually am with cliffhangers, I'm genuinely curious to see where the series goes from here. I wouldn't recommend the book to people who haven't read at least Book #1, but for those who have been following Flavia's journey, it's a good read.

The other one I just finished was Lemony Snicket's When Did You See Her Last? (2013). It is Book #2 in the "All the Wrong Questions" series, and it wasn't very long ago that I was singing the praises of Book #1. Book #2 picks right up where we left off, and throws Lemony into a new mystery in the crumbling town of Stain'd-by-the-Sea. This time, a brilliant chemist (not Flavia, although that would be something, wouldn't it?) has disappeared, and her parents are curiously unworried about it. Although Lemony's mentor is as useless as always, this time he can depend on the relationships he's built with some of the town's residents. The book is as quick and witty as all of Daniel Handler's Lemony Snicket books, and the illustrations are as superb as ever.

If the book suffers from anything, it's a lack of novelty. It's a great story, but not all that different from Book #1. I'm still as interested as ever in this storyline, though, and am eagerly anticipating Book #3. I'm fortunate that Handler is so prolific, as there are two other Snicket books I can tackle while I wait. Those won't take long, though. What am I going to do after those? Oh, I know! I'll read Harriet the Spy for the 1,000th time.

Speaking from Among the Bones: B
When Did You See Her Last?: B+

Winter is Coming

I know the heat is probably still on in your house, and you haven't quite put away your overcoat yet, but summer is here! At least according to Hollywood. It seems like blockbuster action movies are coming out earlier and earlier, so despite the fact that it's not even Tax Day yet, I went out the other night and caught Captain America: The Winter Soldier. I don't have a monolithic view of superhero movies. I enjoy some, and loathe others. The best entries aren't the ones with the best action set-pieces, but the ones that manage to be entertaining in the scenes between those set-pieces. A thousand explosions don't do much good if the conversations the characters have afterwards are actively annoying.

I didn't have high hopes for the first Captain America movie, but turned out to be pleasantly surprised. That said, I wasn't breathless with anticipation for this follow-up. If I wound up seeing it, great, but it was really only a small blip on my movie radar. But then I started hearing some glowing praise from quarters I didn't it expect it from. Word-of-mouth started to build. So when a spare evening came along, I jumped on the opportunity. I don't know if I ever mentioned this in any of the other superhero movie reviews, but I don't care much about the mythology of these stories. If something doesn't match up with how it was presented in the comic book, I don't give a damn. All I ask is that these movies be entertaining and that they make sense internally.

Well, here I am, pleasantly surprised yet again. What a fun movie! Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) now lives in contemporary America, with all the benefits and detriments of modern society. He's becoming increasingly disillusioned with SHIELD, which is amassing more and more information through questionable means, all in the name of security. That's a pretty trendy plotline these days, and not without reason. When it becomes apparent that SHIELD has been infiltrated by HYDRA, the question of who Captain America can trust becomes extremely murky. He's joined in this particular adventure by Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and a new friend that comes to be called Falcon, played by Anthony Mackie. I don't think it's giving away too much to report that this trio saves the day, but it comes at a high cost; one that will unquestionably ripple throughout the entire Marvel franchise moving forward.

The action scenes are a lot of fun, but like I said, what really makes these movies is what's happening in the quieter moments. Evans is solid, but gets a little lost in the shuffle, considering he's the main character. I do like, however, that Captain America is not the Broody Loner Hero that we've been seeing a lot of lately. He wants to interact with society, and has a much stronger connection to the people around him than Batman or Superman has in a long time. Still, the real standouts in this movie are Johansson and Mackie, both of whom take roles that could easily come off as one-note and flesh them out into relatable, sympathetic characters. Samuel L. Jackson and Robert Redford also turn into some great supporting performances.

It's not a perfect movie. There's a little bit of Action Movie Cliche Dialogue, and in what has become a standard complaint of mine, too much shakycam. Aside from that, though, it was a thoroughly entertaining film that was well-acted and didn't have a bunch of idiotic plot holes. And when a superhero movie accomplishes that, it counts as a rousing success in my book.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier: A-

Websites of Mystery and the Great Pastry Wars

Four Courses Podcast - Episode 3

Greetings! Though we've edged into April, I'd like to ask you to cast your mind back. Back, back, back. All the way to... March. Done that? Good. Now that you're in the proper frame of mind, why not give Episode 3 a listen? It's posted at fourcoursespodcast.com, so go check it out.

Topics include "Table", garnishes and mixers for your favorite cocktails, the March eatin' holidays of Pi(e) Day and St. Patrick's Day, the basics of what goes into the failure or success of a restaurant, and finally, some righteous anger about a food festival that's making all the wrong moves. Literally.

I hope you enjoy it, and please consider joining the Four Courses community!

Beauty in the Beast

When I miss out on a big awards movie in the year it's released, it can often be because I sense something in it that I don't think I'll like. Then, when I catch up on it later, I'm generally proven correct, and disappointed in a film that everyone else seems to love. I honestly don't know, though, if it's the case that a movie is overpraised during hype season and I subtly picked up on it, or that a movie is getting perfectly acceptable praise, but just isn't to my tastes. Or, and this would be upsetting, if I'm holding this type of movie to a unfairly high standard when I finally get around to it.

Whatever the reason, it happened to Black Swan, it happened to Tree of Life, and now I must report that it's happened to last year's Best Picture nominee, Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012). Remember when I said that one of the reasons Crash won Best Picture is so that crusty, old-fashioned academy voters could "give themselves a warm pat on the back for choosing a screechy diatribe of overwrought racial politics"? There's something similar at work here, where academy members could now congratulate themselves for throwing attention towards some pretty blatant Poverty Porn.

