Author! Author!

As much as I aspire to judge everything I read on its individual merit, I'm always forced to start a new book with preconceptions about the author (I mean, assuming I've already read any of their previous books). Sometimes, I'll allow critical praise or recommendations to overpower my suspicions about a book by an author I don't generally like. Sometimes, I willingly pick up a book that has an off-putting premise just because I've enjoyed the writer's other work. This method doesn't always work out. But there have been pleasant surprises, too.

I got the opportunity to test this on both levels recently by reading Tom Perrotta's 2013 book of short stories (Nine Inches) and Lisa Jewell's 2014 novel (The House We Grew Up In). Let's get this out of the way: I think Tom Perrotta is a very talented, capable writer...whose books I don't like. I'm in the minority on this one; everyone else I've talked to about Perrotta really loves him, but his writing just keeps striking me as Diet George Saunders. Meanwhile, I've really liked (most) everything I've read by Lisa Jewell. It all took place before this blog was started, but Ralph's Party and One-Hit Wonder were great! OK, so Thirtynothing wasn't my favorite, but she's still got a good track record as far as I'm concerned. So, I snagged Nine Inches on a friend's recommendation, despite some reservations. And I snagged The House We Grew Up In based on not much more than residual affection for the author. How did it go?

Well, it went about how you'd expect. Nine Inches is a perfectly well-written collection of stories that I wound up not liking very much, and The House We Grew Up In gripped me from the start. Nine Inches has a lot of Perrotta hallmarks. That is to say, the stories are mostly about families being ripped apart, the regrets we have in old age, and aimless teenagers wrestling with having no real sense of identity. Like The Leftovers, there doesn't seem to be any resolution (either positive or negative) to the characters' despair, and perhaps that's the point. So I'll just paraphrase a statement I read from a person much wiser than I: I feel about reading Tom Perrotta books the way I feel about the World Cup. I'm glad it's successful, and I'm thrilled you like it, but I'm going to be over here doing something else.

The House We Grew Up In fared much better. It's about the seemingly perfect Bird family in a small English town. They've got a loving household, and the family is tightly-knit, always finding time to mark special occasions, especially Easter. But when tragedy strikes, the family begins to crumble, thanks in large part to the mother (Lorelei) giving in to her hoarding tendencies. The remaining family members react in wildly varying ways. Beth remains at home and hopes for the best, giving up any expectation of a normal life. Rory bolts, trying to grab at as many life experiences as he can. Meg swings the pendulum hard in the other direction, not allowing a single speck of dust or useless clutter to cross her doorstep.

The family makes an effort to stay somewhat tethered to each other and to offer emotional support to the mother that won't admit to the mental illness she clearly suffers from. It's a tough road, though, and each of the family members has their own issues to work through as well. Hoarding has always been a fascinating topic to me, and makes a terrific premise to center a novel around. Jewell writes with her usual wit and relatability, and I tore through the book in no time flat.

So, maybe objectivity isn't all it's cracked up to be. While I'm still open to being disappointed by an author I enjoy or happily surprised by an author I tend to dislike, these two books reinforce that my favorites are my favorites for a reason.

Nine Inches: C+
The House We Grew Up In: B+

Meals on Wheels

I always like it when the entertainment world encompasses my equally fierce love of the food world. Or at least, I like it when they do it competently. Just cause something has to do with food or cooking is no guarantee that I'll be automatically on board. I didn't worry too much when it came Chef, though. Chef is a 2014 movie written by, directed by, and starring Jon Favreau. Clearly, he felt pretty strongly about the material. It got mostly good reviews and came highly recommended by friend-and-cohost Kyle, so I was fairly certain I was in good hands.

Chef revolves around the story of Carl Casper (Favreau), a chef who has found a large measure of success at an LA restaurant, but in exchange for that success, he's given up his opportunities for creativity and personality in his menus. An acidic critic (Oliver Platt) calls him out on this, leading to a Twitter war and Casper's eventual joblessness. Casper resolves to re-discover why he became a chef, and with the help of his still-amiable ex-wife (Sofia Vergara) and sous chef (John Leguizamo), starts a cross-country trip on a food truck. The trip is his chance to not only re-ignite his career, but to forge a stronger connection with his son (Emjay Anthony), whom he's often neglected.

