It's becoming more and more difficult to keep up with all the television shows that interest me. The TV landscape has become so fractured that I'm in danger of missing out on something that might be tailor-made to my tastes. That's the grim reality, so it's nice to have an oasis of quality that I know won't let me down.

The oasis I'm talking about is the dependable trio of B-shows that I adore. By "B-show", I don't mean that they're second-rate. By happenstance, they all start with the letter B. All three of the B-shows just wrapped up their seasons, which were excellent as always. But how did they stack up, overall?

Let's start with Black-ish, which took the concept of a sophomore slump and kicked it into the sun. There were some seismic shifts in both the cast and the tone of the writing, but happily, both were for the better. Deon Cole got a gig on another show, so we were sadly bereft of Charlie for most of the season, but Wanda Sykes was a welcome addition to Dre's office as his new, brutally-direct boss. On the home front, Regina Hall plays the new nanny with the perfect blend of competence and judgmental condescension. Laurence Fishburne is a busy fellow, so Jenifer Lewis has reigned supreme as the cantankerous elder stateswoman of the family.

But even taking the talented new cast members into consideration, it's the writing that makes this season really soar. Season 1 took on aspects of racial disparity, of course, but always had a tongue firmly planted in cheek. Season 2 digs a lot deeper. There are funny jabs at the usual black and/or sitcom tropes, such as an inability to swim or how to reign in the family's spending. But then there are those episodes that really grab society by the shoulders and give it a good shake. There was an episode about gun control, which aired right before another one of America's increasingly routine mass shootings. There was an episode about the N word and its shifting significance to all races. And in the biggest punch, there was an incredible episode about police brutality that should be required viewing. Even as Black-ish tackled these topics, it never lost its sense of humor, and this season will almost definitely be showing up on my Top 5 of the year.

Favorite Episode: "Hope" (Episode 16)

Meanwhile, over at Brooklyn Nine-Nine, things have settled. Once the audience gets used to a sitcom, the best we can ask for is that it establishes a comfortable routine. Maybe it won't wow us anymore, but it's still a reliable source of belly laughs and good characterization. Brooklyn Nine-Nine has found that rhythm, and while it's not the freshest material on the block, it's still incredibly funny. In Season 3, we get all sorts of zany shenanigans (not least of which, the show's amusing methods of hiding Melissa Fumero's real-life pregnancy). A cop who has been undercover for so long he's been driven partially insane (Jason Mantzoukas) drops by long enough to woo Rosa. Amy goes undercover in prison to get information out of a mob boss' sister (a nice turn by Aida Turturro). Charles' sperm is held hostage by his ex-wife. You know, boring stuff like that!

The show is bravely trying to extend the Jake/Amy romance, but is smart enough not to refer to it too often, since it doesn't seem to be a particularly natural match. That little glitch aside, the comedy is as strong as ever, and the ensemble meshes together seamlessly.

Favorite Episode: "Paranoia" (Episode 20)

Finally, there's Bob's Burgers, which has now wrapped up Season 6. Like Brooklyn Nine-Nine, this is a show that has settled into a nice routine, and like The Simpsons, once it was established, it can now spend its time developing the universe's secondary and tertiary characters. It's also given the kids a chance to mature a bit. Tina was once a nervous, horny, maladapted mess, but is beginning to display some confidence, so she can just be nervous and horny. Louise is beginning to realize that she can be held responsible for her actions. Gene... Well, he's still Gene, thank goodness.

There weren't as many home runs this season as there have been in seasons past, but there are definitely standouts. The Halloween episode is always a treat, and this season's is no exception, as the rest of the Belchers attempt to scare the unflappable Louise. Tina must weigh social status against stardom in a school play about the evils of kissing. Gene leads a group of naysayers on a quest to find a goat with two buttholes. If I have one big complaint, it's that Linda was mostly sidelined this season, and I found myself missing her presence. The kids at school have taken a nice step up, though, especially with the development of the air-headed Jocelyn, who's a delight.

The final episode of the season could almost function as a series finale, with the entire town stepping up to help Bob in his hour of need. Thankfully, that won't be the end, though, and Bob's Burgers, along with the rest of these wonderful B-shows, will be back next season.

