Friday, December 29, 2017

My Top 10 TV Shows of 2017

The end of the year brings Top 10 Lists! I'm still catching up on my 2017 feature releases, so expect that around the middle of January, but I've watched more than enough TV to put out a list of my Top 10 TV Shows for 2017. No one reads these intros anyway, so let's get right to it:

1) American Vandal - The first time I saw a trailer for American Vandal, I was convinced it was a fake trailer. Even when I realized it was posted by Netflix, I remained open to the possibility that they had decided to have a little fun making a fake trailer applying the MAKING A MURDERER formula to the story of a high school documentary determined to find out who spray-painted dicks on the cars in the faculty lounge. In other words, my expectations that this joke could sustain a single installment, much less 8 episodes, were very low. I could not have been more wrong. American Vandal blew past those expectations and even beyond any best-case-scenario I could have conceived.

There are few savvier moves in television this year than the story turn in Episode 5 where we learn that the mockumentary has gone public and the rest of the show becomes not just about the investigation, but the impact of the documentary on the people it examines. The creators pulled off an incredible high-wire act here that elevated this beyond almost any mockumentary I've ever seen. Far more than a goof, this is a series about voyeurism, the media, and the regular trials of just getting through life in a typical high school. My biggest regret is that I watched this at a time when I wasn't available to give this a 5 or 10 part examination on my blog.

2) The Good Place - The best thing network TV did last year. Last year's finale (which aired in January) completely upended the entire series with a reveal that worked all the better because we barely knew a mystery existed. Learning that Eleanor and her friends ALL were in The Bad Place not only let Ted Danson do some fabulous scenery chewing, but it positioned the series for a total reset in Season 2. It seemed like the creators could only disappoint from there, but amazingly, the second season quickly moved past the expected repeated beats and blew up the show again. I have NO idea the state we'll leave the show in with this year's finale and I love watching a show where it feels like anything can happen.

3) 13 Reasons Why - I wrote 13 (actually 14, really) posts about why I was hit so hard by this series about the events that led a teenage girl to take her own life, and many months later, I stand by all of it. Katherine Langford gave the breakout performance of the year as the gradually unraveling Hannah Baker, who leaves behind cassette tapes addressed to each person she says put her on the road to her death. The episode focusing on Clay's tape is still one of the most heartbreaking episodes of TV I saw this year, and Dylan Minnette deserves just as much praise as Langford for anchoring this series.

Beyond all that, it was nice to have a Netflix show where each episode felt like a distinct chapter as opposed to being part of a "13-hour movie." I don't dispute a couple middle chapters lagged, more for their lack of present-day momentum than for the Hannah-focused material. (Episode 7 being the worst offender in that regard). But the show finished strong and despite the near impossibility of continuing this arc in a satisfying way, I'm as eager for Season 2 as I am for the next Star Wars. Like American Vandal, this series really seems to capture the authenticity of teenage life today, and manages to do so with a fairly diverse cast.

4) Master of None - I've seen a lot of lists single out the series for the short-film quality of standalone eps like "New York, I Love You," but that overlooks how cohesive the show feels despite these "art project" forays. The standout episode of the season is "Thanksgiving," which doesn't center on Aziz Ansari's Dev, but rather co-writer and supporting player Lena Waithe's Denise, as we follow her journey of coming out across several years. Waithe and Ansari deservedly won an Emmy for this episode, and I want you to imagine any other similar comedy series pulling off the trick of building an entire episode around a character who was absent from more eps than she appeared in and have it STILL feel like a true half-hour of the series. Could Curb Your Enthusiasm get away with a Jeff-focused or a Funkhauser-focused installment?

Not everything about this season was a home run for me, but the running thread of Dev's Cupcake Wars series and the finale's left turn into a sexual harassment story brought to mind how the best seasons of Seinfeld kept a standalone feel even with season-long storylines.

5) The Handmaid's Tale -This series had the timing of the century coming on the heels of Trump's arrival in the White House. The openly oppressive and misogynistic society it depicts feels like something out of a Mike Pence wet dream. That timing adds a fresh sense of horror to the story of Elizabeth Moss's June/Offred, a handmaid assigned to the home of one of the new society's leaders. No show or movie this year made me HATE its villains as much as this series dead. Yvonne Strahovski's Serena Joy had brief moments of empathy through the season which made her truly despicable actions in the finale even more potent and infuriating.

