February 2016 TV

Current TV: 8 out of 10 Cats Does Countdown, Broad City, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Elementary, Fresh Meat, Girls (whyyyyyy do I do this to myself), Grandfathered, How to Get Away with Murder, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, iZombie, Jane the Virgin, Marvel’s Agent Carter, Shameless, Siblings, Sleepy Hollow, The 100, The Flash, The Good Wife, The X-Files, Vinyl, War and Peace

Pilots tried: Love (hated it, although probably did not help that I watched it while experiencing unrelated nausea)  

Rewatched: Flight of the Conchords (season 2)

Other television events: Grease: Live


Things of note:

Flight of the Conchords

So this show is generally1 up there in my top 10 comedy series, if not necessarily top 10 TV shows of any genre, but mostly on the strength of the first season; I remember not loving the second season when it aired. And it’s true that—“Too Many Dicks (On the Dance Floor)” aside—the songs in the second season aren’t quite as memorable and clever to me as the songs in the first season, which makes sense; I think the first season’s songs were mostly established songs from the real-life duo’s act recontextualized for the show, and the second season’s songs were composed specifically for the show over a shorter period of time? I’m probably much more familiar with popular music now than I was when I initially watched this show, so it’s unclear how valid the following observation is and how much is just my own shifted perspective: it seems like a lot of the season 2 songs are direct parodies of specific songs, whereas the season 1 songs were more their own distinct entities while still sometimes deriving comedy from the different genres. Like, “You Don’t Have to be a Prostitute” from s02e02 (“The New Cup”) is pretty specifically “Roxanne,” and “Stay Cool” in S02E03 (“The Tough Brets”) is very specifically “Cool” from West Side Story, whereas “Bowie’s in Space” (S01E06, “Bowie”) manages to be Bowie-esque without necessarily sounding like any one Bowie song and “Pretty Prince of Parties” (S01E10, “New Fans”) captures the feeling of ’60s psychedelic music, but, again, doesn’t seem to be based on a particular song (at least, that I’m aware of)?  That doesn’t make the former songs inherently worse than the latter, I guess, but it does mean that there’s often this level of being like “this sounds familiar, let me figure out what it’s referencing” that sort of distracts from the comedy in the lyrics and performance of the song.

All that said, season 2 of Flight of the Conchords is actually pretty great. The writing for this show is just so fucking on point; the humor tends to be super specific and weird and outside of normal sitcom conventions, which means that it has and, I think, will continue to age pretty well, compared to other sitcoms from around the same period2—there are maybe a few gay jokes that feel outdated, but apart from that, it all still feels relatively fresh and unique? The show’s approach to romantic plotlines is just totally odd, and there are probably whole gender studies/media studies theses to be written about the depiction of Brett and Jemaine’s relationships to masculinity and sexuality.

Also, the show’s casting—in general, but particularly notable in the case of love interests—tends to prioritize comic talent over conventional attractiveness. Not to imply that, say, Sutton Foster and Eliza Coupe aren’t attractive, but in their appearances on the show, they’re styled in such a way that they look like normal attractive people you might see in real life and not as filtered though the ~Male Gaze~ as we’d expect to see for someone in this sort of role on a sitcom. I mean, contrast to any of the one-off female love interests in How I Met Your Mother or New Girl, for example.

I do remember watching Flight of the Conchords in high school and thinking that the guys’ fashion, particularly Brett’s animal sweaters, was the fucking coolest. And now it’s not super unusual among the hip youthful (18-29) male population?  Maybe it wasn’t actually that unusual then either, and I just didn’t notice because I went to high school with a bunch of fashion-challenged nerds? Also—and now we’re on the verge of revealing way too much— high school self definitely thought Brett was super attractive, obviously in terms of Brett McKenzie’s actual appearance and the aforementioned animal sweaters, but also the character’s weird sort of asexual, quasi-teetotaler innocence? (Very grateful to this show for giving me the descriptor “weedy shy guy,” because, yeah, that is A Thing). As I said, so many gender studies theses could be written.

