Monday, December 31, 2018

My Top 12 TV Shows of 2018

With the year ending, I've binged everything I was able to squeeze in, and so now it's time for my Top 12 TV Shows of 2018.

A couple disclaimers: it's Peak TV so I certainly can't see EVERYTHING. I haven't yet gotten to see the new season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, so if you're wondering how it disappeared from this year's list, that's why. One Day at a Time remains unfinished, and there was really no point this year that I felt ready for The Handmaid's Tale, so if any of those obvious omissions bugs you, you now know why.

Onto the countdown!

12) Forever - Upon release, critics were asked not to reveal the concept of this afterlife-set series, an odd prohibition considering this show semi-reinvented itself in each of the first three episodes. Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen play a married couple reunited in the afterlife and find that the malaise that their marriage has become might mean there's a reason the vows say "till death do us part." Not really a comedy or a drama, but something in between, the show had its own unique feel and some solid, lived-in performances from the leads.

11) Homecoming - Julia Roberts comes to TV! Or at least Amazon. At times, this story of a woman helping returning servicemen deal with PTSD got a bit too showy with its storytelling, but this slow-burn thriller deployed its mystery well and built the central relationship between Roberts and Stephen James's veteran even better. At a time when too many streaming shows have one hour or longer episodes that feel even longer, it was a delight to find eight episodes that clocked in at thirty minutes each and never had time to bore.

10) Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt - Most of this year's short 6-episode run were on-par for the show, that is to say, wacky and delightful, but the third episode was the true standout. Done in the style of a true-crime documentary, we get the history of Jon Hamm's Richard Wayne Gary Wayne, and the idea of applying the Making a Murderer motif to this story feels so obvious in retrospect, it's a wonder it wasn't done sooner. I'm gonna miss this show.

9) Counterpart - As I haven't seen season 2, this ranking is based only on season one. Though the shows deliberate pace occasionally felt TOO deliberate, most weeks this was an enthralling Cold War-type story that was an excellent showcase in how subtly J.K. Simmons could distinguish his identical characters without giving one of them a scar, a beard or overt facial tick. The show boasts a two of my favorite tropes - actors convincingly playing dual roles and actors showing off how they can have Character A play their identical Character B and get it JUST wrong enough that it reads as one character imitating another. Simmons's work aside, another notable episode is episode 7, which agonizingly reveals the history of how one character from the other side came to murder and replace their double on our side.

8) Brooklyn Nine-Nine - In its sixth season, the show finally got around to the HOMICIDE in-joke we were all waiting for and put Andre Braugher in an episode-long interrogation. Even better, the perp was THIS IS US's Sterling K. Brown. It was a highlight of a generally strong season. Cancelled by Fox, the show got a reprieve less than 24 hours later from NBC, where it will hopefully reign for many years to come. I want more teasers like this:


7) DC's Legends of Tomorrow - The most off-beat of the CW superhero shows really hit its stride this year. There's not a single drama on TV less afraid to be goofy and that kind of swing for the fences mentality ends up hitting a lot more than it misses. Where else can you have a time-traveling talking gorilla try to kill Barak Obama in college? Or how about when our heroes realize the disembodied voice of their demon enemy sounds like John Noble, so they hatch a plan to go back in time to the set of Lord of the Rings and, disguised as PAs, get John Noble to record dialogue that will let them manipulate their foes? By the way, both of these crazy developments happen in the SAME episode

6) The Haunting of Hill House - a completely unsettling experience elevated even further by a couple standout hours. On every level - casting, directing, performing, production design - this show hit the mark and then some. The resemblance between the child actors and their adult counterparts was uncanny, to say nothing of the siblings' resemblance to each other. The series most intense hour revealed the truth of the "Bent-Neck Woman" and followed that with a stunning episode full of long-takes that managed to tell the story more than drawing unnecessary attention to each other. (Pay attention, HOMECOMING.) This is one I can't wait to revisit in a few months.

5) Barry - A dark comedy that wasn't afraid to get REALLY dark. Just when it started to feel like the bread and butter of the show was making fun of vapid acting classes and the people who frequent them, the series took a hard right with a violent subplot that culminated in one of the best scenes of the year - Barry showing us that no matter how much we'd laughed at his acting dream, there was still a ruthless killer lurking in there. Bill Hader gave one of the best performances of the year, perfectly balanced by Henry Winkler's acting coach. I can't wait to see how season two moves forward.

4) Dear White People - a nuanced look at racial issues through the experiences of the black population at an Ivy League college. I was late in getting to the show, but once I started, I binged through both seasons in less than a week and a half. Even when the characters are directly confronting racism and cultural tension, it never feels preachy. That's a credit to the deeply-drawn and richly portrayed characters. The show can do an episode that's essentially just two characters in a room debating their perspectives on race and all of it comes from character.