I also REALLY hope that Ann Dowd's Aunt Lydia, the woman whose job it is to basically break and brainwash the handmaids, comes to a really nasty end before the season is over. Dowd has created one of the great villains of television, and all of this gives Moss some really great material to play against. And in the "we didn't know you had it in you" category, former Rory Gilmore actress Alexis Bledel showed of some incredible chops in her Emmy-winning showcase episode. The universally powerful acting smoothed over a couple of the slower episodes that felt like they were there to build out the world for future seasons. I'm curious to see how season two expands the world and the story of the Resistance, or if retreats to the more intimate drama and tension that was more often the show's strength this year.

6) Better Call Saul - Even as the show added Breaking Bad antagonist Gus Fring to the mix, it seemed to stake out more of its identity as being its own show completely independent of its "parent." It's interesting that - like 13 Reasons Why, in a way - this series mines a lot of tension out of the drive to a sad conclusion the audience likely keeps trying to will out of existence. We've had a lot of time to fall for Jimmy McGill, enough that it's gonna be hard to have him taken away from us when he completes his transformation into the much more amoral Saul Goodman. This is essentially a series about the battle for Jimmy's soul and we've known from the start that he loses. What we didn't know was that he had this much of a good heart to begin with.

This season gave us plenty of charming moments with our favorite shyster, but the real power came from the final conflict between Jimmy and his brother Chuck (Michael McKean.) The episode where Jimmy fully outwits Chuck and destroys his reputation in the process was a heartbreaker. We root for Jimmy because the series is empathetic to his point of view and because Chuck is a dick - but Chuck isn't all wrong in his criticisms of Jimmy and it feels like next season, we'll see more of that validated, even as Chuck has been taken off the board.

7) Bates Motel - When this series was announced, I didn't think they could pull it off. Then after watching season one, I still doubted a series based on PSYCHO could work, but Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore were doing such great work that it outshone the often weak plotting with regard to the local town mythology. The big moment of season two for me was when we saw the birth of the Mother persona and it still felt like a genuine shock, as the lead actors had managed to separate their work so completely from the Hitchcock production. The final two or three seasons were the strongest, with this season finally sending Norman into total madness and becoming the deranged young man we met in the film. Ingeniously, the creators threw a curve ball when they introduced Marion Crane and upended all expectations. It could have sunk the series, but by then, we'd accepted this Norman Bates as a different animal from Anthony Perkins's iconic performance. Sometimes, bad ideas can be executed really well and I never thought I'd be eager to see a weekly Norman Bates hour.

8) Better Things - Pamela Adlon is an actress usually called upon to play straight-talking, no-bullshit voices of reason. One of the savvy things Better Things does is take that persona and put her in situations where it's often impotent, like trying to be single mother to her three daughters. Technically the show is a comedy, but for me it often plays more as a drama with funny parts. This season tried the "short film each week" approach possibly to an even more aggressive degree than Master of None. It makes for occasionally frustrating viewing if you're expecting immediate follow-up to dangling plotlines, but somehow it's effective to feel like we're sometimes getting incomplete pieces of Adlon's Sam and her life, with us having to figure out the offscreen journey from A to B via context. Perhaps more than any of the other shows on this list, I've found this is one that you can't explain to people - you just have to get them to watch it.

Also, this is possibly one of my favorite scenes from the year, with Adlon cycling through every possible line reading of "No!"

9) Big Little Lies - Some writers have such potent voices that you can pick them out instantly, despite any attempts to vary the tone or the subject matter. No matter the TV or movie script, Sorkin always sounds like Sorkin, Amy Sherman-Palladino will ALWAYS sound like Amy Sherman-Palladino, and David E. Kelley will always be identifiable by his quirkiness and monologues. Or so I thought. This is the most un-David E. Kelley show that David E. Kelley could have done.

Though it's framed by a murder investigation, the series really is the story of several affluent women in Monterey, who spend most of their time teaming up to work with and against each other in all manner of school-related drama that involves each of their first-graders. With actors like Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and Laura Dern, the series is a compelling exploration of the difficult lives they lead beneath their privilege. (I realize that makes this sound like American Beauty, but I assure you the series is much, much better.) One has an abusive husband and needs to understand that before she has any hope of leaving him, one finds herself tempted to stray in her marriage, another initially presents as a Queen Bee monster before revealing a softer side, and another is finally ready to confront the sexual assault that conceived her child.

