Thursday, March 30, 2017

LEGION - "CHAPTER SEVEN/EIGHT"

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Sorry about that week off, folks, but hey, at least I only missed one of the best-weirdest episodes of TV in the last decade, right?  I was skeptical about spending a lot of time in an elaborate, hallucinogenic mind-prison designed to trick the characters into thinking it is real.  But the resolution, as with most of the season, was trippy and horrifying and somehow comprehensible to watch while being nearly impossible to describe out loud without starting to wonder if this is what it sounds like to hear yourself have a stroke.  It finds room for stylistic indulges like the awesomely-terrifying silent film attack and chalkboard fight (I keep telling you, this is a weird show), but knows when to cut through the narrative crap by having Syd cut off an exposition-dump by hitting the big bullet points and noting “I’ve been paying attention.”  The rest of the exposition load is carried by Oliver’s amusingly addled stream-of-conscious dialogue (his vague conviction that his wife was Asian was one of the season’s best bits of comedy) and David’s rational mind manifesting with a British accent (the logic of this being utterly unassailable, even to that rational mind, is another).  And then it wraps up that by offing the Perm in particularly brutal fashion, to underline that these elaborate mindfucks actually have consequences for the characters in the “real” world.

The finale itself remains extravagantly incomprehensible to anyone that hasn’t fully immersed themselves in the detailed parasite metaphors surrounding Amal Farouk, and the hazy intricacies of Melanie and Oliver’s history or Cary/Kerry’s powers, and the back-burnered machinations of Division Three.  It’s a bit of a comedown from the high-pitched lunacy of its immediate predecessor, and as such it is not the strongest episode of the season, but rather the exact sum of its parts.  I wouldn’t say that I was completely tired of watching David and Syd astrally wrestle with Lenny’s various projections, but I am glad that they settled on eight episodes, rather than ten or twelve, for this particular arc.  And while David may have finally exorcized the devil that has infected his mind his entire life, Legion didn’t suddenly cure itself of all eccentricities in the home stretch of this inaugural season.  We still get things like the fantastic, cheeky image of the SWAT totem pole, and the gnarliest make-up on Lenny yet.  But I’m most intrigued by the reintroduction of Clark the interrogator, and the groundedness the character brings to a show that has been more Mad Tea Party than X-Men spinoff.

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Pictured: The most grounded aspect of this show

One of the things I like best about Hawley’s work on Fargo is the ability to suddenly promote a minor character and make them feel rounded and vital to the story in the course of a single episode or scene.  Legion has already dabbled in this, with the early glimpses of Cary/Kerry and Oliver’s first appearances barely hinting at how sympathetic and central to the climax they would become.  It’s also kind of done it in reverse with Ptonomy, who had an early spotlight as an idealized, zen spirit guide before dropping unceremoniously out of the astral plane and whose characterization seems to have regressed into a bloodthirsty partisan for the finale.  To be fair, it does make sense for the guy whose superpower is never forgetting anything to be the one advocating for a scorched earth approach to warfare.  But David, whose memories are anything but infallible and not even entirely his own, sees a broader if fuzzier truth, a forest obscured by the trees of total recall – that no war can ever be ended without a certain degree of willful forgetfulness.  As Littlefinger once rasped at us, we don’t have to “make” peace with our friends. 

The lengthy, humanizing intro sequence showing us the toll that David’s rescue took on Clark serves as a counterpoint to Ptonomy’s intransigence, a reminder that even the biggest asshole is the hero of their own story.  And actually, the only moment when he has even come off as much of an asshole is when he orders the rest of David’s Scooby Gang killed.  But then, how many of the Division have they killed throughout the season?  We’re not predisposed to look kindly upon government agencies wanting to study our heroes in labs; movies have taught me from birth that they are the bad guys in that scenario.  But if mutant powers actually existed, that is exactly what I would want. And it’s not like the “good guys” at Summerland aren’t doing the same.  They just have nattier wardrobe choices and a jauntier soundtrack to compliment their poking and prodding. Clark and Ptonomy have both picked their sides and dug in, but really, one’s position is not inherently more heroic than the other’s. 

