summer vacation

What I Did With My Summer Vacation: 24

24

Mike Hannemann

In What I Did With My Summer Vacation we explore shows you should catch up on during TV’s slowest season. This week: 24’s triumphant return to television and when a half-season is just right.

When 24 was cancelled back in 2008, well, the word “cancelled” actually meant something. Thanks to digital streaming services and Kickstarter, now nothing is truly final on the TV landscape, which is great when shows like Arrested Development meet their end too soon, but it can be a little alarming when shows like 24 end. It could come back, and who knows what it would be like.

On paper, renewing 24 for another season six years after it left the airwaves seems like a huge mistake. It seems like something that Fox devised to cash in on a once-beloved show to rake in some ratings and advertising revenue when other networks were burning off remaining episodes of the nonsense that didn’t make the cut this year. It’s a no brainer. Put Kiefer Sutherland on screen, let him yell and blow things up for an hour, and it’ll pull in an audience. So when I found out one of my once-favorite shows was coming back I was… cautious, at best, in my expectations.

Anyone who has seen the show knows the dip in quality the final seasons had. The show had run out of ideas. The gimmick, 24 hours of real time drama, had been exhausted. Hell, it had been exhausted as early as season one when the now-expected cliches were used for the first time. But Sutherland’s acting and some genuinely smart storylines kept the show going. And going. And going (cue clock ticking sound here). Then, in 2014, 24 finally realized that it didn’t need to be a gimmick. It could just be itself.

And that’s what happened this summer.

It almost seems like a coming of age story, for a show’s legacy. The writers decided to throw the 24-hour real time aspect to the curb. The season was 12 episodes, and the focus wasn’t “OK, how can we make this one long day that keeps the clock ticking?” it was “Alright. What do people love about this show that has nothing to do with the clock? Yeah, let’s go with that.” The show decided to invest its time in the most beloved aspects: Jack Bauer being an unrelenting badass, Mary Lynn Rajskub’s fan-favorite character Chloe O’Brian hacking every conceivable piece of technology known to man, and a sense of escalation that didn’t need to be calmed back down every five hours to figure out what the hell to do from here.

Not to belabor my point on viewing the show’s lifespan in the sense of yours or mine, but 24 is finally done living in its high school years. It has its own identity now that has nothing to do with the number 24 other than that’s… just what people called it. It isn’t beholden to what it used to be. It held on to the best part of its past and it grew up, got a job and a 401k, and finally started using that treadmill that’s been gathering dust for years (but kept that beat up sofa it loved).

“Hey man, why do they call you 24?”

“Long story, doesn’t really matter anymore. They called me that in college, the name just kind of stuck.”

You can watch 24 on Amazon Instant Video or Fox’s website. It may or may not get another season/mini-series/movie/animated cartoon.

Image: New York Daily News

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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

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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: 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

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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: 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

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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 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.