I'll be honest, I wasn't too compelled by the framing mystery. It was the characters and their storylines that brought me back for each episode, not the desire to find out who had been killed and who was the murderer. The eventual reveal that Kidman's husband was the same character who raped Shailene Woodley's character also seemed a bit pat and unnecessary. Maybe on a second viewing I'll notice things that set that up more clearly, but on a first pass, it came out of nowhere. As a showcase for some of the best working actresses, though, BLL is hard to beat.

10) One Day at a Time - I'll admit, this one took a few episodes to fully grow on me. I don't really watch any three-camera shows any more and part of that is that the tone and style feel too artificial for me. (I think this has more to do with the quality of the new series I've seen, as I don't have this issue with reruns of Seinfeld, Cheers and just about any other classic sitcom.) I've never seen the original version so I can't speak to comparisons between the two. Like several other shows on this list, it became more relevant this year than it might have, focusing on a family of Cuban immigrants raised by a single mother who's also a military vet. The show's dealt with PTSD, illegal immigrants, gender bias, religion, homosexuality, and more... all with the same deft touch that co-creator Norman Lear used almost 40 years ago when he created All in the Family and The Jeffersons. It feels authentic instead of preachy and manages to be consistently funny. It's a great era for sitcoms that actually have something to say.

Honorable Mentions:

Veep - a solid season that's only a disappointment when stacked against a couple really strong prior seasons. Julia Louis-Dreyfuss had one of favorite line readings this season when she threatened, "I will destroy you in ways that are so creative they will honor me for it at the Kennedy Center."

Curb Your Enthusiasm - Yes, it didn't produce the number of instant classics that season 7 or 8 did, but this was a very entertaining season nonetheless. "Accidental Text on Purpose" belongs in the Curb Hall-of-Fame and the resolution of Larry's fatwa was actually pretty clever.

GLOW - I love the way that season can be read as Alison Brie's character discovering and embracing that she's the villain of the story. It's a great way of addressing the issue that I and many others had with her likability in the first episode. And how great was Marc Maron?

Great News - Another strong, if underseen, network sitcom. Briga Heelan stars as a young local news producer who has to deal with her smother of a mother becoming the station's new intern, played by comic legend Andrea Martin. The show's got the comic sensibility of 30 Rock (it's from some of the same producers, including Tina Fey) which allows it to do things like deal with sexual harassment in the workplace in oddball ways while still making a legitimate point about gender issues. Nicole Richie has also become a force of comic insanity that rivals Jane Krakowski's Jenna on 30 Rock.

The Goldbergs - Five seasons in and this show is still consistently funny and getting solid work out of its ensemble every week.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Luke Skywalker takes us on an emotional journey in STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI

Warning: I'm going to be discussing everything about Star Wars: The Last Jedi here. Consider this your Spoiler Alert.

As one of the authors of THE MAKING OF STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII, I was curious to see how much of the film Brian Michael Scully and I correctly guessed now that the film is in release. Turns out we nailed it, all of it. Don't bother to check, just take my word for it.

I'm led to believe that most boys growing up tended to dream about being Han Solo more than they did Luke. Han was the cool guy, the hot shot pilot who got the girl and always had a witty line to say. His cocky aloofness was apparently far more appealing than Luke's pureheart earnestness.

I was one of the kids who wanted to be Luke Skywalker.

After a film's worth of build-up we finally get to know the modern version of Luke Skywalker in writer/director Rian Johnson's THE LAST JEDI as Rey arrives at the first Jedi Temple to ask for his help. Arm outstretched, she delivers his lightsaber, his father's lightsaber. Luke takes it, studies it for a moment... and then chucks it over his shoulder.

This is not going to go the way we think.

There are a lot of plot threads winding through THE LAST JEDI (too many, to be honest), but the most consequential and controversial is the Luke/Rey thread, as the young would-be Jedi learns what drove Luke into exile and why he's none too eager to come out of it. After Rey ignores his first few admonishments to go away, he tells her, "I came here to die."

I don't think that claim entirely holds up under scrutiny, but I'll come back to that in a moment.

We already knew that Luke disappeared after Kylo Ren went bad, killed all of his students and destroyed Luke's Jedi Academy. What we didn't know was the confrontation that set this off. Luke visited the young Ben Solo as he slept and looked into his mind. He discovered that the darkness in him was greater than he feared, too great to be stopped at that point. In a moment of impulse, he ignited his lightsaber, ready to end his threat now. It was a reaction he almost immediately reconsidered, but Ben awoke, saw this and attacked Luke. By the time Luke woke up, his students were dead.

So Luke's guilt is three-fold:

1) He feels he should have caught Ben's turn to the Dark Side sooner.