The movie has a lot of themes on its mind. Obviously, the importance of maintaining relationships with friends and family is the big one. No man is an island, and Chef tackles this not only by addressing Casper's attempts to make up for his disappointing parenting, but by pointing out to him that he can't accept the accolades and success for running a popular restaurant without also accepting its limitations. In order to express himself artistically, he must strike out on his own.

The movie also takes on the often-tired trope of criticism, and frankly does a better job of it than Best Picture winner Birdman. Caspar attacks Platt's character for glibly shitting all over his life's work, but the movie balances that out by admitting that Platt's review was entirely correct; Casper really has lost his way.

Not everything in the movie works. The relationship hurdles it sets up are cleared too easily. It's got a very odd view of social media, in which a taco truck cruising through town causes more online enthusiasm than it would if it were Beyonce. The story is also based on the life and work of Roy Choi, who we've met before, and who is, not to put too fine a point on it, kind of an egotistical ass.

Overall, though, it was a very enjoyable movie, and not just from a story perspective. It's got some great music, and the beauty shots of the food are incredible. If Chef accomplishes nothing else, it'll have you running for the refrigerator in no time.

Chef: B

Aquatic Adoration and the Greaseball Banishment

Four Courses Podcast - Episode 15

There are countless foods that appeal to me, but there's a special place in my heart for shellfish. Maybe being born in Baltimore has infused my blood with Old Bay seasoning, or maybe I was always destined to fall in love with crab, lobster, mussels, etc. etc. Happily, we set aside some time to talk about it this month, along with so much more, so why not head over to Four Courses and give Episode 15 a listen?

Topics include Juniper (both for a crawfish boil and their regular menu), the ups and downs of rum drinks, the aforementioned ode to shellfish, and a fun discussion of what makes famous food names a Cook or a Personality. We go out on more sea creature talk, as we attempt to win each other over to the oceanic animals that aren't as popular on our dinner tables. Enjoy!


As last year drew to a close, I had a tough time narrowing down my list of best television shows of the year. There were easily ten shows that had a realistic shot at the top five, but when the dust settled, I had to allow HBO's Looking to make the cut. Normally, my best-of lists are full of shows that bring a pure sense of joy into my life; it's a visceral decision. When it comes to Looking, though, joy is not the emotion it brings out in me. It's more a sense of connection. Though the show has its flaws, it's also full of the most relatable characters ever put on television. Relatable to me, anyway, which makes me deeply invested in their stories.

Those stories continued to deepen and grow in Season 2, which had scenes of painfully realistic romance and heartbreak and awkwardness and frustration. One of the things I like about Looking is that is doesn't wholly revolve around romantic relationships (be they long-term or casual hookups). It spends time on male/female friendships. It spends time on how your personal life and your professional life get intertwined. It spends time on familial relationships. Those who dismiss it as just "that gay show" should really check out remarkable episodes like "Looking for a Plot", in which Doris and Dom head back to their hometown of Modesto (with Patrick in tow) to attend Doris' father's funeral. Or "Looking for Sanctuary", which focuses on Patrick's family.

That's not to say the show shies away from gay drama, some of it truly cringe-inducing. In "Looking for Gordon Freeman", a boozy Patrick makes a speech at his Halloween party so embarrassing, I had to turn away from the screen. "Looking for Home", which serves as both the season and series finale, is almost entirely taken up by Kevin and Patrick's first real fight. Yes, series finale. Despite the entreaties from critics and the show's tiny fanbase, there will not be a season 3, although there's talk of a movie that will wrap everything up.

That bums me out, but I understand. The show definitely had its flaws, and was very divisive, to the point that half the people I talked to about it told me they just couldn't get into it. But the other half includes me, and that half found it a fascinating, romantic, sad, beautifully-shot show that we wish could have gone on longer.

