Amy Schumer makes an appealing debut in a solidly entertaining ‘SNL’

Miley Cyrus Bumper PhotosIt’s not enough to say that Amy Schumer is having a banner year. The past few years have been good for the comic, who recently won an Emmy and a Peabody for her Comedy Central sketch show Inside Amy Schumer, and had a big fat movie hit with Trainwreck. On top of all this is a reported multi-million dollar book deal. She’s got it made. So her decision to host Saturday Night Live is interesting because, if we’re being honest, Schumer has surpassed the venerable show as a major and influential comic force. It feels a bit backward that a singular and distinct voice like Schumer gets shoehorned into a tightly-controlled environment that is run by Lorne Michaels. SNL has a complicated history when having stand-ups hosting its show – usually, the comic will kill it during the monologue, but then be inserted into blandly amusing skits that fail to tax her comedic muscles. While there was some of that with last Saturday’s episode of SNL, for the most part, it felt as if the show did its best to adapt itself to Schumer’s brand of comedy.

The show opened with a political skit – a goof on Fox & Friends. The topic being the GOP’s crisis of leadership after Kevin McCarthy suddenly dropped out of consideration for speaker. The sketch was okay – Taran Killam, Bobby Moynihan, and Vanessa Bayer are all pros and were able to enliven the toothless material – Moynihan was especially funny as the gleefully clueless Brian Kilmeade. The only time there was any real bite in the sketch was when cast MVP Kate McKinnon popped up as Debbie Wasserman Schultz. As usual, McKinnon outclassed her material, but there was little critique and social commentary – all it amounted to was Wasserman Schultz being pissed about the efforts to defund Planned Parenthood.

Once that sketch was over, we had Schumer’s monologue, which was predictably excellent. She ran over a few topics, including a ridiculous take on how it’s an exciting time for women in Hollywood, as well as, describing in detail, her attempts at washing her infant niece. The monologue featured some of Schumer’s patented brand of self-deprecating humor, and she easily nailed it. Unfortunately, the monologue was also the highlight of the show – a shame because after the cold open it’s the first part of the show.

That doesn’t mean the rest of the show wasn’t good. Far from it – it was a solid, enjoyable entry, that was enlivened by the presence of its host. Schumer’s stamp is felt throughout the night, most notably in the amount of raunch on the show, as well as, the pointed jabs at gun rights. For Schumer, gun control is personal because of tragic shooting in Lafayette, Louisiana, during a screening of her film Trainwreck. For a show so reluctant to take on anything controversial or trenchant, it was heartening to see the writers willing to take on such a thorny and topical subject.

Best Sketches of the Evening

Technically not a sketch, but the monologue killed, and it showed why Schumer crushed when it comes to stand-up. The best sketch of the evening, wasn’t live – it was the faux commercial extolling the virtue of guns. As with most of its fake commercials, SNL spares no expense in producing these beautifully-made videos.

And it was substantial, which is always nice. Poking fun at our nation’s obsession with guns as well as our absurdly lax gun laws is a great way for Schumer to make her mark during the show. It’s a funny sketch that has the various cast members and Schumer play adults who cannot approach the hardships of life without their guns, but there’s a poignancy to the comedy, in light of the recent mass shootings.


The Porn Teacher sketch was another home run, with Schumer and Kyle Mooney playing wonderfully off each other as a couple of porn stars doing a hot for teacher skin flick. Their “work” keeps being interrupted by the thoughtful questions of a excessively conscientious student (Aidy Byrant) and her equally clueless mom (Bayer), both of whom don’t understand that they are on a porn set. There’s something wonderfully simple about the premise and Mooney has perfected bad acting.

The Ford’s Theatre sketch divided viewers but I really liked it. In it, Schumer played a boorish actress playing Mary Todd Lincoln. Not content to just stick with the script, Schumer’s character improvises, interrupting the fatal evening at Ford’s Theatre, repeatedly socking John Wilkes Booth in the face and accusing him of wanting to have sex with her. It’s a repetitive sketch, to be sure, but Schumer’s all in, and it’s a joy to see her so expansive and broad in her performance.

Weekend Update still kinda sucks, though Che is holding on to his dignity (Colin Jost, on the other hand…well, never mind). The Weekend Update has merely become a showcase for the performers to trot out their characters as correspondence (or to feature bits from various stand-up acts). Jay Pharaoh, a master mimic and little else, comes up with an excruciating character, Solomon, an alleged travel expert, who never completed his assignment. I didn’t understand the point of it. But, McKinnon returned as Mrs. Santini, the most passive aggressive neighbor lady. McKinnon manages to make even the most meager offerings hilarious with her total commitment to performance. Mrs. Santini is a one-note character – a lady who writes mean notes to her noisy neighbors, but it’s McKinnons simmering portrayal of a cussed woman whose whole life is devoted to harsh on others, that makes it worth watching.


