Category: Television (page 2 of 4)

Let’s Talk Comedy

To keep my spirits up during one of the most unusual and patience-testing transitional periods in my life, I’ve been checking out more comedy. Before my move, I hadn’t watched much It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, or any Arrested Development or Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Between those shows, and keeping up with The Daily Show, Colbert Reportm, and @midnight, I’ve been thinking about what makes good comedy, and all of its different styles. I feel that it’s a very subjective topic, as what is funny to one person is completely tasteless to another, but I think there are a few objective facts we can consider regarding various approaches to making people laugh.

I think that stand-up comedy and improv take different skill sets. Stand-ups write their material in advance, and focus on making sure their delivery is earnest and clear. Improv performers work almost entirely off the cuff, playing with one another in a very real way to make the comedy as spontaneous and energetic as possible. Some stand-ups can whip out jokes on the fly, and some improv performers do great stand-up. But in both cases, when the performers are on, the laughs flow freely.

I’ve never really liked laugh tracks. Live audiences are definitely better, especially in a show that flows organically like the above mentioned Comedy Central shows, or live shows like Saturday Night Live. Spontaneous laughter is the best. I have to wonder on some sitcoms with live audiences if there are prompts to laugh or applaud. This probably isn’t the case, but when I have trouble laughing at something like The Big Bang Theory, I find myself curious.

The thing about situation comedies is that the comedy should be in the situations. While characters certainly matter, in that their interactions and clashes either aggravate or undercut said situations, I don’t feel that the flaws or difficulties of the characters should be the crux or point of the humor. While a character with what might be called defects can put others into funny situations, said defects should not be depicted as funny in and of themselves. That method seems insensitive, and for me, it kills the humor.

That could just be me, though. Like I said, comedy is subjective. What do you find funny? What comedy for you falls flat?

Wired Up

Courtesy HBO

I know I’m pretty late to this party. It’s only thanks to the advent of Amazon Instant Video and my Prime membership that I’m finally getting around to watching HBO’s inner city crime drama The Wire. But I still want to talk about it. Maybe ‘talk’ is too gentle a word; I want to sing its praises.

Crime dramas and television are one of those chocolate/peanut butter combinations. It’s popular because the aspects of one compliment the other. In most instances, you have case-of-the-week shows like Law & Order or CSI, giving fans their weekly infusion of familiar characters in the pursuit of justice. Some episodes are stronger than others, but the show’s popularity is maintained because we are creatures of habit, and television shows can be habit-forming, even if they’re subscribing to a formula.

The Wire‘s formula is a completely different animal. It’s a wolf, prowling and watching, while other television crime dramas play like puppies. Not to say there’s anything wrong with the aforementioned shows; I’ve done my share of indulging in a good Special Victims Unit binge. But The Wire is simply a breed apart. And it exists that way for a few very interesting and powerful reasons.

Instead of relying on a ‘ripped from the headlines’ rotation of cases, The Wire tackles one case a season. Just one. We see how the case begins, who is involved, what drove them to that point, so on and so forth. In some cases, it can take a few episodes for the investigation to truly begin. These are true procedurals: we see the process in all of its grueling details, the camera an unblinking, non-judgmental lens giving us all of the facts. There are times when The Wire almost feels like a documentary in its presentation, which brings me to the authenticity of the characters.

It is not forgotten, not for a moment, that each and every character in The Wire is a person. Even minor characters feel like they have dimension and agency. We won’t always like the decisions characters make, but we can understand why they’re made. I’m a season and a half into the show, and I have yet to see a character do something that makes no sense from their perspective. Sure, a character or two has done something that to me seems obviously bone-headed, but the show is written in such a way that I can get into the character’s shows and see things through their eyes, even if the vision isn’t all that clear.

The biggest thing about The Wire that keeps me coming back, though, is the conversations. The dialogue in this show is some of the best I’ve ever heard. It feels authentic and natural. Even the legalese spoken by lawyers and judges feels like its born out of years of experience, not words on a script. There’s also the fact that it’s being spoken by some extremely talented actors. There’s just as much expression in the looks and body language of these people than there is in the words. You can feel discomfort, anger, satisfaction, and scheming, all taking place just under the surface. Text and subtext blend together into storytelling that is truly gripping and absolutely brilliant.

If you have access to it, via Amazon or some other means, I wholeheartedly encourage you to check out The Wire. I can’t call this a full review since, as I’ve said, I’m only a season and a half in as of this writing, but you can bet I’m in it for the long haul, now. It’s simply one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.

The Rains of Castamere

I was up rather late last night, and I think the best way to illustrate why is the following song. Hum along if you know the tune.

