My favorite episode – ‘The Golden Girls’ – “Ebbtide’s Revenge”

My favorite episode is a feature for this blog in which I look at my favorite episode of a TV show I like. Some of the shows will be classics – Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, I Love Lucy, etc., and others may be shows that I personally loved, even if they haven’t endured or stood the test of time, like Ugly Betty, for example. I won’t go into the history of the show too much, but will give some context if needed – and I’ll also go into the show’s historical significance and if the episode is a much-beloved classic, I’ll also discuss that.


The Golden Girls
has always been a very queer sitcom. It took apart the concept of the nuclear family by presenting a new king of family – one of single friends who turn to each other for support. The story of four older women sharing a house in Miami, Florida, has resonated with gay audiences – particularly gay men – because many of the viewers of the show understood what it meant to have to cobble together patchwork families after being rejected from their own.

Cognizant of the show’s audiences, the writers have also looked at queerness on the show. Though a lot of the jokes and plots are dated now (and some of the gay jibs and story lines are borderline offensive at times), I still appreciate the show for challenging gender and sexual roles. Interestingly enough, when The Golden Girls was killing it in the ratings, The Cosby Show was also huge (the two even shared a network). But where The Cosby Show was almost aggressively uncontroversial and inoffensive, The Golden Girls often took on controversial topics, many of them queer.

While not the most gay-explicit, “Ebbtide’s Revenge”  is queer because it deals with cross dressing. The episode dealt with grief, shame, acceptance, and tolerance. Dorothy (Bea Arthur) is tapped to give the eulogy for her brother Phil. The recurring joke throughout the show’s preceding six seasons was that Phil was a cross dresser. He wasn’t a drag queen and he was straight (happily married with children), but had a lifelong penchant for women’s clothing. Before “Ebbtide’s Revenge,” the cross dressing was treated like an odd quirk. Dorothy’s mom, Sophia (Estelle Getty) always treated Phil’s cross dressing with resigned tolerance. But Phil’s death forced Sophia to examine how she really felt. Her feelings of shame and embarrassment manifested themselves in the hostility she showed toward Phil’s wife, Angela (guest star, Brenda Vaccaro).

 

So what I liked about “Ebbtide’s Revenge” – and The Golden Girls in general – is that even if this is a Sophia-Dorothy episode, each member of the ensemble has a moment to shine. In this episode, the naive, but compassionate Rose (Betty White) has a pivotal moment at the end, where she encourages Sophia to move past her feelings of shame and embarrassment and embrace her love and grief for Phil. Sexpot Blanche (Rue McClanahan) has been mostly relegated to comic relief in the episode, which is necessary because a lot of the episode is very sad. Because the quartet of actresses is made up of four brilliant comediennes, the show’s episodes pass around the role of straight man, so even if Blanche isn’t as integral to the plot of the episode, she’s still a welcome presence.

So many will watch “Ebbtide’s Revenge” and question some of the jokes that the characters make at the expense of Phil and cross dressing in general. For example, when Sophia sees Blanche’s fire engine red dress for Phil’s funeral she cracks a joke and Blanche defends her sartorial choice saying, “I believe Phil would have liked this dress.”
Sophia: Liked it? He would’ve looked great in it. Dorothy, I never understood why your brother liked to wear women’s clothes, unless he was queer.
Blanche: Sophia, people don’t say queer anymore, they say gay.
Sophia: They say gay if a guy can sing the entire score of Gigi. But a six foot three, 200-pound married man with kids who likes to dress up like Dorothy Lamour, I think you have to go with queer.

In other parts of the episode, the characters throw around cross dressing gags, and it’s highly debatable if Phil was given dignity at his death. He was buried in a teddy – which provided the characters with a lot of comic fodder, but as his widow pointed out, “Phil would’ve wanted it that way.” It’s a poignant moment seeded into a potentially-cheap joke, that feels very apt today when deceased trans folks are often buried by transphobic family members in their originally-assigned sex roles. And though Phil wasn’t trans, it feels important that he was buried women’s clothing, as it was true to his character (though burying him in lingerie may be questionable).

So, obviously in the 25 years since the episode’s airing, our understanding of homosexuality has evolved a bit more than “knowing the entire score of Gigi.” But gay men on television in the 1980s have either been flamboyant, flowery gay men who burst into song (The Golden Girls had a few examples), or if the show was intent on being progressive, the gay men would be bland, almost sexless drones cast to prove that “gay people are just like everyone else!”  On The Golden Girls queerness has been folded into the reality of the characters, but it isn’t immune from the AIDS-panicked 80s view of homosexuality. Still, underneath some of the dated and antiquated views of queerness, there’s an underlying basis of tolerance, acceptance, and love.

During the episode, it’s unclear just what exactly Sophia is harping about. Though it’s understandable that’s she’s grieving about her son’s death, she’s seemingly more interested in swiping at her daughter-in-law. And while the trope of warring in-laws is ingrained in the fabric of the traditional sitcom, there was something deeper in Sophia’s anger at Angela. Dorothy and Blanche are at a loss to figure out why Sophia’s normally-ornery persona is ramped up to an even more irascible level. It’s Rose who figures out the source of Sophia’s anger. Rose, a grief counselor, gently prods Sophia toward confession on what was really the problem: “Every time I saw him, I always wondered what I did, what I said, when was the day that I did whatever I did to make him the way he was.” It was the shame that made Sophia angry – shame and guilt, feelings that many parents of queer children have. The line is beautifully delivered by Getty, who then openly breaks down in tears, releasing the shame and just allowing herself to feel the grief she was setting aside. And White is every bit her equal, letting some of Rose’s jokey dumbness fade a bit, and letting her seemingly endless reserve of compassion and love shine through.