Grease: Live

Well, I definitely have a lot of feelings about the live television musical thing. More specifically, I am strongly pro, although I didn’t watch any of the recent NBC ones, because I was not super interested in The Sound of Music or Peter Pan and I forgot to watch The Wiz. But the promotional pictures of Aaron Tveit as Danny Zuko were very convincing (more on that later). Anyway: live television musicals. I love movie musicals; I would in theory love stage musicals, but growing up in the DC area, rather than, say, NYC or San Francisco, my experience with those was pretty limited. Mostly high school productions—often problematic, in that all high schools seem to have only one decent male singer willing to do musical theater at any given time and yet insist on putting on musicals with more than one male part, and so “Miracle of Miracles” will inevitably be a croaky, mid-pubescent mess—with a few adult productions of varying levels of professionalism thrown in3. The point is: theater is so fucking inaccessible, and it’s not even (just) a socioeconomic thing, it’s a geographic thing4. It’s sort of crazy to me that the Tony Awards are broadcast nationally, because who the fuck even got to see enough of the things nominated to be invested in the winners, given, say, the specificity of an award for an actor’s performance in a musical that could only be seen on Broadway for a limited time period for a huge amount of money per ticket (and assuming you didn’t happen to see it on a night where there was an understudy)? BUT: the performances at the Tonys do provide us with our only opportunity to see, like, a single number from each new musical until some lesser cast deigns to grace our pathetic non-NYC cities with the touring version of the show or Hollywood decides that it’s profitable enough to make a film version of the musical (which probably cuts out half of the songs and casts fucking Meryl Streep), so we should be grateful, yeah?

No! Because live television musicals are the answer! I mean, look at all of the hype surrounding Hamilton; televise that shit, and whatever network airs it will not only get a shit-ton of viewers (and thus money, I guess?) but also be seen as cool and relevant. Grease: Live was apparently the most watched program of the night it aired, with 12.18 million viewers5. Now, Grease: Live doesn’t quite serve the purpose outlined above, because Grease the (beloved) movie musical already exists and if this is based on the stage musical rather than the movie, I certainly couldn’t tell the difference. And so it maybe falls into this area of not being an improvement on the movie in any way, because of the inherently lower production values and lack of 30+ years of nostalgia to make it iconic, while still not delivering the Joy of Live Theater or whatever. However, as a proof of concept for what a live television musical can be, in terms of creative staging and just getting massive viewership without being an embarrassing failure as The Sound of Music Live and Peter Pan Live apparently were, then: YES. And to a lesser extent, the appeal of knowing for sure that the singing and dancing are undoctored and the chance to see what this generation can do with such iconic roles: yes.

And so, that finally brings us back to Aaron Tveit as Danny Zuko, which, man. So his personality is, like, not great, obviously, but the character of Danny Zuko is basically automatically hot because the hair! The leather jacket! The dancing! The posturing! And yet, when he is played by John Travolta, one can feel very confused about finding him attractive, because one is all too aware of current weird bloated Scientologist John Travolta, and one is also sort of creeped out by his extreme cleft chin. But Aaron Tveit! Not a weird bloated Scientologist! (Well, not yet, anyway.) Just a super charming triple threat and theatre/TV/movie crossover success story, with a whole weird following because Enjolras/Grantaire is somehow the predominant6 pairing in the Les Miserables movie fandom!

I know that upon rewatching Grease after one’s college social justice awakening or whatever it’s typical to rant about the regressive gender politics and the Problematic ending of Sandy completely changing herself for a man, but that is tired and boring and probably reductive?

  • The musical was written in 1971 and set in the 1950s, so while there’s probably some level of changing norms from the ’70s to now that accounts for what we may consider Problematic, I think a lot of the more regressive stuff is intentionally regressive, because it’s an exaggerated version of the ’50s from a ’70s perspective, and then filtered through some amount of sanitization to make it appropriate for an all-ages audience? (Because I assume the live version we’re getting is the “School Version” and not the apparently raunchier original.) There’s a difference between showing (period-appropriate) sexism and actually endorsing it, you know? And I don’t think you’re supposed to watch any version of Grease and consider any of the characters as role models, because they’re, like, immature teenagers doing dumb shit. “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” is probably the heaviest song in the musical7 and I think one of the rare moments that’s actually supposed to be “genuine” or sympathetic or whatever, and you can probably interpret that as sex-positive if you really want to go down that route of analysis.
  • Danny also changes himself to please Sandy, with the whole sports thing. The letter jacket isn’t as obvious a costume change, but if you consider the actual amount of time it takes to join a sports team and, presumably, attend practices versus getting a last minute makeover from Rizzo, it’s maybe a more significant change. For all we know, Sandy goes back to her regular look the next day and is, like, yeah, that was some fun roleplay to prove a point about my ability to defy expectations, but come on, did you actually expect me to do that every day?
  • But who cares? People change themselves to impress people all the time! You probably present a different self to your family, your friends, your lovers, your coworkers, etc. and none of those selves are necessarily your ~Authentic Self. Or maybe your ~Authentic Self is the conglomeration of all of those selves. But again, who cares? Sure, it’s not great if Sandy transforms herself because she feels pressured to by society, and she doesn’t actually like her transformed self, but the latter is kind of hard to determine in the little time we spend post-transformation at the end of Grease. Oh god, I could write so much more on this point8, but let’s not for now.