The City Council Meeting sketch ran like a weird outtake from Parks and Recreation (that would’ve been a great way to insert an Amy Poehler cameo – plus, I’m jonesing for a Leslie Knope fix). Schumer brought in her Amy Merryweather Sherman character from Inside Amy Schumer. The character is a hyperactive 6-year-old baby beauty queen, who espouses rabid right wing political points of view. While Leslie Jones, Kyle Mooney, and Kenan Thompson all did okay playing variations on kooky townsfolks, Schumer’s weird and disturbing Amy Merryweather stole the show.

The Baby Shower sketch was a typical late-in-the-show sketch that featured all of the ladies of SNL. The idea was the women were gathering together for a baby shower and Cecily Strong brought her friend, played by Schumer. Unlike the other women, Schumer’s character is loud, obnoxious and inappropriate, quickly escalating a minor moment of Strong’s purse being mislaid, to an all-out confrontation, as she accused the other party goers of stealing the purse (Strong did well with her crying). It’s a so-so sketch, typical for its time slot, and though not particularly well-written, it was well performed.

The Worst Sketches of the Evening

The Amy Schumer episode was one without a real dud, though the Hands-Free Selfie Stick and the Delta Airlines sketch both were a little blah.

The former, another fake commercial, poked fun (pun intended), at the selfie stick fad, buy having people insert the handle of the selfie stick up their butts. It’s not the highest form of comedy – but this kind of juvenile humor is often quite popular among SNL fans.

The Delta Airlines sketch was one that felt somewhat bland and anonymous, without taking full advantage of Schumer. In the sketch she and Bayer are flight attendants, who during their entertaining the passengers schtick, keep getting sucked out of a loose door. Taran Killam shows up and does another one of his hysterical queen roles (the guy’s slowly inching toward offensive). Bayer and Schumer do good work as the women who survived near death, but the sketch ran too long, didn’t have much of a point, and felt it had no ending.


I’m a fan of The Weekend and enjoyed his Prince-Michael Jackson inspired act, and was pleasantly surprised by Nicki Minaj’s appearance during “Hills” (she did great, btw).

Some random thoughts:

  • Schumer’s performances prove that the show should lean toward comedians when looking for hosts – stand-ups or comedic actors
  • Though McKinnon is the best of the bunch, Bayer is catching up to her.
  • Leslie Jones who made a stronger impression last episode, was relegated to minor appearances this week. A shame. I like Leslie Jones a lot.
  • The Weekend Update sketch should be revamped stat. Get rid of Jost and pair Che with Strong.
  • Though she starred in Porn Teacher, I would’ve loved to see what Schumer would’ve done with Strong and Bayer in the ex-porn stars sketch.


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‘I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story’ – a review

I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney StoryI Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story is an affecting documentary that tells the story of the man responsible for two of Sesame Street‘s most popular characters: Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch. The popularity of the characters rested on Spinney’s ability to create three-dimensional personalities that spoke to children’s feelings of confusion, insecurity, curiosity, and displeasure. Big Bird especially launched Spinney’s career and turned him into a folk hero among puppeteers. The documentary shows the beginnings of these characters and how Spinney was able to flesh them out into recognizable icons of children’s entertainment. The film also goes into Spinney’s life, which was marked by abuse, bullying, and contemplation of suicide. Though a generally enjoyable film, I Am Big Bird is also a very sad one.

Like many artists – particularly artists who work with children – Spinney’s childhood was wretched. Though gifted with a supportive and wonderful mother, his father was an abusive tyrant. His interest in puppets from a young age made him a target for schoolyard bullies who taunted him. His adulthood wasn’t that much better: an emotionally abusive first marriage almost drove the man to suicide. All of this context makes watching Sesame Street all the more poignant, especially when looking at Big Bird, arguably Spinney’s greatest creation.

What makes Big Bird so relatable is that he’s an everychild. Children learn about the harshness of the world and all of its confusion through Big Bird’s perspective. The show is able to impart some important life lessons using the 8-foot tall Muppet, by addressing important issues, but unpacking them as a child would. It’s important to note, that never does Big Bird talk down to children – one of the greatest things about Sesame Street is that it assumes the audience is bright and intelligent. Spinney, along with the group of gifted writers, has created an instrument for children to process the world around them.

In I Am Big Bird, the audiences see some of that building of character. We see early incarnations of Big Bird that make him almost unrecognizable. We also see the tedious and physical work Spinney has to do to be Big Bird – this includes strapping on a tiny monitor, putting on the suit, and keeping his arm raised over his head to operate Big Bird’s beak and head. A marvel of graceful aging, at over 80, Spinney is still doing a lot of the work (though some of it is supplemented by “apprentice” Matt Vogel). All of this minutia and details is interesting because it shows just how committed Spinney is to his craft.