The show would go on for another season (before being spun off into Golden Palace, sans Arthur), and have still looked at nontraditional sexuality. In fact, a few episodes later, Blanche deals with her own issues of shame and tolerance when her brother announces he’s marrying a man (again, 25 years before gay marriage became a national debate and a political wedge issue). I won’t go as far as claiming that The Golden Girls is ahead of its time, or that it revolutionized television – Roseanne was far more daring and confrontational in how it dealt with issues like sexuality. But as “Ebbtide’s Revenge” shows, the show does have a knack for telling a story about topics that are easy to trivialize in a way that makes them funny without being too cheap or easy.

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The ladies of ‘SNL’ shine on a solid Cameron Diaz episode

Cameron Diaz and Mark Ronson with Bruno Mars Bumper Photos

I approached the Cameron Diaz episode of Saturday Night Live with some trepidation. Diaz is funny, talented, and very likable (and very easy on the eyes), but her instincts as a comedienne often lean toward vulgarity and bad taste, as if she’s trying to show us that she can outgross out the boys. Also, her track record for crappy films has been pretty consistent lately, so I also question her choice in material. Because she’s out promoting a remake of Annie (which gets a shout out), Diaz hosted the Thanksgiving episode of SNL. While not a classic, it was a surprisingly solid effort, with some great work by the female cast members of the show. It’s gratifying to see that the boys club of SNL past has been banished, and though this cast’s comediennes haven’t proven to be comic geniuses like Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin, Jan Hooks, Tina Fey, or Amy Poehler, Cecily Strong, Kate McKinnon, Aidy Byrant, and Vanessa Bryant have each showed great promise. Add in Leslie Jones, who I think is just peachy, and the talented (if underused) Sasheer Zamata to round out the female side of the cast, and you have potential for some very funny moments – and on this episode, the ladies brought it (for the most part).

The cold open was another Obama sketch, but this time I actually thought it was okay. A spoof on the classic “I’m Just a Bill” tune from School House Rock, the joke was that Obama’s executive order to grant legal status to some 5 million undocumented residents was an exercise in bullying. Literally bullying, as he keeps throwing Kenan Thompson’s warbling bill down the Capital steps. Not to be outdone, Bobby Moynihan shows up as a laissez-fair Executive Order, who sums up his deal by singing “I’m an executive order, and I pretty much just happen.” I wish the show’s writers went further with the joke than Obama’s merely giving Congress a shaft – do the writers think it’s fair that the president’s order will help 5 million undocumented residents avoid deportation? Because SNL has always been stung with the charge of being too liberal, I think the writers don’t want to get too nasty with politics, aside from tweaking personal idiosyncrasies or scandals of individual political figures. Unfortunately, the show doesn’t take a stand, and the result is that a sketch with some great potential sort of ends up being harmless. Still, Thompson’s one of my favorite cast members and he was very funny, and the sketch was a surprisingly decent way to open the show.

Unfortunately, Diaz’s monologue was pretty awful. It was the standard, “superstar host tries to get  through his/her monologue, but is repeatedly interrupted by cast members pretending to be audience members.” None of it was terribly funny, and Diaz didn’t do a good job in selling her limp schtick.

The first sketch of the evening was probably the best of the episode, and a contender for the best of the season. The ladies of SNL get together to create the magic of “(Do It on My) Twin Bed.” This time the Pussycat Dolls-like girl band descend on their childhood homes for the holidays and proceed to act like spoiled boorish churls. As with the “Twin Bed” song, “Back Home Baller” is wonderfully silly and incisive in how it pin points the banality of adult women becoming infantalized by returning home. They take over the parents’ home, do their laundry, eat up their food, and don’t help or take part in the house work. The bizarre juxtaposition of a mundane situation like a childhood home and the baller/blinged out attitude of the women is great. And Leslie Jones has an awesome Missy Elliot-like solo rap about her mother leaving bowls of snacks all over the house. It’s all very funny and very smart – I only wish that this whole so-so season of SNL worked on this high level.

The next sketch referenced Diaz’s new Annie movie. Jay Pharoah did a servicable Jamie Foxx, and Bayer trotted out her enthusiastic child star to play Annie, while Diaz brought out her skanky Miss Hannigan from the new movie. The twist is that instead of Bayer’s red-headed mopped, Foxx’s Daddy Warbucks was looking for the new Quvenzhane Wallis Annie. What he gets is Leslie Jones’ 43 year-old Annie. Jones is a talented addition to the cast, but the writers are trading too much on her high energy – she’s more talented than that, but they’ve limited her to shouting and staring menacingly at the camera. The middle-aged Annie isn’t interested in singing or being adopted so Daddy Warbucks ends up hiring her as a security guard. A middling sketch that could’ve been more.