Favorite Episode: "Stand By Gene" (Episode 12)

Black-ish - Season 2: A-
Brooklyn Nine-Nine - Season 3: B+
Bob's Burgers - Season 6: B+

Grind it Out

I owe myself an apology, because one of my New Year's resolutions for 2016 was to consume less "homework" entertainment. I found that I was watching and reading too many things that I didn't enjoy, simply because I wanted to be part of the cultural conversation. Once I accepted that I was just never going to like Breaking Bad as much as everyone else, or that maybe it's time to finally let House of Cards go, I felt like a weight had been lifted.

We're spoiled, in that there's a wealth of great entertainment out there right now, and there will never be enough time to get to it all, so why take up valuable brain space with things that don't appeal to us? Well, that's a question I should have kept in mind as I slogged through the first (and only) season of The Grinder. It will not survive to a second season, and to that I say... Okay.

That makes it sound like I hated it, which I didn't. I wouldn't watch a full season of an overtly bad show. It was just so thoroughly blah, and yet I kept on watching for no discernible reason. The Grinder is about Stewart Sanderson (Fred Savage), a lawyer who is struggling to connect with judges and juries, and his flashy brother Dean (Rob Lowe), who until recently, was a huge television star as a charismatic lawyer. The famous brother moves to town, wants to help out with actual law, and "hilarity" ensues.

I think I can pinpoint the show's major problems to two sources: Repetition and weak secondary family characters. I'm not sure how repetition can arise in a show that isn't even a season old, and yet here we are. Far too many plotlines recycled themselves right off the bat, with the beleaguered Stewart trying to talk sense into his egocentric brother, only for everyone else to be so star-struck that they side with Dean. It's cute as a throwaway joke, but it seemed to be the only big one in the show's arsenal.

The secondary family characters didn't help, either. Savage and Lowe were perfectly fine, as were their office colleagues Todd (Steve Little) and Claire (the always great Natalie Morales). Mary Elizabeth Ellis also provided a nice counter-point as Stewart's wife Deb. That leaves the kids and grandpa.

I really thought we were past the whole Inexplicably-Precocious-Worldly-Little-Kid era, and wasn't sorry to see the back of it. The trope is revived here with Stewart's son Ethan (Connor Kalopsis), who brings every scene he's in to a grinding halt, as does his milquetoast sister Lizzie (Hana Hayes). Neither actor is at fault, but the writing doesn't give either kid anything to do except spin their wheels and exhibit personalities that are either too bland (Lizzie) or too hammy (Ethan). William Devane doesn't do the older Sanderson generation any favors, either. He plays Stewart and Dean's father, and is played with a single note: Obnoxious Crank.

I don't want to sound overly harsh on the show. Like I said, it was somehow compelling enough to keep me engaged for the whole season. But when it comes time to start bemoaning one-season wonders that should have never gone away, save your tears for Trophy Wife. This one belongs on the cancellation pile.

The Grinder - Season 1: C+

You Say Goodbye, and I Say Hello

Adapting a musical into a film is always a tricky proposition. In some cases, like Chicago and Dreamgirls, the changes are welcome, and can even be an improvement. In others, like Les Miserables and Into the Woods, the movie can't begin to live up to the stage musical. And in one, namely (Rent), the movie is so terrible that it drove the final stake into a musical I used to love, to the point where I can barely listen anymore.

So, I've learned to approach movies based on musicals with a healthy degree of caution. Today's entry is a strange case, because I watched the movie, and still haven't ever seen the show. I'm speaking of the 2014 movie The Last Five Years, written and directed by Richard Lagravenese, who adapted Jason Robert Brown's popular 2002 Off-Broadway show.

The movie stars Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan, and it does its best to convey the gimmick of the show. The story of Cathy and Jamie's doomed marriage is told in two directions: Cathy's songs begin at the dissolution of the relationship and move backwards, while Jamie's songs begin after they've just gotten together, and move forward. The two sing from their own separate perspectives, only meeting in the middle once, at their wedding, before diverging again. It's a pretty cool idea, but sadly, the movie doesn't do a very good job of getting the timelines across, because as a matter of necessity, Cathy and Jamie are almost always sharing the screen, if not the song. The entire idea of hearing the two sides of the story advancing in different directions gets muddled as the actors toss in lines of spoken dialogue while the other is singing. An attempt is made to separate out the happy times of the marriage from the bad times through lighting and color, but it's just not divided enough, so the end product is too blurry.

