Colleen Ballinger brilliantly moves her Miranda Sings character from YouTube to Netflix

Haters Back Off.pngColleen Ballinger’s brilliant creation, Miranda Sings is an astute critique on our culture’s hungry desire for fame. The character is an enormous ball of unfiltered ID, whose self-regard borders on lunacy. She’s a grotesque with little-to-no talent, yet feels as if she’s God’s musical gift to mankind. In the four or five-minute videos on YouTube, Miranda’s obnoxious and deluded personality is played solely for laughs. Ballinger creates a work of social critique by mocking the wannabe superstars who display no talent and even less drive.

But taking the character out of the confined setting of YouTube and expanding it to a more expanded world allows for more depth. The thing about Miranda is that her childlike myopia is funny, but there’s something always simmering underneath the surface that’s off – in much the same way that Paul Reubens’ man-child Pee-Wee Herman displays that uneasy balance of childish wonder and taboo-busting anarchy.

For Haters Back Off, Ballinger tells a creation story of sorts: how did Miranda come to be. In doing that, she creates context for her character’s appalling behavior. Miranda’s personal life is a dour shitshow. She’s raised by a sad and lonely mother, Bethany (a thoughtful and lovely Angela Kinsey, The Office), and an enabling uncle, Jim (Steve Little, Eastbound and Down), who’s as hopelessly deluded as she is. Rounding out this sad little family unit is little sister Emily (Francesca Reale, full of promose), the stable voice of reason who is a hapless victim of Miranda’s ambitions and her mom’s resigned indulgence. Because Miranda is home-schooled and has no friends, the Internet is her way to score validation. And her home life is sad, always fraught with instability due to the family’s near-poverty, which gives further poignancy to Miranda’s dreams of fame and stardom.

In expanding Miranda’s world, Ballinger brings out all sorts of shading to the character that is less evident in the YouTube videos. Miranda’s grasping is hilarious when she smugly (and obliviously) gives singing lessons to pros like Tori Kelly or the singers from Pentatonix; when she condescends to a choir of singers on the show, it’s equally funny, but knowing just how awful Miranda’s life really is, offers viewers a kinder look at why and how Miranda operates.

Much of the character’s comedy comes from her thwarted and warped view of sexuality. She’s famously pined for many fellow male YouTubers (most of them queer), but on Haters Back Off, her romantic endeavors are treated far more sympathetically. She’s still a joke – after all, her look which includes a terrible slash of red lipstick, and a permanent dissatisfied scow – but because we know more about Miranda and where she’s coming from we feel sorrier for her.

Miranda fans may be shocked at just how low Ballinger lets her creation get. Though Miranda Sings is a commentary on facile fame-grabbing, she’s also become an icon of sorts of resiliency. The title of the show comes from Miranda’s catch phrase with which she duly flicks off the cruel, abusive, and misogynistic slurs from online trolls. Because the Miranda we see in the television show isn’t the famous Miranda Sings, yet, she hasn’t developed that thick skin. As a result, the tone of the show tips more toward dramedy than strictly sitcom (though each episode, regardless of how sad or depressing sports lots of laugh outloud moments).

The last half of the show – and the ending, crescendo into important real life consequences for Miranda’s highly anti-social and inappropriate actions and behaviors. In these moments when Miranda has to confront life and death, Ballinger does some beautiful work. Never once betraying the character of Miranda, she still manages to flesh her out, making her an object of pity instead of mirth. It’s a risky choice, given that the large bulk of her fans are tweens who enjoy Miranda’s raucous and broad comedy.

There’s something exhilarating about watching Haters Back Off in that we see the culmination of a true auteur. If nothing else, it proves that the Internet is a fruitful source of entertainment and talent. It also shows that if given the opportunity, Ballinger is more than capable of creating some great comedy and some great art.

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The Lunch Date – a short story


The Lunch Date

Maxwell Dwyer was so busy, that he often didn’t get a chance to read the names of his appointments until day of. He cursed this habit when he saw that he was meeting with the executive director of the L.A. Mission for the Homeless. Her name was Stacy Davis. At first the name meant nothing, but when his secretary presented him with research on Ms. Davis, he broke out in a nervous sweat. His secretary thoughtfully included Ms. Davis’ professional headshot in the bio she prepared.

He pulled up the agency’s Website to get a better look. It was her. Stacy. The flattering picture showed an attractive middle-aged woman, years away from the girl he fell in love with in high school. Though it’s been over 30 years, Stacy’s shadow loomed over every other relationship he’s had – including his fifteen year marriage to Laura. The marriage was hell on Max in the beginning, because for the first few years, without her knowing it, Laura would fall short each time he compared her with Stacy. Her looks, the way she walked, her fashion sense – all of it. Slowly, though, Stacy started to fade, and he was able to love Laura for who she was – and was able to push Stacy into a convenient corner of his mind – never completely gone, but not as dominant.