The next sketch was a fake ad – Nest-Spresso, a single-egg incubator that looks like a single-cup coffee maker. Taran Killam and Kate McKinnon play hipster urban farmers who are dismayed at how hard it is to raise chickens. Bayer’s smiling neighbor clues them in on the Nest-Spresso, a neat invention that instantly incubates and hatches a single egg. It’s a cute idea, made even cuter when a baby chick is plopped into the waiting glass mug. I also love that Bayer’s beatific expert doesn’t really understand the mechanics of the machine.

After the funny Nest-Spresso ad came another winner. An experimental theater play at a high school. As a former high school drama geek, I know the nonsense we put on and I know the tedium and resentment our loved ones felt having to sit through our crap. Experimental theater can be rewarding, but it can also be pretentious junk, as it is in this sketch that has our troupe decry the evils of Wall Street, Capitalism, gender inequality, lack of quality healthcare, etc. It’s all done with that grim, self-congratulatory smugness that only a liberal, overly politically correct teenager can muster. And it’s all done with barely any skill or talent, which makes the sketch even funnier. And as an added bonus, Thompson and Bayer play annoyed and increasingly appalled parents who are witnessing the travesty and feel trapped.

The Weekend Update in this episode was surprising because wasn’t ass-boring. The beneficiaries of lowered expectations (we’re talking Sarah Palin’s “triumphant” performance during the vice presidential debates here), Colin Jost and Michael Che do an okay job this week. Che, especially, gets some trenchant swipes at the current Cosby mess, when he pointedly tells the legendary comedian, “Pull up your damn pants.” He also does a quick bit about grieving over the loss innocence of Cliff Huxtable, a sentiment a lot of people are expressing (unfortunately, at the expense of the rape victims). As Che pointed out, “Cliff Huxtable practically raised me” encapsulating why so many people are having such a hard time reconciling the TV icon with a sexual predator.

Kate McKinnon returned as German Chancellor, Angela Merkel. As with most good-to-great impressions on the show, it isn’t that McKinnon looks, sounds, or acts like Merkel (she doesn’t), but it’s that the comedienne has distilled the spirit of what makes the politician so interesting: she’s a smart woman operating on a world stage, dominated by men, but she is increasingly seen as the voice of reason. McKinnon’s Merkel has shades of Poehler’s Hillary Clinton – a smart, over-qualified woman, who is smarter than everyone in the room, and she can’t handle that. McKinnon’s Merkel also has a strange, though endearing, awkward side, one that is crushing hard on Barack Obama, and one who is constantly chafing at the various constraints that are imposed on a woman in her position. Nora Dunn once lamented that during her tenure on SNL, the female cast members had no one to play during the political sketches (she famously played presidential candidate Pat Shroeder), so it’s particularly joyful to see the ladies have opportunities to break into political sketches.

After McKinnon’s star turn, came Killam and Strong as Charles Manson and his fiancee Star Burton. Killam did a generic “crazy psycho” impression of Manson, and the pair did just okay, but faltered in comparison to McKinnon’s strong work.

We then had the recurring character of the adult baby CEO. I don’t get the appeal of this character, though Beck Bennett is mesmerizing in his ability to accurately mimic the spastic, unrestrained movements of an infant. This kind of character is very old fashioned SNL – the sort of weird, eccentric character that has an identifiable trait, like It’s Pat, or Debbie Downer, or Matt Foley. These kinds of characters exist to spawn catch phrases and to be discussed at water coolers (remember those?). In this installment, Diaz is Bennett’s wife, and she proves to be a decent straight man, without much to do. Zamata and Thompson play a couple who are guests – Thompson’s angling for a promotion and Zamata is his supportive wife. The conceit of a guy going to a boss’s house for dinner in hopes of securing a promotion is also very retro, which is alright, except Thompson is wasted, merely reacting to Bennett’s performance (Zamata gets some fantastic dry, withering notes, though).

Thompson and Diaz star in the next sketch – probably the worst of the night as hosts of an animal show. Reminiscent a bit of Tracy Morgan’s Brian Fellows, Thompson’s not happy with his animal show hosting gig because his monkey castrated him last week. Diaz shows up with a lemur. And by the way, what with the real baby chicks and the real monkey and the real lemur, is that a thing, where the show uses real animals in the sketches? The joke of Thompson’s genitals ripped off by the monkey is repeated over and over again, and it was never funny to begin with.

Next, Kyle Mooney and Bennett get another one of their strange-but-great sketches – this one with Mooney’s dimwitted slacker confronting Bennett’s bully in the hallways of a high school. It’s done as if it were Mooney’s amateur chat show – an Internet ‘Wayne’s World.’ Mooney’s performance as the awkward, dopey, and posing slacker is pretty interesting, as is Bennett’s turn as his nemesis. The thing about these kinds of sketches is, they’re never hilarious, but I appreciate the ambition behind them.

