B is for Belated

We live in an era of fractured television habits. I cut the cable cord long ago, and that makes for some creative methods of getting access to the shows I want to watch. Some of them are so streaming-unfriendly that I unfortunately have to give up on them until later. So...I'll get to you at some point, last season of Mad Men!

I was streaming a lot of the shows I watch and enjoy via a Hulu Plus account that's no longer active, so I began to fall behind on a lot. But a new Hulu vein has been tapped, and I finally got to go back and (mostly) catch up on a trio of shows, just in time for their new seasons to begin. I call these my "B" shows, for obvious reasons: Bob's Burgers, Black-ish, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

We'll start with the one I've already mentioned, and the one that comes with the caveat. The inaugural season of Black-ish easily made my Top 5 of 2014, and the episodes that aired in the new year were just as remarkable in their ability to straddle the line of social commentary and comedy. The show did begin to lose a bit of steam in its final episodes, but never to the point that it wasn't quality television. My caveat is that I didn't see the last couple of episodes of the season, and thanks to Hulu's weird rules, they're not available to stream anymore. I seriously doubt that two episodes could undo all the goodwill Black-ish built up, and I'm excited to jump into Season 2.

Favorite Episode: "Crime and Punishment" (Episode 5)

While premiere seasons like Black-ish certainly have challenges, it's arguably more difficult to score a win in a sophomore season after a terrific debut. Season 1 of Brooklyn Nine Nine blew me away, and it would have been so easy for it to rest on its laurels and go through a bit of a backslide. Instead, it built on the terrific foundation it has already established, and became even better, to the point that it's difficult to pick a favorite episode. The addition of guest star Kyra Sedgwick as Captain Holt's nemesis brought constant hilarity, thanks to Andre Braugher's impeccable performance, and the will-they/won't they of a Peralta/Santiago romance didn't derail the series at all. The acting and writing were spot-on for the entire season, and really, the only thing I can criticize is an underdeveloped Rosa plotline involving Holt's nephew, but that can be put down to Nick Cannon's flat performance, and didn't detract from how wonderful this series is as a whole.

Favorite Episode: "Jake and Sophia" (Episode 6)

Meanwhile, Bob's Burgers, a show that captured my heart from the very beginning, continued its reign. Season 4 was my #1 show of 2013, and while Season 5 didn't reach the heights that Season 4 did, it's still a hell of a show. Much as The Simpsons did in its Golden Age, the universe the Belchers inhabit has been expanding in deep and believable ways, pulling in terrific tertiary characters like Jocelyn and Tammy. All of the family's victories and failures feel earned and the music is as insanely catchy as ever. There's been a wealth of amazing television this year, so it's unlikely that even a season as good as this one will make the top five. But make no mistake, Bob's Burgers is still firing on all cylinders.

Favorite Episode: "Can't Buy Me Math" (Episode 11)

Black-ish - Season 1: A-
Brooklyn Nine-Nine - Season 2: A
Bob's Burgers - Season 5: B+

Pop Culture Homework Assignment #16: Logan's Run

The Pop Culture Homework Project has brought to light an interesting conundrum: Is there an invisible expiration date on properties that were popular either at the time they were released, or developed a cult following later? Where's the magical line between good, bad, and so-bad-it's-good? The benchmark for this question appears to be The Goonies. Like most people who really enjoyed that movie, I saw it as a kid, and was enraptured by the adventure, the Rube Goldbergian booby traps, and the youthful snark. Sometimes, though, I'll run across someone who dislikes the movie, and my first question to them is always the same: "How old were you when you first saw it?" And without fail, the naysayers saw it when they were already in their late teens or beyond, and saw it in the modern age (that is to say, they saw it at least ten years after its release in 1985).

It feels like whatever personality trait that was endemic to the target audience of the time has somewhat evaporated, and it becomes a kind of you-just-had-to-be-there experience. I ask all this because I just saw the 1976 sci-fi classic, Logan's Run, and am completely befuddled by its reputation. I knew going in that it was about a futuristic society in which nobody is allowed to live past the age of 30, that it starred Michael York, and that it was about someone trying to escape the fate signaled by the flashing red crystal embedded in their palm. That's about it.

Now I can fill in the gaps. Sort of. York plays Logan, a "sandman" who's in charge of exterminating any citizen who attempts to weasel out of their scheduled death. For a society portrayed as a utopia, there's a lot of these runners. He enjoys his job, but things become complicated when his bosses decide he's to go undercover as a runner to infiltrate Sanctuary, a hidden conclave of people who are unaccounted for. Logan befriends reluctant prostitute Jessica, correctly suspecting that she knows something, and the two of them begin the search for Sanctuary, learning uncomfortable truths about their society in the process.

