Things I Loved This Year: Dazzling Single-Takes on “You’re the Worst” and “Better Things”

Each day this month (assuming I don’t get busy or bored!), I’ll reflect on a tiny sliver of pop culture that I enjoyed or appreciated this year — scenes, shots, gestures, verses, sights, sounds, moments. Today: two episodes of half-hour shows that pushed the boundaries of the form.

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One of the most talked about TV moments of 2015 came at the end of the fourth episode of HBO’s True Detective: a violent and visceral eight-minute raid scene, presented in a single uninterrupted take. Some observers praised director Cary Joji Fukunaga for the technical virtuosity required to pull off a filmmaking feat of such complexity, while others dismissed the sequence as a visually dazzling distraction that lacked narrative weight or thematic depth. The blatant showmanship of the camerawork in that scene served only to flatter the audience, not to deepen its experience of the unfolding story, those critics argued.

I saw two sequences on TV this year that reminded me of that True Detective debate, but neither one got the same attention, and neither one inspired a similarly vigorous discussion. FXX’s You’re the Worst devoted most of an episode to an uninterrupted shot that carried the camera across a wedding party venue to several overlapping conversations. One night later, Pamela Adlon’s FX star vehicle Better Things dedicated a third of its first season finale to a scene showing a typical whirlwind morning in the household of Adlon’s loosely autobiographical character Sam Fox — three daughters hollering and whining; multiple visitors cluttering the messy front foyer; flirtatious messages distracting Sam from her hustle. Both of these sequences showcased their respective shows’ most appealing qualities, and both employed a technically challenging stylistic technique in service of an idea and an impact. Both were a joy to watch, even at their saddest moments.

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Comedy Glue: Underappreciated Actors Holding Their Shows Together

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Julia Louis-Dreyfus has been superb on Veep this season. The same goes for T.J. Miller on Silicon Valley, Louis C.K. on Louie, Abbi Jacobson & Ilana Glazer on Broad City and Andre Braugher on Brooklyn Nine-Nine. This isn’t news. It’s worth remarking upon the fact that all of these actors are great and explicating the reasons why. But in the rush to praise the stars of these shows, it’s possible to do a disservice to the cast members with lower billing. Looking at the lower portions of the rosters and finding the gems separates the outstanding ensemble comedies from the ones that rest on the charms of their lead performer. Below, I’ve picked one cast member from each of the five comedies mentioned above who gives that show a subtle but welcome dose of comedy in an unexpected or underappreciated way. Continue reading

“Louie”: No Easy Answers

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On the first of this week’s two episodes of Louie, the title character reluctantly goes on a date with Vanessa, a waitress at the comedy club he frequents. Vanessa, played by the wildly charismatic Sarah Baker, asks him several times before he finally caves in. What seals the deal? A free pair of desirable tickets to an NHL Playoffs game.

The implication is that Louie initially turned Vanessa down because, for one reason or another, he was put off by her weight.

Objectively, Vanessa is larger than American women conventionally described as “attractive” and “thin.” Once Louie goes on a date with her, he realizes that he enjoys spending time with her and that her weight doesn’t define her. But he takes it too far. The kicker comes when she mentions the word “fat,” and he instinctively swats it down like an irritating fly. “You’re not fat!” he retorts. But she is, and she knows she is, and she’s offended that Louie feels like pretending that she’s not will be the easiest way to win her over.

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The M&M Report, Episode 26: Sudden Death

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Listen to this week’s episode of The M&M Report here.

This week on The M&M Report, Devin Mitchell and I welcomed special guest Kara Avancena to discuss Louis C.K.’s hosting stint on “Saturday Night Live,” a shocking twist on “The Good Wife,” Kara’s undying love for the band Vampire Weekend, and the phenomenon of missing major television events when they first happen.

Tune in next time when Devin and I discuss David Letterman, “Captain America” and a controversial piece by film critic Matt Zoller Seitz.

“American Hustle”: The Roaring 70s

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Perhaps the biggest pleasure of the enormously pleasurable American Hustle is watching four of the finest living movie stars sink their teeth into meaty roles and have more fun than you’re ever likely to have. Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence make up the movie’s central quartet of lovable conmen and conmen wannabes, each apparently engaging in a contest to see which one can generate the most onscreen sparks. Anchored by this magnificent quartet, director David O. Russell’s follow-up to last year’s Oscar winning romance Silver Linings Playbook is overlong, narratively confounding, tonally precarious and utterly exhilarating.

Though the story is inspired by the FBI’s utterly insane Abscam sting, which claimed four senators and one representative in the late 1970s, an amusing introductory title card makes Russell’s intentions quite clear. “Some of this actually happened,” the card reads, absolving the movie of any pesky adherence to historical fact. The movie revels in this freedom. It’s not a documentary, nor does it pretend to be. Rather, as scripted by Russell and Eric Singer, it’s an exploration of four characters searching for their own identities even as they assume others.

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