The breakup was excruciating – so rough, that his parents sent him to a series of doctors. He was inconsolable. The worst of it all was that Stacy broke up with Max in a letter. Suddenly, she just left, writing an affected letter that waxed poetic about their time together and about the passage of time. The letter was heavy with clichés about moving on and finding oneself. She was his first – and as such, he found her sudden withdrawal all the more hurtful.

Looking back, Max blushed slightly at his tragic behavior. At certain points, he had to admit, he reveled in the sadness, almost enjoyed it. He read Romeo and Juliet repeatedly, identifying with the young lovers, and would lament, “That’s me and Stacy,” to whoever’s sympathetic ear that might be near. He remembered the bad poetry and the song lyrics he wrote. He also remembered his aborted attempts at learning to play the guitar so that he could perform the songs he wrote – his paeans to Stacy and lost love.

Max shuddered at those thoughts – some still fresh. He then realized that Stacy was probably feeling the same way about him. Intrigued he started to imagine her, equally flustered and gutted, trying to figure out just how to get through their meeting with a modicum of professionalism.

He wanted to see Stacy, but at the same time he dreaded seeing Stacy. After the disaster of their breakup, Max was able to rebuild himself, and though he had bad and messy breakups afterwards, none took the same kind of toll. He was able to distance himself from that sensitive and swoony kid whose life fell apart because his first love left him.

On the cab ride to the restaurant, Max found himself rehearsing the kinds of things he could say to Stacy when he saw her. He could play up his family – his beautiful wife and his three great kids. He could crow about his job – after all, her agency is appealing to his company for donations. He’s traveled a lot, seen a lot, and met a lot of people. His thoughts started to steer into a rather uncharitable direction. He found himself hoping she’d regret ever leaving him. If he were honest, he also hoped that her life wasn’t as together as his. But he quickly admonished himself for any of these unkind impulses, and instead, focused on seeing Stacy again.

He thought of the picture of her on the agency’s Website. Obviously the picture is meant to be flattering, but still, he could see she was beautiful. She had the kind of beauty that would never be referred to in the past tense, no matter how many years have passed. He thought back to her when they were young – her strong shoulders, her long legs. She was always athletic – some people teased them that she could probably take him in a fight, and once when they were at the beach, Max stepped on some broken glass, Stacy managed to lift him and carry him a short distance. It was a short distance, but still, he remembered the awed stares of the other beachgoers, seeing a hot girl in a bathing suit, carrying her injured boyfriend.

When the cab pulled up to the restaurant, Max was at once relieved to be finally there, but at the same time annoyed that he didn’t have more time. He walked in, the dread and the anticipation clashing with each other. The hostess took him to a table and he finally saw Stacy.

She looked like her picture.

She stood up, and he saw she maintained her athletic build, which was slightly exaggerated by her power suit. The ensuing years after they stopped seeing each other etched fine lines throughout her face, but she was still stunning. “Max,” she finally said, breaking the spell a bit, “it’s so good to see you.” She took his hand and leaned over and kissed him on the cheek.

The two sat down, and the waiter took their drink orders and vanished. For what seemed like forever, all they could do was sit and stare at each other. Stacy noted that Max’s brown hair was threaded with specks of gray. Max spotted the wedding band on Stacy’s finger. They were sizing each other up, not sure when to speak.

“How’ve you been?” Max asked. “It’s been, I don’t know…”

“Thirty-one years. It’s been thirty-one years… How’ve I been?” She shrugged, not sure how to answer a question so huge, “I don’t know – good, bad, great, horrible, in between. All of it. You?”

“The same.” He then added, “I’m married now.”  He then dug in his pocket for his phone and turned it on to Laura’s smiling face. “See – her name is Laura. She’s a music teacher at a private school.” He then swiped the phone and pulled up a picture of three teens – “And these are my kids, Matthew, Felix, and Kerri.” He then set the phone down. “They’re in high school.”

Stacy nodded, “They’re beautiful. She’s beautiful.”

“Your last name is Davis, but,” he said, his voice trailing as he gestured toward her ring.

“I’m married, but I kept my name.” She didn’t offer to show him a picture of her husband or her kids.

“So, wow, Stacy,” Max said, “You look fantastic.”

Stacy smiled, but still felt tense. “It’s a weird coincidence – the two of us meeting like this. I almost canceled the meeting.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“Well, aside from the fact that our agency could really use your money, I wanted to see you. I was curious. I also wanted to know why you didn’t cancel, either.”

