comedy

Worst Best Picture: Is My Fair Lady Better or Worse Than Crash?

my fair lady

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1964 winner My Fair Lady. Is it better than Crash?

Sometimes you’ve got to get some perspective. When I reviewed The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, I talked about the tone-deaf strangeness of negative reviews of the movie that seemed to think that Peter Jackson invented Middle-earth. People were writing these damning pieces about how the idea of elves wasn’t “believable” and it made them seem like they didn’t have any idea what they were watching. I’m certainly not the most informed person on musicals, so when I went to watch one of the all-time greats, I had to ask some folks. I didn’t want to come at this with a “psh, boring” attitude and look uncouth, which, when you think about My Fair Lady, is pretty funny.

My Fair Lady is the classic story of Eliza Doolittle (Aubrey Hepburn), a Cockney flower seller and Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison), a refined elocution educator who can’t stand people who don’t speak proper English. Higgins bumps into Eliza in the street and bets an acquaintance that he can coach her to speak like a high-class member of society and pass her off as a woman above her station. It’s a bet, as they say, and hijinks ensue.

Eliza is charming and absurd as a Cockney character, and Aubrey Hepburn plays her at a 13 out of 10 all the time. She has to live with Higgins for this all to work, apparently, and a scene where she doesn’t understand what taking a bath entails is as silly and broad as anything you’ll see in a Will Ferrell movie. She’s extremely fun through her transformation into “high status” which helps her seem less put-upon and more like someone who doesn’t know why all this fancy stuff matters, but she’ll do it anyway.

Higgins is a little harder to pin down. At times he’s berating the people around him for speaking poorly and at times he’s confused as to why his gruff attitude makes people uncomfortable. Rex Harrison plays him as though Higgins thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room all the time, but he also removes the humanity from him completely. For everything Henry Higgins knows how to do, he’s robotic in some interactions, which makes him more complicated than just a guy in an ivory tower who is a superhero. He can’t read people very well, and while he can make anyone feel dumb, that’s not always the way to “win” an interaction.

The film is gorgeous. It is difficult to pick one shot to express that, but the racetrack that they visit to test out Eliza’s new vocal talents is a good candidate. It’s entirely colored in black and white and touches of gray, except for Higgins himself. He wants to stand out to frustrate the crowd, and he does so in a brown suit. The idea that a brown suit, the simplest of the simple, makes people aghast is ridiculous, and that really sells just how little difference there is between everyone. Higgins knows all this social status bullshit is absurd, and the fact that he has some fun with it makes his character seem less ghastly.

All that said… it’s a little gross, right? I know this won’t be a popular opinion, but the love story in My Fair Lady is predicated on the idea that Higgins is smart and good and Eliza must become better in a specific way to be appealing to him. People slam Gigi for being a sexist musical, but My Fair Lady has to be in that discussion, even though it’s beautiful and pretty fun at the same time. There’s a lot going on with this, and it’s not entirely the story of Higgins demanding that Eliza change, but it’s a complicated series of give-and-take that makes for a compelling narrative but a frustrating set of gender politics. But then again, I mean, when there are elves in the book, there have to be elves in the movie, right? I can’t blame the film version of My Fair Lady for what the story is.

It’s visually appealing and it’s sweet in the right ways, mostly. There’s some complicated emotions tied up in the basic premise with regard to class and gender, but that’s to be expected, I guess. I don’t think it’s really possible to hate My Fair Lady, and while I still say The Sound of Music is the quintessential film musical, My Fair Lady won me over.

The Best Part: He doesn’t fit into the overall plot all the time, but Eliza’s dad is a goddamned hoot. He’s penniless and happy that way at the start of the movie, and his “With a Little Bit of Luck” song about floating through life drunk and lazy is my favorite song in the whole damn thing. “The Lord above made liquor for temptation – but / with a little bit of luck you’ll give right in.” You do you, pops.

