Laughing Matters — League of Extraordinary Freelancers

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

If there was any benefit to The Simpsons rolling on and on and on and on, well past the point of its remarkable — and, to be fair, remarkably long-lasting — brilliance, it’s that the program eventually cycled through so many scenarios that it occasionally became, almost by necessity, delightfully esoteric in its references. Only a comedy show solidly in its nineteenth season can operate with the foolhardy confidence of building a whole set of gags around the appearance of a few icons of alternative comics. But there they were, lined up and each sporting the familiar Groeningian overbite: Daniel Clowes, Alan Moore, and Art Spiegelman.

For Clowes and Spiegelman, the crafted jokes were mostly general, riffing on the divide between indie comix and mainstream superhero falderal. The same was also true of Moore, but the Simpsons creative team (Matt Selman is the credited writer on the episode) also spun a little comic energy in the direction of Moore’s longstanding feud with the corporate callousness of DC Comics, the comic book publisher where the master writer made his fame in the U.S. The main joke was put in the hands of Milhouse, who blithely asks Moore to sign a copy of the cash-in knockoff Watchmen Babies, a fictional (and yet highly plausible) perversion of the mid-nineteen-eighties limited series that is arguably the writer’s masterpiece and inarguably one of the most influential superhero-based works of the era.

The joke is based on a betrayal. DC Comics promised Moore the copyright on the work would be returned to him and the series co-creator, artist Dave Gibbons, as soon as Watchmen went out of print. At the time, well before the proliferation of trade paperback collections repurposing comic book series into “graphic novels,” there was no reason to expect Watchmen would remain officially in print for much more than a couple years. Instead, Watchmen became a permanent fixture in the DC catalog, and Moore never got the ownership he was promised, engendering an entirely understandable seething animosity that persists to this day.

When this Simpsons episode aired, the middling movie adaption was still two years away, and there was certainly no weekly HBO show to further cement Watchmen into the public consciousness. Milhouse’s eager fandom of Watchmen Babies and Moore’s volcanic reaction to the corporate exploitation and dilution of his intellectual labor was based on a comic book well probably unknown to the vast majority of the viewing audience. That even a few minutes of broadcast network time was given over to it is a marvel. There’s a lot to lament in regards to the unwillingness of The Simpsons to exit the pop culture stage, but bits like this one almost compensate for the most dire moments.

Laughing Matters — Albert Brooks and Buddy

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

Of the many benefits provided by this expansive information age, few are as unquestionably good as the constant availability of prime examples the unparalleled comedic genius of Albert Brooks that were once relegated to a couple airings on late night network television. In the history of the educational plaything, no greater use was even made of a Speak & Spell.

Golden Words — The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, “Pilot”

Since great television comedy always begins with the script, this series of posts considers the individual episodes that have claimed the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series over the years.

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For many people, myself included, recognition of Amy Sherman-Palladino as one of the strongest, most distinctive writers in television was overdue. The creator of the Gilmore Girls established herself as a crafter of dense, rapid-fire comic dialogue of the sort practically unseen since the true heyday of the Hollywood screwball comedy. And the stretched-to-its-limits rubber-band snap of her words, when executed correctly by actors prepared to keep up, was often dazzling. At roughly the same time Aaron Sorkin was vacuuming up Emmys with a roughly similar writing style on The West Wing, Sherman-Palladino was doing it better, just without the veneer of importance that came from staging his soap opera turns in the upper reaches of government.

Sherman-Palladino had a fairly rough go of it after she was pushed out of Gilmore Girls (as did the show which puttered along feebly without her), presiding over a justly maligned sitcom and a drama set at a ballet school that had its adherents but never really caught on with audiences. After a seasonally-specific reunion with Lorelei and Rory, Sherman-Palladino finally found her way to the project that would earn her widespread industry acclaim, helping to define modern Emmy bait in the process. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel seems custom-built to earn entertainment industry awards.

Despite the praise I flung Sherman-Palladino’s writing above, the finest compliment I can pay to the pilot episode of the series, which won her the writing award in the comedy category at last year’s Emmys, is that it bears a surprisingly light version of her creative fingerprints. Some of her most familiar trappings are there — most notably the imperious, wealthy parents who just don’t get their brash, verbally dextrous daughter — the initiating episode in the television story of Miriam “Midge” Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) feels properly beholden to the strictures of the narrative in a way that felt new for Sherman-Palladino. In nineteen-fifties New York City, Midge’s marriage falls apart, leaving her angry, desperate, and ranting, a condition which happens to translate nicely to the stand-up comedy stage. With an impromptu set at the Gaslight Cafe, Midge unwittingly launches a new career in showbiz.