3) Better Call Saul - Hands down, the show's best season so far finally gave Rhea Seehorn's Kim a lot of material to sink her teeth into while Bob Odenkirk took Jimmy close to the final transformation into Saul Goodman. In a season that got much closer to completing the bridge to BREAKING BAD, it ironically felt even more capable of standing on its own.

2) American Vandal - Season two was less outright funny than season one, but proved even more adept than it's predecessor at mining the loneliness and challenges of teenage life for story material. VANDAL again proves to be one of the most thoughtful depictions of high school and the different faces modern teens wear in order to survive in it. Who would have thought a mockumentary about the hunt for a laxative-spiking prankster called the Turd Burglar would have so much complexity to it?

1) The Good Place - Until the show's most recent episode a few weeks ago, THE GOOD PLACE was sitting at #3 on this list. Then came the story that required D'Arcy Carden to play all four major characters, sometimes without even the aid of different clothes and styling to distinguish among the characters. It was an Emmy-worthy episode and one that hopefully won't be forgotten more than half a year from now.

Beyond that, no show on TV is more fearless about reinventing itself. Every season has seen a massive change in the status quo and usually even that status quo gets blown up by midseason. Every season feels like it should be the show's last, and yet the writers keep finding ingenious ways of exploring these characters and the inner workings of the afterlife. I want this show to go on forever, so long as it keeps up the work of not overstaying its welcome. There is no show I look forward to more each week.

Monday, December 24, 2018

MasterClass offers "Buy One, Gift One" All-Access Pass for the holidays!

(Note: this post contains affiliate links and I will be compensated if you make a purchase after using one of my links.)

If you've read my MasterClass reviews over the last couple years, but have been waiting for the right opportunity to buy, you might be interested in this Christmas deal. MasterClass is doing a "Buy One, Gift One" sale.  The promotion allows a new customer to purchase an All-Access Pass for $180 and receive another All-Access Pass to give to someone else at no additional charge.

Also if a customer has already purchased a single class for $90, they can upgrade to the All-Access Pass for an additional $90 and still receive another All-Access Pass to give as a gift.

Each class runs about 5-6 hours and comes with a workbook and often valuable supplementary materials. For instance, if you take Shonda Rhimes's class, you get the series bible for Grey's Anatomy, the original 10-page pitch document for the series, and the pilot scripts for both Grey's and Scandal.

As I've said in my reviews, I consider the Ron Howard class on directing to be essential for anyone who wants to be a film director. I absolutely will guarantee its value. If there's someone in your life who might find this of value, definitely consider gifting them the All-Access Pass. To help you out, I've included links below to the reviews I've written for the writing and filmmaking-related classes, as well as links to the full roster if that helps convince you that this purchase will be worthwhile for your interests.

And best of all, if you use any of these links, I get a commission, so it's like giving a gift to a friend or family member AND me!

Again, you can purchase that All-Access Pass and get a free one to gift here. The sale lasts through December 26th!

Prior MasterClass Reviews:
Aaron Sorkin's MasterClass on TV Writing (review)
David Mamet Teaches Dramatic Writing (review)
Ron Howard Teaches Directing (review)
Shonda Rhimes Teaches TV Writing (review)
Judd Apatow Teaches Comedy (review)
Steve Martin Teaches Comedy (review)
Samuel L. Jackson Teaches Acting (review)
Dustin Hoffman's MasterClass on Acting (review)

The full MasterClass roster:

Filmmaking/Directing
Spike Lee teaches Filmmaking
Judd Apatow teaches Comedy
Malcolm Gladwell teaches Writing
Martin Scorsese teaches Filmmaking
Werner Herzog teaches Filmmaking
Ken Burns teaches Documentary Filmmaking
Mira Nair teaches Independent Filmmaking


Writing:
Shonda Rhimes teaches TV Writing
Aaron Sorkin's Masterclass on TV Writing
David Mamet teaches Dramatic Writing
Steve Martin teaches Comedy
Judy Blume teaches Writing
Margaret Atwood teaches Creative Writing
James Patterson teaches Writing
R.L. Stein teaches Writing for Young Audiences
Dan Brown teaches Writing Thrillers


Acting:
Samuel L. Jackson teaches Acting
Helen Mirren teaches Acting


Music/Performance
Christina Aguilera's MasterClass 
deadmau5's MasterClass 
Herbie Hancock teaches Jazz
Hans Zimmer teaches Film Scoring
Reba McEntire teaches Country Music
Usher teaches Performance
Tom Morello teaches Electric Guitar
Carlos Santana teaches the Art and Soul of Guitar