The Worst Part: At the racetrack, a high society type falls for Eliza and is equally impressed by how she seems classy and how she “breaks character” to yell at the horse she wants to win. He’s supposed to represent a foppish, uninteresting character that Eliza could potentially end up with if she’s successful in her transformation. They nail the “boring” part, but man, it’s really tough to watch someone be boring. The scene where he unsuccessfully tries to court her in the street (“Show Me,” with lyrics like “If you’re on fire / show me”) is brutal in a good way, but he’s a real dunce.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? It’s better. My Fair Lady is complicated through a modern lens, to be sure, but it’s still striking to watch and it’s a load of fun. Maybe that’s a simple descriptor for a masterpiece of musical film, but “fun” really is the word for it. The songs are campy and silly, the acting is all so broad it’s impossible to not smile at, and the pacing moves along quick enough that you can’t be bored by it. Tom Jones shows how “comedy” can be rough when it’s elevated to Best Picture level, but My Fair Lady is a deserving “funny” movie on a list of dramatic epics, and it successfully makes Crash look terrible among the ranks.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter | Around the World in 80 Days  | Chariots of Fire | Mutiny on the Bounty | Argo | From Here to Eternity | Ordinary People | The Lost Weekend | All the King’s Men | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic | The Broadway  Melody | The Sound of Music | On the Waterfront | Unforgiven | Million Dollar Baby | My Fair Lady

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

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Worst Best Picture: Is Tom Jones Better or Worse Than Crash?

image source: betterlivingthroughbeowulf.com

image source: betterlivingthroughbeowulf.com

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1963 winner Tom Jones. Is it better than Crash?

It’s possible that Tom Jones is the strangest movie to win Best Picture, and that’s really saying something.

The story is pretty classic: a bastard son of two servants wants to marry a noblewoman but she has been promised against her will to a man of deserving status but undeserving character. Variants on that abound, and if that’s all this was it would be unremarkable. It’s partially remarkable because Tom Jones is about finding the comedy in a classic setup, but it’s mostly remarkable because it’s bonkers.

I watched Duck Soup, the Marx Brothers movie, a few years ago for the first time. It’s amazing how comedy evolves over nearly a century, both in what is still funny and what no longer is. Comedy isn’t timeless, not even good comedy. I’ve talked here before about how some references even in classic films don’t make sense in a modern content even when you can identify that they were intended to be biting commentary at the time. For all of Duck Soup that doesn’t work now, the beats are there to help you understand that that’s where the joke goes.

Tom Jones doesn’t care if you don’t live in 1963, it’s just gonna be nuts.

Watching Tom Jones feels like watching the strangest parts of Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Tom Jones the character is sleazy and suave (to a point) and sleeps with four or five different women over the course of his hero’s journey. He is cast out of his castle by the evil man who intends to wed his beloved, sure, that’s a bummer for Tom, but he doesn’t seem all that broken up as he sleeps with women and narrates it into the camera.

If there’s another Best Picture winner that breaks the fourth wall this often, I can’t remember it right now. Once or twice is an interesting wink, but Tom narrates a lot of his journey, to the degree that it starts to feel like a “man, I’m awesome” speech towards the end. It’s supposed to be over-the-top, but it’s something else entirely.

Your enjoyment of Tom Jones will depend on your ability to forget that you’re watching something on a list with Casablanca. It’s a funny movie, at times, but it’s what a better publication would call “ribald” or “raunchy.” The joke consistently is that Tom Jones is in love, but he’ll just sleep with this woman in this patch of tall grass anyway. Comedy is in doing something so many times that it’s funny, then not funny, then hilarious, but I was pretty damn tired of Tom Jones the guy and Tom Jones the movie by the end of it.

The Best Part: The best part of Tom Jones is the strangeness. They break the fourth wall, there are huge action sequences that just die out into nothingness, characters run off screen without warning, people are motivated by nothing, it’s full-on madness like nothing else on the list. There’s a certain absurd joy to picturing the Oscars in 1963 and all those people in expensive clothes clapping for something that is often a slapstick comedy.