Looking - Season 2: B+

Heavy-Handed is the Head That Wears the Crown

Maybe some shows are just destined to have one good season. In my disappointed review of Season 2 of House of Cards, I mentioned Heroes as being another show that came out strong, then immediately tanked. There's an important difference, though. Everyone could tell that Heroes could have continued being terrific, but was mucked up by baffling creative decisions. House of Cards, on the other hand, may never be able to achieve the heights of Season 1 ever again; not because someone fucked up, but because they just can't keep up the relentless pace the debut season had.

I should begin with the good stuff about Season 3 of House of Cards, though, and there's a lot of it. This season had a sharp increase in quality from Season 2. There's several reasons for this, chief of which was the lack of pointless, tangential subplots. There was still some bloat and some padding, but significantly less, and I appreciated that. This season's stories mostly stuck to the protagonists. Turns out that Doug Stamper did not die at the end of last season, and a lot of this one revolves around his recovery, his moral code, and his questioning of his place within the Underwood hierarchy, which was interesting to see. Heather Dunbar (played by the...well, marvelous Elizabeth Marvel), who was the Solicitor General last season, steps up to become a far bigger and far more believable threat to Frank's power than the Washington media and Raymond Tusk combined. Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright do some nice acting work when the inevitable struggle between the Underwoods pits these two pit bulls against one another. All in all, Season 3 had much stronger secondary characters, and was far better at telling cohesive stories.

Only trouble is, some of those cohesive stories just aren't very interesting. Who was watching House of Cards in Season 1 and thinking to themselves, "Well, I'm loving all this blackmail and illicit sex and murder, but what I really want to see is Frank wrestle with economic and foreign policy initiatives"? Who are the viewers who enjoyed watching Claire attempt to destroy a pregnant coworker and are now delighted by her diplomatic handling of the Secretary of State's feelings about her role as ambassador? Also, I find it amusing and puzzling that Frank Underwood apparently believed that once he schemed his way into the presidency, he would have all the power he's been lusting for, and that nobody would ever challenge him again. Is he aware of what a president is? It's nothing but constant power struggles! It would be good television if the show explored that in a way that suggested Frank only feels alive when he's scheming and manipulating, but he's befuddled and peeved by the notion that he can't rule America with an iron fist now that he's the chief. Weird choice.

And then there's Rachel, whose storyline is only rivaled by The Hunt for Mr. Green's Killer in terms of interminable dullness. How many scenes have been devoted to Doug trying to track down this girl who doesn't pose even a minor threat to Frank's secrets? My conservative estimate is 1500. This what I meant by some shows perhaps only having one great season in them. While there were some genuinely good scenes scattered throughout this season, and while I'm curious to see where the show goes from here, I doubt House of Cards will ever be appointment television again.

House of Cards - Season 3: B-

Recipe For Success

Back when I was reviewing/recapping Top Chef, I had a common...well, it wasn't a complaint, per se. More of an observation. The producers would bring in these big names from the food world to be guest judges, and the contestants would be duly impressed by them. The audience, however, was often left out in the cold. If you weren't familiar with the person, then all you had to go on was a gushing interview from a contestant, talking about how much they respected the Name of the Week. It's not that I didn't believe that these guests were accomplished; they were just unfamiliar, so I didn't know how much stock I put in their opinions.

We so often don't know what goes into forming the opinions and motivations of chefs, no matter how famous they may be, which is why the PBS show The Mind of a Chef is such a nice change of pace. It's produced by Anthony Bourdain (who also narrates), and each season focuses on one or two particular chefs. We follow the chef through multiple episodes, as they explain and demonstrate the aspects of food and food culture that inspire them or that they concentrate on.

As of this post, three seasons have aired, and I've worked my way through the first one. Season 1 centered around David Chang, the Korean-American chef who founded the Momofuku group of restaurants. Naturally, he loves working with Asian ingredients, specifically noodles. But he is by no means a single-minded chef. Through these sixteen episodes, we visit several countries with him, diving into ramen, the edible parts of a pig, whiskey, eggs, cookies, and much more.

Each episode fills us in on a part of Chang's history or a particular ingredient that has been important to his development as a chef, and this deep exploration of a career is something that audiences and diners see far too rarely. As a television concept, it's brilliant. It's executed well, too, though I did have one or two issues.