Because didn’t the dinosaurs have the right to fight for their survival?  The mutants’ agenda seems reasonable in that they are only asking to be left alone, but is that viable option for someone as self-evidently dangerous as David?  “Live and let live” is a great platitude, but we’ve been putting reasonable (and not so reasonable) limits on precisely how we let live since we were chillaxing in caves.  None of us want to live in a world where Gary Busey has a fleet of tanks at his disposal, or Kanye West can set off nuclear blasts with his mind.  Is it really unreasonable for Clark and the Division to think that maybe a diagnosed schizophrenic with the power to stop bullets and make people’s blood drain out their eyeballs should not be allowed to walk free?  Syd points out that he’s not actually schizophrenic, but in fact literally possessed by a separate, malevolent entity with superpowers of its own.  She seems to neglect, however, that this is much, much worse than schizophrenia. 

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Schizophrenia can be cured through the powers of gambling
and dance, if movies have taught me anything

All of this is by way of saying that one of the more promising aspects for next season is the addition of Clark as a highly reluctant ally.  I am perhaps a bit more skeptical of the Summerland crew’s heroic bonafides than I am supposed to be, and not quite as invested in the Syd/David romance, so I like the idea of having someone congenitally nonplussed around to shake up the group dynamic.  I’m less enthused about the prospect of Plaza splitting villain duties with Jermaine next season (much as I do hope Lenny joins Oliver’s nascent barbershop quartet).  The guy is a treasure, and I’m sure he is similarly capable of stepping up his deadpan to a scarier, more arch level, but Plaza has been a revelation as Lenny/Farouk/King/The Devil.

Never Forget

When I first saw her in the promos, I thought okay, she’s going to be in a sardonic, damaged sidekick role.  She’ll be good for that.  Then as she became something of a devil on David’s shoulder, I thought cool, this is bit looser than I’ve seen her, but there was always something vaguely scary about her comedic persona, so it works.  But even halfway through the season I would not have thought that she could carry the primary villain load, much less such a demanding and constantly shifting portrayal.  She had to moustache-twirl, she had to actually twirl in crazy dance sequences, she had to interrogate and sexually harass and obfuscate and freak out and be Hannibal Lecter and a silent movie monster, and do it all under various layers of heavy make-up.  She was fantastic at all of it, alternately terrifying and funny and sexy and otherworldly and always having a viscerally great time doing it.  If the Emmy’s were worth a damn’s toenail, she would get a nomination just for the work she does with her eyes when David freezes her in place.  It’s great, and it’s all done through the full 
Beetlejuice make-up, with the rest of her face frozen in a hideous, underbitten rictus.     

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And that’s Legion’s first season in a nutshell.  Ostentatiously weird, pretty creepy and kind of funny, oddly affecting, and unlike absolutely anything else on TV.  It will purportedly be back in a year’s time, but in the meantime, I hope to see all of youse in the frozen north for a new season of Fargo
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  • During his recovery, Clark contemplates life with half a moustache (or beard, or chinstrap) in his newly burned state, in a subtle reflection of David’s musing about what life – and he himself – will be like without Lenny as a passenger. 
  •  Similarly, Kerry and Cary don’t ever reattune, even when they reconcile.  And Melanie loses her husband all over again. Everyone but Syd is facing life as less than a complete set. 
  • We never found out what, if any, mutant power Melanie has.  I hope she turns out to be an aged-up Dazzler, if only because it would add a tragic, star-crossed element to her romance with a jazz/barbershop bum if she were the premiere disco-based superhero.  How can one’s terrible music taste ever coexist with the other’s?
  •  One good thing about Oliver being Lenny’s new host is that it should mean we are done with the Devil With Type 2 Diabetes monster design.  It was occasionally deployed with some effective creepiness, but all in all I never found its look as menacing as it was supposed to be.
  •  Yes, I’m still attracted to Aubrey Plaza even when she’s caked in heavy, rotting, Beetlejuice-with-a-hangover make-up.  So thanks, Legion, now I know that about myself.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

LEGION - "CHAPTER SIX"




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"It's like a dream...but not an interesitng one."