So. Why is this thing so well-regarded? I love Michael York, but even he can't escape the hamfest of acting this movie contains. Everyone's at an eleven all the time. I can accept that special effects in the 1970s are going to look goofy, but it'd have been nice to have even a speck of subtlety in any of the performances (Farrah Fawcett-Majors being the most cringeworthy - I know she was likely cast to be eye candy, but yikes).

The plot is a mess, too. The citizens of this society don't do anything but walk around in large atria, giggling to each other. The sandmen ruthlessly track runners, but see no need to clamp down on the Cubs, the one "dangerous" element of society ("dangerous" is in sarcastic quotes, because the Cubs are about as intimidating as a Hello Kitty plush doll). Two of Jessica's friends plot to murder Logan, but their characters disappear midway through the movie, never to be seen again. And the ending suggests some sort of radical shift in how society functions, but gives no clue as to how that will come about or what it might be.

I do have to admit that even with all this complaining, Logan's Run was a lot of fun to watch; especially since I was watching it with friends, and we MST3K'ed our way through the whole thing. It just brought up so many questions. Was this laughably cheesy even at the time, or did people really enjoy it as pure sci-fi? Why has it endured all these years? And if ever there was a property ripe for reboot, this would be it. How come there hasn't been a modern remake? Oh, well. I guess we'll put all those questions in the same pile as "So what the fuck was that ice cave robot scene, and what was it meant to accomplish?"

Logan's Run: C

Dairy Delights and the Gift of the Fungi

Four Courses Podcast - Episode 19

Four Courses has undergone some upheaval in the past month, so you'll notice big changes in this month's episode, including a brand new course. We're delving into food from both land and sea, so if you don't already subscribe on iTunes or Stitcher, head on over to our blog and check out Episode 19!

Topics include Kampai Sushi Bar, the myriad uses of basil, the wide and wonderful world of cheeses, and the challenges of falling off the vegetarian wagon. We also welcome our first guest host, Jeffrey Ricker, whose books you should go buy immediately. Enjoy!

New Sensation

When it comes to pop culture tastes, there may not be a more divisive group of properties than the movies from the Wachowskis. From talking to other cinemaphiles, it seems that people either really love or really hate their more recent work. Fortunately for me, I fall on the more "love it" side of that divide, though I'm hard-pressed to describe why. Movies like Cloud Atlas and Jupiter Ascending were widely regarded as bizarre flops, but I found a lot to like in both of them. If nothing else, they were interesting and ambitious, even if they didn't always succeed at what they were trying to do. I'd rather watch ten movies like Jupiter Ascending than a single frame of whatever Adam Sandler is peddling these days.

The Wachowskis made the jump from film to TV this year with the Netflix series Sense8, which has a lot of DNA in common with Cloud Atlas. It deals with the same themes of common humanity and interconnectivity, but was free to break up the story to be more episodic, instead of trying to cram everything into two hours. Sense8 deals with a group of eight people, all of whom live in different countries. The premise of the show is that these characters begin to overlap in their thoughts and feelings, and are able to communicate psychically with each other, though they can't always control when and how it happens. If two of them are focused on the same type of thing or need one of the other's particular expertise, that's when they'll show up. So who are these eight chosen ones? A cheerful bus driver in Kenya who is desperate to get AIDS medication for his mother. A transgendered hacker from San Francisco. An Icelandic DJ who's fled to London to escape a troubled past. A kickboxing, Korean businesswoman who holds together a family that ignores her. A Chicago police officer. A closeted Mexican movie star. A religious, Indian chemist who's reluctant to get married. And a violent, criminal enforcer from Berlin who holds fierce loyalties to his friends.

As they begin to learn more about the others and the strange forces that are causing these crossovers, they also learn they are in danger from an organization that seeks to eradicate people like them. They must combine forces across the ether to stay alive and to come to a greater understanding about who they are.

It's a fascinating show, and one that is pretty unmatched when it comes to beautiful cinematography. It must be monstrously difficult to put the pieces of the show together, but the editing is pretty seamless. It's explicit and unafraid to explore alternative points of view and sexualities. It manages to tell eight individual stories, and still weaves them together into a single, overarching one.

That said, the people who generally don't like the Wachowski movies won't have their minds changed by this. The pacing is fairly glacial. For a story that focuses so much on love and understanding, its character's problems are often only solvable through brutal violence. And in perhaps its most grievous sin, it uses the hideous garbage song "What's Up" from 4 Non Blondes as a rallying theme in one episode. Ew.