Max almost admitted that he didn’t know he was seeing her until earlier that morning, but decided not to tell her. “Yeah, I wanted to see you, too. I was curious.”

“So, when your secretary confirmed our meeting – I even double checked with him, making sure that it was you and not a colleague coming, I thought I had to come.”

“I’m glad you did….I have a lot of questions.”

“I’m sure you do,” Stacy said, switching to a professional guise, and pulling out a large leather attaché case. “I have a proposal our grant writer put together, and I was hoping we could go over some of the services we provide for the city’s homeless population.

Max laughed a little, “No, no, I don’t mean about that – I mean, we’ll get to that, but I had questions about us. About what happened. About how it ended.”

Stacy set the attaché case back on the empty seat next to her. She visibly deflated a bit. “I was hoping we could, sort-of, work around that.”

Max’s face contorted in skepticism, “You thought we could work around the fact that we were madly in love and you suddenly disappeared? I’m sorry, but I have to know some things.”

She nodded, resigned, “I know, I’m sure you have a lot of questions. Lots of anger – and I owe you some explanation, but you didn’t know everything that was going on – and I didn’t want to burden you with all of that.”

“I wish you opened up to me – told me why you had to run away. I thought I did something to push you away.”

“I never wanted you to feel that way – it wasn’t you. And it was you.” She shook her head.

“What happened?”

“Max, I got pregnant.”

Max sat back, stunned. “Wait, what?”

“I got pregnant. It was scary and I didn’t what to do. So, I told my folks, who thought it best that I move away to visit my aunt in Peoria.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“My parents told me not to – they didn’t want anyone knowing. They just wanted me to have the baby, give it up and then forget about it. And so I did what they wanted. All of it. Almost all of it.”

“What part didn’t you do?”

“The forgetting.”

“So, I have a thirty-year old kid somewhere out there?”

Stacy nodded, “A girl.”

“What’s her name?”

Stacy shrugged, “I don’t know. We didn’t have much time to bond. To be honest, I never wanted to know more than that.”

“You’re not curious about where she is and what she’s up to? If she’s safe? If she’s sick? Happy?” Max could hear that his voice tipped into hectoring, but all of this was too much.

“I was curious, but I,” she chose her words carefully, “but I willed myself not to be curious. I had to Max, otherwise, I would’ve driven myself crazy wondering. It was no way to live.”

“So what happened afterwards?”

“Afterwards, I stayed in Peoria for a bit longer, then went east to live with some family friends, and went to college. My parents and I became somewhat estranged after this experience. We’ve become better, but it’s something that sort of, hangs out there. Whenever things get too still or too quiet, we always run the risk of mentioning it.”

Max’s head was crashing with all kinds of thoughts and questions – he felt as if someone had picked his brain up and shook it like a snow globe, and watched the thoughts flutter down in a mixed up mess. “I don’t know what do with all this,” he finally said.

“I know, maybe I shouldn’t have told you, but I didn’t want you to think that I left because I didn’t love you.”

“So you still loved me.”

“Of course I did…I don’t know, I still do, in a way. You never get over what we had, what we went through – it just sort of stays with you. I love my husband very much, and I would do anything for Chuck, but you’re still there.”

Max nodded grimly, “You, too. With Laura – I found myself comparing the two of you a lot.”

“Why’s that?”

Max was stumped for a second, but then he laughed, “I guess it’s because she’s the only other person in my life I loved as much as you. All the other women in my life between you and Laura, were great, but never measured up – but Laura’s different. And you were different. And I guess that’s why, at first at least, I always compared how I felt about Laura with how I felt about you. When we first made love, I tried remembering what I felt after we first made love. When we first went away on vacation, again, I thought about when we went to Yellowstone on our first vacation together.”

Stacy smiled at that memory. “I hated Yellowstone.”

Max smiled, “I know it. You hated camping, but said you were okay to go, and then when we got there, you couldn’t stand any of it.”

She laughed, “I thought it was dirty and uncomfortable, and it got cold at night. I never was much for camping.”

“Right, and you know, I loved camping. And I remember thinking, ‘God, what is this weekend going to be like if she’s hating it the whole time?’”

“Well, I was with you, so that part was nice.”

“Oh, I know – and I remember that even though you agreed to go, you never made an effort to make pretend that you were enjoying yourself.”

“I didn’t want to lie to you….I also was scared that if I pretended to like camping, you’d take me again…. And that was not happening.”

“So when Laura and I went on vacation for the first time, I thought about us – because that time in Yellowstone was the first time when were together for the whole day, 24/7, you know? There were no classes, no going back home, no meeting friends, it was just the two of us. And I knew were meant for each other?”

Stacy was surprised. “Really? Because if I remember that trip correctly, I kind of bitched the entire week, and refused to sleep in the tent at night.”