And though the bulk of the film is focused on Spinney, the film also looks at the iconography of Big Bird and how that changed Spinney’s life. Before the rambunctious red-furred Elmo, Big Bird was Sesame Street. There is archival footage of Big Bird touring the country and performing at state fairs, opera houses, and theaters. The human cast of Sesame Street also add some valuable insight to the popularity of Big Bird, and attest to the cultural phenomenon Big Bird became. The actors – including Bob McGrath, Emilio Delgado, and Loretta Long – all offer fun and sentimental memories of going on the road with Big Bird. They also join the chorus of folks who sing the praises of Spinney, who not only is a great artist, but a very popular guy to work with.

Because of its subject matter, some may want to watch I Am Big Bird with their children. I’d caution those folks, because as lovely and as wonderful as the film is, it’s also very sad. It feels like every passage in the film somehow slips into a tear-jerking moment. Because Spinney’s life was so difficult, his vulnerability imbues the film almost as much as it did his characters. We watch as Spinney struggles with depression, or when he butts heads with directors, or when he mourns the passing of his dear friend Jim Henson. In one particularly harrowing sequence, Spinney describes an awful moment when during one of his appearances as Big Bird, he left the costume with a group of ROTC cadets during a lunch break, only to discover that the kids maimed, plucked, and destroyed his beloved alter ego (he went so far as to compare it to a rape of a child – an assertion that the filmmakers should have questioned and pushed but didn’t). The memory brought fresh tears to his eyes.

The film moves toward a conclusion that leads with Big Bird’s gradual descent in popularity. To attract younger viewers and to keep up with changing TV viewership, Sesame Street shifted its focus and tweaked its format, highlighting Elmo at the expense of Big Bird. These slights cannot be easy for a man as committed to his work as Spinney, and some of the cast members sympathize with the man – McGrath, who has also been steadily marginalized, likened his late work on the show as a hobby – and it’s clear that the film is leading its viewers to Spinney’s eventual retirement. It’s heartening to see that despite his age, Spinney seems remarkably spry, and still willing to do the physical work of being Big Bird.

Though there are some ugly moments in I Am Big Bird, the film works as a loving, respectful tribute to a man whose vision and talent has inspired, enlightened, and entertained millions of children for generations.

Click here to buy I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story on


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Janet Jackson makes a solid comeback with ‘Unbreakable’

Once upon a time Janet Jackson was the mightiest pop star there ever was. In the heady days of the late 80s and early 90s, she ruled the pop charts with an iron fist. She always seemed just shy of usurping the thrones of brother Michael and Madonna, but few artists can claim the kind of consistency that Jackson enjoyed during her salad days – a thrilling, seemingly unending list of top ten hit singles and multi-platinum album smash after multi-platinum album smash. But by the 2010s, Jackson’s schtick got tired, and she was overshadowed by Britney, Rihanna, and Taylor. People stopped buying her records and it looked like Janet Jackson, Pop Star was no longer.

But Unbreakable – the pop diva’s 11th studio effort and her first on her own independent label (yup, these are the times when megastars like Jackson have become indie artists) – works to break up the string of failures Jackson racked up since the underwhelming Damita Jo (2004), which was followed by the equally unsuccessful 20 Y.O. two years later, and the final, aforementioned Discipline (2008) which closes out the most uninspiring trilogy in pop music. Unbreakable is the kind of record Michael Jackson would’ve made late in his career – a record made by an artist with something to prove. Janet Jackson has a lot to prove – namely that she still has the pop chops.

And for the most part, Unbreakable works as a fitting and appropriate comeback for an artist that has been absent for far too long. Jackson seems to have learned her lesson from the failures of her previous albums, because the mistakes that she committed on those releases are thankfully MIA on Unbreakable. The most startling change is Jackson’s subject matter. Since 1993, Jackson has been preoccupied by all things carnal. Though janet. (1993) and The Velvet Rope (1997) were highly sexually-charged albums, the music was brilliant and the lyrics reflected a woman finding herself sexually and enjoying her growth as a sexual being. Unfortunately, she quickly confused sexuality with crassness and her subsequent releases often felt smutty and one-note. On Unbreakable, Jackson jettisons the sex talk (for the most part) to take on other issues: namely, aging, her place in pop music, social justice, and love. It’s the kind of record Janet fans have been salivating for – the kind of record we were waiting for.

Reteaming with her musical kindred spirits Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Jackson has put together a strong, solid set of tunes that showcase a satisfyingly mature and developing artist. She opens the album with the title track, an anthematic R&B – joyfully retro number, which pays tribute to Jackson’s longtime fans.  “Burnitup!” is a fantastic dance song that reunited the singer with Missy Elliott, another music legend that has been gone for too long. The song is sounds like classic Janet Jackson, and Elliott shows that her hiatus hasn’t slowed down her rhyming skills. “Dammn Baby” is a wonderful slice of Minneapolis funk that recalls Jackson’s Control days. “The Great Forever” is a swinging number with a chugging beat and catchy hook.

In fact, all of the songs are catchy – which just goes to show just how Jackson’s talent for pop hooks is evergreen. Because she’s working with such disciplined producers like Jam and Lewis, the songs are immaculately crafted. So that even a by-the-numbers tune like “Shoulda Known Better” – an EDM banger – is still a faultless piece of filler pop.