The Worst Part: Some of these movies are hard to find now, and a lot of them have variants of themselves that are either longer or shorter than the original release. Because of all that nonsense I take great care to be sure I’m watching the right version. In this case, I thought I might have the wrong movie entirely. The first 25 minutes of Tom Jones — before you understand that you’re watching a take-no-shit nonsense comedy — is frustrating and irritating. Go in expecting madness and you’ll avoid that.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? What will the iconic scene from Crash be? I’ve been trying to pinpoint the legacy of Crash and I can’t seem to do it. I think it will be the ending, but that’s certainly not the case for Tom Jones.Tom Jones isn’t a part of any canon of great comedies. If it has a legacy, it’s that they spent an absurd amount of money on special effects for a strange British comedy. Beyond that, it’s just one quintessential scene. Tom meets a woman he intends to bed, and they have a hypersexualized meal. Food has been sexualized before, but never like this. Watch three minutes of over-the-top-ness here and get a sense of what Tom Jones is all about:

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind| Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

I Tortured Myself with the Pilot of ABC’s “Selfie” and it’s Even Worse Than You Think

selfie

Alex Russell

I don’t even know where to start with this. I wasn’t really excited for any new TV coming out, so I checked out all of the A.V. Club’s preview of fall TV. Their review of ABC’s Selfie intrigued me. They said “The sitcom wants to be a critique and exploration of selfie culture—and the vapidity it breeds. However, it comes off more as a scathing and heavy-handed mess that at times teeters into slut-shaming territory.”

Yikes, right? I’m not really a big fan of bad TV that’s just boring or stupid, I only want to watch it if it’s a full-on tire fire. I watched Rob Schneider’s Rob for a previous blog and I thought nothing could ever take that show’s spot as The Worst Thing I’ve Ever Watched, but ABC absolutely demands to be in the conversation with the pilot for Selfie.

You can watch it online (don’t) before it debuts in two weeks, but you should also prepare yourself for the commercials. I don’t know what they’re going to find to clip out of this to make this seem funny, so it’s mostly going to be poor Karen Gillan screaming “Instagramification!” at you.

I guess we should start with the premise. Karen Gillan plays Eliza, and Eliza, like, totally doesn’t get the “offline” world. She only cares about selfies and likes, and she doesn’t care about your dumb business meeting, or whatever. The character is so far off the deep end that it’s not even funny anymore, like if a stand up comic was trying to do five jokes at the same time. There are so many buzz words it feels like the writers are terrified that if they don’t consistently remind you that they “get it” that you’ll lose interest. It feels desperate.

It starts absurd with a gross-out puke scene on a plane that contains the following real, not-at-all-made-up-by-me phrases:

  • “Panic pudding” (this is “puke” of course, because why wouldn’t it be ugh ugh ugh)
  • “Grindr’s remorse” (god damn you ABC)
  • “Gif yourself through this” (GO TO WORD JAIL.)

“Gif yourself through this” alone is one of the most horrifying zeitgeist grabs I’ve ever heard. In another context, it would be a biting satire of our tech-obsessed culture, and I have to assume that’s what they’re going for, here. I’m certain ABC wants to have it both ways and to successfully make something people view as both a celebration of and a mockery of the same thing. It didn’t work for me. It really did not work for me.

Things get worse when her boss, who totally does care about your business meeting and stuff, shows up. John Cho plays Henry, the super-serious, no-fun-at-all businessman character who needs to convince Eliza to put down her phone and care about What Really Matters. It’s a classic pairing of fun vs. serious that honestly may work better as the series goes on. In the pilot, he’s out to prove to her that she needs to learn everything he knows — after she says “if you don’t like me, then change me” which is repulsive — and she responds with a comment about how she won’t do “backdoor stuff” with him. You have your choice of what component of that makes you angriest. They’re all fine options.