After that, we get another installment of Bayer’s poetry teacher. I liked the character the first time it ran, but I’m not so sure it can sustain recurring status. Bayer gets the mannerisms and vocal tics down and she’s pretty funny – but the character is supposed to be a bland nothing, and it’s difficult to stretch out the joke for more than one 5-minute sketch. But for what it was, it was OK. We get Bryant as a student who writes an ode to her stepdad (who wears a t-shirt that looks like a tuxedo, “uh oh, he fancy”), and Thompson’s tribute to Friends is pretty funny. Then Diaz stops by – in disgusting white girl blond dreds, by the way – as Bayer’s fellow poet pal, who wrote a paean to the UPS delivery man, that quickly becomes sexual, to the delight of the male students in the class.  Again, not a bad sketch, but not a great one – just eh…

The final sketch – Night Murmurs – which features the ancient art of phone sex ads. Except in this one, the ladies have some interesting requests which include Diaz’s instructions on how to handle a special delivered package, Strong’s request to drive her old grandmother out of a trailer, and McKinnon’s sorted tale of losing a bet and being pummeled with a turkey. It’s all weird stuff that’s sold because the actresses act the hell out of the sketch, making the bizarre non sequiturs funnier than they seem (I love the strange, “sexy” and “relaxed” poses that Strong gets into while she’s purring about her grandmother’s trailer).  Not a hilarious sketch – but a good one – that will remind some of the retired porn stars sketch (which I actually do like).

So, all in all, a good episode – Cameron Diaz didn’t dominate in her sketches, but she played nice with the others and she left her over-sized star power at home. It’s the kind of host one hopes for – someone who doesn’t mind looking silly, but isn’t intent on proving to the world that she should be placed as permanent host. As seen in many of her films, she’s willing to make herself look ridiculous for a laugh – which is great for an SNL host. In this episode, though, the writers seemed to play it safe with their star – unlike, say, Melissa McCarthy or Emma Stone, who when hosting, reveled in portraying ugly misfits and misanthropes that belied their real life beauty.

Next week James Franco is hosting. I didn’t like his last hosting gig – I found him strangely wooden and uncomfortable. Just as the Woody Harrelson show was all about pot, I’m sure the James Franco outing will reference his strange performance art persona, as well. After him, we’ll have Martin Freeman – the most charming man to come out of Great Britain, and stealth Meryl Streep replacement, Amy Adams (who I thought did a great job when she first hosted – her Heidi Klum was amazing).

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‘Cristela’ is a bright and promising sitcom

Cristela's Horrendous Internship InterviewABC’s freshman sitcom Cristela is a throwback to the “boom years” of stand-up comedy when TV networks were plucking comics from clubs and crafting vehicles around their acts. Once the sitcom started to fall out of favor, the television landscape became very hostile to shows like Roseanne or Seinfeld. Because of Chuck Lorre’s success with Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory, networks are still trying to find the next Friends. ABC, which has abandoned its popular TGIF lineup is looking to bring the sitcom back. With the relative success of Tim Allen’s return Last Man Standing, ABC is trying to pair it with Cristela, an old-fashioned sitcom that feels like it belongs on TV Land.

Cristela Needs a Partner for Her Costume

Stand-up comedienne Cristela Alonzo stars as Cristela, a law intern who lives with her sister Daniela (Maria Canals Barrera) and irascible brother-in-law, Felix (Carlos Ponce). Daniela and Felix let Cristela live with them and their children in their home while she works at a high-profile law firm, in a much-coveted but unpaid internship. Part domestic comedy and part workplace comedy, Cristela’s office family includes Josh (Andrew Leeds), the nebbish fellow intern and Maddie Culpepper (Justine Lupe) the other intern, who also happens to be the daughter of the firm’s owner, Trent (Sam McMurray).

For those who don’t demand too much from their television viewing, Cristela is a charming, unambitious sitcom that manages to score because of the talent and goodwill of its star. Alonzo is a wonderful presence, and will remind viewers of Roseanne Barr or Brett Butler. As her alter-ego, the comedienne manages to inject a lot gravitas and intelligence into what is really a standard milquetoast multi-cam sitcom. Because the show features a mostly-Latino cast, there are some valuable insights to diversity and privilege and Cristela’s a fine mouthpiece for some of the micro (and not-so micro) aggressions that people of color have to endure in an all-white environment. Because Cristela has worked her way up to a corporate environment, notorious for its hostility toward women of color, she has a unique perspective on her position there. Thankfully, Cristela isn’t a fish-out-of-water story. It’s clear that despite her limited financial background, she belongs at the law firms and deserves her place.

Cristela Pushes Isabella to Play Soccer

And because there’s so much potential in Cristela, when the show see-saws from decent social commentary to standard family sitcom, it becomes clear that despite its charms, the best thing about Cristela is well, Cristela. She easily outclasses her costars. And though at this point in the season  Alonzo hasn’t developed her acting chops yet, it’s easy to see that this lady has a huge future.

BigA show like Cristela will probably last a season or two if it’s lucky, but its lead has an important voice and story to tell. Throughout the middle-of-the-road plots, Cristela is able to raise the consciousnesses of those around her – or at least she tries. This is especially true when she’s helping her sister raise precocious tween, Izzy (Isabella Day). The interactions between Izzy and Cristela are especially heart-warming because of Alonzo’s feminism, which the writers manage to fold in quite nicely. In one episode, Izzy chooses a trendy purse instead of an e-reader for her birthday, so that she can keep up with the popular girls, and Cristela schools her on the pitfalls of keeping up with the Jonses (or the Kardashians). Or in another example, in the pilot episode, Cristela secretly prods her niece to try out for the soccer team instead of cheer leading. The feminism is doled out in such sweet doses, that it won’t scare off viewers afraid of the f-word.

If Cristela can shake off her Disney Channel sitcom trappings, it may develop into a stronger sitcom. It does add an important – if oft-ignored – perspective, and Alonzo can enliven even the hoariest of jokes (and yeah, some of the gags feel awfully dusty). Hopefully, the show will last long enough for viewers to see its growth.