Also, I don't have much (if any) experience with Jeremy Jordan's work, but he just did not strike me as having the charisma necessary to play this part. Jamie is supposed to be a magnetic, charming, wunderkind of a writer, and while Jordan's singing voice is just fine, he seemed woefully miscast to me. Kendrick acquits herself much better as Cathy the struggling actress, who simultaneously adores her husband and worries that she's being left behind in his wake.

I wondered if my lackluster response to the movie was due to the source material or the film itself, so I then immersed myself in the 2002 Off-Broadway cast recording, starring Sherie Rene Scott and Norbert Leo Butz. Yup, the movie is the problem. Even without being able to see the characters or the staging, the 2002 music captivated me in a way that the film couldn't. It wasn't until I listened to the score that I was able to catch some of the real cleverness of the story structure, such as the only ten minutes that the two characters share being their wedding song called, well, "The Next Ten Minutes".

The musical itself isn't perfect. My least favorite song in the movie ("The Schmuel Song") was not measurably better in the cast recording, and it goes on longer than any other song in the show. Also, that song aside, all the songs in the first half were more enjoyable than the songs in the second half, which made the enterprise feel a little lopsided.

Overall, though, I'm glad I watched this movie, flawed though it was. It opened up the world of the show to me, and the next time I catch The Last Five Years listed on a local theater's upcoming season, I'll be there.

The Last Five Years (2014): B-
The Last Five Years (2002): B+

Friendly Fire

I've noticed that when I write entries about movies I generally disliked, I'll start off by describing the few good points I found in the film, and when I write entries about movies I generally liked, I'll start off by nitpicking the few little problems I had. So you'll probably be able to guess how I felt about the latest Marvel movie, Captain America: Civil War when I begin with a couple of incredibly minor complaints.

Actually, no. Let's begin with a quick plot summary. Despite it having "Captain America" in the title, this really functions as a third Avengers movie. Our heroes are still dealing with the fallout, both physical and emotional, of the events in Age of Ultron, but barely have time to breath before another crisis breaks out in Lagos. When some civilians are killed in the fray, the governments of the world decide they've had enough of these people doing as they please with zero oversight or consequence, and propose that the Avengers sign a pledge to be bound to UN decisions. Iron Man supports this measure. Captain America does not. There's also the matter of Bucky, the Winter Soldier. The world wants him dead for his various crimes, both real and assumed, but Captain America's friendship with him pushes Cap even further away from the accords. A rift forms, then widens.

Iron Man is joined, among others, by War Machine, Vision, and a little guy you may know as Spider-Man. Captain America is joined, among others, by Scarlet Witch, Hawkeye, and a little guy you may know as Ant-Man. And then there's the character without a team, but who is working towards his own ends: Black Panther, played by Chadwick Boseman.

OK, so those minor complaints I was talking about. The villain in this movie had a plan that's so ridiculously labyrinthine and complicated that he couldn't possibly hope to put it into motion without some major contrivance. Martin Freeman's character has an American accent, which he's not great at. Aunt May is too young and pretty. Hawkeye is typically useless, and is as much of a sore thumb as he's been in the other movies of the franchise. And...that's about it. Everything else is great!

Really, the best thing that can be said about it is that it takes an incredibly complex moral situation and makes a good case for both sides. I found myself siding more with Iron Man, while the friend I saw the movie with opted for Captain America's side, but both points of view are completely understandable. And what's more important, both points of view are flawed as well.

There is a plethora of characters to address in Civil War, and none of them get short shrift. Tom Holland's portrayal of Spider-Man is the best one I've seen yet, and Chadwick Boseman was an incredibly great Black Panther. Really, all the problems I had with Age of Ultron were addressed with aplomb (except the inclusion of Hawkeye, but whatever).

Normally, I'm happy to be one-and-done with the Marvel movies, but the themes explored in Civil War have actively made me want to sit down and watch it again, and that's just about the highest compliment I can pay to a summer blockbuster. This one has brains as well as muscles, and I wish we saw movies like it more often.