He scolds her in rhymeA grown adult who is the boss of another adult scolds her in a rhyme oh my god this is so gross. It’s an entire rhyme about how she should dress and act at a wedding they’re going to together. Since her character is played more like a tall child — and she knows about life, dummy, just a different life! — Selfie thinks you’ll look past all this. You shouldn’t, but even if you do, you’ll find that it’s a travesty just as a comedy.

The main character in this comedy in 2014 says the following, which I’m going to bold: “I waited until the coast was clear, like Katy Perry on Proactiv.” If that’s “subversive” then I’m too stupid to get their takedown of a skincare product commercial.

People are going to argue for Selfie, which is fine. There’s music by Aimee Mann and M.I.A. There’s a series of running jokes about how her neighbor is a misunderstood indie girl like Zooey Deschanel. That’s… about as good as the jokes get. Hopefully this will get better after the pilot, because it certainly can’t get worse.

But as a whole, this is a miserable 22 minutes. People should not be saying hashtag out loud, period. Maybe it makes me sound like someone’s grandfather, but jokes about how girls like Zooey Deschanel like ukuleles and how people post too much food on Instagram are played out in 2014. If you’re going to “take down” social media culture, pick some better targets.

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

 

 

What I Did With My Summer Vacation: Bob’s Burgers

Bobs-Burgers

Alex Russell

In What I Did With My Summer Vacation we explore shows you should catch up on during TV’s slowest season. This week: how Bob’s Burgers is what Modern Family isn’t.

The Simpsons didn’t get nominated for an Emmy this year, and that’s apparently big news. I haven’t been a Simpsons watcher for some time now, but I know that it being left off the nominations list speaks to how much animation on TV has changed lately.

Bob’s Burgers is about to return to finish its fourth season (it comes back on October 5, my birthday, so thanks, Fox). The show started hemorrhaging viewers in the fourth season, so if you’ve been gone, it’s time to come back. You can’t let this one die on us. Bob’s Burgers is the only place on television that “heart” isn’t a dirty word.

Modern Family, one of the most popular shows on television, is built on the idea of “heart.” It’s a kind of The Wonder Years moral machine where someone learns a lesson and then tells it to the audience. In an episode about learning to love your gay son, Dad learns his lesson visually and then explains it through narration just before the end of the 22 minutes. It’s insulting on a colossal scale. It’s lazy and it’s infuriatingly bad television.

Bob’s Burgers has episodes that are also about learning things, but it has mastered “show, don’t tell.” The family in Bob’s Burgers has to learn to love each other through some pretty tough times, but they do so without turning to the camera and saying “you know, we have to learn to love each other through some pretty tough times.” It’s television, animated or no, the way it’s supposed to be.

You can read elsewhere about how the voice acting is amazing or how the music is the glue that keeps the show together. A note on that last bit, you absolutely should check out Song Exploder‘s episode about the theme song. You can read elsewhere about how it’s smart and funny and quick and worth your time. All I want you to know is that the last show on earth about being good to your family — without a garbage tagline at the end or a heartwarming guitar song — is coming back soon. Go watch the last few so you’re ready.

You can watch Bob’s Burgers on Netflix or Fox’s website or, on television, I guess. You’re so smart, you find it.

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

What I Did With My Summer Vacation: Louie

Louie_headoverheels_1280x720_236191299626

Alex Russell

In What I Did With My Summer Vacation we explore shows you should catch up on during TV’s slowest season. This week: Louie, Louie, Louie, Louie.

FX just announced that Louie and Fargo are coming back with new seasons. This is great news for anyone that loves TV. You have roughly a year to prepare. Go watch all of Fargo, I already told you to do that last week. This week’s column is just an extension of the same argument I have with people every week: you have to watch Louie.

There is a ton of ink spilled over Louis CK every year. We’re certainly guilty of spilling ink sometimes at Reading at Recess (to the point where we specifically defended it) but overall, it’s just important to make an argument and to defend it. I don’t mind the thinkpieces about how Louie isn’t funny anymore. I think it’s definitely something worth discussing.