Thus far, Legion has managed to navigate some rather wankery-y territory while remaining weird and audacious enough to be consistently interesting, and savvy enough to cut against the grain of the most insufferable aspects that come with such territory.  But “Chapter 6” struggles to maintain that streak, as it dives into one of my most disdained tropes for a fantasy series – the one where the protagonist finds themselves in a mental institution, with a shady doctor telling them that the entire series up to this point has been an elaborate hallucination.  This conceit sucked when I saw it on Buffy 15 years ago, it sucked when I saw it on Lost 10 years ago, it sucked when I saw it on The Magicians last year, and without having actually watched the shows, I’ll speculate that when The X-Files, Supernatural, Grimm and/or Sleepy Hollow (probably) did it in the interim it (probably) sucked there too. 

The reason this sucks is that it’s not a very credible threat.  Obviously these shows aren’t going to conclude that they were all a bunch of bullshit, but imo there’s very limited value in even toying around with that notion. As I got at in my recap of the premiere, making a story about an elaborate hallucination is just pointless – putting a hat on top of a hat.  Every story is already a form of elaborate hallucination on the author's part, one they are asking the audience to share.  So what can a story about a mental patient hallucinating they are a teenage vampire hunter accomplish that a story about a teenage vampire hunter couldn’t?  I mean, alright, I’ll allow that Don Quixote may have some literary merit, but it also doesn’t wait until the end to spring it on us that OMG! the giants were really windmills all along.    

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Tommy Westphall can get fucked, is what I'm saying

So I am not a fan of this conceit, but at first, it seems like “Chapter 6” is going to continue the streak of defying the inherent tackiness of its premises.  The cold open manages to keep things lively by virtue of its seamless transitioning between Lenny’s interviews with all of the supporting cast.  And the episode does at least avoid the most tedious angle by never pretending that this could be anything but a netherworld where the Devil With Type 2 Diabetes holds sway.  But whereas prior chapters have worked around the overly-writerly conceits by having David’s mental state and the deep dives therein be the plot, this is the first time Legion feels like it is stalling.  The only new bit of concrete information we get about the backstory or endgame is some more specifics on the Devil's plans for David – it once had a more symbiotic relationship in mind when David was a more isolated and pliable host, but now that he has a love in his life to make him strong (like another superhero), it’s content to mentally imprison him forever and take the wheel for good.   

But I also think some of the increased drag is due to timing.  I know I was just saying how waiting until late in the game to mess with reality like this is cheap bullshit, but at the same time it is too early in the show’s run to be doing it for character purposes.  The supporting cast aren’t established well enough at this point for there to be much mileage out of tweaking their established characterizations by fiting them into a such a skewed Elseworld scenario.  And the show’s baseline reality is weird and malleable enough that it doesn’t provide the same novelty that, for example, a kooky Sopranos dream sequence could by way of contrast with its grittier, grounded “real” world.  Furthermore, we don’t have enough distance from the pilot for their reenacting scenarios from it (the drool speculation, Syd sneaking into David’s bed) with roles transposed to mean much to us.