“Yeah, but I still wanted to be with you. I mean, at times, it was annoying as hell when you were crapping on the trip – especially since I was trying my best to make it nice, but I remember thinking at night, when we were asleep, that this was all okay. That it was going to be okay. That even if you hate camping, I didn’t care.”

“That sounds lovely. And Laura? Did she like Yellowstone?”

“Oh, I never took her to Yellowstone….our first trip together was to Boston. But we have gone camping since.”


Max smiled again, “And she loves it.” The two then slipped into silence as they started to drift into thought. Max then asked, “Does your husband know?”

Stacy thought for a second. “Yes.” Max raised his eyebrows. “I didn’t want a secret that important or that huge between us.” She then added, “So yes, my husband knew of your daughter before you did – it’s cruel, and I’m sorry about that.”

“How did he take it?”

“Uh, it was rough at first. It was early enough in our relationship that he could accuse me of harboring yeas of betrayal. But it was rough. He still finds it difficult to believe that I could live knowing that my adult daughter is somewhere in the world, a stranger to me.”

“I know what he means.”

“But we worked through it. I guess. I hate to speak for him, but I just have to assume Chuck is fine with it.”

“Did you have any more children?”

“No.” Max as surprised. “You see, children were never part of my plans. That’s another reason I left because I knew that you would’ve wanted to keep it.”

“I would’ve dropped out of school, got a job, I promise.”

“I know you would. And I would have to drop out of school. Forget college. And do whatever to get by with our kid. And I never wanted that. For myself or for you. After college, and after I started to work, I realized that I didn’t want kids. I like being able to just pick up and leave if I wanted to. The guy who had my job before me had a choice of meeting the President of the United States at a summit in DC or going to his kid’s graduation. Guess which one he picked?” Max shook his head. “He went to the graduation, and sent me instead. And I live off of that experience, and you know what? My old boss doesn’t regret his choice at all. I know that my parents – my mom especially – would’ve liked to have done more with their lives, but they were tied down with me.”

“That’s a cynical view of parenthood, Stacy,” Max said. “I mean, I understand what you mean about making sacrifices, and yeah, I do get resentful sometimes, too. But still, I love my kids, and if I’m being gun-to-my-head honest, I have to say, it’s worth all of it.”

Stacy smiled a wan smile and gestured, “So now you see why I did what I had to do.”

“You know, I was hoping I would dazzle you with my life now and that you’d regret doing what you did,” Max admitted.

“I don’t regret what I did, but I do regret the way I did it. But it was the only way I knew how. Besides, I was young and scared, and at the time, it seemed like the best way.”

Max almost asked if she had a chance to do it all again, would she do something different, but decided not to. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to know. Their drinks were empty. Max noticed with a start they never ordered and they never discussed their business. It felt almost anti-climactic at this point to even start. Stacy must’ve felt the same way because she cleared her throat and said, “What’s say we reschedule, only this time, we include some other folks in the meeting. It may make it more productive.”

Stacy paid the bill, and Max got up and pulled her chair out for her. They stood very close for a few seconds and then walked out of the restaurant together. Max always felt slightly decadent being in an expensive restaurant in the afternoon. In his mind, fancy places were for the evenings, in black tie. The conversation also left him unsettled and yet, weirdly satisfied. He scratched one itch, but there was another one, just out of reach.

Before they parted ways, they embraced. It was a nice, warm embrace. When they broke apart, Max asked, “Are you glad you came?”

Stacy thought for a second and nodded, “Yeah, I am.”



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Paul Feig’s ‘Ghostbusters’ reboot overcomes bad publicity with a solid effort

GhostbustersFew films have been met with such hostility like Paul Feig’s recent reboot of Ghostbusters. When it was announced that the quartet of ghost-busting heroes would be recast as women, the Internet lost is shit. Suddenly, men and boys with glass-fragile egos were lamenting the death of their childhood and accused Feig of bowing down to some imaginary force of political correctness. What’s worse is that one of the stars, Leslie Jones, was assailed on the Internet with scores of racist and sexist abuse (egged on by queer right-wing monster Milo Yiannopoulos), and her Website was hacked with stolen private images. It was a depressing time in our culture (serving as part of a larger uglier shift in our national conversation about race and gender, due to Donald Trump’s toxic candidacy).

After watching the film, it feels strange that such an innocuous bit of entertaining fluff would be such a lightening rod for misogyny. The film couldn’t be more middle of the road or crowd pleasing. Those worried that an all-female cast would turn the beloved comedy-sci fi classic into some man-hating feminist manifesto should find solace that Ghostbusters doesn’t really address the gender issue. The fact that the four main characters are women barely makes a ripple in the plot.