Sports
Stephen Curry teaches Basketball
Serena Williams teaches Tennis
Garry Kasparov teaches Chess

Cooking/Food:
Wolfgang Puck teaches Cooking
Gordon Ramsay teaches Cooking.
Gordon Ramsay teaches Cooking Techniques II: Restaurant Recipes at Home
Thomas Keller teaches Cooking
Thomas Keller teaches Cooking Techniques II: Meats, Stocks and Sauces
Dominique Ansel teaches French Pastry Fundamentals
James Suckling teaches Wine Appreciation


Other:
Jane Goodall teaches Conservation
Marc Jacobs teaches Fashion Design
Annie Leibovitz teaches Photography
David Axelrod and Karl Rove teach Campaign Strategy
Chris Hadfield teaches Space Exploration
Daniel Negreanu teaches Poker
Paul Krugman teaches Economics and Society
Jimmy Chin teaches Adventure Photography
Will Wright teaches Game Design and Theory

Monday, December 17, 2018

Samuel L. Jackson's MasterClass presents students with the challenge of playing iconic scenes TO the icon

(Note: this post contains affiliate links and I will be compensated if you make a purchase after using one of my links.)

About three and a half years ago, I reviewed Dustin Hoffman's MasterClass in Acting. It was my first experience with MasterClass, and one that was extremely positive. Though I have little interest in being an actor, watching how he guided other actors ended up being it's own kind of master class in directing a performance. There's a lot I took from that class that I expect I'll apply in my own directing.

That class is no longer available, owing to Hoffman having some bad behavior exposed in the wake of #MeToo. I've been meaning for a while to review another acting class, and as my one year All-Access Pass approached expiration, I decided to take in Samuel L. Jackson's teaches Acting.

Jackson's class is different enough that you don't feel like you're getting the same kind of experience if you happened to have seen Hoffman's when it was available. If you put a gun to my head, I'd probably say I prefer Hoffman's because he tends to get a little deeper in the segments where he's working with acting students. There's a tradeoff, though. Jackson has six students in his class segments, which he divides into rotating pairings of two.

Since it's a Samuel L. Jackson class, it's not a surprise that Jackson chose scenes from his movies. (This is another contrast with Hoffman, who used other films he had no connection to.) This EASILY can be an acting trap because Jackson is such an iconic performer that even if you're not playing an iconic SCENE, it's easy to fall into imitating Jackson's energy and rhythms. One of the scenes is an iconic Jackson moment - the climax of Pulp Fiction. The students tackle this with varying degrees of success, and it has to be nerve-wracking to play such a scene in front of the guy who earned several acting nominations for it. Jackson challenges the students to explain what the scene is about - particularly the meaning of the Bible quote that Jules recites near the end.

The people who understand the meaning of that quote and are able to bring a little of themselves to the role rather than just imitating Jackson tend to give the stronger performances. Subsequently we see the same students perform scenes from The Negotiator and Kingsman: The Secret Service, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the students who found their own way into the Pulp Fiction diner scene also tend to be the stronger performers in the other scene. We're not given the students' names (unless I missed them in the credits), but the young red-headed woman gives a very strong Jules performance that serves the scene and feels wholly unique from Jackson's own interpretation.

Jackson gives notes, but his direction is often less specific than Hoffman's was. He's good at identifying what's not working in a scene and offering advice about how he would build a character, but he seems more inclined to work with what he's presented rather than give a direction that completely alters that actors performance. That said, just seeing six different interpretations of a scene is kind of its own acting lesson and it doesn't take long before the viewer is coming up with their own performance notes. As good as Jackson is, it's the diversity of students that really makes this segment work. Seeing their process makes this more than just Jackson saying "Here's how I build a character."

I like a lot of the straight talk Jackson has for his students. He says, "Don't say to [producers and directors at an audition,] 'I don't think my character would do that,' because they're right. Your character won't be doing that because you won't be getting that job." He advises actors to try and take a direction even if they think it's wrong, encouraging them to think about all the ways a scene could be done ahead of time. Then they're in a better position to take that direction and incorporate it into what they've already done.

He also tells them "You take every chance you get to act" because you never know when someone will see you and feel that you're right for something else they're working on. "Nobody can teach you how to get your break," he says, but "if you ain't prepared when opportunity knocks, who knows when he's gonna be coming back that way." Later he talks about how his wife would ask why he had taken an audition for a couple small roles. His answer was "I think that writer's talented, and I think that director's gonna direct another movie and even if I don't get this job, they're gonna remember my black ass when I leave out of there. They're gonna know 'I know exactly who I need to hire for this next movie.'"