I think I’m defending Grease way too hard, when in reality, watching this made me realize that wow, Grease is super dumb, just in terms of the actual plot points and how they’re structured and fucking “Beauty School Dropout?”

1. These lists tend to change pretty often because I am fickle as shit, although there are some mainstays. ^
2. Well, let’s actually examine that claim: first off, wow, there are a lot of sitcoms produced each year that have, like, zero cultural impact and are promptly forgotten by everyone, but it’s often hard to tell which ones those will be when you’re actually watching in real time. I certainly thought Happy Endings would be one of those after the first season, but it somehow got renewed and proceeded to fucking rally in seasons 2 and 3, to the point that it’s subsequent cancellation is considered tragic by a cult following. On the other hand,  is anyone ever going to go back and binge-watch, say, Rules of Engagement, The New Adventures of Old Christine, Gary Unmarried, or ‘Til Death? But in terms of shows that I’ve actually watched that were airing in 2009—I don’t think Scrubs, How I Met Your Mother, or 30 Rock‘s humor has aged particularly well. On the other hand, Better Off Ted and Parks and Recreation seem to have a more timeless quality, although it should be noted that the Parks and Rec in 2009 was the mediocre to terrible first season of Parks and Rec. Not sure where we stand on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia in terms of timelessness. This is super obvious, but I guess it ultimately comes down to the extent to which a show’s jokes and plotlines depend upon current events/cultural references and social norms (whether that’s regarding gender, sexuality, race, etc.)?  And the extent to which it pretends to be set in the real world, rather than, say, a weird cartoonish corporation or a weird cartoonish parks department?  ^
3. Oh god, it is such a struggle to remember anything that happened before high school. I think there was a community theatre production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Fiddler on the Roof at Wolf Trap, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at…Signature Theater in Arlington? (I have spent too much time trying to figure that one out via Google—searching for Virginia/DC/Maryland productions of A Funny Thing Happened from sometime between 2000 and 2010 but probably before 2006 and maybe staged in the round—when I could just wait and ask my parents). The most professional was Spamalot at, I think, the National Theater when it went on its first North American tour, but I don’t think I fully appreciated that at the time.  ^
4. Although I suppose when one achieves a certain level of wealth, geography ceases to have meaning, because private jets, man.  ^
5. I mean, I don’t have a good enough sense of TV viewership statistics or even the US population size for that number to mean anything to me. So, let’s ground ourselves: the season 5 finale of Game of Thrones got  8.11 million US viewers, the most recent Superbowl got 111.9 million US viewers. The season 3 (I refuse to say series, because is any show really over in the age of Netflix/Hulu/Amazon/etc.?) finale of Hannibal got 1.24 million US viewers ;_; ^
6. Currently with 2536 out of 4328 total works. The next largest ship is Cosette/Marius with a comparatively puny 626 works. I’ve only seen the movie once and was not impressed, so I don’t even really remember who Enjolras and Grantaire were, but I suppose I now understand the Aaron Tveit of it all. ^
7. It should of course be noted that Vanessa Hudgens kills it on that number and also just in general as Rizzo. Which is impressive given that her father had just died, but I don’t think should be surprising in the context of her acting background, given that her big break was in a musical (albeit in a Sandy-like role). But for whatever reason, I guess we have decided that Disney Channel stars are bound to be shit? Which makes no sense to me, because if you start acting in a professional capacity as a child or teenager, then you have all of these extra years of experience over actors who start as adults, and that probably counts for something, even if it means that you haven’t studied at Juilliard or RADA or wherever. ^
8. A taste: to what extent is romantic love actually love for the other party and to what extent is it love for the self you become around the other party? Does the fact that I initially watched Point Break and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure in order to impress a dude make my love for those movies less Authentic or somehow Problematic? Or is it fine, because it’s not conforming to an outdated mode of femininity? (Or is it still Problematic, because of the whole Cool Girl thing?) Also, if you don’t live in a vacuum, what aspects of yourself aren’t in some way performative or reacting to society (whether by conforming or rebelling)? Blah blah blah. ^


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