Instead of making a sequel, Feig and his co-screenwriter Katie Dippold choose to retell the story of Ghostbusters. Dr. Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) and Dr. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) are former colleagues and estranged besties who collaborated on a book about ghosts and the supernatural. After their split, Gilbert abandoned her interest in the subject and became a tenure-track professor at Columbia University; Yates, meanwhile hooked up with eccentric engineer Dr. Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), and is toiling away at a garbage college, working on experiments without the support of the administration. One day Gilbert is approached by Ed Mulgrave (Ed Begley, Jr.), the owner of a haunted mansion. Ed discovers Gilbert because he discovered the book she wrote with Yates. Horrified that the book may imperil her chances of getting tenure, she tracks down Yates, in hopes of burying the book. The two make a tentative agreement, and with Holtzmann they go to the mansion to investigate the haunting, and discover supernatural activity. Soon Gilbert’s efforts are discovered by her bosses at Columbia, and she’s fired, as are Holtzmann and Yates for their controversial work. So the three women band together to form an agency to investigate paranormal activity. Joining them is subway employee Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), a history buff who discovers ghosts in a subway tunnel. The four women start to do some digging and discover that a nebbish mad scientist (Neil Casey) is attempting to open a Hellmouthy-kind of portal to release thousands of ghosts onto the city of New York City.

Feig and Dippold put together a solid story that moves along at a decent pace. The script indulges in a lot of tech/geek speak, which can get a bit tedious, but as seen in Spy, Feig is good at writing a story with a lot of action and suspense. Unfortunately, Feig as a director seems more interested in wowing his audience with the special effects (they are impressive) than with telling a story. It seems inconceivable that with the cast he’s assembled that they aren’t the dominant feature of the film, which is a shame, because these four comediennes are very funny and given their track records, they would provide the movie with a lot of laughs if given more room to perform. Melissa McCarthy, reunited with Feig after the superior Spy, is especially side-lined: her character is written as the straight man of the bunch, and the comic is rarely called upon to employ her fantastic gift for physical comedy, or her way with a vicious put down. Wiig, a master at creating neurotic characters, plays Gilbert rather straight, and also feels a bit underused. That leaves things to Jones and McKinnon, who both pump a lot of fun and energy into their performances – Jones, especially, is endearing as the whip-smart Patty (though the optics of three white women being professionals, while the only black woman of the bunch is not an academic is questionable – she could’ve easily been a history scholar, librarian, or high school history teacher with some minor tweaks to the script). Chris Hemsworth is also on hand as the hunky but dim-witted receptionist – and though Hemsworth is a great sport, the script pushes the dumb joke past its logic, and his goofiness approaches head injury territory.

It’s impossible to watch Ghostbusters without the context of the awful press it got when it was announced and released. Watching it felt like an action of social justice, merely because of the misogynistic backlash that met the film – not a great recipe for a comedy. The film’s script has some smart nods to the online trolls who immaturely decried the use of female characters in some smart quips – and I can’t believe that Neil Casey’s villain isn’t an allegory for frustrated toxic male entitlement. Still, Feig and Dippold stay away from feminism, which makes for an oddly toothless film. In a situation in which the film could not escape the label of “feminist” it feels like a wasted opportunity for Feig and Dippold. They should’ve just gone balls out and embrace the feminist possibilities of creating an action comedy with four heroines. In Spy, Feig created a progressive story of an oft-dismissed and ignored female hero who prevails in a male-dominated macho setting. In Ghostbusters, Feig and Dippold wrote a story about four heroes who just happened to be women. And as proven by the awful anti-woman reception the film received, we’re not at that place yet, where gender doesn’t matter.

Click here to buy Ghostbusters on DVD from

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The debates are just one of many things that need to be changed

Watching the presidential debates is depressing, given  just how ridiculous this election has turned out to be. Not only does it feel like it’s gone on forever, but we’re subjected to a seemingly unending supply of racism, sexism, and xenophobia from a man who is consistently winning in the polls.

But even in the best of circumstances, the presidential debate has outlived its usefulness. At this point a few weeks before the election, minds are pretty much set, and the debates do little to change folks’ minds about who they’re going to vote for; so all that’s left is one last gasp of ugly mud slinging that voters have to listen to and watch.

Donald Trump’s latest campaign collapse comes from audio tapes leaked that show Trump and infotainment “journalist” Billy Bush trade ugly, sexist quips, and Trump boasts of sexual assault. He dismisses the awful of his words by calling it “locker room talk.” Prepping for a media trouncing, he assembled a line of women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault and sexual harassment and held a pop-up press conference. When “apologizing” for the remarks, Trump pivots to Clinton (Billy Bush’s apology explains the exchange as a youthful indiscretion. He was 33.)

