Rec Room: Emerging from the Abyss (otherwise known as a day job)

Hey, shiny new layout! And as promised, I haven’t forgotten this blog–in fact, I think writing in it maintains my sanity (what that says about the last two months, well, I’ll leave that up to you to decide).

I’m working on some more thematic entries that will take a bit more time to write, but in the meantime I want to pass along some recommendations:

Film: I recently checked out the 1988 film The Vanishing (not be confused with the American remake of the same name, starring Jeff Bridges). I was somehow unaware of this film, and the notoriety of its third-act twist, but I’m so glad I went in completely unspoiled. The story is of Rex and Saskia (Gene Bervoets and Johanna ter Steege) a young Dutch couple who are travelling through France on holiday when she suddenly disappears at a rest stop. The film follows Rex and he spends the next years of his life obsessively tracking down her abductor. It’s a fascinating film for its pacing alone, which I imagine is what got audiences talking when the film first came out. It’s hard to know what to expect from a film that reveals its villain before he’s even committed the crime. It makes you consider the reality of such a nightmare: the feeling of someone you love disappearing into thin air, and the impact that would have on your life. Highly recommended. Do yourself a favor and go in spoiler-free.

Continuing on to nearby Sweden, I finally checked out Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From A Marriage, because I am a cinematic masochist (more on that at a later date). I somehow haven’t seen much Bergman, but man is he a cynical bastard. If we are to take the relationship between Marianne (Liv Ullman) and Johan (Erland Josephson) as typical–or even normal–then marriage is nothing more than a particularly twisted codependency. Few scenes have hit me as hard as that of the couple’s first separation. As I watched Johan dispassionately tell his wife he was leaving her for another woman, I thought of all the people I know who’ve split and for the first time felt I had a window into what hell those final conversations must have been. This is an extraordinary film, but you have to brace yourself to be emotionally pummeled.

Television: Slate’s Pop Culture Gabfest podcast has been getting me through my workdays lately, and one of their many excellent recommendations was the BCC miniseries The Forsyte Saga. It’s an epic period soap-opera starring pretty much every “Hey! It’s That English Guy!” working today (including Rupert Graves, who I’ve loved ever since he frolicked in the buff in A Room With A View). For those who gobbled up Downton Abbey earlier this year, it’s equally engrossing and a great way to get your salacious period drama fix while waiting for Abbey’s second series.

And lastly, Things I’m Excited About:

So what are you pumped for this summer?

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Rec Room: Party Down

Party Down is the best show nobody’s watching. That is, unless you’re one of the few who routinely watch underdog cable channel Starz, or are an adventurous Netflix Instant Viewer (and oh, you should be—it’s hands-down the best way to swallow up a weekend. Sometimes I pretend I’m bedridden just to assuage the guilt of not moving for five-hour stretches).

Like many things, I got into it thanks to critic Alan Sepinwall’s fantastic blog, “What’s Alan Watching?” and it’s easily one of my all-time favorite comedy series. It’s also probably heading towards cancellation, and you know what? I’m fine with that.

The show follows the on-the-job exploits of a group of misfit Los Angeles cater-waiters. In the series pilot Henry (Adam Scott), a failed actor who almost made it big with a ubiquitous beer commercial, returns to the team and quickly establishes himself as the series’ deadpan protagonist. While most of the other employees are using the gig as a way to pay their bills until they make it big in L.A., Henry is completely disillusioned with the Business, and is just treading water enough to avoid moving into his parents’ garage.

The show’s producers have referred to it in interviews as the anti-Entourage, which is pretty on the nose. The lives of these people are far from glamorous, and unlikely to change anytime soon, but a combination of sharp writing and a brilliant cast make for a show that is alternately crude, offensive, witty, cartoonish, painfully awkward and always, always hilarious. In addition to series regulars including The State’s Ken Marino and Freaks and Geeks’ Martin Starr, Party Down boasts a who’s who of comedic guest stars like Ken Jeong, Thomas Lennon and Jennifer Coolidge.

So why am I not gnashing my teeth over this show’s imminent demise? Because I’d rather see it end near perfectly than drag on until it hardly resembles the series I know and love (see: The Office Season 6). Jane Lynch left after season 1 for Glee (and as much as I love Lynch no matter what she’s doing, she’s better on Glee), Adam Scott is joining Parks and Recreation, and several other cast members have had pilots picked up. Given that it’s on a little-watched pay-cable channel, it’s hard to resent any of them taking on new opportunities. Even if the show stays on with a mostly new cast, it’s hard to imagine it’ll be the same without Scott’s dry wit anchoring the show (not to mention his cute smirk). I doubt I’ll have much interest in a season 3.

Party Down may be the show no one’s watching, but it’s one of the most deserving of viewership. And if I were you, I’d catch up with seasons 1 and 2 via Netflix in time for the finale this Friday at 10pm (on Starz).