The first is just a personal thing: Season 1 features several scenes of people eating ramen, and I don't believe there's a food that's less attractive to watch people consume. The other is more structural. Since the chef is involved with foods, trends, restaurants, and people that they enjoy, it can get a little repetitive watching them heap praise on everything that's featured. Everything can't be awesome. I don't expect them to eat foods they hate or to delve into stories of their career's failures, but it would be nice to get a more multi-faceted look at the chef's personality; I want to hear about the foods or cooking methods they avoid as well as the ones they flock to.

Aside from that, though, this show is not only entertaining and informative, but important to the television landscape. We're always being told that so-and-so is an expert, but now, we don't have to take a host's word for it. We can see the evidence for ourselves.

The Mind of a Chef - Season 1: B

The IT Crowd

There's always a looming boogeyman to be afraid of. Communism. Terrorists. The Japanese economy. In the modern era, the looming boogeyman is technology, and how deeply ingrained it's become to our daily lives. Exploring how technology might progress to a dark and scary place is a wonderful premise for a sci-fi show, and wouldn't you know it, along came Black Mirror. Originally aired in 2011, Black Mirror is a British show that posits very Twilight Zone-esque, futuristic scenarios about how people utilize technology, and what might happen if we sacrifice too much of our humanity for the seductive promises advanced tech offers.

"Black Mirror" refers to those screens - a TV, a computer, a handheld device - that demands more and more of our attention every day. All seven of the episodes aired to date deal with those screens in some way, and none of them are cheery. If you're down in the dumps, do not watch this show, lest it push you over the edge. But if you're up for a good, old-fashioned, misanthropic bashing of how lazy, spineless, and greedy the human race is, this show is an excellent outlet. That sounds like I'm criticizing the show for its tone, but it's actually a compliment. It reminds me of those children's books that offer a stern warning: Do not act like this or BAD things will happen.

The show finally became available to watch in the States, and I snapped them up. All seven episodes are worth watching, although some are definitely better than others. It's an anthology series, so the episodes can be watched in any order. I worry that people won't continue after the first one ("The National Anthem"), given how weird and off-putting it is, but that episode is not particularly representative of the rest. For one thing, it's one of only two that could conceivably take place in the present. And secondly, I promise that none of the other episodes feature sexual intercourse with farm animals.

The other episodes are far stronger. "The Entire History of You", which is pretty much everyone's favorite, weaves a tense story about how relationships might be affected if we were able to call up everything we've ever seen as an instant replay. "Be Right Back" offers the lure of downloading a dead loved one's consciousness into a surrogate body, before pulling out the rug. "White Bear" puts a woman through the emotional wringer, but it isn't until the end that we discover why these things are happening to her.

In fact, besides "The National Anthem" and "The Waldo Moment" (in which a reluctant voice-over performer is persuaded into putting forth his animated character as a political candidate), all of the episodes are pretty gripping. Just don't watch too many of them in a row, or you'll be reaching for a big bottle of Prozac afterwards.

Black Mirror - Seasons 1 & 2: B+

Troll the Respawn, Jeremy

Netflix has a complicated history. Renting out discs that I could keep as long as I wanted? Great! Adding an Instant Streaming catalog? Wonderful! Not having an option to automatically add things to both disc and instant queues? Stupid! That plan a year or so back to split into two separate entities? Awful! So, when I learned that they'd be producing original programming, I was a little suspicious. Would this company be able to put out anything watchable?

Happily, the answer turned out to be a resounding yes! Now that the initial hurdle is cleared, all that remains is to take each new show on a case-by-case basis. I took a hard pass on Hemlock Grove, and am actively looking forward to Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp. In the meantime, a quirky little comedy popped up. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was created by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock (the team behind 30 Rock), and stars Ellie Kemper (Bridesmaids, The Office, etc.) as a young woman who was imprisoned in an underground bunker as part of a doomsday cult for 15 years, and is only now rejoining the world. NBC had first crack at this show, but because NBC can't do anything that resembles a good idea these days, they passed, and Netflix snapped it up.