If Sherman-Palladino’s best dialogues sounds as though it were teleported in from a different era, it only makes sense that shifting her fictional timeline closer to those bygone days also makes it more fitting. The tangle of words that could threaten to get in the way in other scenarios becomes as natural as the bleating car horns resonating from the busy city streets. And working with a handful of historic figures and real places also brings more discipline to Sherman-Palladino’s approach. It is a great testament to her dedication to making the series — or at least its first episode — an honest portrayal of the time that Sherman-Palladino writes great swaths of dialogue for a fiction version of Lenny Bruce, as forceful and particular of a voice as comedy has ever had, and makes it all solidly plausible as expressions of his whirring mind.

Sherman-Palladino picked up loads of trophies for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and is sure to collect many more before she’s done. All it took to make for that earlier neglect, it turns out, was to put her words in the right place.

The Long Haul — Freddie Highmore in Bates Motel

These posts are about great acting performances sustained across the full run of a television series.

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Freddie Highmore as Norman Bates in Bates Motel (2013 – 2017)

In direct opposition to the apparent certainty that it is easy to replicate bygone creative achievements, there are a multitude of challenges built into the ongoing pop culture trend of prioritizing recognizable brands above all. Familiarity might make wary audience members, balancing finite available time and budgetary limits, more inclined to make an initial sampling, but a rebooted or remade property is sure to face comparisons to the predecessor that feeds it. For actors, the shadow is surely longer and darker. If the role they’re playing reverberates with echoes of iconic earlier work, the performer trying on the costume of a thespian ancestor can be understandably held back by the need for some amount of reverential duplication, constrained from the exploration and personal invention required to make a portrayal truthful.

Freddie Highmore wasn’t born yet when Anthony Perkins first played Norman Bates, troubled hotel proprietor. Nor was he around for any of the other times Perkins circled back to the role, with diminished returns. But whether or not Highmore was intimately aware of the character’s onscreen history, Norman Bates came with more baggage than could ever be loaded into the rooms of his roadside business. Developed by Carlton Cuse,
Kerry Ehrin, and Anthony Cipriano, Bates Motel positioned itself as a prequel of sorts to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, albeit time-shifted to today. The series begins with Norman’s motherly best friend, Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga), still a genuinely living presence around the freshly-purchased motel of the title. The wounds on Norman’s psyche are just being formed. Highmore has to play what’s come before, but suss out what the character would be like before scenarios that had played out in earlier fictions. Norman is drifting in the direction of the deep end, yet to slip off it.

Through the initial episodes of the series — arguably through the initial seasons — Highmore builds his performance around an intense restraint that can appear to be flatness, especially when compared to the beautifully unhinged work of Farmiga. In Highmore’s rendering, Norman has a tentativeness that suggests inner wounds. The operatic sordidness largely happens around him, and he seeks out means of finding inner peace, through hobbies and attempts at connecting with others that are shaded with creepiness because of his earnest, doe-eyed social awkwardness. Creepiness settles into Norman slowly, like puberty taking over and changing his center of gravity. Unburdened by the need to capture the whole character in the space of a two-hour movie, Highmore lets his inner tremors of disturbance out slowly.

As the show moves into its final couple of seasons, the series bends to the requirement to decisively escalate the stakes and draw Norman closer to the character he simultaneously was, in earlier cinematic efforts, and will be, in the context of the fictional narrative. Highmore responds by maintaining his previously established emotional volume, while revealing graver and wider dissociation with his inner being. Reality is elusive for Norman, and Highmore shows how he wanders in his own head, adopting another persona as an instinctive defensive mechanism.

Given the floridness of tone inherent to Bates Motel, it would make sense for Highmore to press his performance to keep pace, which would have pushed it close to camp. Instead, he takes his cues from the murmur of an unwell mind he established earlier. By the end of the series, Norman has committed brutal, unspeakable crimes, but Highmore defines the characterization by the mounting terror Norman feels in himself, the sense that he’s not only lost control, but lost a mental grasp on what control might even be.

