Oooh, Heaven is a Place on Earth

After such triumphs as Parks & Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, you can bet that when I hear the name Michael Schur, my ears perk up. So when they announced he'd be making a show about a foul-mouthed jerk played by Kristen Bell accidentally getting into heaven, I was on board before I knew any of the other details. That trust has now paid off in spades, because the first season of The Good Place has just wrapped up, and it was fantastic.

Indeed, the first focus of the show was on Eleanor Shellstrop (Bell), and how out of place she is in an environment full of people who spent their time on Earth being good-hearted and philanthropic. Everyone is supposed to be assigned a soulmate in the Good Place, and her interactions with ethics professor Chidi (William Jackson Harper) put him in jeopardy as well as her if her presence is ever discovered. There's also next-door neighbors Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and her silent Buddhist monk soulmate Jianyu (Manny Jacinto), both of whom throw wrenches into Eleanor's plans for different reasons. The entire enterprise is administrated by the architect, Michael (Ted Danson), who's fascinated by human behavior, and an anthropomorphized computer program, Janet (D'Arcy Carden), who is there to make the residents' afterlives more convenient, but who has entertaining glitches of her own.

As the season progresses, Eleanor faces her regrets about how she behaved while she was alive, and tries to change her ways, while also rubbing off on the would-be saints she now hangs out with. This is a comedy, though, so the biggest factor should be whether the show is funny or not. Well, good news. It's hilarious.

That said, The Good Place also manages to do something a lot of sitcoms don't even bother to attempt; it builds a sustainable story arc with engaging twists and turns. Other shows are content to reset after each episode, which is perfectly fine, but this one strives for more. It actually creates a threatening situation for its protagonist, and spends the entire season exploring her efforts to overcome those obstacles. To be able to do that while still making me guffaw out loud several times per episode? That's pretty forking cool.

The Good Place - Season 1: A

You Were Meant For Me

What-if kind of stories are extremely popular right now, which I'm all for. If it's done dextrously, I enjoy a good parallel universe story as much as the next guy, so Laura Barnett's 2016 book The Versions of Us pretty easily elbowed its way to the top of my library list. Absolutely every review, every blurb, and every webpage I've seen regarding this book goes out of its way to use the phrase "One Day meets Sliding Doors", and I enjoyed both of those, so why not? A few pages into The Versions of Us, it is 1958, and fellow college students Jim Taylor and Eva Edelstein meet when she has a near miss with her bicycle. They hit it off right away, and so begins a grand romance that spans decades. Or falls apart. Or they don't meet at all.

The narrative splits into three versions, told concurrently. The events of Jim and Eva's lives vary wildly between versions, and naturally, it impacts the other people in their circles, from parents to lovers to friends to children. At the heart of each of the versions, though, there is a bond between them, sometimes strained, or perhaps even invisible, but never broken. They both have personal and professional aspirations, and in different versions, they have alternate levels of success at each of these. In one, Jim may become a popular artist, but be all thumbs at romantic relationships. Eva may find love that nevertheless presents enormous challenges. In one version, one of them may have a studious, polite daughter, while in another, a rebellious, sullen teenager who withdraws from her family.

I really enjoyed how plausible each of the three versions were. None of them were purely "good" or "bad". They just represent three different paths Jim and Eva may have found themselves walking down. The major complaint I've seen about the book is with the interweaving versions making it difficult to keep up with which one you're in, but I didn't mind that too much. Yes, it was sometimes tough to remember which narrative I was dealing with at the outset of each chapter, but it became clear soon enough. If I have one issue with the characters, it's how quickly they fling themselves into major life changes. These things happen, of course, but the regularity of relationships coming together, breaking apart, and leading to pregnancy were a little... Well, "rushed" doesn't seem like the right word, but let's just say that a lot of women find themselves immediately knocked up.

That didn't detract too much from my enjoyment, though. It was a very good book, and as Jim and Eva's lives unspooled, I found myself getting emotional, and even a little teary, as if I were watching an installment of The Up Series. We all often wonder what our lives would be like if we'd taken that job, or we'd never given up piano lessons, or had gone out with Paul when we had the chance. What The Versions of Us does so well is show us that no matter which way we go, we're still us, and that can be a heartening notion.

The Versions of Us: B+


Ever since The Great British Baking Show started airing on American television, it has consistently been one of my favorite shows. It's the perfect blend of competition and cooking show, and nothing has ever come close to matching it.

That doesn't mean people won't try, though, and TV executives weren't about to let all of us fervent American fans of the show slip through their fingers. They attempted to capture the same lightning by producing The Great American Baking Show, which premiered last year. Rather than a generalized baking experience, it aired around the holidays, which naturally drove all the challenge inspirations as well. That was probably a wise decision, even if I soon tired of Christmas-themed bakes. Mary Berry agreed to tie the show to its foreign counterpart by acting as judge, along with Johnny Iuzzini, who has already acted as a reality show judge, with limited success. In place of Mel and Sue, the show is hosted by Nia Vardolos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) and her husband, Ian Gomez (Cougar Town).