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Woody Harrelson is good in a solid, if one-note episode of ‘SNL’

Woody Harrelson and Kendrick LamarActor Woody Harrelson is out promoting the latest Hunger Games film and hosted Saturday Night Live last week. Known as a genial performer, he first hosted SNL, in 1989 during his Cheers years when he was known for playing the sweet but dim-witted bar tender, Woody Boyd. In the years since, he’s graduated into full superstar status, even surpassing Ted Danson or Kirstie Alley. Along side his movie fame, he’s also known for his penchant for pot. Unfortunately, the writers exploited this side of his public persona and ground it to the ground. Still , this was a solid, if unexceptional episode, in which the host did a good, if unremarkable job.

The cold opener was yet another political sketch. At this point, the folks behind SNL should accept that their politics skewering days are behind them. In the opening sketch, Jay Pharoah trotted out his President Obama and Taran Killan got to play Mitch McConnell. Pharoah is great as Obama, but the performance is mechanical now. At least in this skit, Obama’s unnerved by the midterm elections which handed the his party its collective ass on a big ole platter. In the sketch he and McConnell are meeting for a drink as a way to “reach across the aisle” but quickly the two become drunk, going through various stages of inebriation. It was neat to see Obama getting maudlin while drinking his feelings. And just as quick the guys bond and become frat boyish, crank calling Hillary Clinton. Sasheer Zamata strolled through to do her so-so Michelle Obama, but the look of panic on Killan’s face was priceless. As expected, there were no laughs and just prove my earlier point that SNL should leave the politics to The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.

Harrelson’s monologue was the first (of many) that teased him about his predilection for drugs. Because he last hosted in 1989, he brought out his guitar doing a cover of Taylor Swift’s “1989” with redone lyrics that included late 80s minutia that was shady at best because of all the drugs he did. Because Woody Harrelson does a lot of jokes. The joke got stale real quick – even when his Hunger Games costars Josh Hutchinson, Liam Hemsworth, and Jennifer Lawrence stopped by to help him with his little ditty. Though the monologue was the epitome of laziness, Lawrence was adorable when she saved her awful flub with a pot joke (she’s a funny lady).

The first proper sketch was initially funny, but then sort of petered out when the joke proved to be unable to sustain a whole sketch. At first the sketch looked like an easy spoof of terrible, bland CBS family sitcoms – The Dudleys, starring Kate McKinnon and Beck Bennett. Though it wasn’t original, it tweaked sitcom tropes and was very funny, but then it takes a turn when the show is repeatedly retooled because of viewer feedback. McKinnon and Bennett are dumped for Harrelson and Kenan Thompson as a gay couple and because viewers complained of lack of intimacy (something Modern Family viewers bring up), the guys engage in a silly bit of PDA. Obviously, the sketch is made to mock professional complainers. It was okay to see Harrelson and Thompson run fingers all over each other, but it wasn’t a funny enough of a joke to go past a minute.

The next sketch was another okay, so-so affair, which is strangely dated for 2014. Cecily Strong starred as Desiree, a contestant on Match’d one of those appalling MTV dating shows that featured some of the most disgusting people on the planet. The writing was okay (Desiree’s line, “I’m horny as hell and here to fix that”). The guys who are competing to win her hand in dating are Bennett, Killan, and Kyle Mooney, all of whom play various degrees of douchery with expert ease. As with the kinds of shows Match’d is mocking, the guys are introduced and have to spout off some awful, smutty puns that are supposed to be sexy. The twist of the plot is that the host of the show (played by Harrelson) is Desiree’s dad. Before the guys know that they’re hitting on daddy’s little girl, they lay on the awful sex talk, and quickly turn into fine gentlemen when the secret is revealed. These kinds of shows have been parodied to death, but it’s pretty funny, and Strong was good (when one of the guys said he’d like to meet her mother, she chirped, “You can’t shake hands with a ghost”)

Next we have another pot joke, this time making fun of the misunderstading of the new pot laws in New York. It’s treated like a movie trailer, where potsmokers emerge from their apartments (clad in PJs and sweats), and march through the streets like freedom fighters. Harrelson, with blonde dreds, is featured, and new guy, Pete Davidson is the leader. It’s a funny sketch (with some amazing production values, by the way).

The next sketch took place in the locker room of a high school football team. Harrelson is the coach, trying to motivate his players, but the rub is that because of new safety rules, it’s much harder for the guys to tackle. To avoid the risk of concussions, the new way of tackling, involves the gentle laying down of one’s opponent. There’s something priceless in seeing Harrelson cradle Pharoah’s head (“put your princess to bed”). Thompson pops by as a former player, completely addled by years of getting knocked on the head on the field. Thompson plays the intense, but very confused guy very well. And in a shockingly good ending to a sketch, the players trot out wearing crazy-big helmets that look like novelty items.

Weekend Update happened, and Leslie Jones showed up to stole the sketch with an energetic performance as a relationship expert. Her monologue was about reclaiming “crazy bitch” as a badge of honor, in reference to the story of the woman who got stuck in her boyfriend’s chimney.

Then Killan and Harrelson showed up to talk about True Detective. Killan played Harrelson’s True Detective costar, Matthew McConaughy. Harrelson was hitting the cue cards really hard in this one, and Killan’s impression was just okay, but anything to distract from Colin Jost is appreciated.