I’m not going to argue over if Louie is or isn’t a funny show. I’m going to tell you it’s a show that’s out to do something else. If you want jokes, Bob’s Burgers, Broad City, Inside Amy Schumer, and Review are all also coming back. Louie wants you to be uncomfortable.

This last season was hard to watch, but that’s what I want out of it. Louie made poor decisions as a protagonist. He approached feminism and body image and consent as topics, because those are the topics we’re talking about. I don’t think he always did so with as much grace as he could have. I do think he did it when no one else really was.

Right now Louis CK has the mic in pop culture. Your mom knows who he is and he’s the most popular stand up with your friend who has some actual cultural cred. His show isn’t wildly popular, but he’s the subject of thinkpieces (I hate that term and now I’ve used it twice, but it’s really all that works) because there’s something in his show that’s worth thinking about.

This last season was not my favorite season of Louie. I think Parker Posey’s character from season three will be my favorite part of my favorite show for a long time to come. My favorite moments in Louie have always felt to me like I wasn’t exactly sure what was being intended by them. What Louie is to me is not what Louie is to you. It’s not because I’m special; it’s because everyone is going to take away something else from that strange view of the world.

Louie isn’t very funny anymore. There are still great moments — this, the opening to the season with the garbage truck, is the hardest I’ve laughed in 2014 — but I don’t need to laugh at Louis CK on his show. I need him to take some risks. I need him to try to talk about delicate topics and not always do a great job. I need a full world that’s uncomfortable, like the couple next to you at the restaurant getting rude with the waiter. It’s awful, but that’s what actually happens when you go outside sometimes.

Louie can be dark or light, depending on the episode and your personal temperament, but it is always something considering. Season four had big character development (and undevelopment, at times) but it can also be the story of learning how to talk to your kid about drugs. It’s a lumbering beast at this point, and I totally understand if you don’t like what you see. Just keep in mind that for some of us, that’s part of the point.

You can watch Louie on FX’s website or on Hulu. You can also read our recap series about season four where we tried to find larger life lessons in each episode.

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

What I Did With My Summer Vacation: Fargo

allison-tolman-fargo-tv

Alex Russell

In What I Did With My Summer Vacation we explore shows you should catch up on during TV’s slowest season. This week: Fargo, morality, and lots and lots of snow.

I mean, you watched Fargo, right?

Something I’ve become fascinated with lately is “missing” culture. I haven’t seen True Detective yet, and I have to add the yet there as quickly as I can whenever I say that. Of course I’m going to watch True Detective. How could I not, with how people talk about it?

That’s what happens with shows now. People either watch the “not optional” ones or they spend time at parties telling people that they’re “a few seasons behind.” The entire premise of this series — to get you to hopefully watch a show you should catch up on — requires that you be some sort of mythical beast that doesn’t already have a few lifetimes of TV ahead of you.

Let’s assume you have the time, but you need to be persuaded to spend it with Fargo. You saw the movie at least, right? OK. Well, start there, I guess?

Fargo the show exists in the same world as Fargo the movie, but that’s essentially all you need to know. The show is interested in some of the same themes — what we deserve, especially — but it’s refreshingly its own thing. There are a handful of Coen brothers homages peppered through the season, but they are more affirming than they are distracting. They exist to bring up questions about the bigger universe of both Fargo the show and Fargo the movie. They’re meant as little easter eggs more than big “oh, that guy!” moments.

It feels too slight to just say that it’s not just a cousin to the movie, but it’s an important starting place when discussing the show. I came in skeptical; Fargo is one of my favorite movies. I wasn’t disappointed. The show looks poised to pick up just about every miniseries Emmy available, too, so people have bought into this world.