And yet, Trump’s popularity maintains. His supporters reach back to the “Political Correctness” smokescreen which immediately renders all discussion of identity politics moot in their minds. The debates did nothing to either Trump or Clinton, except to provide Twitter and Facebook with a fresh batch of memes – this time of Trump, lurking like a sinister cartoon villain, behind Clinton when she’s speaking.

So why have the debates? They’re useless. We know the outcome: Clinton will do better because she has facts and figures. She’ll dip into political wonkiness, which will inevitably make viewers eyes glaze over a bit, but still, she’ll look presidential.

And Trump? The expectations are so low for him that barring him actually exploding into a steaming pile of pumpkin innards, people will declare him the winner of the debates. And to his supporters, he’ll look presidential.

The only positive thing to come out of the debates is Alec Baldwin’s recurring role on Saturday Night Live as Trump and Kate McKinnon’s continued excellence as Clinton. In an election that has become terrifying, political comedy (I won’t say satire- SNL remains too genial and toothless to be considered satire) is the only thing that’s keeping me from burying myself in a soft pile of comforters, hiding underneath until this disaster of an election is over.

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‘The Big Bang Theory’ starts off its 10th season with a smallish pop

A smattering of family members chit chat around the couch in Penny's apartment.The Big Bang Theory opened its 10th season (!) with a wedding. Well sort of. Fans will remember that last season Penny and Leonard found out that his glacial mother Beverly (Christine Baranski) felt slighted and hurt that she wasn’t invited to their nuptials, so the gang decides to throw a commitment ceremony (something the gays used to do before we could get married) and invite the families to gather and be awkward with each other. And the result was a mildly amusing, though somewhat sleepy season opener.

One of the show’s highlights has been guest stars, and usually the show treats its guest stars well. This week’s episode – “The Conjugal Conjecture” – reveals that while TBBT vets like Baranski and Laurie Metcalf (who’s back as Sheldon’s mom Mary) are aces, newbies like Katey Sagal and Jack McBrayer fit badly in the fictional universe, which is a damn shame because both Sagal and McBrayer are talented performers and great comedic actors who deserve better than their thinly-written characters.

But more on that later. The episode’s A story has Penny (Kaley Cuoco)  and Leonard (Johnny Galecki) renewing their wedding vows so that their families and friends can witness their love. It’s a sweet gesture, that somehow feels cheated and short-shifted in the episode, that is far more interested in giving us a show of warring bickering families. Leonard’s divorced parents, Beverly and Alfred (Judd Hirsch) are pissed at each other because Alfred possibly has a thing for the Bible-thumping Mary, who is the antithesis of the scholastic Beverly.

But Leonard isn’t the only one dealing with family problems. In a far less interesting plot line, Penny’s family comes to visit, and her mom Susan (Sagal – who played Kaley Cuoco’s mom on the forgotten ABC sitcom 8 Simple Rules) is super uptight because brother Randall (McBrayer) has just gotten out of the pokey for producing and selling meth. It’s a dark detail that is totally played for laughs and lands flat. Keith Carradine returns as Penny’s laidback pop Wyatt, who seems to be taking everything in stride, despite his wife’s nervous nagging.

And in the completely useless b-plot with Howard, Raj, and Bernadette (Simon Helberg, Kunal Nayyar, and Melissa Rauch, respectively) have a mini adventure that centers on an Air Force colonel trying to contact Howard for some unknown and unexplained reason, and the episode’s writers – don’t do a good enough job in raising the stakes high enough to make viewers care.

Part of the problem with the show – a problem that is shared by ABC’s Modern Family – is that the show has far too big a cast and not enough time to give each character enough space. And because we’re trying to get everyone a chance at bat, some characters – like Mayim Bialik’s Amy barely register (a waste, because she’s always reliable for a good laugh). I forgot Stuart (Kevin Sussman) was still a character, except he popped up to hammer home his nebbish pathetic persona (I remember when we first met Stuart, he wasn’t as bad as this).

In the twenty minutes or so that the show has to tell its story, everything feels rushed and forced. The family squabbles are simply sitcommy fights, peppered with decent one liners that are launched with the custom broad hammy acting that’s befitting a multi-cam sitcom. There is very little in terms of exploration into why the characters are so fraught and tense – Randall’s stint in jail could be explored for some interesting insight into Penny’s own addictive behavior, and Susan’s constant attempts at scrubbing away at the family’s imperfections could be a sign of larger issues at hand. But we don’t get any of that. And Sagal and McBrayer are totally wasted in these roles. Sagal, especially, is prim and tight, and doesn’t get much laughs. And McBrayer’s character is basically a charmless version of 30 Rock’s Kenneth Parcell.