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The angle from which the episode works best is as the Best Supporting submission for Aubrey Plaza and her tremendous sock game.  She gets to mix up deadpan subtlety and wanton vamping to a degree even the early episodes, considerably wacky though they may be, did not allow.  And look, I may have found a good deal of the episode to be an indulgent waste of time, but I also would’ve watched Plaza wickedly strut and grind her way around David's memory palace in fishnets and a turtleneck for another 45 minutes without checking my watch.  That’s my value judgment, and I don’t have to justify it to any of you.  But while that segment may be the easy, liveliest highlight of the episode, she is equally fantastic all over, whether exuding false warmth and candor with the “patients” or physically menacing David while delivering withering speeches about love as a form of slavery or physically manifesting in a piece of floor pie (I’ve told you before, this is a weird show).  If anything is going to make such an extended bit of wheel-spinning satisfying to watch, it’s such a normally constrained performer cutting loose and clearly having a ball with material designed to squeeze the utmost from her. 

Now for a sad closing note, I will be just diving into an extended road trip next Wednesday, so by the time I get anywhere with enough time to watch and type about “Chapter 7”, it will be time for the finale.  So there’s only one more Legion recap in the cards this year.  But the better news is that FX renewed it for another year in spite of the unimpressive ratings, so we may just reconvene here in a year or two’s time.  Two would be my guess, as his does not seem like any easy show to map out or produce, and with Fargo showing no signs of slowing, Noah Hawley has to rest sometime, right?
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  • Best bit of the opening:  The Perm’s shrugging response to Dr. Lenny’s “I’m sensing a lot of hostility.”  The shrug is funny, but it’s the glaring half-beat preceding it that makes it art.
  • Kerry/Cary launching fruit cocktail into each other’s mouths in the cafeteria is adorable.  I’m not sure what the point of the Perm menacing her in the dreamscape is – does he think he can actually hurt here there?  Can he, somehow? – but it’s a nice little touch that he and his old partner Oliver are appearing as the sort of angel and devil to the two halves of Kerry/Cary within this dreamscape.
  •  The zoom in on the Cherry Pie with Plaza’s face in it feels like a deliberate homage to Twin Peaks’ weirdest, most brilliantly retarded moment.  I know I’m not supposed to use that word anymore, but look – a prominent character evaporates in front of the protagonists and a malevolent dancing dwarf traps her soul in the knob of a dresser drawer.  Give me another word for that and I’ll mail you ten bucks.  
  • Particularly in the opening, Melanie seems to be channeling Syd’s hairstyle and mannerisms.  I heard some naysaying about whether she was Syd’s mom after last week, but the performance, if not plot detail, really seemed to underline it this week.  
  • I generally don't find things scary once they reach the level of abstraction that this whole episode operates on, but the eyes opening in the wall made me jump out of my skin.

Friday, March 10, 2017

MAN SEEKING WOMAN, SEEKING AUDIENCE

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For the last 3 yeas, Man Seeking Woman has been the most slept-upon comedy on TV.  It’s made no ratings splash, garnered no significant award buzz or critical accolades, and developed an internet following that is mostly silent and largely theoretical.  And that’s a shame, because it is one of the most insightful looks at millennial romance you’ll find anywhere.  But it’s also understandable, as it is definitely the strangest; an insistently trapezoidal peg that apparently preferred toiling in surreal obscurity to fitting itself to any of the variously-shaped holes that TV offers for half hour comedies.

Based on a memoir by Simon Rich, the show follows thoroughly unimpressive everydude Jay Baruchel as he searches for romance in Chicago.  That it’s Toronto, poorly (and pointlessly) subbing for the Windy City is the least of the oddball touches. The episodes take the form of a series of vignettes, which makes it almost a sketch comedy, albeit one with a core cast of recurring characters.  In tone and content, the best I can describe it is if you took the minute social anthropology of Seinfeld, but turned all the similes into metaphors. And then you filmed it with the loving eye for detail of Key And Peele’s movie parodies.  So instead of George and his girlfriend fighting over whether ending their relationship requires dual consent “like turning two keys to launch a nuclear missile”, MSW would put them in an actual military bunker with a Michael Ironside-type general lectured them about the irreparable severity of their decision.  Or in one episode, his new girlfriend may still be friends with her ex, who is literally Jesus, while in the next his own ex’s rebound relationship is with literally Hitler.