Kimmy decides to build a life for herself in New York City, encountering a cadre of wacky acquaintances, from her fame-obsessed roommate Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess) to her off-kilter landlady (Carol Kane) to her vapid, wealthy boss (Jane Krakowski). In a way, this show is very similar to 30 Rock, except there are no grounded central characters for all the insanity to revolve around. In the world of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, EVERYONE is insane in their own way.

And that insanity pays off in spades. I have not encountered a show so relentlessly chipper and fun and so goddamn quoteable in a really long time. Everything is new to Kimmy, and her excitement about automatic faucets and phone technology and modern dating is infectious. The secondary characters all get a chance to shine as well, and it feels like the show found its groove early in the first season, which is incredibly rare. On a social science tip, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt accomplishes something else rare, too. This is a show that is very interested in the stories of being an Other. An Other race, an Other sexual orientation, an Other gender... In 13 episodes, I can think of two straight, white males that get more than five minutes of screentime total. And both of them are antagonists. That's fascinating and admirable to me, especially since the show gets away with doing this while still being hilarious.

If there are any downsides, they're relatively minor. Jane Krakowski's character starts off as a little too close to Jenna Maroney, though they broaden her story in an amazing way mid-season. The last couple of episodes aren't nearly as strong as the rest of the season, dragging out courtroom humor that would have been funny as an aside, but doesn't quite work as a hefty plotline. But really, that's about it. After watching the first episode, I was hooked, and binge-watched the entire thing in a weekend. And in the year we have to wait until Season 2 comes out, you can bet that I'll be watching it again. And probably again after that. Until then, I'll have to focus on the fact that my floor is warped, and all my cats are piling up in one corner.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt - Season 1: A-


It can be tough to be in the minority when it comes to entertainment. It's bad enough when you enjoy something that everyone else seems to dislike or ignore; at least then you can tell yourself that you've discovered a hidden gem that nobody else appreciates. It's even more difficult when you don't get the appeal or support the acclaim for something everyone else seems to love.

That's kind of how I felt about the first two books in Lev Grossman's Magicians trilogy. When The Magicians came out and was lauded as "grown-up, realistic Harry Potter", I was all over it. When I finished it, I thought to myself "Huh. OK." It wasn't terrible or anything, but I felt that it wasn't half as good as everyone was saying it was. It was definitely good enough to pick up the second book (The Magician King) when that was published, only to be mildly disappointed anew. It seemed as though I was just destined to be blasé about a series that everyone else was doing cartwheels over. Yet again, I figured that as long as I'd already invested time into this universe and its characters, I may as well ride it out.

Imagine my delight when I found the final book in the trilogy, 2014's The Magician's Land, to be the best of the bunch. Quentin has been expelled from Fillory, and is trying to forge some sort of identity back in the "real" world. He hasn't left the realm of magic, though, and becomes intrigued with the idea of resurrecting Alice, the girlfriend who's now literally haunting him. Meanwhile, a cataclysmic event threatens Fillory and its remaining human rulers. And if that wasn't enough, the backstory of the entire world is filled in when journals written by one of the original children to enter Fillory are discovered.

It sounds like the recipe for an overstuffed mess of a book, but in a nice turn, everything is woven together really skillfully, and all the lingering plot threads are eventually tied up. The Magician's Land has even accomplished something very rare. It's made me think that the previous two books might be worth a second look. That never happens! This series must be even more magical than I thought.

The Magician's Land: B+

Upper Crust

Sometimes I think I was born in the wrong country. There's lots to love about America, but in some respects, I feel like I may have been happier if I were born in England. Oh, wait. I forgot about English food. OK, never mind. America rocks. But there's no denying that British culture holds a ton of allure for me, and I heartily enjoy a lot of their television shows. And now, two of those shows have just had their season finales. Well, their season finales as they aired in the United States. They ended in Great Britain a long time ago, and I wish I knew why PBS insists on delaying the schedule like that. But that's a topic for another day. Today is all about... Early-century soap operas and insanely-addictive reality shows!

The first show was Season 5 of Downton Abbey. The show has never reattained the heights it reached in Season 1, but at least it's gotten to a kind of even keel of fairly reliable entertainment. In fact, it's so even-keeled that it looks like I never wrote a wrap-up of Season 4. It all just kind of blended together. Let's do so now. In Season 4, O'Brien, Alfred, and Ivy left. Anna got raped, and Edith had a baby. Some other stuff happened, too, but just seeing those plot points written out reminds me of how annoying that season often was. It wasn't terrible, but I was hoping for more.