There's a lot of practical straight talk of that nature, sort of a working actor's school of hard knocks. Since Jackson has walked the walk throughout his career. He tells a story about being offered the role of Jules in Pulp Fiction, then finding out that another actor blew the filmmakers away and was on the verge of getting that role. This forced Jackson into an acting competition where he showed up to play ALL of Jules's scenes for the producers, which meant he had just days to do all the work of building a character that he normally would spend weeks on. This story takes some interesting detours but the end result is that he blows them away with his performance and finds out later that they fully intended to give the other actor the part until that acting session.

He also discusses how working on A Time to Kill gave him a lesson in how editing can change the intent of a performance. He saw his role of Carl Lee Haley as that of a father who wanted his daughter to know that he would always protect her, and when he murdered the two men who raped and beat her, it wasn't an act of vengeance but an act of love - making sure they wouldn't hurt her again. But he felt that every scene that spoke to that motivation got cut out of the film and that what was left gave the impression of his character as a "conniving Negro" (his words) who was playing the system to beat a murder charge. It gave him the lesson that no matter how much work he put into his performance, there were always factors that could alter its intent.

Other lectures delve into how Jackson builds his characters. I may never look at his hairstyles the same way again now that I know the impact that a Lawrence Oliver retrospective had on him. He noticed that Oliver looked different in every role and that inspired Jackson to think more about his look - and specifically his hair - when he approached a role.

It's not all about the external of a character, by the way. There's a lot of thoughtful advice about creating a backstory and biography beyond what's on the page. By way of example, he even contrasts two of his roles that are superficially similar, but markedly different.

Overall, it's a solid MasterClass. Jackson is engaging and leads an effective class that carries his strong point of view. There are times if I considered that might be a drawback, if there's too narrow a focus on "what works for Samuel L. Jackson," but really, people aren't paying for Acting 101 - they're paying for Jackson's experience.

I don't know if I'll have an opportunity to compare it to Helen Mirren's acting class, but from talking to some of my actor friends, most of them would be satisfied with what Jackson delivers here. For non-actors, I don't know if this is quite the resource on directing actors that Hoffman's class was, but it remains a solid window into the other side of the creative process.

You can order Samuel L. Jackson teaches Acting for $90 here.

Or, for $180, you can purchase that All-Access Pass and get access for a year to EVERY Masterclass available. For that go here.

Prior MasterClass Reviews:
Aaron Sorkin's MasterClass on TV Writing (review)
David Mamet Teaches Dramatic Writing (review)
Ron Howard Teaches Directing (review)
Shonda Rhimes Teaches TV Writing (review)
Judd Apatow Teaches Comedy (review)
Steve Martin Teaches Comedy (review)
Dustin Hoffman's MasterClass on Acting (review)

The full MasterClass roster:

Writing/Directing
Martin Scorsese teaches Filmmaking
Werner Herzog teaches Filmmaking
Shonda Rhimes teaches TV Writing
Aaron Sorkin's Masterclass on TV Writing
David Mamet teaches Dramatic Writing
Steve Martin teaches Comedy
Judy Blume teaches Writing
Ken Burns teaches Documentary Filmmaking
Margaret Atwood teaches Creative Writing
James Patterson teaches Writing
Dan Brown teaches Writing Thrillers

Acting:
Samuel L. Jackson teaches Acting
Helen Mirren teaches Acting

Music/Performance
Christina Aguilera's MasterClass 
deadmau5's MasterClass 
Herbie Hancock teaches Jazz
Hans Zimmer teaches Film Scoring
Reba McEntire teaches Country Music
Usher teaches Performance
Tom Morello teaches Electric Guitar

Sports
Stephen Curry teaches Basketball
Serena Williams teaches Tennis
Garry Kasparov teaches Chess

Cooking
Wolfgang Puck teaches Cooking
Gordon Ramsay teaches Cooking.
Gordon Ramsay teaches Cooking Techniques II: Restaurant Recipes at Home
Thomas Keller teaches Cooking
Thomas Keller teaches Cooking Techniques II: Meats, Stocks and Sauces
Dominique Ansel teaches French Pastry Fundementals

Other:
Jane Goodall teaches Conservation
Marc Jacobs teaches Fashion Design
Annie Leibovitz teaches Photography
David Axelrod and Karl Rove teach Campaign Strategy
Chris Hadfield teaches Space Exploration
Daniel Negreanu teaches Poker
Paul Krugman teaches Economics and Society