It'd be really easy for a show like this to crash and burn, but Netflix announced on the sensates' shared birthday (August 8) that a new season is in the works. It's such heartening news, because television like this is an enormous risk, and I like to see creativity rewarded - especially when the show is as firmly in my wheelhouse as this one is. Now I'll just have to spend the time between seasons laughing about what a disappointing member of a sensate cluster I'd be.

Sense8 - Season 1: A-

Hive Mind

We're in that strange part of the movie calendar that lies between the summer blockbusters and the awards-baiting prestige films. Anything goes in September, so it's fitting that the movie I just saw is an odd little combination of indie drama, a couple of well-regarded thespians, and a character who's lately been popping up relentlessly.

That movie is Mr. Holmes, starring Ian McKellen and Laura Linney, and directed by Bill Condon. McKellen plays Sherlock Holmes, but far from the ass-kicker of the Guy Ritchie movies I've studiously avoided, or the Holmes at the height of his career in the BBC series with Benedict Cumberbatch, this Holmes is in his decline. He retires to a remote cottage in the country, and spends his days tending the beehives in his garden. His only company is that of his housekeeper (Linney) and her son Roger (Milo Parker).

Watching characters who are slowly losing their mental faculties is always a sad journey, but especially so when the character in question is one we're so used to being the sharpest person in the room. Holmes experiments with exotic substances believed to help memory lapses, and in the process, he recounts one of his old cases to Roger, who becomes fascinated with the old man. From there, the movie is split pretty evenly between those three stories (the old case, Holmes' ailments, and the mystery of the dying bees out in the garden).

Mr. Holmes is almost entirely carried by its cast. It's no surprise that McKellen and Linney ace their roles, but Milo Parker, who is given perhaps the toughest job as a kid that could easily come off as obnoxious, is one of the better child actors I've seen in a long time. That said, the pacing of this movie is extremely slow, and the script isn't particularly noteworthy. None of the three plotlines I mention above goes anywhere particularly interesting.

With a lesser cast, this movie would have been eye-rollingly dull, but thanks to its impressive performances, it's able to elevate itself to something worthwhile. I can't recommend it with a full and open heart, but there are definitely worse ways to spend a rainy evening.

Mr. Holmes: B-

Class Clowns

Something funny happens when comedians write autobiographies, and unfortunately, I don't mean "Ha-Ha" funny. I adore Tina Fey, and thought Bossypants was so-so. I really admire Rachel Dratch, and thought Girl Walks Into a Bar... was a waste of time. But apparently, I'm a glutton for punishment, because I cannonballed into not one, but two more celebrity autobiographies in the past month.

The first was Amy Poehler's Yes Please (2014). And yet again, here's a performer who can essentially do no wrong in my eyes, delivering a book that's mostly a yawn. We officially have a pattern. Maybe it's that no matter how gifted someone is at writing or performing material, their background just isn't interesting enough to propel a book. Talented Person With Supportive Parents Works Hard and Becomes a Success. Not exactly the most compelling backstory in the world, is it? She does her best to pepper the book with the sardonic wit she's deservedly famous for, and while a few passages made me smile, I didn't really get anything out of the book except a solidified opinion that listening to someone talk about their days in improv groups should be classified as a worse act of torture than waterboarding.

If a celebrity memoir is going to have any chance, it has to do something special. It has to dig deeper or play with the format a little, and thankfully, Neil Patrick Harris has done both, and come to the rescue with Choose Your Own Autobiography (2014).

Just as in those classic adventure books of old, the reader is in charge of what portion of NPH's life they'd like to learn about next. His days as a child actor? His experiences in becoming one of the most reliable awards show hosts of our time? His interest in magic? His tortuous process of coming out? They're all in there, along with a lot more, and he's remarkably candid about all of his experiences, both good and bad.

And just as in those classic adventure books of old, step carefully, or poor NPH will be swallowed by quicksand. I've come to like the memoir genre less and less over time, so it's noteworthy when one that's so fun and straightforward lands on my nightstand. I've always liked NPH's work, but I never expected to add brought-me-around-on-celeb-autobiographies to his list of accomplishments. If only they gave an award out for that.

Yes Please: C+
Choose Your Own Autobiography: B+

Song of the Summer 2015

Holy jeepers, it's September?!? Clearly, I need to get myself into a doctor's waiting room soon, as it's the only scientifically-proven place where time stops. Well, since summer is coming to a speedy close, we should talk about the infectious music of the season. Last year, summer pop music was terrible. Or if not terrible, the best that can be said about it is that nothing really stood out for me.