And I got it! Season 5 isn't half-bad. Romantic entanglements are the order of the day. Mary has to choose between two men, and gets caught up in a situation when she decides to have a sexual walkabout with one. Violet gets flirted with by a still-married Russian aristocrat. Isobel gets proposed to. An art collector propositions Cora. Jimmy gets fired after sleeping with a visiting guest. Rose marries a Jew. Romance is even in the air for characters you wouldn't expect, and a surprise proposal is the highlight of the season finale, and probably of the season itself.

Downton Abbey does tend to drag out boring story threads, though, and Season 5 is no exception. The police are looking into the death of Mr. Green, and never stop pestering Bates and Anna about it. Thomas spends episode after episode trying to force Baxter to tell her awful secret, and when she finally spills, it's not a big deal. The saga of Edith's secret child has some promise, but it's mostly just a metric ton of scenes of her bothering the couple looking after her daughter. So while it was another fairly satisfying season, I doubt the show will ever be able to take my breath away again.

Know what did take my breath away? A competitive reality show. I know, I'm shocked too! I still can't believe just how great The Great British Bake Off was. Season 5 is the first one to be aired on American television, and I don't understand why it took so long. Over on these shores, it's called The Great British Baking Show. I'm not entirely sure why the name was changed in the transition, but I've heard theories that maybe Pillsbury has some sort of trademark on the phrase "bake-off". Fuck them, I'm using the original name.

I've watched plenty of competitive reality shows, and I've watched plenty of food television, and cannot emphasize enough just how stellar this show is. The contestants? They're all talented people that...wait for it...don't use that talent as an excuse to act like raging dicks. No, really! Everyone is nice and supportive. They have friendly chats as they compete, and they don't backstab each other. All their criticisms are directed at themselves, and how they'd like to improve their skills in the future. The biggest contestant drama of the season is BinGate, which I won't spoil here, but look it up. That's as fierce as it ever got. American reality shows like to excuse terrible contestant behavior with a sack of bullshit about how awful people generate drama that audiences want to watch, but The Great British Bake Off puts the lie to that claim. This was a group of wonderful people all doing their best to display their abilities without ever once feeling the need to tear each other down. It was such a breath of fresh air.

The judges? Equally awesome! They have names that don't even sound real (Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood), but they are just as superior to their American counterparts as the contestants. They articulate their opinions clearly, they're firm about their criticisms without being needlessly cruel, and they freely compliment people for work that was done well. In other words, they're judges, rather than catch-phrase spouting personalities.

The challenges? Equally awesome! Each episode is split into three challenges. There's the Signature, in which the chefs all make the same type of baked good, and are allowed to bring tried-and-tested recipes from home (the openness about these recipes is another good change from American cooking reality shows, in which everyone is expected to make things up as they go along). Then there's the Technical, in which the bakers all make the same thing, and are just given the barest of instructions. The best thing about this challenge is that it's blindly judged; Mary and Paul have no idea who made which entry until they've ranked them. And finally, there's the Showstopper, in which the bakers are challenged to make something complicated and visually arresting.

The production design? Equally awesome! I cannot over-praise the camera work on this show; everything looks incredibly beautiful. The editing makes it clear how every contestant is progressing, ties in check-ins and interviews, and intersperses the challenges with pretty illustrated animations about what each baker is making.

The hosting? Equally... OK, this is the one nitpick I have, and it's a minor one. The show and challenges are hosted by two women named Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins, and when they're chatting with the judges or contestants, announcing winners and losers, or voicing over the explanations of what each baker is making, they're perfectly capable. But the other 60% of their time is throwing out terrible puns, cringy double entendres, and annoying fake accents. Mel is usually fine, but Sue really needs to cool it with the need to pronounce "bake" with a different quirky tone in every episode.

That complaint right there? Is literally the only thing I can find to criticize about the show. I don't know if I'll be able to track down any of the previous seasons, but you can bet I'll be trying. And it is my fervent hope that this show continues on, in exactly its current form, for a long time. As long as they keep sending it over here for us poor Yanks to enjoy.