But looking back at Jackson’s work, what was best was when she and her producers took risks with her sound. In the past, she played with disparate musical styles like jazz, opera, rock, and house. On Unbreakable, the songs reflect that kind of sonic ambition and diversity. The album’s brightest spot is one of the most uncharacteristic numbers, “Gon’ B Alright,” a swirling, rollicking number that would do Sly & The Family Stone or James Brown proud. It’s a tight-fisted, rocking funk n roll number with Jackson belting in an appealing lower register.

Speaking of Jackson’s vocals – on all of her albums, Jackson’s voice has been a point of contention. She’s got a good voice – a pretty, sweet croon. But it’s wafer thin and very airy. On the dance numbers, it’s fine because her producers create wall-to-wall Janet Jackson vocals – layering what feels like thousands of Janet Jacksons to give her slip of a voice much needed oomph. Unfortunately, on her ballads, Jackson’s limitations as a vocalist are amplified – often her voice is magnified so much that it takes on an almost surreal, synthetic feel – this is true with the piano ballad “After You Fall,” which feels as if Jackson had a microphone surgically inserted into her throat. Also, the album’s lead single “No Sleeep” feels, well, sleepy – with Jackson’s vocals sounding indecipherable and indistinct over the pillowy synths. In fact, because Unbreakable‘s sequencing often groups the slower numbers together, the energy of the record dips at times, making the ballads bleed into each other.

But these are minor quibbles, because Unbreakable is remarkable in the savvy way in which it alludes to a wide variety of styles in popular music. Most modern pop albums work as vehicles for a clutch of hit singles. Jackson’s beyond that now. And because she’s no longer beholden to a fat, multi-million dollar record deal, she can experiment a little more, indulging in an artier, riskier direction. That isn’t to say that Jackson and company aren’t trying to craft her next hit single – but the desperation that stunk up Damita Jo, 20 Y.O., and Discipline is gone now. Instead, the Jackson of Unbreakable is calm, steady, and confident.

Click here to buy Janet Jackson’s Unbreakable on

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‘Emma Approved’ is a delightful entry in the Austen filmography

Emma ApprovedBernie Su found success creating The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, the wonderful Web series based on Jane Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice. In expertly transporting Austen’s Regency tale of love and marriage into the 21st Century, Su was able to bring out how timeless some of Austen’s themes and concerns are. In Emma Approved, Su once again finds Austen’s work easily adaptable to the digital age. Like Amy Herkerling’s Clueless (1995), Emma Approved is an adroit and canny update of Austen’s classic novel, and stands proudly alongside the more traditional adaptations of the BBC or PBS.

In a nutshell, Emma is about a headstrong, stubborn, and beautiful young woman who fancies herself a master matchmaker. Unfortunately, she blunders terribly when trying to play cupid, and eventually she learns her lesson. In Emma Approved, Su and company take Emma Wodehouse and make her an entrepreneur – a smart choice because it only makes sense that a 21st Century Emma Wodehouse would work for a living. She runs a lifestyle company – a sort of comprehensive service provider that fixes relationships and plans events (I’m thinking it was inspired by Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop). The books male lead, Mr. Knightly, is transformed from Emma Wodehouse’s kind, yet stern brother-in-law, to Emma’s kind, yet stern business partner. Harriet Smith, the young naive protegee Emma takes under her wing is changed from an illegitimate orphan into a hyper-competent, yet still naive executive assistant. For the most part, these changes are seamless, and work well within the narrative, which closely follows the original story.

Emma Approved tells the story of Emma (Joanna Sotomura, charming and lovely), bright and ambitious young woman who has a very high opinion of herself. Emma thinks she knows best when it comes to love and does not shy away from manipulating those around her to suit her needs and wants. Her business partner Alex (Brent Bailey), tries to keep a semblance of decorum and control over Emma’s machinations, but proves to be unequal to Emma’s ambition and ego. Like Emma, there’s no large overarching plot to Emma Approved (which is what many people complained about with Emma), but that’s okay, because in tiny, five-minute episodes, it’s okay that the story tends to feel chopped up and episodic. Emma Approved moves from one small story to another – all held together by the string of Emma’s meddling and how it affects the lives of those she loves best.

And while Emma Approved is successful as a whole, it does show some minor limits to its genre. As with The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, Emma Approved is shown in tiny, bite-sized Web episodes. The conceit is that Emma is recording her business transactions and her successes in hopes of putting together a successful documentary. This format doesn’t always work, especially in the more dramatic moments when we’re supposed to believe that Emma is fighting with her friends on camera. It’s difficult to buy that the more personal and difficult arguments would be filmed, and that the characters would agree to have their wrenching moments recorded. Also, the actors are too careful to cheat to the camera, even when in conflict which intrudes a bit on the reality of the show.