Another sketch, another drug joke. This time Thompson, Harrelson, Killan, and Bobby Moynihan play bar flys, lamenting the “old” New York. Thompson, Killan, and Moynihan reminsced about closed restaurants and how the neighborhoods have changed, but Harrelson’s character is stuck on how crack is different now. The sketch was very well-acted, but the drug theme was silly and felt a bit endless.

Next came a camping sketch, that like the crack-bar sketch benefited from enthusiastic performances that elevated ho-hum writing. Sitting around a campfire with his pals, Harrelson is singing a strange song about apples, and is frustrated when none of his friends join in. It’s funny to see the other characters try to sing along with Harrelson, sounding exactly like him, and yet being scolded by him for not singing the song right. In frustration he pitches his guitar and pouts (I loved seeing his bottom lip tremble during his tantrum). In the end, the friends admit that they knew the song all along and were playing a joke on him. All the performers did a good job giving life to some strange jokes.

The last skit was another Last Call sketch with Harrelson and McKinnon, the later playing the particularly repulsive bar fly. It’s a gross sketch with the two characters each one-upping each other in the disgusting department (McKinnon’s job? “Replastering unpopular glory holes”). McKinnon’s performance is brilliant and Emmy-worthy and Thompson is fun as the appalled bartender who ends the sketch resignedly pour gasoline on his bar to burn it down after Harrelson and McKinnon collapse into each other’s arms in heated passion.

All in all, a good entry – nothing stood out, but Harrelson proved to be a good host. He dominated in most of the sketches and gave strong, committed performances. The next episode will be hosted by Cameron Diaz, a funny actress (and only the second female host this year). Like most great screen comediennes, she doesn’t have much vanity, so it’ll be great to see what kind of job she does.

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Whether innocent or guilty, why Bill Cosby’s silence affirms misogyny

In an interview on NPR, Bill Cosby responded to the rape allegations with a stony silence. On his Facebook page, the legendary comedian posted a message from his lawyer that read:

“Over the last several weeks, decade-old, discredited allegations against Mr. Cosby have resurfaced. The fact that they are being repeated does not make them true. Mr. Cosby does not intend to dignify these allegations with any comment. He would like to thank all his fans for the outpouring of support and assure them that, at age 77, he is doing his best work. There will be no further statement from Mr. Cosby or any of his representatives.”

It’s understandable that Cosby doesn’t want to go into details about the allegations. After all, his image – that of a family-friendly patriarch – has been questioned and put into doubt. I don’t know if Cosby is guilty, but his silence is problematic because when he’s not addressing these allegations, he’s giving credence to the trope that rape victims often lie.

The Cosby of the post-Cosby Show era has been a social critic who hasn’t thought twice about scolding much of his fan base. He argues for social responsibility, without addressing social and institutional inequalities that often contribute the to kinds of social ills Cosby is railing against; in his new guise as a stern lecturer, he proudly addresses victims of racism, classicism, and social inequality, placing the onus on them for social betterment.

But his quest for social betterment seemed to have side-stepped gender equality. While The Cosby Show has rightly been lauded for its depiction of a marriage where both the man and wife are equal partners in their marriage, Cosby’s silence on the rape allegations has simply reaffirmed much of the misogyny and sexism that has made it so difficult for victims to report being assaulted.

Among the notes of support, as well as suggestions of conspiracy, some of the comments on aforementioned Facebook post on Cosby’s wall include:

“Everyone is human, isn’t it odd on how all these broke gold diggers are coming out to try and weasel a buck for not having to work.”

“I rarely believe rape accusations anyway.”

“I do not believe for one minute he is guilty seriously this woman is just a gold digging twit.”

“All of these women could’ve walked away and never dealt with him after the first alleged assault. Looks to me like they came back for me with a motivation. Maybe they thought if they could please Mr. Cosby’s needs, they could get further in the game.”

“She a hoe fo sho.”

Sounds like a case of a bunch of groupies gone wrong!! Why would anyone of his celebrity NEED to rape a woman when she will just give it up!!! Also as history has shown, there is always “rape” when it comes to the black man PERIOD!!”

“First off you can’t rape the willing, raped once shame on them raped twice shame on you! She should of taken her self out of the situation! Guess she liked the treatment she was getting, hotels, dinning, traveling, shopping! Please if you think she wasn’t enjoying her self you have problems! Victim myself and not by choice!”

I think these women just want money, maybe I should claim he raped me too, since apparently evidence isn’t necessary, so I can get a chunk of money. If he was a rapist, and seriously why would he be when he could afford to pay for all the women he could ever want, then wouldn’t each of these women be responsible for any rapes that occurred after their own? They could have accused him, and stopped him from raping others, when they had evidence, but they just let him continue to rape other women. Now, 30 years later, they want to accuse him with no evidence. It should be thrown out of court, and the women charged with slander at this point. In fact, I think Bill should sue them all for slander, there’s plenty of evidence for that.”

“I believe they are golddiggers, never in his career have I noticed mr Cosby to be disrespectfull to women like that, never! I simply cannot believe the allegetations.”

“Studies have shown that over 30% of women have sexual fantasies about being raped. Even if the women were raped by Bill Cosby it is likely that they enjoyed it..”