Downton Abbey - Season 4: B-
Downton Abbey - Season 5: B
The Great British Bake Off - Season 5 (AKA The Great British Baking Show - Season 1): A+

The Rewatch: Friends - Season 3

Honestly, I'm shocked. The only shows that I deem worthy of The Rewatch are ones that I remember as being pretty terrific, and that benefit from multiple viewings. As I make my way through Friends, at least so far, I'm finding that it just hasn't aged as well as I figured it would. As I mentioned in the entry for Season 2, this may have something to do with the binge-watching. Maybe if I let the episodes breathe a little more, I'd be enjoying them more.

Or maybe I'd find Ross just as irredeemable as I do now. You guys, seriously. It's not (entirely) David Schwimmer's fault, but Season 3 Ross is a monster. If the theme of Season 2 was Rachel is Perfect, the theme of Season 3 is Ross is Awful. He's smug and jealous and possessive and petty and whiny and about three millimeters shy of bigoted. He's finally attained Rachel as a girlfriend, but the show just couldn't live without that on-again, off-again spark, I guess, because they had to figure out a way to break the two of them up. And the way they hit upon was by turning Ross into a giant douche.

Rachel finally snaps, and proposes the famous "Break" that will be part of the show's DNA from here on out. And as terrible as I find Ross' behavior throughout the season, I don't fault him for sleeping with someone else while he and Rachel were separated. You don't get to cut romantic contact with someone and then maintain a say in their emotional and sexual behavior, so my issues with Ross are in no way a moral scolding. But the show would like us to think he's a terrible person for this, and not for the "hilarious" jealous fits and suffocation of Rachel when he thinks her coworker Mark is interested in her. Rachel does eventually forgive Ross, but by that point, he's dating Bonnie (Christine Taylor), and we leave the season on a cliffhanger wondering which of them Ross will choose. Yawn.

Oh, the other four characters? They're part of the season too, I GUESS. Monica is going through her usual romantic woes, trying to balance her residual feelings for Richard (Tom Selleck) and new love interest Pete (Jon Favreau). Phoebe is distracted by family issues, including her brother (Giovanni Ribisi) wanting to marry a much older woman (the always wonderful Debra Jo Rupp). Chandler is still into Janice (Maggie Wheeler), but she's still involved with her ex-husband. And Joey falls for an actress (Dina Meyer) in one of his plays, and it's drawn out for way too long, given that she has the personality of a celery stalk.

The best and worst episodes are mentioned below, but I wanted to single out "TOW No One's Ready" first, because people are always pointing to it as a classic bottle episode that really gives the six main characters a chance to exemplify their traits. I heartily disagree with this argument, and it's a good thing, too, because in a weird inverse of the season as a whole, Ross is the only one to act like a reasonable human being. He's trying to get everyone out the door so they can be on time at a museum event that is very important to him, and they all ignore him to focus on their own selfish motivations. I find "The One With the Football" (which is the Thanksgiving episode) to be a far more effective bottle episode, and makes the characters measurably more likeable.

Notable Guest Stars: Jon Favreau is better than I remember as Pete, the tech titan who almost lands Monica, before a contrived plot point gives her a reason to jettison him. Teri Garr is similarly good as Phoebe Abbott, a friend of Phoebe's parents who carries mysterious secrets about the family. Steven Eckholdt is a pretty milquetoast presence, but I suppose I should bring him up since he's so important to the seasonal arc (see below). Other familiar faces include David Arquette (meh), Christine Taylor (meh), and Isabella Rossellini (yaaaay). Fellow sufferers of Queer as Folk will also recognize Matt Battaglia and Robert Gant as guys vying for Phoebe's affections, but they're unfortunately far more dressed in this show than they were on cable. And finally, there are two very famous comedians who drop by to help ruin a terrible episode (see below).