Here's the thing about capturing the spirit of a runaway hit show: It's really, really, really difficult to do. And the first season of The Great American Baking Show was so unsuccessful, it struggled to even rise to the level of pale imitation. On the most basic level, it just didn't have any of the chemistry that makes the original program so enchanting. The judges didn't gel, the hosts were visibly trying and failing to capture the giddy enthusiasm of Mel and Sue, and the contestants... Well, that was the worst part. I'm sure they're all lovely people, and I know this is a show for amateurs, but as with inaugural seasons of a lot of competitive reality shows, they suuuuuuuuuuucked. All of their bakes looked terrible. It got to the point where I was literally embarrassed for us as a country.

I chalked the show up as a failed experiment and moved on with my life. Until about a month ago, when I noticed Hulu recommending the second season to me. Against my better judgement, my curiosity was piqued. Were any lessons learned? Could the show improve, or was it just destined to languish in the shadow of its older cousin? Well, I have some good news!

Season 2 was much, much better. Nia and Ian are still a bit over-hammy, but they've settled down to an acceptable level. The judges (Johnny specifically) are still a bit awkward, but their explanations are better articulated now, and they seem to be in better moods. That may be because the contestants are worlds better this time around. It's night and day. Sure, there was some obvious chaff, but the wheat was soon separated out, and I found myself really invested in their success. Finally, some American bakers our nation can be proud of.

The second season was again holiday-themed, which limited what it could do, but I was so giddy over the show's rise in quality that I hardly minded. Does The Great American Baking Show stack up to the Great British Baking Show? Hell, no. Not in any way whatsoever. But it certainly takes home the engraved cake plate award for Most Improved.

The Great American Baking Show - Season 1: C
The Great American Baking Show - Season 2: B

For Never Was a Story of More Woe

Ah, doomed romances. Where would literature be without them? Love is decidedly tricky, and so naturally, stories about the trials and travails of romantic relationships comprise a gigantic percentage of fiction. I just finished two books revolving around the love lives of their characters, and while you'd think I'd relate more to the one about adults, it's the one that focused on high school students that really shone.

The first book was Summerlong, a 2015 book by Dean Bakopoulos. Over the course of one sweltering summer, a handful of people in an Iowa neighborhood re-evaluate their lives, and as one marriage crumbles, both the husband and wife find themselves drawn to other people, who are also involved with each other. It sounds very Melrose Place-ian, but these characters are a lot more emotionally mature, and at least attempt to do right by themselves and others, while still searching for a way to be happy.

Still, the book falls prey to Annoying Protagonist Syndrome a bit. Why should I care what Claire wants to do with her life if she's going to be such a relentless chore? If all ABC wants to do is reconnect with the spirit of her dead girlfriend, what is she hoping to accomplish by messing around with everyone who gives her the side-eye? Overall, it wasn't a bad book at all, just not one that has anything particularly interesting going for it. The characters aren't terrible people, they're just not very people-like. They seem to do things purely to drive the plot forward, rather than acting like people actually would. This book would be a good airplane read, but not one that will ever hold a place of honor on your bookshelf.

The other book was Rainbow Rowell's celebrated 2013 book, Eleanor & Park. I'd call it YA, but I'm not sure what age range it's aimed at, since the characters say "fuck" an awful lot. This book's characters are a lot more understandable, even when they're making questionable decisions. Park is a half-Asian kid who gets along in school by keeping his head down, but all that changes when he falls for new student Eleanor, who has wild red hair and wears threadbare, patchwork clothes to school. Far from being hipsters, these are kids who don't fit in for very valid reasons, and they approach each other with caution, fearing rejection for all sorts of reasons.

They begin to bond over music and comic books, but the circumstances of their home lives are a constant threat to their happiness. I really liked how the story unfolded in a very realistic way. Not everything works out the way they want, but neither are they doomed from the start. Eleanor and Park strike me as people that could actually exist, instead of acting like, well, characters in a book, and that's apparently harder to pull off than it sounds.

Summerlong: B-
Eleanor & Park: A-

Pants on Fire

Making modern romantic comedy is tricky. The formula that worked so well in the '80s and '90s is now officially stale, and audiences are looking for different ways to engage with stories about the arc of a relationship. I'm a guy that always enjoys a well-executed gimmick, so when Scrotal Recall (ugh, that title) came along and played with the convention by leaping around chronologically and viewing its characters through the lens of the past girlfriends/hookups that Dylan may have given chlamydia to, I was delighted.