This year is very different; there's plenty to choose from! That doesn't mean the process of selecting a Song of the Summer is easy, though. Not only are there the challenges of trying to decide between two songs that are equally compelling, but you have to take certain "rules" into consideration. For some people, the Song of the Summer is simply the song that gets the most radio play. It's the song that you'll hear at every backyard barbecue, and is emanating out of every car that you're stopped next to at a red light. For others, it's the one that most aptly catches the mood of the season, which means it's guaranteed to be a propulsive, energetic pop song.

I like to split the difference between these two camps. My personal Song of the Summer will certainly be up-tempo, even if it's not about a happy topic, lyrically. But by the same token, all my favorite songs combine the best parts of mass-market pop and thoughtful indie music. Tracks that can strike that delicate balance are guaranteed to make my list, and not only during the summer. All that said, I'm terrible at discovering new music. I rely on friend and journalist recommendations to basically curate most of what I listen to. The experts definitely came through this year, and gave me a wealth of nominees to sift through. Hell, Carly Rae Jepsen has an entire album's worth of quality summer music this year (E•MO•TION).

No matter what my opinion on the matter, the "official" Songs of the Summer will be a matter of public consensus, and the public has already pretty much settled on three, one of which I love, one I like but am bound to get sick of by winter, and one I don't like at all. The one I dislike is "Cheerleader" (OMI), so let's just get all the crap out of the way first. "Cheerleader" is actively annoying, both musically and lyrically. That's all we need: A combination of irritating reggae components and lyrics about a woman who serves no purpose but to fawn over the singer. And while we're talking about inexplicably popular songs, we have to mention "Bad Blood" (Taylor Swift), too. Does nobody else notice that she's singing the same five notes over and over? "Shake it Off" and "Blank Space" had some issues, but they're damned catchy. "Bad Blood" is just bland mush. At least Taylor Swift is worth mentioning, unlike anything that comes from 5 Seconds of Summer, a band whose very name is a perfect encapsulation of how disposable they are.

OK, now that the detritus is dealt with, let's get to some songs that are way more enjoyable, but lack that certain something to be my Song of the Summer. A few songs would get solid recommends from me, but aren't quite "poppy" enough to win:

"Better in the Morning" (Little Boots)
"Entropy" (Grimes, Bleacher)
"My Type" (Saint Motel)
"Ex's & Oh's" (Elle King)

Some are plenty up-tempo enough, and even though I love them, they don't have the wide appeal necessary for a Song of the Summer:

"Diamonds" (Giorgio Moroder, Charli XCX)
"Bombastic" (Bonnie McKee)
"On the Regular" (Shamir)
"Déjà Vu" (Giorgio Moroder, Sia)

That brings us down to the final six, any of which would be worthy winner. Of those six, three are what I'd call "consensus" songs, which are the popular ones you've been hearing everywhere. The other three are "personal" songs, which appeal to me directly, but haven't caught on in the public eye. All of them are great, but it's time to do some whittling, so I'll reluctantly drop two from each category:

Consensus Songs:
"Shut up and Dance" (WALK THE MOON) - This is the one I mentioned above as really liking, but I can tell that I'll be over it by December.
"Can't Feel My Face" (The Weeknd) - Similar situation here. Happy to hear it whenever it pops up (which is often), but doesn't have longevity.

Personal Songs:
"Yoga" (Janelle Monáe and Jidenna) - Goddamn, do I love Janelle Monáe. You should see the embarrassing moves this song brings out in me as I'm driving down the street.
"New Obsession" (Frankie) - It may be a silly little song about a girl wanting a quick fling with the local stud, but the beat has effortlessly infected my brain. This one is the current go-to song for belting in the shower.

That brings it down to the final two to battle it out for supremacy. Ultimately, first runner up must go to the Personal Song, though it'll definitely be in the running for the Best of 2015. My friend Kyle pointed this one out to me; I'd never have run across it otherwise. I just can't get "King" (Years & Years) out of my head:

It's a jam, right? However, there's only one song that has all the necessary attributes of a Song of the Summer winner. It's got a beat. Its lyrics aren't stupid or insulting. I won't be sick of it in a month. It's popular with the general public, but has that air of indie credibility. Ladies and gentleman, the 2015 Song of the Summer is... "Lean On" (Major Lazer and DJ Snake, featuring MØ). Kick it!

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