And though the characters’ transitions from 1810’s England to 2010’s America is for the most part well done, a few of the choices seemed iffy. I’m thrilled that Jane Fairfax and Miss Bates were written as African-American. I’m not so thrilled that Miss Bates was transformed from a silly sad sack to a jovial collection of sassy black lady cliches. The other nods to multiculturalism in the program work – it’s unforced and reflect the diverse viewing audience that would watch Emma Approved.

But really, the show could’ve had the best ingredients and still failed if it didn’t have the right Emma. Luckily Sotomura is more than up to the challenge. Emma is one of Austen’s trickier characters because so much of her behavior is so wildly unlikable, that it’s difficult to create a story around such a potentially unsympathetic character. Emma is mule-headed, strong-willed, egotistical, and single-minded. She’s also kind, loving, and deeply compassionate. It’s difficult to meld such disparate characteristics into one cohesive character, and often adaptations of Emma reduce the character into an entitled spoiled brat. Thankfully, Su and Sotomura do so much more with her. We still get the reckless abandon and reaching ambition, but we also understand that Emma’s schemes had good intentions. She really wants her friends to be happy. In that respect, Sotomura’s interpretation of Emma reminded me a bit of Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation. Like Leslie, Emma doesn’t shirk away from a challenge, no matter how daunting it may be; and like Leslie, Amy often will steamroll over anyone who stands in her way, including those she loves most. What makes Sotomura’s performance so right is that she deftly combines the steely pragmatist with the dewy romantic. She’s also a strong comedienne with great timing, and easily anchors the show with a winning performance. Casting directors take note: Joanna Sotomura is a major talent.

Hopefully, purists won’t turn their noses up at Emma Approved because of its unconventional approach to taking on such a canonized classic. What Bernie Su does is make the case that Austen is as relevant now as any other contemporary author. Her sharp satirical takes on society, class, and gender still apply today. And though, Austen’s point of view sometimes veers to close to conservatism (her heroines get married, and class differences matter), her pointed critiques on love, romance, and gender all work for contemporary audiences. Hopefully, after watching Emma Approved, some of the show’s younger audiences will be more compelled to go to the library and borrow a copy of the real thing.


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‘The View’ celebrates its 19th season with a rocky start – can the show fix itself

It’s clear after watching the season premier of the 19th season of The View that the show’s slide that began late in season 17 doesn’t look like it’s letting up. The episode opened with a new panel – Goldberg returns from last season, now in her 8th year as the show’s moderator; Joy Behar returns after a two year absence; Raven-Symone and Michelle Collins, both additions from last season are back; and the two newbies are journalist Paula Faris and former TV child star Candace Cameron Bure.

The show’s 19th season got off to a rocky start as each host showed her weakness, particularly the younger panelists. Surprisingly enough, it’s Behar who comes off best. The reason why Behar works so well is because she’s smart and funny, but there’s part of her that seems like she’d rather be somewhere else, which is funny and refreshing. It’s no surprise that Fred Armisen’s send up of Behar has him twitching nervously and muttering “Who cares?” Because that’s Behar’s essence. She’s not trying hard to be liked, nor does she want to sound provocative or controversial. She’s had over 15 years on The View to establish her persona as the liberal cutup, so she doesn’t seem desperate to make her mark.

Goldberg, the other View vet, seems to be unraveling. What’s fascinating about Goldberg is that The View shows off the Oscar-winning comedienne at both her best and her worst. At her best, Goldberg is insightful, intelligent, fearless, and thought-provoking. At her worst, she’s self-important, confusing, and garbled. It’s clear that as a performer, Goldberg is an important and vital social critic – when she has her patter scripted and memorized, there are few like her. But when it’s time for her to react off-the-cuff, she has as much of a chance of saying something absurd as she does, saying something profound. When Robin Williams died, Goldberg hosted a masterful hour in his honor; when Bill Cosby’s rape allegations were discussed, Goldberg failed miserably. The loose setting often will prompt a remark from the comedy legend that would have been edited out if she were producing a concert film.

Still, both Goldberg and Behar have gravitas to even transcend some of their bumpier moments. The same can’t be said for the other women climbing on this sinking ship. Of the younguns, Bure seems to be best choice. It’s no secret that Elisabeth Hasselbeck was a big part of why people loved The View: some agreed with her opinions, while others enjoyed seeing her publicly owned by the other panelists or a liberal guest. When Hasselbeck left, her slot was filled by Nicole Wallace, who was mostly known for helping run a doomed presidential campaign. She was an ill fit immediately, as she seemed indifferent to the show’s lighter segments, and unwilling to be goaded into a fight during the heavier moments. Simply put, Wallace was too brainy and moderate for a show like The View that thrives on conflict.

Bure seems like a perfect replacement for Wallace and Hasselbeck. Like Hasselbeck, she’s a beautiful mom, whose gorgeous and has an appealing demeanor. This may sound sexist, but it’s not – television personalities often rely on the visual, and Bure fits in well with the female conservative pundit role. And as seen by her few appearances last season, she’s willing to speak her mind, even if it meant offending her fellow panelists, as proven when she defended the rights of the Oregon bakers to discriminate against a lesbian couple. Raven-Symone literally pouted and fumed on camera, glowering as Bure offered a defense of “religious freedom.” Tellingly enough, it was one of the few times that The View was in the news, and it wasn’t about the hemorrhaging ratings.