I’m not going to rundown the plot of the first season. Since the first season is self-contained (supposedly, but some members of the cast broke out so much that I wouldn’t be surprised if that gets reconsidered) this story is “over.” These people, such as they are now, are done in the world of Fargo. This is a completely closed story, and you don’t get too many of those.

Fargo is a hard show to not spoil. I don’t want to give any details here because I want you to go watch this damn thing, but it’s a show that is not uncomfortable taking risks. I’ll say that. Any show where your cast doesn’t even have to last the season — much less the episode — is a show with just an unbelievable amount of suspense. It’s not all blood and death, but man, sometimes it sure is. There’s just something about the contrast of blood and snow. It’s a really striking show, even when there’s nothing too bonkers happening.

I think you should watch Fargo. It’s not that long and you already know the world, somewhat. You don’t know Billy Bob Thornton in it, though. You might wanna check that out, no matter what else you have on your plate.

You can watch Fargo’s first season on FX’s website or on Hulu. You can also read our previous piece about Molly, the cop who subverts the trope of the evil hero in modern TV.

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

What I Did With My Summer Vacation: Review

Screen-Shot-2014-03-06-at-2.30.53-PM

Alex Russell

In What I Did With My Summer Vacation we explore shows you should catch up on during TV’s slowest season. This week: the downward spiral of Andy Daly on Review.

We’re gonna talk about Andy Daly’s extremely strange, extremely dark glance at humanity in a second. FIrst, I’m gonna need you to watch him eat 15 pancakes.

I normally don’t think “you’ve just gotta see it” is an important component of criticism, but there’s only so much I can tell you about Review without you having some basic experience with it. It’s Andy Daly (who you may know from Eastbound & Down or various podcastsplaying Forrest MacNeil, a “life reviewer.” He hosts a show within a show, which sounds more complicated than it is.

Forrest is the most interesting kind of madman in that he truly believes he has insight the world needs. His character is defined by the lengths he’ll go to for the “perfect” review. It’s no spoiler to tell you that “Pancakes, Divorce, Pancakes” gets a little dark, but the it’s all more interesting than most shows that get labelled “dark.”

It’s not the divorce itself, that part’s not funny. It’s that Forrest truly believes he’s making something that matters. He believes that by experiencing divorce in a happy marriage he can impart wisdom to the world. He’s game for anything — anything — because he has to have the first-hand experience to “review” it on his show.

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia works while other shows about terrible people don’t because the characters in Sunny are getting worse in really slow, specific ways. Dennis on Sunny is likely a murderer at this point, so the show can play around with him being “just an asshole” for a little while with no real fear of those little slights making him unlikable in that moment. If you’re on board for what Sunny has to say about the world — that nothing really matters as long as you’re totally oblivious — then you’re on board for everything else they do to their characters. They can eat garbage or mail people their hair or whatever; they are beyond simple changes now.

Not so with Forrest. Forrest is a character that’s alternatively really depressing and really infuriating. He ruins his own life to make these “reviews” for his show, but even the show itself doesn’t matter. He makes bad choices and stands to gain nothing from them beyond fodder for a show. That gives the whole thing a meta feel to it that layers over the darkness; you feel genuinely bad for Andy Daly while you also feel that Forrest MacNeil deserves what he gets.

It’s a wonder the show worked with so many people. I was deeply in love with it from the start, but bits like a misunderstanding of language that causes Forrest to commit himself to serious mental care (“There All Is Aching”) really require you to take a few steps as a viewer. Anyone should be able to enjoy Andy Daly dressed as Batman trying to get his son back, though (“Being Batman”). Watch that one, and, hell, you’ve already watched him eat 15 pancakes. Don’t you want to see what the second installment of pancakes could possibly be?

It’s 30 pancakes, but as with everything else in Forrest MacNeil’s life, it’s so much more than that.

You can watch highlights of season one of Review on Comedy Central’s site, and the full season is around if you’re crafty. Season two comes out in 2015, so you better be ready.