Recommended Episodes: Season 1: “Taylor Stiltskin Sweet Sixteen,” “Celebrate Rick Sargulesh”  Season 2: “Nick DiCinto’s Orgy Night,” “Cole Landry’s Draft Day Party”

The Idiot Savant Box/Rec Room: Coupling

If I described a television show to you by saying it was one part Friends, one part Sex in the City with a generous dash of Home Improvement-style misogyny, you’d run screaming, no? I consider those last two examples to be claw-your-eyes-out offensive 90% of the time. And yet Coupling, the UK’s raunchier version of Ross, Rachel & co., manages to charm me despite embracing every possible gender stereotype imaginable.

I think the show works in large part because it manages to simultaneously embrace the traditional multiple-camera, live-audience sit-com format while playing extensively with narrative structure and language. We  have our three guys (Steve; bumbling everyman, Patrick: macho player; Jeff: goofball catch-phrase machine) and our three girls (Susan: slightly uptight everywoman; Sally: superficial, neurotic “spinster”; Jane: Steve’s grating, delusional ex). We have almost everybody pairing off at one point or another. We have nearly constant sweeping generalizations of the “Mars/Venus” variety. But we also have an episode where the same 9-minute scene is shown from three different perspectives. Or another shown entirely in a split screen, following a couple immediately post break-up. Or one that features a subtext translator.

Each character has his or her gimmick, and Steve’s tendency to speechify on behalf of Men Everywhere gets tired more often than not. But then you have a scene like “Lesbian Spank Inferno,” which is just unapologetically goofy and hilariously uncomfortable in that way that only British shows tend to be.

I keep asking myself: what kind of show is this? I can’t always tell if we’re supposed to take the characters and their “Men act like this, women act like this” proclamations seriously. These people are absolutely cartoonish most of the time, which, if I’m giving creator Steven Moffat a lot of credit, could be seen as a satire on the genre itself. If you’re going to do the traditional sit-com thing, why not take it to its logical extreme? On the other hand, given the particularly one-dimensional, often shrewish portrayal of women on the show, I can’t say I’m completely comfortable with that interpretation.

That said, I think Moffat’s work on the new Doctor Who is pretty brilliant (though Jacob of Television Without Pity has a lot of interesting, if obtuse things to say about the gender politics on that show under Moffat’s direction), and I loved his Jekyll miniseries. Is Coupling a great show? Sometimes. I’d recommend any number of series before this one, but it satisfies a certain yen I have for frivolous yet smart television, and clearly, it makes me think.

Recommended if: you’ve got Netflix Instant Viewing and some time to kill. (Stand-out eps: “The Man With Two Legs,” “Size Matters,” “Her Best Friend’s Bottom,” “Naked.”)

Not for you if: Cutesy takes on the War Between the Sexes make you foam at the mouth.

Mid-Year Resolutions

I apologize for the prolonged absence, and I will get back to regularly-scheduled posting as soon as I can. In lieu of that I wanted to lay out a few of my entertainment related goals for the summer:

  1. Participate in Infinite Summer. You know what this means? I’ll finally finish the literary albatross that’s been sitting on my shelf for seven years now (I’ve made it up to around page 300, I think…I may need to find a cliff’s notes to refresh myself as to what I’ve already read, since I’m sure as hell not starting from the top). If the mood strikes me, I may post my observations along the way (or just send you along to those who are making more astute comments than I.) I will say this, from what I’ve read so far. The reason I still haven’t given up on Infinite Jest is that it’s so clearly brilliant. At times it seems like Foster Wallace was throwing his various themes and tones at the page and seeing what stuck, but even if one were to belittle this book as nothing more than an excercise in developing style, it’s an impressively compelling one nonetheless.
  2. Finally get around to watching the end of The Sopranos (I know!). Now, of course I know about the (in)famous series finale, but I’m hazy on the details of Season 6, Part 2. It’s strange that I fell off the wagon at this point, seeing as how I’d watched the show religiously for years. When I first encountered it, we still didn’t have cable at home, so my brother had taped the first two seasons for us as a Christmas present. My parents were immediately addicted, staying way up past their bedtime, watching for marathon stretches, and soon brought me into the fold. The compelling, novel premise of the show (and the fact that Nancy Marchand as Livia sounded exactly like my paternal grandmother) was enough to get us hooked. Since it’s been so long, however, I’m going to start from the very beginning–and I’m really curious to see how the seasons tie together when you watch them back to back. I don’t remember the Sopranos being as baroquely constructed as other HBO gems The Wire and Deadwood (another show I’m on a roll with–watched the entirety of season 1 over the weekend and am hoping to follow soon with S2 and 3.), but I could still use a refresher on the ins-and-outs of the Soprano clan and all their hangers-on.

But when I have a free moment, look for reviews of the latest from St. Vincent, Peter Bjorn and John–and hopefully, a live show or three. If I’m feeling daring, I may toss some books and telly in there as well. Happy summer, everyone!