While Bure seems like a good fit for the show, Collins doesn’t. Which is a shame because Michelle Collins is a talented comic, but her voice does not mesh well with the show, and she comes off as unfunny – which is a joke, because when she’s “on,” Collins is a real talent. Part of the issue is that Collins was hired as a stand-in for Behar – the funny, comic voice of reason. The problem is, she doesn’t keep abreast of the issues as much as Behar, and her schtick doesn’t translate as well to a panel discussion as Behar’s does; her one-liners sometimes work, but often they fall flat, leaving the hosts scrambling to fill the silence they expected would be filled with laughter and applause. She’s also unsure when to inject a zinger and when to simply discuss, which makes things awkward, as proven during a Kim Davis discussion, during which Collins went after Davis’ looks (thankfully, Behar quickly moved on from that poor-judged quip by insisting that Davis “looks fine”).

And finally Paula Faris. The View always has a “real” journalist to bump up its cred. In the past Meredith Viera, Lisa Ling, and, of course Barbara Walters, all sat at the table, giving the show a sheen of professionalism. Though Ling and Viera are accomplished journalists, well-regarded in their fields, this slot is a bit of a joke, because in one episode the women will discuss the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell or the Ebola outbreak in Africa, and then in another segment they’ll hash out the latest tweet from Kanye West, or discuss whether Kris Jenner is a good mom. It’s this schizophrenic approach to programming that often sinks the show because the individual panel members’ interest and knowledge of the subject veer wildly. In the last season, poor Wallace was left out in confusion land when the Kardashians were discussed, but then Collins looks mystified when Obama’s Iran deal is brought up.

At the end of the episode, there was a sad defiance to the way the women sat together, facing bravely another season of what will probably be lower ratings. In The View‘s wake, we’ve seen short-lived imitators (remember the all-male The Other Half) as well as successful Xerox copies (The Talk and The Real are both regularly beating The View in key targeted demographics). When Barbara Walters first cooked up this coffee klatch back 1997, it was to correct the imbalance she saw in current affairs programming. Women are rarely seen on television, and even it’s even rarer to see women discuss political issues, without some guy jumping in to mansplain. That’s why shows like The View serve a purpose. Unfortunately, the gist of the show got away when it became tabloid fodder.

So, is it curtains for The View? Or can the show survive and reinvent itself? Well, it’s unclear what kind of future the show has, but there are some things that it can do in the meantime.

  1. Get rid of the fluff pieces – no one cares. The Hot Topics segments are always a mixed bag. Sometimes the women discuss meaningful topical issues like trans rights or Islamophobia. When Rosie O’Donnell took over as moderator back in season 10, she successfully reinvented the show as a watering hole for politically conscious viewers. She was able to destroy the condescending cliche that housewives were more interested in household products than politics. Even though O’Donnell’s tenure on the show was brief, it had some of the most interesting conversations in the show’s 19-year history.
  2. Get a smart conservative. The jury is still out on Bure. But in the past, The View has been really spotty on getting a consistent conservative point of view. Wallace was one, but she also looked bored most of the time. The ideal would be the enthusiasm of Hasselbeck with the chops of Wallace. Also, it’s important that The View picks conservatives who are nice. In the past Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin, and Star Parker have guested, and they are so unpleasant and hateful, that it leaves a bad taste in viewers’ mouths. One needn’t be a raging bigot to be a conservative, and The View has unfortunately contributed to that stereotype by its limited representation of thoughtful, kind conservatives.
  3. Get more comics – but smart ones. At one point in the show’s history, all of the regular panelists were comedians, with the exception of Walters: in the show’s lean 17th season, Goldberg shared the table with Sherri Shepherd and Jenny McCarthy. Unfortunately, this mix didn’t work because both McCarthy and Shepherd were more often than not, making some very questionable comments, and McCarthy’s anti-vaccination crusade seemed off-putting. But overall, the show works better when it’s smart funny women gabbing. Roseanne Barr, Kathy Griffin, Fran Drescher, and Wanda Sykes have all made appearances on the show, elevating the conversations and making the show funnier.
  4. Stop with the revolving door of hosts – it looks bad. Just as any company with high turnover looks unstable, the show’s penchant for shedding hosts makes it look troubled. Goldberg made a funny quip at the start of the 19th season about the mugs, which unlike the mugs in the past, did not feature pictures of the panelists, probably because it got expensive changing them around (“What are we gonna do with all these Debbie Matenopoulos mugs???”) but it’s a telling joke, because the musical chairs that The View is playing is making Destiny’s Child seem consistent by comparison.


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My favorite episode – ‘Frasier’ – “Fathers and Sons”

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.