But despite the mediocrity of the opener, there were still some bright moments to be found. Laurie Metcalf is a comedic genius, as is Christine Baranski, and I’d love to see the two join the cast, and we can jettisone the neglected Stuart and Emily (Laura Spencer). Though Mary and Beverly are completely one-note (Beverly more so), the actresses do so much with even the hackiest lines. And Jim Parsons does have a touching moment near the end, in which he shares his love for Leonard and Penny at the wedding. It’s a brief glimpse into the potential the show constantly exhibits – there are always these quick moments throughout the show’s 10 years, in which genuine growth and development occurs – this is especially true with Sheldon who, in the first season, wouldn’t have been able to stand up in front of his friends to express his innermost feelings.

Ten years is a long time for a show to be on, and The Big Bang Theory is frayed at this point. The show has accommodated for its growing cast by marginalizing some of the characters – this is especially true in the way Penny morphed from the hot, kooky girl next door, to the colorless straight man of the bunch. Her character is solely defined by her relationships, whether it’s with Leonard, Sheldon, or Amy and Bernadette. In this episode, little has changed. She takes a backseat to her warring family (which is sad, considering how dull they are), and then she’s practically background noise for her friends. There was some promise when the writers decided to have her character leave acting, which brought some interesting conflict in her relationship with Leonard, but even that detail did not live up to its potential. Hopefully the writers will try and perk up  her character a little bit, given that this could be the final season of the show (it’s still a monster hit – opening with 16 million viewers – but at 10 years, the cast must be crazy expensive at this point).


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Miranda Sings offers a fun – and empowering – evening

YouTube comedienne Colleen Ballinger has taken her now-iconic alter ego, Miranda Sings, on the road, in a fantastic and often-empowering show that highlights comedy as well as some sneaky progressive politics. Performing at the Rosemont Theatre in Rosemont, IL, Ballinger has done a great job in transferring her creation from the short, five-minute videos she posts on YouTube, to a fleshed-out, 9o-minute show. The performance was a great showcase for Ballinger’s many talents, including a beautiful singing voice, but more importantly, her sharp wit and comedic vision.

The show starts off with Ballinger performing as herself. First dancing to Fifth Harmony’s “Worth It” (joined by two dancers, one being her best friend Kory DeSoto, a fellow YouTube personality), then belting “Gay Best Friend” a reworking of a Frozen number that she sang with DeSoto, the strongest moment came when Ballinger brought out her ukulele to warble a neat little ditty that slammed all of the hate comments she got on her videos (some of the comments are brutal). The hate comment song is an important part of the show because it highlights much of what Ballinger – and Miranda Sings – stands for: self-empowerment. Like many performers with large tween fanbases, Ballinger does a good amount of work on anti-bullying, and making light of the horrible comments is a way for Ballinger to inspire others who may also be suffering from cyber bullying (though it has to be said, being a famous and wealthy celebrity may take some of the sting out of the meanness).

And as appealing a performer as Ballinger is, it’s her character Miranda Sings that is the real attraction for the audiences, as Ballinger has an inventive way of introducing her creation. She begins by singing “Defying Gravity” from Wicked, and in the middle of the song, she does a quick-change on stage, before finishing the song as Miranda Sings, smoothly segueing from Ballinger’s pretty, trained voice to Miranda’s strangled yowl.

Part of Miranda’s appeal is her self-confidence – she has a lot of it. Ballinger’s inspiration was the glut of self-deluded wannabe singers who clog up YouTube with terrible performances. But what was once merely satire has grown into an entity in itself. Miranda Sings is deluded – she cannot sing and she’s a grotesque (Ballinger slathers on an obscene amount of lipstick and twists her face into sneers, grimaces, pouts, and scowls), but she’s still the heroine of the story. While she rails against promiscuity and overt sexuality (she screeches to her audience not “to be porn!”), she’s still lustful, having her eye for her fellow YouTube star, Joey Graceffa (who is openly gay, but that minor detail doesn’t seem to dampen Miranda’s ardor).

As a major artifact and product of pop culture, Miranda also engages in pop culture. She performs medleys of radio top 40 hits with the unbridled enthusiasm of little kids in their bedrooms. When Ballinger-as-Miranda does herself up in homemade costumes to recreate various pop music scenarios, Gilda Radner’s Judy Miller comes to mind. And like Radner’s creation, Miranda becomes all the more appealing because of her musical ineptitude, which is dwarfed by her enthusiasm.

During her shows, Miranda will invite some of the screaming children on stage to perform with her. On Friday’s show, she repeated the custom, and in one sequence, when looking for a new BAE (Internet speak for boyfriend), she brought on three kids – one of whom, a wriggly little kid name Octavio, nearly stole the show with his hammy stage presence. Even when not being engaged with, he was still drawing attention with his mugging and his goofy presence. When Miranda and he were engaging in some cute comedy bits about dating, he perfecting her strange, put-upon vocal tics (it was clear that Ballinger realized she was dealing with a force).

