Friday, December 29, 2017



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Streaming services and DVRs have abounded in recent years with so-called “sadcoms” - half hour explorations of depression, ennui and the pretensions to artiste-ery of people who resent having made their names in the low arts of comedy.  I’ve repeatedly ragged on these shows for being full of themselves, and there’s something perfect about how the funniest show on TV is a half hour exploration of the depression, ennui and pretensions to artiste-ery of a cartoon horse who resents how he made his name in the low art of comedy. 

It’s also better at exploring that depression and ennui than just about any show on TV (last year, I compared it, favorably, to Mad Men more than its more direct cartoon peers).  Despite being entirely consistent in both its comedic and emotional ethos for 4 seasons, it still surprises that some of the most affecting things I saw this year revolved around the disintegrating marriage between a woman and a deranged golden retriever, or the mid-life crisis of a workaholic cat racing against her biological clock with the help of a fertility app voiced by Harvey Fierstein (the voice you want to hear rasping “Let’s put a baby in you!”).  And as I puzzle over why that is, I am struck by the idea that it is the animation that makes not just the jokey jokes, but the heavier emotions hit harder.  With the auteur-driven “sadcom” – a Louie, a Maron, an Insecure, a Master Of None (takes breath…), a Better Things, a One Mississippi,  a Girls, even some I really enjoy like Atlanta – the examinations of despair, addiction, prejudice, grief and other Real Issues can seem to carry an inescapable whiff of self-indulgence.  And I think a lot of that is related to how we know the face on the screen, our guide through this exploration of Real Issues, also belongs to the creator, writer, executive producer and possibly director of this particular exploration, playing an at-best thinly veiled version of themselves that probably shares their first name.  It feels like they are, to use Bojack’s vernacular, “fetishizing their own sadness”.

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So the “heavy” sitcoms that work best for me tend to be the ones that have the auteur/stars playing roles that may be recognizable as their type of characters, but are definitely characters – like Baskets or Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. They also tend to have a slightly larger cast to mitigate the solipsistic nature of the more autobiographical material.  Bojack’s animated nature works at once to obscure those autobiographical (and thus potentially self-aggrandizing) elements by adding another layer to the performances, and to sprawl the scope past the myopic perspective of the main character, and to embrace the abject silliness that helps cut through any hints of pretension or treacle.  I know I’ve said some similar things about Brockmire, Rick And Morty, and The Good Place throughout this list, and in other pieces before it, but I am adamant about this point:  comedy should be funny.

And Bojack Horseman is really, screamingly funny.  The grim psychological, and cultural*, insights at the base of the show never get in the way of delivering constant laughs, or drown the basic, hard-won hope (as opposed optimism) at its deepest core.  There are certain fundamental truths that Bojack never loses sight of, no matter how bleak an episode’s final punchline may be: that the unfairness of life is both unrelenting and also really silly, that happiness is possible but really, really hard, and that stupid puns paradoxically get more worth it as their setups grow increasingly tortured and byzantine.  It can be devastating, but it’s also the only sadcom where I always want to see the next episode right away.

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Watch It For:  “Popular actor and soundtrack artisan” Zach Braff being burned alive and eaten by Jessica Biel.  Although it is a refusal to eat an avocado, rather than said act of cannibalism, that derails her campaign for governor of California.

*This season had an entire episode called “Thoughts And Prayers” all about a bunch of disingenuous cartoon ghouls using that meaningless phrase to ignore any inconvenient fallout from constant mass murders, which was released months before Las Vegas saw everyone calling out GOP lawmakers for that exact thing



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If you're like me and laugh your ass off at Danny McBride characters’ raunchy shenanigans on Eastbound And Down or Vice Principals, but can’t find it in you to care about whatever scrap of personal growth they have allegedly found at the end of the season, then Brockmire is the show for you.  Hank Azaria’s washed up baseball announcer is similarly depraved, but his antics mainly serve to hurt himself rather than constantly sprawling out to devastate everyone around him.  Which makes it much easier to invest in the emotional underpinnings of his meager redemption story and surprisingly sincere romance with Amanda Peet’s minor league team/bar owner. 

Peet has spent the last few years quietly developing into the most underrated actress on the small screen.  Her Jules is a tricky role, initially appearing to be merely the straightwoman to ground Brockmire’s more cartoonish aspects and a rote romantic interest.  But the writing quickly, unfussily moves her past that, and Peet’s razor sharp comedic chops and a natural, playful intelligence makes her as interesting and fun to spend time with as her dulcet beau. And while I was initially wary of the romance angle, the show surprised me by skipping the will-they-won’t-they or Sam-and-Diane combative shenanigans and diving directly into a quite sincere, adult love story between a couple of unabashed, uninhibited drunks. 