With fine patience and impressive modulation, Highmore achieves what any actor must hope for when they sign on for a role that’s already been memorably, famously played by another. Blessed with the time to do it right, Highmore makes Norman Bates his own.

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Previously….

—Keri Russell in The Americans
—Amy Poehler in Parks and Recreation
—Kaley Cuoco in The Big Bang Theory
—Rob Delaney in Catastrophe

That Championship Season — Veep, Season Five

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In its overarching narrative, Veep was designed to stay locked into place. Created by Armando Iannucci, who was essentially striving for the U.S. equivalent on his scathing satire of British politics The Thick of It, the new comedy series looked to the office of the vice-presidency. The role in the executive branch is nearly as high as a politician can get and yet it is largely impotent, defining by lying in wait as the undesired tasks of the presidency are flicked downward. As a power-adjacent position, it holds great potential to absolutely madden a ruthless opportunist, such as Selina Meyer, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

And then the creative team upended the scenario, elevating Selina to the office she coveted, while maintaining a healthy dose of indignity. She wasn’t elected, instead rising through the line of succession. Her time at the helm of the White House was shaded by a need to actually earn the position in the election cycle, an imperative Selina and her crew approached with trademark desperation and a set of ethics that worked, at best, on a sliding scale. Iannucci ended the fourth season, and his tenure on the show, by hitting Selina with an act of exquisite electoral cruelty.

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The presidential election ends in an electoral college tie, leaving the question of who will occupy the highest post in the land up to a cumbersome and complicated system of fallback procedural determinations. Iannucci impishly left a tricky puzzle for the next producer to solve, and it may have been the best possible prompt. The fifth season of Veep is also its strongest.

David Mandel became the showrunner, and Louis-Dreyfus took a stronger hand in setting the direction of the show. The two had a rapport, established when Mandel worked on the last three seasons of Seinfeld, and it clearly carried through. As entertaining as Veep was in earlier seasons, it was took a fairly consistent buckshot blast approach. The demeaning situations lined up like boxcars, and the characters met each new challenge with cascade of profane insults, much of it ingenious. The plotting is solid as steel and twisty as a corkscrew, taking Selina on a slalom course between hope and mortification with black-diamond complexity. Having a stronger narrative through line fortified the jokes, making everything more memorable.

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As with the case with the entirety of the show’s run, the performances are excellent across the board, but Veep will justly go into the entertainment record books because of the acting of Louis-Dreyfus, who nabbed the Emmy for lead actress in a comedy for each of the first six seasons with a seventh likely, an unprecedented feat. With a sharp canniness and level of fearlessness that’s almost unsettling, Louis-Dreyfus delivered every last one of her lines with a spin of dizzying invention. Already an irredeemable figure, Selina grow more vicious in the fifth season, her vanity and feverish need for power for its own sake driving her worst impulses. Evidently at Louis-Dreyfus’s urging, the character grew darker and darker, until the comedy was black as scorched forest.

For me, Veep faded a bit after the fifth season. The circumstances grew more antic, the comedy slightly repetitive, the characters hazier in focus and purpose. But in the ten episodes that circle around Selina’s fierce manipulations of a warped system to suit her hollow ends, claiming victory in an election that mostly exposed the weird folly moving in less-than-stealthy parallel with the U.S. version of democracy, Veep was worthy of the most full-throated hailing.

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Previously…

An Introduction
Buffy the Vampire SlayerSeason Five
CheersSeason Five
The SopranosSeason One
St. ElsewhereSeason Four
Veronica MarsSeason One
The OfficeSeason Two
The Ben Stiller ShowSeason One
Gilmore GirlsSeason Three
SeinfeldSeason Four
JustifiedSeason Two
Parks and RecreationSeason Three
LouieSeason Two
TogethernessSeason One
BraindeadSeason One
CommunitySeason Two
Agent CarterSeason Two
The LeftoversSeason Three
TremeSeason One
How I Met Your MotherSeason Two
FireflySeason One
Raising HopeSeason Three
Jessica JonesSeason One
WKRP in Cincinnati, Season One

The Art of the Sell — TV Guide listings ads

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

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The primacy of one particular periodical in my pop culture–obsessed youth can’t be overstated. There was a time, tender young souls, when knowing what programs were going to appear on television required the consultation of regularly published reference materials. At one point, TV Guide had the highest circulation of any magazine in the U.S., the satisfying little slab of pages offering mostly cheerful puffery about small-screen celebrities and, most importantly, a complete listing of everything airing on television across an entire week. The descriptions in the listings were merely perfunctory, giving only the barest idea of what might be happening in any given episode. Discerning readers knew to peruse the ads.