TV land is littered with the carcasses of failed spin-offs. What can seem like a good idea at the time – hey, let’s give this break out character her own show! – often ends up being embarrassing (three words: Joanie Loves Chachi). But sometimes spin-offs work – for every Joey, there’s an Angel. What makes a spin-off work is being able to draw a supporting character out, and make her interesting enough to be a central figure, and it means giving her more to do. Often break-out characters are popular because they spout some crazy catch phrase, or because they’re wacky – in small doses that can be tolerable, even enjoyable, but trying to create a whole vehicle around a catch phrase is difficult.

That’s what makes Frasier so special. It took an important supporting character from an iconic show (Cheers), and successfully created a new ensemble around him. Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer) was the pompous, amorous barfly psychologist on Cheers, who acted as a romantic foil for Shelly Long’s Diane Chambers, and initially the character seemed more barbed. What the creators of Frasier did was fit Frasier into a French farce style sitcom. The character became more sympathetic and three-dimensional, and much kinder in the spin-off. The show also heightened his hauteur by matching it with the sophisticated, sparking tone of the writing. Cheers celebrated the dignity of working class people, while Frasier reveled in the absurdity of the upper class. Like Cheers, Frasier was a dynamic ensemble show, featuring a cast of incredible comedians – first among equals is David Hyde Pierce as Frasier’s younger brother, Niles, also a psychologist; John Mahoney played crotchety pop Martin, who is permanently disabled by a bullet to the him; Jane Leeves is Martin’s physical therapist, Daphne, who caught Niles’ eye, and the two characters engaged in a will they/won’t they tango for about 9 of the show’s seasons, mirroring Cheers‘ Sam and Diane story lines; and Fraiser has a work buddy, Roz Doyle (Peri Gilpin), a sexually liberated cut up who’s on hand to puncture any of Frasier’s inflated ego.

“Fathers and Sons” is a late episode – it’s near the end of the 10’s season (the show’s penultimate season). In the 10th season, Daphne and Niles are adjusting to married life, while Frasier is still trying to find Ms. Right. The episode is important because it provides some backstory into Martin’s marriage to Frasier’s mom, forensic psychologist, Hester (sometimes played in flashbacks by Rita Wilson). In the first season, Martin reveals that Hester cheated on him – the infidelity wasn’t mentioned again until “Fathers and Sons,”when her old friend, Leland Barton (M*A*S*H‘s David Ogden Stiers) comes to visit. Leland was Hester’s research assistant, and the two were extremely close.

During Leland’s visit, Roz can’t help but note just how similar his mannerisms are to Frasier’s and Niles’. This plot device is a perfect way to goose up the prissiness of the main characters – David Hyde Pierce is especially wonderful and the physical comedy. The Crane boys and Leland share a love of opera, art, sherry – all the finer things in life that Martin looks at with disdain (he’s never happier than basking in his recliner). Up until this episode, we’re meant to understand that Frasier and Niles got their high-minded thoughts and behaviors from the intellectual Hester, but Roz is startled at the similarities and stupidly shares her suspicions with Martin.

At this point, the show becomes classic farce – a comedy of errors that Frasier is so well-known for. Martin is nursing his deep fears that he may not be the biological father to his boys, and must watch as every tiny glimpse of commonality between Leland and the Crane boys is amplified. At one point, Martin comes in at night to see an ailing Frasier tucked in bed, being red to by Leland, and later on he sees Niles toddling over to Leland’s outstretched arms like a baby learning his first steps. The twist is that Leland was reading excerpts of his memoirs to Frasier, and Niles was struggling to straighten out his cramping legs. The show reveled in this kind of mistaken comedy – though some may compare it to the kind of goings on that took place on Three’s Company, there’s something appealing about the frantic, misplaced comedy of Frasier.

But more importantly, the episode showed that Martin Crane really loved his sons. Too many times during the show, Martin’s macho demeanor meant he couldn’t open up to his sons in a meaningful way. By the 10th season, though, the characters’ differences mellowed out, and a cohesive, oft-harmonious concert too place every week. Things were never perfect, and Martin’s more humble interests always unnerved Frasier, but the closeness was apparent. In “Fathers and Sons,” Martin is faced with the possibility that maybe his sons aren’t his – but then Roz asks the perfect question: would he love them any less if they weren’t his biological sons. “Of course, I wouldn’t,” he immediately answers (though a few seconds later, he consents that maybe he would – but I always take this as Martin’s curmudgeon sense of humor, always on, even in times of family crisis).

I liked that Frasier took a potentially devastating story and told it through a distinctly Frasierian-like manner. Lots of effete comedy with sentiment folded in. In this episode, Grammer and Pierce are stellar, but it’s Mahoney who’s the MVP, being able to play Martin’s edgy, panicked nervousness brilliantly. His wide-mouthed takes are great, and I loved when Martin tried to join Frasier, Niles, and Leland in a rousing rendition of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Major -General’s Song,” by desperately bellowing “With many cheerful facts about the scary hippopotamus,” while the others warbled, “with many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse.”