2) He shouldn't have momentarily considered killing him.

3) He shouldn't have FAILED to kill him.

And yes, 2 and 3 set off a logic feedback loop. That's part of the issue.

Also, let's consider the fact that Luke was the guy who still believed there was enough good still in conflict with Darth Vader that he could be salvaged. How dark must Kylo Ren's soul be for Luke to think even for a second that he was beyond saving?

I suspect that when Luke went looking for the first Jedi Temple, it was with the intent of using that ancient knowledge to figure out where he went wrong so badly that he allowed the rise of another Vader. He needed to understand what he could do differently to keep his students safe from the Dark Side. Clearly, what he learned about the Jedi and the Force was that this susceptibility was less of a bug than a feature. That would have to be what drove him to see the Jedi legacy as one of failure, and one that the galaxy would be better off without.

It's not the future we envisioned for Luke when we left him in RETURN OF THE JEDI. Having defeated the Emperor and redeemed his father, his Jedi ascension came with the promise that he would be the one to restore the Jedi without making the mistakes of the past. This was only further reinforced by the prequels, which deliberately showed the old Jedi as stiff and formal, almost rigidly constrained by their own dogma. Luke was to be a new breed, possibly more spiritual and less orthodox.

Luke represented the hope of a new post-war generation, ready to move past the mistakes of its parents and ready to begin a new golden age. Only now, another fascist faction has risen, democracy has been destroyed and all the mistakes that older generation were supposed to have put in the past are now the responsibility of the younger generation to fix anew.

Oh, wait. NOW I totally relate to what sent Luke out to that island. And if I was Rey, I'd be all over him like, "Are you kidding me, dude! Get off your ass and fix this mess you made! It can't be ALL on the next generation!"

I actually understand the reaction from fans who feel that THE LAST JEDI undermines Luke's entire story. The original six films paint a picture of an archaic Jedi Order that needed to evolve in order to survive. Luke was the redemption of all of that, to the degree that it's the entire point of the six-film arc. TLJ tells us, "Yeah, that's not true at all."

I'll be honest. I'm still processing that. The movie doesn't let Luke off the hook by having Rey open his eyes to the good of the Jedi. A surprise visit from Yoda serves only to reinforce Luke's perspective that the Jedi cannot go on as they used to. It's very easy to take from this film the idea that the galaxy would be no worse off than if Luke Skywalker had never been born.

It's hard to watch Luke become a cautionary tale of his own, but Mark Hamill plays the broken Jedi Master perfectly. In his early scenes, Luke seems to have gone a bit loopy in isolation and even when he gives in to offer Rey insight into the Force, he's far from the serene mentor we might have hoped he be. (In one interesting bit of potential foreshadowing, he notes with fear that she didn't even hesitate about diving into a reserve of Dark Side power. Is there darkness in Rey? Or will she learn it's possible to wield the Dark Side without being corrupted by it?)

While it's taking apart our expectations of Jedi Master Luke Skywalker, THE LAST JEDI works to subvert our assumptions of what a STAR WARS film should be. In a shocking late film twist, Supreme Leader Snoke meets his end during a confrontation between Rey and Kylo Ren, when Ren betrays his master and murders him. Snoke seemed poised to fill the void left by the Emperor and so long as he lived, there was reasonable hope for Kylo Ren's redemption. In one of the film's most delicious ironies, Ren kills his dark master and THAT is the thing that conclusively shows he's too far gone to be saved.

This means we go into the final chapter with the First Order led by a dangerously unstable man-baby. Twice in the final battle he's shown to be unhinged, as when he orders all ships to pursue the Millennium Falcon and then later when he has every gun trained on Luke Skywalker. The First Order isn't in for the most considered leadership and it almost makes one wonder if Ren's eventual downfall will come as the result of a coup.

And to be clear, I never thought Snoke was going to be revealed to have some secret connection to past characters or anything of that sort. I'm glad he didn't turn out to be some kind of Emperor clone or anything else that would have made this universe smaller. Some fans may be upset he got taken off the board so early... I'm ecstatic!

By the same token, the film resolves the mystery of Rey's parents in the only way that would have really made sense - they were nobodies who sold her for booze money and who are buried out in the desert. As someone tired of the "Chosen One" trope and "small universe syndrome" I'm thrilled she didn't turn out to be a former student of Luke's who had her memory wiped, or a secret daughter of Han and Leia, or Luke's daughter, or any other theory that fans built up over the last two years. She's no one, and that gives her more impact than any lineage they could have tied her to.