The major networks snapped up column inches positioned around the prime time listings to tout the latest episodes of their priority series. The ads were structured with a common format: images of the stars lumped together, pithy plot summaries, and always — always! — the promise of grand entertainment for those tuning in. In addition to providing urgent promotion, the ads were a barometer of the respective shows’ popularity. As series withered in the ratings, the ads for them grew smaller and less prominent, until that already canceled series just burning off episodes were lucky to get a tiny corner in a different ad, touting other shows airing on the same night. Well before ratings information was readily available to anyone who clicked their way to it, I was keenly aware of the sad fate befalling some of my favorite shows by the ad space they were afforded.

TV Guide is still published, but I haven’t picked up a copy in ages, confident the digital grid that greets me at a button push will provide more than enough information for me. And the DVR is going to catch everything I’m likely to watch anyway. I do miss flipping  pages, my anticipation juiced by the cheery, simple marketing efforts. Mentally planning my week of television viewing was almost as good as sitting in front of the set and soaking it all in. Actually, I think sometimes the planning was even better.

Golden Words — Seinfeld, “The Contest”

Since great television comedy always begins with the script, this series of posts considers the individual episodes that have claimed the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series over the years.

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“The Contest” completely changed my priorities — and those of my cohorts — regarding use of the exceedingly limited time available for television watching. When this episode of Seinfeld aired, in November of the show’s fourth season, the co-creation of Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David had already earned the esteem of discerning comedy fans. Described fondly as a “show about nothing,” because of the creators’ willingness to hinge entire half-hours around such mundane endeavors as the search for a car in a parking garage or a frustratingly long wait for a table in a Chinese restaurant, Seinfeld had even begun to generate mainstream entertainment interest, receiving its first Emmy wins and nomination in the category for outstanding comedy series in its third season. Even so, Seinfeld felt like cult hit more than burgeoning classic. It was worth catching when the opportunity handily arose, but there were plenty other distractions beckoning on Thursday nights. Missing an episode was no big deal.

In “The Contest,” the central quartet enter into a wager over which of them can go the longest without masturbating. Of course, the premise is never stated as bluntly as that. the standards and practices department of NBC would never allow such a thing. Instead, the teleplay, credited to Larry David, circles around self-pleasuring activity, creating enough euphemisms to humble Peter Mark Roget himself. The episode manages to be lewd and innocent at the same time, ultimately about the cheerfully competitive camaraderie of devoted friends more than anything else. The complications are simple yet devilish — a woman strolling around nude in the apartment across the street, John F. Kennedy, Jr. dreamily flexing nearby — and every small twist is executed with crack timing and ideal understatement.

“The Contest” aired when I was in college, and most of my cohort simply didn’t have time to watch a lot of television. And yet, in my memory — which can admittedly be highly faulty when straining to draw up specific details of interactions that occurred well over twenty-five years ago — most of my crew was talking about the episode the next day, recycling the most memorable terminology (“master of my domain,” “queen of the castle,” the simple declaration “I’m out” as money is slapped soundly onto the counter) as a constant source of rippling amusement. Expert, knowing deployment of lines from “The Contest” was declaration of membership in a somewhat secret club of comedy aficionados.

The club got significantly less exclusive in short order, and “The Contest” was clearly the impetus for the change. Immediately notorious, the episode was invoked like a grand myth in an entertainment era without the ability to catch-up on missed material through on-demand streaming options. An episode of television was either viewed as it aired or recorded on the VCR. Without that, the whims of the programmers dictated when the opportunity to see it would arise again. When NBC did air “The Contest” again, it became the highest-rating Seinfeld episode to that point, an exceedingly rare accomplishment for a rerun.

“The Contest” also prevailed at the Emmys, giving Seinfeld a win in the comedy writing category for the second straight year. The episode was undoubtedly pivotal in Seinfeld claiming the prize for outstanding comedy series. It was the sole instance of the landmark series taking that pinnacle honor for television comedy.