Courtesy HBO & GRRM

And who are you, the proud lord said,
that I must bow so low?
Only a cat of a different coat,
that’s all the truth I know.
In a coat of gold or a coat of red,
a lion still has claws,
And mine are long and sharp, my lord,
as long and sharp as yours.

And so he spoke, and so he spoke,
that Lord of Castamere,
But now the rains weep o’er his hall,
with no one there to hear.
Yes, now the rains weep o’er his hall,
and not a soul to hear.

Welcome Back, Carter

Courtesy Marvel Studios

I know that not everyone is a fan of Marvel’s recent forays into television. There can be an implied obligation to watch the shows to ensure nothing is missed between films, and I can understand why that’s a turn-off. I’m not going to defend either side of the argument, nor am I going to sing the praises of Agents of SHIELD here. However, with the announcement of Agent Carter, I wanted to take a moment to point out, from a high-level perspective, what a good thing this is.

For those of you who don’t know, the character of Agent Carter was introduced in Captain America: The First Avenger. Played by Hayley Atwell, Margaret “Peggy” Carter was part of the group that recruited Steve Rogers, assisting in his training and giving him guidance. She’s more than capable of holding her own in a fight, demonstrates intelligence and poise, and even presented herself in a way that you wouldn’t be surprised to find reproduced on the nose-cone of a B-17 bomber. Quite well-rounded and polished, she was definitely an equal to the all-American Super Soldier.

Marvel produced a one-shot that featured Carter on her own. Set a year after the events of the film, Carter is working for the Strategic Scientific Reserve, where the male leadership see her as little more than a glorified secretary. She takes it upon herself to follow up on a lead that seems insignificant and uncovers a major potential threat. In the wake of her heroism, Howard Stark approaches her to become part of the organization that will become known as SHIELD, and that is more than likely the jumping-off point for the series.

I have no idea if the show is going to be good or not. So far, Marvel has demonstrated high production values, excellent world-building (even if it was a touch slow in Agents of SHIELD – it got better), and good characterization. This leads me to believe that Agent Carter will be just fine in that regard. But let’s not overlook the fact that this show, with a female protagonist in a time period when such a thing would be inconceivable to the rich, conceited men in charge of the entertainment industry, just got greenlit, whereas Wonder Woman can’t get more than a cameo in someone else’s movie.

Marvel’s track record isn’t perfect. Iron Man 2 was probably their roughest outing so far, but it did introduce us to Scarlett Johansson’s portrayal of the Black Widow, another character who has really come into her own, especially in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. While Jane Foster & Darcy are overshadowed by the Asgardians in the Thor films, Lady Sif has no trouble standing shoulder to shoulder with Thor and the other demigods of that world. Pepper Potts and Maria Hill definitely have strong characters of their own, and Agents of SHIELD‘s ensemble is a good balance of male and female alike. It’s things like this that, more and more, make it look like DC simply can’t get its shit together. I hear good things about their Arrow television series, but I’ve honestly been too busy keeping up with Agents of SHIELD to get up to speed with that show.

Not unlike when Sony started running away with a good portion of the video game industry while Sega struggled to keep up, Marvel continues to outstrip the competition. With Agent Carter, that is still the case, but it’s more in the sense of progressiveness than profit. Again, I have no idea if the show will actually be good – I certainly hope it is. But the fact that the show exists at all, let alone greenlit for a run on one of the United States’ biggest television networks, feels to me like a universal good, a step in the right direction, and another reason that, until Superman stops brooding and Batman gets his throat fixed, you can Make Mine Marvel.

From the Vault: On The Fringes

The Friday 500 returns next week, when I’m not quite so wiped out. In the meantime, let’s talk again about character death in fiction!

Courtesy FOX

When I watch a good television program or film, one with a narrative that builds its characters and takes the plot in ways one might not expect, I feel the dichotomy in me between watcher and writer. In the moment the story is happening, the emotional connections I feel with the characters, if they are written and acted well enough, feel vital and affecting. Afterward, in retrospect, I can observe the direction and outcome of those moments, and fully understand the foundation behind the decisions the writers made as well as postulate where they might be headed.

It’s important to remember that any character in a story can die. It’s all in the manner of how, when, and why. I think ‘why’ might be the most important piece of the puzzle, and I don’t mean the motivations of their in-story killer. The writer, callous and unfeeling as they might seem, should have good reason for offing one of their creations, especially if that creation is well-liked. Knowing this, I think, actually helps in reading stories as well as watching them. Chuck Wendig could easily kill Miriam Black. Jim Butcher’s under no obligation to keep Harry Dresden alive. And we all know how George R.R. Martin feels about the immunity of popular characters to the flashing scythe that is his pen. Character death is one of those writerly decisions that can hang on the fringes of the story, either making the whole thing more tense or dragging the whole thing down.

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