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

What I Did With My Summer Vacation: Nathan For You

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Alex Russell

In What I Did With My Summer Vacation we explore shows you should catch up on during TV’s slowest season. This week: the nervous weirdness of Nathan For You.

It’s summer, and TV is dead. Even with Netflix releases of shows like Orange is the New Black, we’re still mostly at the mercy of TV scheduling to determine when we watch new stuff. If your DVR looks like mine, right now you don’t have much to catch up on. This is the perfect time to start something new. For the next few weeks, we’re going to go over what you should watch to get ready for the glorious return of fall TV.

The first installment is Nathan For You, a supremely strange show that had an eight-episode first-season run on Comedy Central last spring. In each episode, comedian Nathan Fielder meekly suggests business ideas to struggling local businesses. They range from the simple and bad (a cab service where you can opt out or in to conversation with the driver) to the complex and bad (a gas station that offers “free” gas with rebate where the rebate requires customers to climb a mountain and sleep in the woods).

The real joy of Nathan For You is that these ideas aren’t complete jokes. For a brief second, all of them seem like they have a chance at working. When Nathan suggests that a burger place claim that they have the best burger in town — and they’ll give you $100 if they’re wrong — you definitely feel compelled to go to the burger place and see. Watch this three-minute clip from the episode:

The business owners in these episodes always come off genuine. Nathan only shames people or makes them look stupid if they’re actually terrible people. There’s an episode with a private detective who is genuinely awful, and it’s fun to watch Nathan make him look like an idiot on TV. There’s a very The Daily Show with Jon Stewart feel to those interviews, but in this one the burger guy just seems genuine. He wants you to eat his burger and he thinks it’s the best in town, he’s just not sure he wants to risk $100 that he’s wrong. Nathan offers to put up the cash himself, and the game is on. You might see where this is going.

“Cringe TV” can be pretty awful. I’ve written before about how The Office was a fun show, but 22 minutes of Michael Scott disappointing inner city kids in “Scott’s Tots” doesn’t work because it’s too mean and too sad. Nathan For You has some rough moments to watch, but they’re all at Nathan’s expense. When he offers people a free pizza if a pizza place can’t deliver in eight minutes, you know it’s going to end badly. But when the customer is angry that the free pizza is the size of a hand, Nathan’s the one who gets yelled at. It’s funny because you think the poor real pizza delivery guy is going to catch hell, but it’s this nervous Canadian comic instead. The pizza guy getting yelled at is sad; Nathan having shit rain down on him is amazing.

You should start with the gas station episode. It’s really beyond description to watch people file into a van to spend the night in the woods with Nathan to save miniscule amounts of money on gas. The creators’ choice to pop up images about how little people are saving as they go through the ridiculous rebate process is inspired. Watch it, love it, and throw the new one airing tonight on your DVR. What, what else are you watching tonight?

You can watch all eight episodes of season one of Nathan For You on Comedy Central’s website.

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Obvious Child is a Romantic Comedy About How People Actually Meet. Should You See it?

obviouschild

Alex Russell

In our rarely-running kinda-series Should You See It? we talk about movies that just came out. You can figure out the rest of the premise from the title of the series. That’s right: we talk recipes. Should you see Jenny Slate’s romantic comedy Obvious Child?

One of the weirdest parts of pop culture now is that if you really love something, it starts to feel like it’s one of the biggest things in the world even when it isn’t. You can follow a hashtag or go down a Tumblr or YouTube hole and suddenly that one Comedy Central show you really, really like feels like it just must be something everyone you know is all about.

Obvious Child inundated my digital life last week. It’s a movie that did well enough at Sundance earlier this year to earn a bigger release this month. Jenny Slate (Kroll Show, Parks and Recreation, Bob’s Burgers) did a sort of “comedy nerd” press junket to promote it on a lot of podcasts, but it’s entirely possible you haven’t heard much about it.