Not everything works here. As much as I like Finn his entire subplot does little but go in circles. He and Rose have a fun rapport, but by the time their story's resolved it ends up changing nothing about the main narrative. Benicio del Toro brings an interesting energy to his part, and the diversion lets Rian Johnson get in an interesting layer about war profiteers in the STAR WARS universe, but in a movie that's two and a half hours long, this extra baggage brings down the pace a bit.

Leia's storyline is a little more interesting, as the First Order pursues the Resistance, Leia's capital ship finds itself in a slow speed chase. One attack kills most of the leadership and leaves Leia in a coma, prompting her replacement (played by Laura Dern) to clash with Poe. This story is a little more engaging, mostly because it provokes some growth in Poe. It also pays off in one of the most stunning visuals of the new trilogy when the enemy flagship is taken out. I've seen nitpicks of the "science" here, but STAR WARS is the last franchise you should try to bring any kind of science realism to.

Carrie Fisher's final appearance as Leia is as emotional as you'd expect. In one wonderful sequence she appears to have been killed after being sucked into space, only for her Force abilities to manifest long enough for her to propel herself back to the ship. I still feel it was a major missed opportunity to apparently not have Leia explore her Force abilities at all in the intervening years, but this one moment mitigated that slightly. (And, had Carrie lived, possibly could have set up an advancement of that storyline in Episode IX.)

Adam Driver continues to do incredible work as Kylo Ren. We're basically getting the Anakin arc done right this time, and that plays well against our expectations. We keep expecting the redemptive moment even as the film tells us twice that this only can end with his death. I'm looking forward to seeing him go full-on megalomaniac in the third film, and especially how that'll force Daisy Ridley to raise her game even more to match him.

It's remarkable how much the new characters have already taken over this franchise. Chewie, R2-D2 and C-3PO are all present but even more in the background than THE FORCE AWAKENS would have led us to expect. Chewie gets some of the film's better moments, though, including his interactions with the Porg creatures on Luke's island and a late-movie moment where he flies to the rescue. As dark as this film gets, all it took is the Falcon riding in, Rey in the gunner's chair, and the Falcon theme from the first film blaring for me to feel like I was 8 again.

(The only thing that could have topped it would have been if - when Ren orders all ships after the Falcon - Luke's X-Wing had flown to the rescue and taken ALL of them out. And yes, I wouldn't have objected to a little more fan service in the vein of "Luke Skywalker, Jedi badass.")

All of this leads to something I was sure we'd see by the end of this trilogy, if not this movie: the death of Luke Skywalker. After using the Force to project his image across the galaxy to confront Kylo Ren and give the Resistance a chance to flee, Luke looks across the ocean at twin setting suns, reacts with wonder to something he sees, and vanishes into the Force like Obi-Wan and Yoda before him.

It's a beautiful image, one that brings us full circle with the young dreamer who stared over the horizon 40 years ago as one of John Williams's most affecting scores played. Luke departs this world believing that nothing he devoted his life to truly mattered, that it will be up to Rey to learn from his mistakes and become the new hope he was believed to be. He leaves knowing that there's nothing he can do to save Kylo Ren from himself.

It's a terrible thing for that dreamer to be faced with - a galaxy made worse despite his own best intentions. And yet, despite that, we're told that he was at peace as he went. The trauma that drove him into exile was so profound that he cut himself off from the Force. I'm going to presume that was the reason that Yoda never made a Force Ghost visit until now. Is there still room for Luke to be wrong about what he asserted to Rey? Did his life, despite its failures, still have purpose?

I like to think so, and I'll chose to believe that when he reengaged with the Force, this time with his new insight that it didn't belong to just the Jedi, he gained a deeper understanding of his place in all of this. There was no guilt, no regret to anchor him any longer, and that was the peace that he united with as he became one with the Force.

THE LAST JEDI eschews many conventions and remainders of the past, to the point many fans have seen it as hostile to THE FORCE AWAKENS and the original films. "Let the past die," Kylo Ren says, "Kill it if you have to." We need not assume that because the franchise is moving beyond its beginnings that it's fully denouncing them. I admit, the most reasonable reading of Luke's story allows for that interpretation.

But this is not the last word on STAR WARS, and even though this is no longer his story, I will be surprised if EPISODE IX doesn't bring at least one visit from Luke, and in a way that unifies all the trilogies and shows us that no matter how derisively Luke refers to himself as a "legend," that title is well-earned.