This structure gives it the unpredictability and unevenness of sketch comedy, so a single episode may have a ten minute segment whose conceit never really gets off the ground, then totally blindside you with an extended detour down a truly bizarre, hilarious path.  When a bit is firing on all cylinders, it can be as wildly and uniquely funny on as any show on TV, but it also has to transition between those bits and the dead fish without the benefit of the hard-out and full reset that a true sketch format affords. And on the flip side, it also has too loose a relationship with reality or continuity for character investment to carry those transitions.  People may feel compelled to keep up week after week with a show like Parks and Rec or New Girl, solely in order to keep up with what’s going on or ‘ship a particular couple.  Even as someone who loves the show, I was always tuning in for pointed jokes rather than to see whether Josh would-they or wouldn’t-they with the Woman du jour. 

This odd hinterland of comedy encompasses tone as well as structure.  It embraces absurdity and tangents like an Adult Swim cartoon, and is willing to work similarly blue, but those shows are more interested in the transgressive elements as comedic ends unto themselves.  MSW uses its more twisted concepts for contrast, a means of mining domestic minutia for fresher laughs – for example, an extended segment of our “woke” 20somethings debating whether it is charmingly chivalrous or regressively chauvinistic for a suitor to ask the father of his intended’s permission…to have anal sex with her.

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That bit further demonstrates how the tone falls in the margins of cable single-cam comedies as well.  It’s far too exaggerated and silly for one of the more conceited “artcoms” like Better Things or Master Of None, and while it demonstrates a definite caustic streak, it’s not deep or acidic enough to fit with the strain of “asshole comedy” that It’s Always Sunny or Veep excel at.  Because while its characters are necessarily much more malleable than the leads of a more traditional, narrative-driven sitcom, the show’s cynicism is reserved for the institutions and ritualism of courtship and cohabitation.  It likes and wants us to empathize with its core cast (even, intermittently, Eric Andre’s ur-bro character), rather than hold them in the mild contempt we have for the Gang or the titular League or Workaholics.  But it’s still too goofy and strange to hit the depths of pathos that more grounded, bracing series like The Office or You’re The Worst are capable of reaching. 

At least in its first two seasons.  The third season switched up the formula by introducing a new girlfriend for Josh in Lucy (Katie Findlay), having them move in together halfway through the premiere and get married in the finale.  This provided a stronger emotional throughline than the more standalone misadventures that preceded it, but also seemingly brought the titular quest to a sweet, fitting, and natural resolution.  It’s a perfect place to say, if not farewell, then at least a hearty “woof woof, cowabunga!” to the series.


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You may think there was something funnier than
this on TV this year.  You are wrong, though.

But if anything, the show would be more constrained by its title going forward than its abilities.  Even before the introduction of Lucy as a full-fledged co-lead who carried half the episodes on her own, the show had made an annual tradition of handing one episode a year over to Josh’s sister Liz (Britt Lower), episodes that keep the surreality but effortlessly shift focus to consistently produce highlights of the season.  The show has yet to find similar emotional resonance in Eric Andre’s Mike outside of his relationship with Josh, but even if there is not blood in that particular stone, I’m sure this creative team could find material for at least 20 sketches in the travails of newlyweds screwing up their honeymoon, buying a home, a pet, and eventually having a kid.  But realistically, FX is likely to take the natural out the latest finale presents and call it a wrap.  And it’s hard to begrudge them that decision, since 3 seasons is a perfectly fair shot for a show with the unspectacular ratings profile I mentioned before.  Man Seeking Woman’s quiet refusal to be anything but its bizarre, difficult-to-champion self may have made it always destined to only gradually come to be more appreciated as people discover its good-looking corpse on their own, streaming terms.   There are worse fates possible for even brilliant shows.  Just ask the shambling corpse of a) Arrested Development, b) The X-Files, c) Gilmore Girls, or d) hopefully not Twin Peaks.