Some of the trends I see in the posts are that Cosby’s problems are a result of a liberal conspiracy, designed to punish him for supposedly preaching conservative values to black people. Others simply hold to the image of Cliff Huxtable, and simply cannot believe that a man like that could rape a woman (Cliff Huxtable is fiction). There are those who believe that the women were looking to extort the comedian for money, and a common sentiment sprang up that the women were scorned lovers, out for revenge.

If Cosby doesn’t want to go into the rape allegations, he should at least speak out against misogyny – especially, the kind of victim-blaming mentality that’s taken hold among his fans. He doesn’t have to comment on his particular situation, but he should make it clear that he’s against shaming women, especially rape victims who come forward. It shouldn’t matter when the rape took place, or if any settlements were agreed upon. Cosby’s feminism should be more than just the kind of lip service of having his TV wife be a successful attorney. If he really believes in gender equality, he should take this situation and use it for good, and highlight the horrors of rape and sexual abuse. He took his fans to task earlier for what he saw as damaging behavior (i.e. wearing pants slung low and using slang), he should also apply the same kind of condemnation to the misogyny that is trailing these allegations. Bill Cosby is renown for his social activism – it’d be great to see him put it to use to stamp out rape culture and victim-blaming.

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Why ‘Black-ish’ has replaced the aging ‘Modern Family’ as ABC’s best sitcom

Won't You Be Our NeighborIt’s no secret that Modern Family has been experiencing a creative drought for the two seasons. While still a well-produced show, it no longer reaches the peaks of its glorious first two seasons. Characters have been broadened into caricatures and talented comedians have been reduced to mugging. The writing has also been remarkably lazy, mining jokes and themes over and over again, with hopes that the viewers’ good will may somehow hide the fact that Modern Family has become rather stale.

Marco Polo

In its wake, Black-ish has outpaced it as the best sitcom on ABC right. And though that sounds like faint praise, it’s not. Starting off with a surprisingly solid pilot, it has managed to remain consistent so far, and has proven to be a more reliable source of the kind of smart, if middle-of-the-road comedy, that Modern Family was (rightly) praised for in its first few seasons.

The Nod

And on top of being very funny, Black-ish also gives network television a much-needed dose of diversity (there was a time when all of the shows featuring black casts seemed to be shunted to UPN). Black-ish is a universal sitcom with issues that anyone can relate to, but it doesn’t ignore race. Lazy comparisons to The Cosby Show has some critics say that Black-ish is Cosby for our generation (it feels a bit strange to talk about Cosby given the recent renewed outrage over Bill Cosby’s alleged rapes). But aside from featuring a successful, upper-middle class black family, Black-ish doesn’t have much in common with Cosby. The classic 80s sitcom was meant as propaganda, intent to prove that race and class doesn’t matter.

The Johnsons Dine at the Beef PlantationBlack-ish does deal with race and class in ways that are often ignored on Modern Family. On the latter show, the families are almost-aggressively middle-class, and money never seems to be a problem. And race does assert itself at times on Modern Family – Manny, Gloria, and Lily all disrupt the gallery of blindingly-white faces. And race is merely used as yet another source of humor (Gloria and Lily are often the butt of ethnic jokes), but not much introspection goes into what it means to be a person of color who is inserted into a homogeneous family. Because as modern as Modern Family likes to think it is, it’s pretty traditional in its vision of family, despite the presence of a gay couple (more on Mitch and Cam in a bit).

On Black-ish, we get some decent discussion about cultural issues. In “Crime and Punishment” the Johnson family have to figure out if corporal punishment is still appropriate. And an ongoing theme has Anthony Anderson’s patriarch, Dre, worry that his children are alienated from black culture. In “The Nod” Dre’s worried that eldest son, Andre, Jr., is deprived because he has no black friends and in the excellent pilot, he’s nonplussed because Junior wants a bar mitzvah. And as the irascible grandfather, Pops, Laurence Fishburne represents an older generation’s perspective on social mobility and racial progress.

Dre Tells His Kids to Get Jobs

Aside from all this cultural studies talk, Black-ish also scores because it’s often hilarious. The show’s innate social message is couched in a sharp and witty context, that only occasionally dips into schmaltz. The writers – Kenya Barris and Corey Nickerson are responsible for the funniest episodes – are largely responsible for the show’s excellence.  They steer clear from the unfortunate cliches of family sitcoms without alienating the show from its mainstream trappings.

Crazy MomAnd along with the excellent writing, Black-ish benefits from a n amazing group of actors. I always knew Anthony Anderson was a funny guy, but he’s clearly an excellent sitcom lead, too. And as mother, Rainbow, Tracee Ellis Ross has emerged as one of TV’s greatest comediennes (I still laugh out loud at her miserable wailing when she fails to find one of her kids at the mall and thinks he’s been kidnapped). As for the kids – I have a natural aversion to child actors. Often kiddie thespians are hired more for their cuteness factor, and recite their lines in monotonous drones; or even worse, they’re gifted with sassy, precocious characters and drop catchphrases all over the place.

But with Black-ish we get sitcom kids who are funny but realistic. As oldest son, Junior, Marcus Scribner easily steals all his scenes. Few teenagers can accurately portray the weird, awkward place in adolescence, when a teen beings to assert himself, while at the same time, seek acceptance and assimilation. Junior’s a nerd, who seeks his father’s approval, but is still able to maintain a sense of self, which includes endearing idiosyncrasies like an affection for role-playing games. And though initially I was on the fence with the twins Jack and Diane (Miles Brown and Marsai Martin, respectively) because they are eye-gougingly cute, buuuuuuuuuuut, they’re really funny kids and the cuteness is used almost ironically and not to simply pander to its audiences (yeah, I’m looking at you Full House).