What's Keeping Ross and Rachel And Their Apparently Greatest Love in the History of the Earth Apart This Time: Well, there's poor Mark (Steven Eckholdt), who works with Rachel, and who Ross is convinced is trying to steal her away, using it as an excuse to treat Mark like shit. Speaking of Rachel's job, the fact that she has a new one that she loves in the fashion industry makes Ross insanely mopey, because she no longer spends all her time falling all over him. Him having to rush off to the museum at a moment's notice is fine. Her working late means she's a terrible girlfriend. Sigh. When she finally tells him they need to take a break from each other, he sleeps with a copy shop (remember those?) employee named Chloe (Angela Featherstone), and that really puts the nail in the relationship coffin for a while. And as I mentioned above, just when it looks like they're about to recover, Ross begins dating Bonnie.

Best Episode: Ross is a lot better in "TOW a Chick and a Duck", and the aforementioned guys-fighting-over-Phoebe storyline is part of a very good one called "TOW Ross' Thing", but I think top prize has to go to "TOW Monica and Richard are Just Friends". It combines some actually acceptable character-building (Monica working out her attraction to Richard), some fun friend interaction (Joey and Rachel reading Little Women and The Shining, respectively), and wacky dates (Phoebe seeing a guy whose balls keep falling out of his shorts).

Worst Episode: This is a tough choice. In one corner we have "The One with the Metaphorical Tunnel". If you thought the march of time would lessen the gay panic jokes Friends indulges in, you're in for a long wait. This one has Ross tearing his hair out because Ben wants to play with a Barbie doll. And for added fun, it's also one of Ross' whiniest "Raaaaaaachel doesn't have any tiiiiiime to spend with meeeeeeee" episodes. It's excruciating. But in the other corner, we have "The One with the Ultimate Fighting Champion". This is the plot contrivance that has Pete suddenly wanting to be an ultimate fighter, which makes no sense for his character. It also opens with a painfully unfunny scene featuring Billy Crystal and Robin Williams, the latter almost destroying the Central Perk set with his scenery chewing. I'll have to give the dishonor to "The One with the Metaphorical Tunnel", because it's the height of the season as far as wishing Ross would suffocate in his own hair gel.

The season isn't a total washout, of course. This is still a comedy, and there are plenty of funny jokes sprinkled throughout the show. When it sticks to setup-joke, setup-joke, setup-joke, I enjoy Friends quite a bit. But as they try to impose emotional and romantic stakes for the main characters, it's worsening by the episode.

Treat Yourself

What's more sad: Losing a show that had real promise after one short season, or coming to grips with the ending of a wonderful show that's had a good, long run? I don't have the answer to that question, but whatever it is, there's no question that it's tough to say goodbye to Parks and Recreation. I told myself that I'd watch the episodes in order, so I almost didn't make it to Season 2. There's no polite way to put it: Season 1 sucked.

But then, something happened that almost never occurs. The show took steps to fix its problems, and the network (NBC of all people!) gave it time to grow. By the end of Season 2, Parks & Rec had really come into its own. And ever since that time, it has been appointment television for me. By the end of Season 4, it had become my favorite show of the year. Season 5 and Season 6 were similarly awesome, though they didn't reach the peaks that Season 4 did.

There's something to be said for knowing in advance when a final season is coming up. You don't have to worry about renewal and you don't have to set up any cliffhangers. You can just spend the last batch of episodes tying up all the loose ends, and trying to give your characters a worthy sendoff. And boy, did Parks & Rec ever deliver on that.

We remain a few years in the future for the whole season, which sets up all sorts of fun jokes about what life is like in 2017. But where this show always shone is in its ability to find humor in situations without becoming nasty or jaded. It sounds like a slam to call a show "nice", but Parks & Rec is probably the nicest show in the past five years. It takes a real interest in its characters doing their best to govern the town of Pawnee well, and rewards them for their efforts. Though they spar often, their affection for each other is genuine and palpable. And it's still so, so funny.

Standout episodes (besides, well...all of them) in this last season include "Ron & Jammy", "Leslie and Ron", and of course, the outstanding finale, "One Last Ride". All three focus less on plot events, and more on the relationships that have made this show such a delight. It will always stand out as a terrific example of a comedy that could be funny while going for the heartstrings, rather than for the jugular, and that sort of entertainment is becoming all too rare.

Parks and Recreation - Season 7: A
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