The delight continues, not only because Netflix has released another season, and not only because the producers have taken the original story idea and have begun building on it in really interesting ways, but because they changed the damned title. The show is now called Lovesick, which is exponentially better. In its sophomore season, Lovesick eases up on the past girlfriend model a bit, and begins to concentrate more on Dylan, Evie, and Luke in the present. Things have gotten complicated. Evie is about to get married, but lingering feelings for Dylan have her doubting her every move, while he attempts to ignore his reciprocal feelings to focus on his burgeoning relationship with Abigail, who's just terrific. (I really like Abigail, you guys.) Clearly, this is all going to blow up at some point, and the writers are doing a good job so far of keeping things tense without stretching them out to an annoying degree.

Meanwhile, Luke has been questioning his sluttish ways since the Phoebe episode, and a flashback to his relationship with Jo gives us context for why he is the way he is, and how he's changing over time. Even Angus gets some time in the spotlight, as he cheerfully follows his id wherever it leads him. The second season also brings back some familiar faces from the past, for both good and ill. It's always nice to see Jane ruining everything.

The Dylan/Evie roller coaster isn't my favorite aspect of the show, and since the second season focuses on it quite a bit, this second season doesn't quite stack up to the first one in my mind. That said, this is possibly the most ignored, underrated show on the air right now, and I desperately hope that they make a third season.

Lovesick - Season 2: A-

Living the Dream, Living the Nightmare

The beginning of a new year is often a flurry of frenzied activity. Time to make those appointments you never got around to last year. Time to assign yourself some tasks for the year ahead. Time to catch up on all those things you swore you'd get to. That applies to the entertainment world as well; a new year is often accompanied by a burst of well-meaning attempts to whittle down the Netflix queue or see some likely Oscar contenders.

2017 is no exception. The year has hardly begun, and I've already knocked out a couple of movies. They couldn't be more different from one another. One is 2016's La La Land, a rainbow of bright colors and music that follows a young couple trying to make it in the highly-competitive Los Angeles entertainment industry. The other was 2014's It Follows, a dull-colored horror, set in the crumbling suburbs of Detroit. And despite their differences in production design and tone, they both were rousing successes.

La La Land seemed at first to be tailor-made to my tastes. It's set in the present, but its aesthetic is very Old Hollywood. Struggling actress Mia (Emma Stone) keeps running into disaffected jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), and as their fledgling relationship grows, they are faced with some difficult decisions about just how much they're willing to sacrifice for their dreams of success. If that sounds like a weighty story, it has one hell of a leavening agent, in that it's also a musical, complete with large-scale song and dance numbers. This movie has been landing on a lot of best-of lists, but if I had to single someone out to recognize, it would be the production designer. This is one of the most beautiful movies I've seen in a long time, and actually does the trick of making Los Angeles seem like a magical land of dreams.

Stone and Gosling are both excellent in their roles, and I enjoyed the music as well. But for a movie that practically shows up on my doorstep with an engraved invitation, something was missing. Or rather, something was added; a pair of gigantic Deus Ex Successicas. The movie goes to a great deal of trouble to depict the hardships and obstacles Mia and Sebastian must overcome in order to further their careers, but just winds up waving a magic wand over them. However, the film does do something very interesting with the ending that I'm still chewing over in my mind, and made me appreciate it a lot more. Though it didn't quite meet the expectations I had built up for it, La La Land is still a pretty great movie, and definitely worth your time. Once Oscar season is behind us, I'll likely watch it again to see what I can pick up on a second viewing.

I will not be gracing It Follows with a second viewing, but that's nothing against the movie. I am emphatically not a fan of the horror genre, so filmmakers have to do something pretty interesting story-wise to pull me in, while simultaneously not driving me away with large amounts of gore. It's a fine line to walk, and it's no wonder that it's really difficult to find movies that fit the bill. When It Follows got some pretty rapturous reviews, and continually stayed on my radar, I had some friends do a gore check for me. It turns out that I only had to turn my ahead away for a couple of brief moments. The rest of the movie is psychological horror, rather than a slasher.

The movie centers on Jay (Maika Monroe), a pretty young college student who lives a pretty standard life in the Michigan suburbs. After a couple of dates with a guy, she has a sexual fling with him that winds up having severe consequences. He temporarily kidnaps her, but not to hurt her. He just wants to explain that he's passed on a demon of sorts. This entity will follow and kill its victims, but will move on to the next person if the intended target has sex with someone. If it kills someone, it will revert back to the last person in the chain. It can appear in any human form, and always approaches in a silent, steady walk. So yeah, it's basically an STD in the form of a supernatural killer. Sounds so weird, right?

It's actually a really deep and thoughtful movie. Jay has to deal not only with the assault and betrayal of someone she thought she really liked, but now has to contend with an unkillable, invisible-to-others stalker. Should she constantly go on the run? Can she trust anything she sees? Can she morally justify passing it on in order to secure some sort of safety? What does all this mean in regards to the the movie's position on hookup culture? Watching Jay try to work through these issues while evading her pursuer was really fascinating. If more horror movies were like It Follows, the genre would have a new devotee.

La La Land: B+
It Follows: B+
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