But we can’t dismiss Modern Family just yet. It’s still got the best cast in TV sitcomdom today (save for the geniuses who are acting the hell out of Parks and Recreation). The show’s got some real comedic talents – Ty Burrell, Eric Stonestreet, and Sofia Vergara haven’t run across a line that they couldn’t make hilarious, and their respective straight men Julie Bowen, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, and Ed O’Neill all anchor the show wonderfully.

Come Emmy nomination time, Modern Family will undoubtedly be up for best comedy again. It doesn’t deserve the honorific anymore (it hasn’t for the past three years). At this point of the season, Black-ish has already produced a strong slate of episodes that makes a strong case for it to be crowned the best comedy series (and Tracee Ellis Ross should swipe Lena Dunham’s Emmy nomination for best actress in a comedy series). Hopefully, Black-ish will keep on growing.

 

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‘Mulaney’ isn’t great, but it deserves a second glance

John Mulaney’s sitcom Mulaney was highly anticipated because the guy was such a star from his time writing on Saturday Night Live (Bill Hader’s club kid Stefan, is a Mulaney creation). When it was announced that Mulaney would be leaving SNL, taking cast member Nasim Pedrad with him, audiences and critics were practically shitting themselves with anticipation. Comedy legend Martin Short and movie vet Elliot Gould signed on, and Mulaney was supposed to be a sure fire hit. So what happened?

When the show premiered it got some of the worst ratings and reviews of the 2014-2015 season. Many of the critics complained that it was a terrible Seinfeld retread. After seeing a few of the episodes, I can see the problems critics have:

  • It’s multi-cam, and if it’s not a Chuck Lorre product, then a multi-cam won’t work
  • Mulaney – an appealing and genial presence – doesn’t have the acting chops to carry a show
  • Gould’s a treasure, but is wasted as a silly gay joke

Despite all that – and a terribly shaky pilot episode – Mulaney is shaping up to be a decent show that could become a good show if it has a chance to exploit its strong points: namely Short and Pedrad.

The show’s premise is a Xerox copy of Seinfeld – but a faded one. Mulaney stars as John Mulaney, a comedian who writes for a bombastic, hammy comic, Lou Cannon (Short). John shares a New York apartment with a fellow comic, Motif (Seaton Smith), and BFF Jane (Pedrad). So basically, it’s a show about a stand-up comic with wacky friends. Mulaney even introduces the show with a bit of his stand-up, just like Jerry Seinfeld did on his show. And John’s kooky neighbor Andre (Zack Pearlman) is a combo of George Castanza and Kramer.

The lack of originality wasn’t the only problem. As a comic persona, Mulaney’s a bit of a blank slate. He has a strong and singular voice (and is in love with 90s pop culture trivia), but it’s been flattened out to boring, sitcommy proportions. Instead of coming off as appealing, he comes off as a bit of a wimp. And he’s easily outshone by the more colorful characters that support him. And as an actor, he’s still very stiff – but that’s okay, because Roseanne Barr, Amy Poehler, and Tina Fey have all started off as just decent performers before developing into wonderful actors.

All of these ingredients make for a bad show. And Mulaney started off as a bad show. But there are signs that there may be a glimmer of hope that with some extreme retooling and nurturing (and pruning), there may be an okay show lost somewhere in the mediocrity.

The first episode that manages to punch out of its boredom “Sweet Jane,” a pretty funny entry with a spiffy plot that examines the difficulty in opposite-sex best friendships. Because she’s constantly undermining John’s relationships, everyone assumes Jane’s harboring some deep love for her buddy. Thankfully, the show doesn’t go the easy route of affirming this trope and instead maintains Jane’s prickly/sweet persona. Pedrad is a find (she was underused on SNL) and is a great scene-stealer.

The following episode is even better. On “In the Name of the Mother, and the Son and the Holy Andre” John’s Catholic guilty is lampooned. And the episode is a virtual SNL reunion, having not only Mulaney, Short, and Pedrad, but comedienne Nora Dunn showing up as John’s religious mom (Dunn is great and I’d love to see more of her).

Because Mulaney‘s episode order has been cut down, it doesn’t look good for the show’s future. It’s a shame because other shows starting off badly: Parks and Recreation, Cougar Town, The Office, and 30 Rock have all had shaky starts before finding themselves. Mulaney has the potential of being good if it did some revamping: Gould belongs on TV, but not like this; more Pedrad; ditch the self-conscious Seinfeld homages; and maybe Mulaney could take some acting lessons, too.

I noticed that a lot of the negative reviews for Mulaney were tinged with regret because we all want the show and its star to do well. We remember the great jokes on SNL that tweak on 80’s and 90’s pop culture (there is no reference too obscure or ridiculous – for example, on “In the Name…” we get a Saved by the Bell: The College Years joke – yeah, you read the right, The College Years) and of course, Stefan’s a legend now (though a lot of it is due to Hader’s inability to keep his shit together when trying to recite Mulaney’s insane jokes). Like the other critics, I’m a Mulaney fan, too, and may be giving it more credit than it may be due.

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