As raucous and fun as the episode is, it deals with some heavy subjects: namely infidelity. Martin adores his wife and idealizes her despite their history (he even blames himself for the affair), and is wounded that her memory is, yet again tainted. It’s hard enough for him to reconcile her affair with his memories of her, if what Roz guesses is true, then Hester not only cheated on Martin, once but twice – and took her secret to her grave. As Leland leaves for the airport, Martin confronts the man he suspects was Hester’s paramour – Leland admits that he loved Hester very much, to which Martin hesitantly asks, “how much.” Leland replies, “Enough to trust her with the fact that I’m gay.” Mahoney, yet again, does wonders – in just a few seconds, he manages to convey surprise, relief, happiness, and regret. Because Martin realized how unfair he was to Leland and his friendship to Hester, he generously reminded him that she loved him too. The two part on good terms, and Martin is reassured that the Crane boys are his.

“Fathers and Sons” came at a point in Fraiser‘s history when the show started to wind down. There was a sense of closing doors at this point, and it’s only fitting that the shows – despite all being very funny – also included moments of gravity and tenderness. Martin loves his sons – though he’s rarely demonstrative, until he’s unsure of his paternity, and then he’s all over them, slapping their backs, and enthusing about “his boys, his boys.” Roz’s question earlier in the episode about Martin’s fear – “Would you love them any less?” is interesting because so much of Cheers was about building a family unit of friends and/or coworkers. But with Frasier, the family unit is comprised of  blood relatives (Fraiser, Niles, Martin), spouses (Daphne), and close friends (Roz). So for Roz to bring up “what makes a real family” is interesting because those two characters in particular have created a familial bond with each other that initially was dependent only on their connection with Frasier, but later grew to a love for each other that was independent from him. What makes the episode feel safe is that even if a strange Maury-style twist occurred at the end, in which Martin was deemed “not the father,” I know that he’d still love “his boys” regardless.

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Reading while in grad school

After a good summer, I’m back in school. I’m about halfway through my MFA studies, and am enjoying the process, so far. A good thing about summer is the chance to get through the stacks of books I’ve compiled throughout the school year (though honestly, my pile is perennially high).

A few weeks ago, I just finished re-reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice for the millionth time (I’ve read it so many times, that I anticipate some of the sparkling dialogue). Since I’m on a Jane Austen kick of a bit, I’m currently working my way through Sense and Sensibility. It’s my third favorite of Austen’s works (Emma is my favorite – and I can’t wait to start on that).

During the summer I also read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, which was brilliant. Because it was reportedly based on James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, I picked up Baldwin’s work, as well just to draw the parallels. I was lucky enough to attend one of Coates’ talks about reparations and the Great Migration. Fantastic.

Anyways, back to reading when in grad school. I’m in two classes this term, a fiction writing workshop and an internship of a literary magazine. In the former, we’ve got a decent list of books on the syllabus, including Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, which is what was assigned first. I’m about halfway through the book – a collection of short stories. The reviews have been great, but so far, I’ve yet to become really involved and/or attached to Johnson’s work. The literary magazine has us reading 20 short stories, plus some publishing articles in the first week. Whew.

Given the work load, one would assume that I would put off reading other books for now, but I’m looking to start reading Sonia Manzano’s Becoming Maria as well as Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. But Jimmy Carter’s new book, A Full Life is also beckoning me.

I don’t know, sometimes I wish my mind was like that grid from the opening credits of The Brady Bunch. I’d love for each segregated section of my mind to be wholly independent from another, that way I could read 9 different books and not get confused.

On top of everything, I also make it a semi-official policy to read books by professors whose classes I’m taking. I just got a copy of my professor’s book last night, and am looking to read it as well.

For the past few weeks, I lost my Kindle, and just found it last night under my bed, underneath a pile of books. I had to clear the books out of my way, like rubble, to unearth the Kindle (the battery was depleted at that point). I was excited because a shit ton of books were stored, and I wanted to get to them.

I love to read – though it’s weird to say I’m well-read (it feels pretentious to stay so, especially since most of what I read is, well, crap). For many who aren’t English majors (or writing majors), they think that English majors are 24/7 happy because we do what we love all the time – after all, our homework is what we do for a hobby. I admit, I felt that way about theater students (until I took theater classes in a brief, misguided moment when I wanted to be a comedian). But I do a different kind of reading when I’m in “grad student mode,” versus just “me” mode. I admit that years of college has destroyed my ability of reading or watching anything without trying to deconstruct it in some way, but still, when I’m reading for myself, I stick with books and subjects that I know will appeal to me.

Jesus’ Son is a collection of stories, and so far they all feature strong violence and disaffected characters. Johnson’s writing is excellent and he’s a great story teller, but I’m drawn to writers who look at the world in a funny light. I’m going to have to read Jesus’ Son a few times so that I can participate in the discussions in class (a big part of my grade).

I’ll leave reviews of Sense and Sensibility as well as Jesus’ Son soon.

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