Captain America: Civil War: A-

Shorties #19

Did you know I'm 5'5" on a good day? That must mean it's time for some good ol' fashioned Shorties!

#1: The D Train: I believe this mostly-ignored 2015 movie appeared on my radar thanks to the AV Club, and I thought its premise - small town yutz Jack Black tries to lure a famous high school classmate (James Marsden) back for the reunion and complications ensue - sounded intriguing enough to give it a whirl. Why? Because Marsden's character is bisexual and sleeps with Black's character on a whim, and I thought that would add an interesting wrinkle to an otherwise pedestrian story. Nope. By turns dull and mean-spirited, it barely held together well enough to be a Laundry Movie. (Grade: C)

#2: Food Wars (Season 1): In the last Shorties entry, I mentioned that I'm starting to try to get into some anime at my other nerdy friends' suggestions. The first season of Food Wars (2015) is currently streaming on Hulu, and it's really difficult to explain. 90% of it is the story of Soma, who's trying to follow in the footsteps of his father, a famous chef known the world over. Soma transfers into the most cutthroat culinary school in Japan, where he and his classmates are constantly being tested. The other 10% is oddly pornographic. Soma's food is often so good (or intentionally bad) that the taster's clothes burst off in surprise. One of his classmates wears nothing but a flimsy apron all the time. Another has boobs so big they threaten to burst out of the bikini tops she favors at every turn. That said, it's an inexplicably magnetic show. Some of the food animation makes me actively hungry, and even inspired me to try some Asian experimentation in the kitchen. While the first half of the season was better than the second half, I'm still giddy with anticipation for the next batch of episodes. Want to buy me the naked guy's apron in the meantime? (Grade: B+)

#3: Mud: In 2012, two movies kicked off the Matthew McConaughey comeback. One was Magic Mike. The other was this one, a drama that got writer/director Jeff Nichols a lot of attention. It's about a couple of kids who live in a poor community on the edge of a river and agree to help a charming drifter (McConaughey) reunite with his lost love (Reese Witherspoon), all while evading the bounty hunters who are after him. The first two thirds were very good, if a little slow. Slow can be a positive thing sometimes, though, and the sleepy way the plot unfolds works well with the characters and the world they inhabit. The last bit kicks into high gear and turns into a violent firefight right out of No Country for Old Men, and struck me as jarring and unnecessary. It wasn't a bad movie, overall, but I was expecting a lot more from it. (Grade: B-)

#4: Do I Sound Gay?: I've fallen behind on keeping up with documentaries, and obviously have a vested interest in the topic of this 2014 one, which explores the stereotype of the gay voice. Writer/director David Thorpe wonders what can and should be done about how people think of how gay men talk, what with the high pitch and the lisps. He interviews various people about the subject, and everyone from George Takei to Tim Gunn to Dan Savage has a different perspective. Thorpe also goes to a speech coach to see if the "gay voice" can be trained out. Some parts of the movie are a little contrived, but others are genuinely educational and affecting. As a gay man who's not overly thrilled with his own speaking voice, I'd give it a solid recommend. (Grade: B)

#5: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl: This is one controversial movie, and not because it's about anything explosive like abortion or gun control. This 2015 film is the relatively gentle story of an awkward teen who makes dumb movies with his friend and who is importuned by his mother into hanging out with a classmate who has just been diagnosed with cancer. What makes it controversial, then? Reviewers have been taking it to task for making all the characters cardboard background to the problems of the straight white male protagonist who has supportive parents. While Greg (Thomas Mann) wrings his hands over his future and unrequited-but-becomes-requited crush on the popular girl, his film partner Earl (RJ Cycler) and even the titular dying girl Rachel (Olivia Cooke) seem to exist only to talk him through his angst. Those problems aside, it's still a decent movie, and Molly Shannon gives a particularly standout performance as Rachel's mom, who's never seen without a glass of wine and is trying to put a brave, brassy face on the impending grief she knows is headed her way. If only more of the movie had been about those kinds of storylines, and not Greg's whining over college admissions. (Grade: B-)
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