Part of what makes Miranda Sings rather subversive is that its creator manages to sneak in her world view and progressive politics. An unabashed liberal, Ballinger threads some of her thoughts and beliefs into the show – the most explicit being a picture of Donald Trump under the headline of those who have too much confidence (the largely conservative Rosemont crowd gave a strangely muted response to that joke). She also stresses LGBT equality – both in and out of character, and her gleeful obliviousness to the haters promotes a healthy self-esteem.

As a canny, brilliant creation, Miranda Sings deserves wider appreciation. She’s got a huge following, but it’s largely niche. Hopefully that will change when Netflix premiers her sitcom Haters Back Off (her motto). When appearing with Jerry Seinfeld on his Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, Ballinger proved that even when paired with a comedic institution, she can more than hold her own. Because the bulk of Miranda’s audiences are tween girls, many can dismiss the character (too much of pop culture consumed by young girls is dismissed). As proven in her show, Miranda Sings is easily one of the most interesting – and funniest – creation in a while.

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Molly Shannon broadens her range in Chris Kelly’s ‘Other People’

Image resultOther People is the kind of comedy that would fit into television in today’s landscape. Our diet for funny must include huge doses of tragedy. It’s a hilarious story dealing with a woman who is dying of cancer. Screenwriter Chris Kelly, newly-minted head writer of Saturday Night Live, took his experiences of watching his mother die in 2009, and took pen to paper and wrote this affecting and hilarious dramedy about a comedian who is suffering through his mother’s long and painful death.

Kelly’s onscreen persona, David (Jesse Plemons), is a comedy writer based in New York City. His career is struggling as is his personal life. David moves back to Sacramento for a spell to take care of his dying mother, Joanne (Molly Shannon). After torturous rounds of chemo, Joanne decides to stop, letting nature take its course. The household is fraught with tragedy, tension, and comedy. David’s dad Norman (Bradley Whitford) is a loving husband and father to daughters Alexandra (Maude Apatow) and Rebeccah (Madison Beaty), but is distant with his son because he’s still hung up on David’s homosexuality.

While dealing with his mom’s illness, David is also nursing the demise of his relationship with Paul (Zach Woods). Throughout the movie, David is trying to maintain some semblance of a social life. He hangs out with bestie Gabe (John Early) whose tween brother Justin (J.J. Totah) is a fabulous drag queen. He’s also trying to make shape of his career – his Comedy Central pilot failed and he’s pinning his hopes on an ABC deal.

Films like Other People can crash and burn if not handled well. Chris Kelly wisely stays clear of the bathetic lachrymose that sunk films like Steel Magnolias or Terms of Endearment. Despite his personal stake in the story, he’s very unsentimental and unsparing when showing his viewers Joanne’s decline. As a director, he’s still a bit green. He hasn’t figured out a consistent way to blend the comedy and the tragedy – both highly pitched – in a way that feels organic. At times, he manages, but often the tonal shifts feel abrupt.

Casting a film like this is hard stuff because it’s a challenge to get funny actors who can match the demands of the script. It feels like the film’s populated by wall-to-wall comics. Even in smaller roles like family friends or coworkers, we folks like Paula Pell, Kerri Kenney-Silver, Retta, Lennon Parham, Paul Dooley, Nicole Byer, Rose Abdoo, as well as, the aforementioned Early and Woods. And lead Molly Shannon – an SNL vet – proves to be yet another, in a long list of comedians who prove to be sterling dramatic performers, too. Her trademark goofy mugging – all arms and hands splayed – is effective when Joanne is healthier and stronger, but she adapts beautifully to the more concise and contained restraints that Joanne’s decline brings – her expressive face can convey a multitude of emotions without needing a single word uttered. Plemons and Whitford match her note-for-note, but gallantly allow for Other People to remain Shannon’s show.

Kelly’s script gives up the story’s ending in the first scene. It’s a wise choice because expectations are matched, and therefore the audience isn’t waiting for a twist or a surprise ending, nor are they expecting some neat or pat resolution. Instead we’re left to focus on the relationships, namely that of David and Joanne. It’s hinted in one touching scene that his coming out wasn’t smooth, and it’s clear that Norman still cannot seem to accept having a gay son (in one sad scene, he’d rather wait outside on a dark New York street than go inside David’s apartment which he shares with Paul). Though, this isn’t a gay coming-of-age story. Instead, it’s a touching, tiny, indie dramedy that left viewers gasping for breath from laughing and crying.

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