One of the best things about that relationship, and by extension the show, is the attitude toward sex. It reminds me of another Schwartzblog favorite (and near-miss for this list) You’re the Worst.  Both shows manage to be non-judgmental and sneakily mature about sex, in a way that involves acknowledging its puerile absurdity, but also just how fun and integral to a relationship it can be.  There is a simple truth about romance that most cinematic love stories either ignore or just don’t get, but Brockmire (and YTW) do: when you’re with someone who still likes you at your most absurdly puerile, that’s when shit just might be real. 

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I could go on in more high falutin' terms, about, say, the cinematography, which is not as flashy as that of Legion or Handmaid’s Tale, but it is distinctive and quite pretty in its own muted, sepia way.  But mainly the pleasures of Brockmire are as basic as that of getting a light buzz on at the ballpark on a hot afternoon.  It is not "redefining what a half hour comedy can do" or built to provoke hot takes on the social issue du jour.  It's a comedy that has a heart, a pair of great performances, and is really, really funny and even a little wise. Jim Brockmire may be a degenerate fuck-up, but he did teach me about the fundamental differences between the three types of people ("Rich People are just Poor People with money, the only truly worthwhile thing is being Famous!") and knowledge and assumptions ("like Loggins and Messina - they seem similar, but time reveals one to be completely worthless.")  It didn't look like much, but it turned out to be the nicest surprise of 2017.

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Watch It For:  It's all in just the quality of the performances and joke-writing.  Transcribing it here won’t do it justice, but Brockmire’s exchange with a Japanese translator about an unfortunate, offscreen child resulted in the  hardest laugh and longest corresponding DVR pause I had all year.  With his ill-advised attempt to "pre-game" an abortion a close second.

Thursday, December 28, 2017



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Schwartzblog is generally big on plotting and forward momentum, but The Handmaid’s Tale is compelling despite never really attempting real propulsiveness.  The world of Gilead is as bleak as the darkest corners of Westeros, but where Game Of Thrones (like most dark and dystopian fiction) aims to keep you invested via a narrative knife at your throat, Handmaid’s measured gait and claustrophobic focus creates a threat more akin to narrative asphyxia.  I prefer a rapid pace as a rule, but nonetheless have to respect how defiantly not-bingeworthy the show makes its vision of a misogynistic theocracy.  The ultimate goal of most streaming shows is to keep you glued to the couch, but when I finished an episode, I needed to get up and take a walk, have a drink, do pretty much anything except turn on the next episode. 

But the show seemed utterly indifferent to "hooking" me, moving instead like its heroine on one of her highly supervised trips to the grocery: carefully, quietly, intently focused on the woman hidden within the distinctive bonnet that allows only the occasional furtive glimpse at the horrors of her surroundings.  But in those glimpses, Margaret Atwood’s dystopia is brought to painterly, horrifyingly vivid life.  And when the tight focus is on a powerhouse performance from Elizabeth Moss (not that we expect anything less of her at this point), it justifies the confidence to move deliberately and avoid leaning into the more YA-friendly aspects of the material in favor of an atmosphere more terrifying than any horror movie I saw last year. 

At the same time, I’ve also started to wonder, is it possible for something to feel bleak and quaint at the same time?  As 2017 wore on, issues of misogyny and rape culture came to dominate more and more of the national conversation.  But while Gilead as the fevered fantasy on Mike Pence’s vision board seemed highly topical in January, the continuing ineptitude and cartoonish venality of the Trump administration have made it increasingly clear that they are more apt to bring about the moronic hellscape of Idiocracy than anything as formidable, or remotely competent, as the show’s religious junta.  And the wave of firings, disgrace, and resignations that followed the outing of Harvey Weinstein as a rapacious monster have brought different, more subtle forms of sexual abuse to the fore of our collective consciousness.  This rot is sunk deep and wide across all strata of society, and removing it will not be as relatively simple as opposing a uniformed, expressly fascist regime.  It will be interesting to see if when it returns next year, the show will have a specific take on how it’s not just the men with guns that pose a danger to women.  Even if it doesn’t touch that angle, it is likely to remain the most effective horror story, built around one of the best performances, of the year.

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Watch It For:  Alexis Bledel’s harrowing spotlight episode, an object lesson in brutal understatement which resulted in one of those rare Emmy wins that was completely justified.