The protagonist is a little girl named Hushpuppy who is learning to navigate life in the "Bathtub", a bayou community cut off from "civilization" by a levee. Everyone in the neighborhood is fiercely independent, proud of their self-sufficiency and their ability to scrape by on the scraps of nature. Sure, they may not have shoes or roofs or medicine, but they've got their pride, and HOW MANY OF YOU CAN SAY THAT? Sorry, I spun into a little bit of a rage tangent there. At "school", Hushpuppy hears about the enormous beasts of previous eras trapped in the ice glaciers that are now melting, and imagines them thawing and wreaking havoc on the world. The real danger comes with a storm that wrecks what little structure the community has built, and scatters Hushpuppy, her ailing father, and the rest of the dwindling bayou folk.

In this movie, the rescue workers trying to evacuate people from a natural disaster area are villains, and the teachers who grimly inform their students that life sucks, so they'd better learn how to cling to existence like a weed are the heroes. It's an interesting twist on perspective, but the never-ending celebration of independence at the cost of health and sustenance gets old in a hurry. Hushpuppy may not have a bed, but she's free to run around with sparklers. HOW AWESOME IS THAT?!?

Sorry, sorry. Despite my problems with the story, this is a very visually arresting movie. I know that portraying poverty as beautiful is part of its intent, but that doesn't change the fact that it succeeds in that regard. There is also one scene that legitimately grabbed me, in which lonely children, normally left to their own devices, are taken to a floating brothel and dance with the ladies there. Both the prostitutes and the children find solace in each others' arms, no matter how temporary, and it's a lovely scene. If the entire movie could have been as lyrically beautiful as that, I'd be giving it a very different review. Instead, I'm peeved that a paean to squalor gave a bunch of affluent people the chance to feel good about themselves without having to actually address any social ills.

Beasts of the Southern Wild: C

Crown of Thorns

Top Chef - Season 11, Episode 17

Hey, remember when this show was on? My apologies for letting the finale languish for so long. I have tons of excuses, some of them even legitimate! Well, better late than never. I did want to be sure and wrap up what was a fairly strong season of Top Chef, even if its ending was such a head-scratcher. You likely already know what I mean, but if not, feel free to head over to What'ere, Jane Eyre for Episode 17.

Hamachi and Tuna With Green Apple Wasabi, Celery, and Maui-Meyer Lemon

All reality shows start to show their age after a while, and Top Chef is definitely in decline. That said, it's still an enjoyable show, made even more so when watching (and drinking!) with people who are as into food as I am. This batch of contestants was far too large, but they were talented, convivial people that were fun to watch. Mostly. The challenges were well-planned and well-executed. Mostly. The judging was fair and even-handed. Mostly. So maybe Top Chef will never blow my socks off like it once did, but as far as my television tastes go, it still holds a place on the menu.

Top Chef - Season 11: B

Cracks in the Foundation

Once upon a time, there was a TV show. This TV show came roaring out of the gate from its very first episode, and both the critical community and the general public were swept up in the excitement. Though its first season had ups and downs, everyone agreed that it was monstrously entertaining, and nobody could wait to see where it went from there. Then it crawled up its own ass, spun out into ridiculous subplot after ridiculous subplot, and became actively annoying to watch. Then it tanked. And that show, ladies and gentlemen, was called Heroes.

You know how we read fairy tales to our kids about children who come to unfortunate ends because they didn't learn a valuable lesson? I'd like to read "The Tale of Heroes" to the production team behind House of Cards and hope they take it to heart. Its first season easily made my Best of 2013 list, snagging the spot for second best show of my year. Back then, I said that the Underwoods' quest for power involved "backstabbing schemes that are jaw-dropping without ever straying too far from plausibility". Damn, Africa. What happened?

The second season started off strong, wrapping up a loose end from Season 1 in a swift and shocking way. And it ended strong, with a foreboding and satisfying conclusion. In fact, House of Cards managed to tell four episodes' worth of very compelling stories about the Underwoods' continuing rise to power. Trouble is, the season is thirteen episodes long. What does that mean? Paaaaaaddddddding. Padding, padding, padding. Subplots about Adam the photographer. Subplots about Freddy the barbecue guy. Subplots about Rachel the call girl, who should receive a trophy for being Television's Most Boring Character. If these subplots were as well-crafted as the main story, I wouldn't have minded. But they weren't. They were tedious to the point that I could almost imagine a shot-clock just off screen that the characters were attempting to run down.

Even the main characters don't get off scot-free. Raymond Tusk, whom I gather was supposed to be Frank's worthy opponent this season, vacillated between inept strategies and cartoonish super-villainy. A bunch of time is devoted to the Mystery of Why Jackie Gets Tattoos. I'll go ahead and spoil that one for you: She likes pain. Isn't your mind blown? Speaking of blowing, the other big problem with this season is the sex scenes. I'm no prude - I enjoy a good sex scene as much as the next guy, but it has to make narrative sense within the story. Without even blinking, I can think of three scenes of non-normative sex presented this season with absolutely zero payoff, story-wise. They just wedged them in so the audience would be titillated. It wasn't a terrible season. Like I said, there was at least four hours of really compelling television buried in the bloat. Kevin Spacey didn't have much to do but purr evilly (which is not his fault), but Robin Wright had a tremendously strong run of episodes. And hey, Cashew the guinea pig sure is adorable.

I've been tremendously lucky with the television shows I've been watching this season; most of them have been hitting it out of the park. Maybe if it were a more lackluster season overall, this show wouldn't have come off as so disappointing. Given the end scene of Season 2, it's a little difficult to predict where the show will go from here, but I'm interested in finding out. I'm still on board for Season 3, though I'll be approaching it with a wary eye.

House of Cards - Season 2: C+
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