Jenny Slate plays a stand up comic who gets dumped after being too open on stage about her relationship. She’s in that mid-20s period where people have to make decisions about how to stop taking money from their parents, how to have a stable relationship and still be their own person, and how to get and keep a job that doesn’t suck. It’s a relatable premise.

Then, well, let’s get this out of the way: even though the director has said it’s not “an abortion comedy,” it is definitely a film that deals with abortion. Jenny Slate’s character has a one-night stand and decides to have an abortion. That’s not giving anything away; it’s the hook of the whole experience.

Questions come up. How do you have a conversation about this with someone you don’t know? How do you tell your parents? How do you tell your friends? How do you tell a group of strangers that you talk to with a microphone?

Obvious Child will rub people different ways based on their feelings about abortion, but it may also have the same effect based on how people feel about relationships in general. Jenny Slate’s character is funny and goofy, but she’s also “independent” even though that word has lost some specific meaning in some ways. The portrayal of her decision to have an abortion is absolute; she asks a friend if the experience hurts or not, but it’s clearly not part of the decision. This is not a movie that wants to tell you if you should have an abortion or not, but Jenny Slate’s character is a look into what the process looks like for someone who has their mind made up.

Should You See It? 

Well, someone sure should. Obvious Child made $133,000 this weekend in 18 theaters. It’s still in limited release (Frozen is still in more theaters than that in week 30 of release and The LEGO Movie is in over 15 times that many in week 20) but you should try to see it if you can. It’s an extremely refreshing romantic comedy both in subject matter and in characterization; these are real people who meet because they get a little drunk and flirt with each other. Every movie should try to show an interesting version of an emotion you understand or feel on some level, and the weight of an important decision when life is already weighing very heavily is spot damn on for that.

Obvious Child is in limited release until June 27, when it is released everywhere. See the trailer here.

Image source: Sundance

Undateable: NBC’s New Comedy Set in Detroit… that Doesn’t Want to Talk About Detroit

Undateable

Jonathan May

NBC’s Undateable is set in present-day Detroit, Michigan and plays this fact for laughs approximately one time in the six episodes that have aired so far. This is its main fault; most great comedies make great use of the cities in which they’re set. Curb had Los Angeles, Seinfeld had New York City. Often the nature of a show is dependent on where its set, but the fact that Undateable is filmed in front of a live studio audience makes it somehow more germane and less specific to Detroit and its comedic possibilities.

Like other sitcoms, this one is set in a bar and follows its fastidious, young owner Justin, his sexy, swaggering roommate Danny, and their motley crew consisting of Danny’s sister, a gay man, a black man, a openly misogynist nerd, and a hot female server. While the variety of the group unfolds many possibilities, unfortunately these roles are mostly played to stereotype. While I laughed out loud many times over the past six episodes, I can’t help but feel empty about most of the characters; the two main men find ladies very early on, and the ancillary characters languish listlessly in the background, ready to serve up another clever off-color joke or ubiquitous cultural reference when needed. But the show doesn’t seem to be addressing any central problem that would give it more focus. No one is really in jeopardy; nothing much is at stake. And ultimately, for a show to be set in Detroit in 2014, as the city goes through the insane bureaucratic process of insolvency, and not address any of this is the worst kind of audience letdown.

For a show like Undateable to make it another season (and possibly the rest of this one), it will need to establish a problem, preferably one which connects to Detroit’s problems at large, giving it a more empathetic context. Perhaps its characters might not seem so flat if they discuss, openly struggle, and make fun of the crippling issues of public service, safety, corruption, and government failure that they could. A comedy like Broad City highlights the complexities of getting around, working, and living in New York City, but in Undateable, we miss out on all the potential fun, being constricted by the format to scenes set in the apartment and the bar. I’ll be tuning in for the laughs, but I just wish the show would give us something memorable.

Jonathan May watches too much television, but he’s just playing catch-up from a childhood spent in Zimbabwe. You can read his poetry at owenmay.com, follow him on Twitter at @jonowenmay, or email him at owen.may@gmail.com.

Image: NBC