Category Archives: TV

Liberals and the very real dangers of echo chambers

Kathy Griffin and Tyler Shields collaborated on a truly horrendous piece of work which depicted the comedienne holding the president’s decapitated head. It was disgusting, offensive, and stupid. Griffin quickly felt backlash not only from conservatives, but from liberals – including her fellow comics – and promptly apologized and took down the photograph. CNN slammed the photo and is considering firing her from its annual New Years television coverage. Griffin posted a contrite video, in which she admitted she went too far and appears chastised.

This story is depressing for a lot of reasons – one, I was always a fan and follower of Kathy Griffin’s, and enjoyed her specials, books, CDs, and her excellent reality show. I think that she’s smart and cutting and very witty. Which is why I’m still trying to figure out just what the hell was she thinking.

But Griffin’s act exposed something ugly in our culture that needs to be addressed: the dehumanization of public figures. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both dealt with the kind of ugly hate that Griffin and Shields exhibited with their work – both have been the subject of burning effigies, and in the context of this country’s awful history of lynching Black people, there have been memes, dolls, and mannequins depicting lynchings of President Obama. These examples of unbridled hate were disgusting and not enough people stood up to them.

And the same thing is happening with President Trump. Whether one agrees with his politics or his policies, we still have to agree that the president is a human being. Someone with family and friends. Think about Barron Trump, a child, who now will be able to see Shields’ photograph.

So how did we get to the point where a comic and a photographer both thought this monstrous show of disrespect would be okay?

Well, it’s a simple, thing really. It happened when they called the president King Cheeto, or President Cheeto (or any other variant on Cheeto). It happened when they reduced him to his hair, his tan, his body, his mannerisms. They slowly made him into a cartoon figure, a two-dimensional symbol of political frustration and political fear, and simply forgot – or chose to forget – that behind the memes, cartoons, and caricature, there was a human being.

I’m not defending Trump’s policies. My readers will know that I’m a liberal, who hoped that Bernie Sanders, or Hillary Clinton would’ve won. And when Trump did win, I was scared and worried for our country’s future. I still am. And I know lots of other people are too – including Griffin and Shields.

But that doesn’t mean that we can suddenly take leave of our senses and become hateful monsters.

Some of Griffin’s critics opined that her act has damaged the credibility of liberals. I hate this thinking because again, the credibility of liberals doesn’t matter in this case. What matters is that someone did something unimaginable and awful. And worrying about how liberals will look is callous and unfeeling as well as self centered and selfish.

When Griffin apologized, she seemed genuine and sincere. And yet. She couched her apology as a response to the criticism and ensuing backlash. Her conscience didn’t prompt her to apologize, nor did her sense of fairness or decency. Instead, she apologized because she saw that many of her peers rejected her horrible act.

This is about more than just Kathy Griffin, though. This is about the steady degradation of a public figure, to the point where people forget that he’s a human being.

This fracas is also an opportunity for some introspection among many liberals, who, in their zeal and frustration, have become the bizarro version of the Westboro Baptist Church. How much did that echo chamber in which Griffin obviously existed, contributed to her myopia? If she, along with her fans, friends, and followers all provide a steady drumbeat of hate, does that naturally result in the kind of garbage that she and Shields created?

When there are instances of hate crimes, we ask that everyone look within themselves. And that’s important. We have to examine just what in our society creates Neo-Nazis, alt-right bigots, rapists, and queer bashers. It’s important because these people don’t just spring from thin air – they are a product, created.

But in the case of Griffin – and those who are still insisting that she’s done nothing wrong – we have to do the same kind of self-examination. Because she’s a product, too. She’s the result of months of constant slams, slights, and hatred that fooled Griffin into thinking that her space would be hospitable to a photograph like hers.

I’ve been thinking about the president a lot this past day or so after I saw the photograph. It made me sad and disturbed me. It was a spotlight on a kind of sheltered privilege that Griffin seemingly enjoys that protects her from understanding what it means to have a family member killed in such a way. Right now, there are organizations throughout the world who really do what Shields and Griffin only pretended to do. I thought about the president’s family and friends, all of whom love him, and had to see that awful image.

The photograph is an extreme example of just how base and awful political discourse has become in this country. Griffin and Shields wouldn’t have felt a picture like that would be okay, if the two didn’t see evidence of something similar. As I wrote earlier, we’ve seen Hillary Clinton effigies burned at rallies, and Barack Obama mannequins strung up on trees. We’ve also seen memes of Donald Trump pinatas, waiting to be pummeled. None of this funny. None of this is productive. And none of this is fair. But just because Clinton and Obama suffered these indignities doesn’t mean Trump deserves to, as well. No one does.

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Celebrating the strange legacy of Tim Allen’s ‘Last Man Standing’

When ABC announced it was canceling Tim Allen’s sitcom Last Man Standing after six seasons, conservative viewers cried foul, insisting that the show was being canceled for its conservative point of view. It’s true – Hollywood tends to skew liberal (at least when it comes to the creative side), but we’re also looking at a season that saw the end of The Real O’Neals, a coming-of-age sitcom about a queer teen. Last Man Standing‘s cancellation is all the more surprising because even though it was a sleepy performer in its Friday night time slot, it was still pulling in an average of about 8 million viewers per season. ABC also canceled Dr. Ken, the other Friday night sitcom, which may mean that the network is looking to revamp its Friday night schedule.

Allen, the star and one of the executive producers of the show, has been an outspoken conservative in the last few years. He also discussed the difficulty in being conservative in Hollywood. He likened it to 1930s Germany, which goes to show you that though he’s a funny guy, he isn’t necessarily a smart guy. But Last Man Standing, which produced 130 episodes will now live in syndication on basic cable, alongside his other long-running sitcom Home Improvement, and will probably easily forgotten.

It’s easy to see why. It’s not a great sitcom. It’s an old-fashioned multi-camera sitcom, filmed live in front of an audience, with a laugh track. The actors march onto the set, hit their marks, and announce their punch lines to the merriment of the studio audience. In light of single-camera sitcoms like Modern Family and The Middle, watching Last Man Standing can be a jarring experience. The laughter – which is probably genuine with just a touch of sweetening – feels aggressive and rote. The acting is broad. The sets are laid out so that everyone is facing the audience. There’s an artificiality to Last Man Standing that feels disruptive, and the show’s limits cannot transcend the issue.

Still, it wasn’t a terrible show, and it deserves some recognition of what it was trying to do. Tim Allen’s character, Mike Baxter, wasn’t the first conservative on a TV sitcom. Two of the most famous examples would be Archie Bunker on All in the Family and Alex Keaton on Family TiesAll in the Family aired for nine seasons, from 1971 to 1979. During that time the country saw three presidents: Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter. For the bulk of the show’s run, Archie Bunker became a voice of the reactionary American conservative during the Nixon and Ford administrations. When show creator Norman Lear created Archie, he wanted to lampoon the knee-jerk response to the growing progressive movement. His show aimed to ridicule the backlash to anti-war movement, feminism, gay rights, and civil rights. But the writers and star Carroll O’Connor took what could’ve been a toxic character and imbued him with dignity and appeal. His conservatism was played for laughs, and the scripts always made sure that the audience knows that Archie was wrong, but he evolved into a nuanced and complicated character, who was able to outclass Lear’s oft-preachy tone.

But Tim Allen is no Carroll O’Connor. One of the main debits of the show was its star. On Home Improvement, Allen was able to parlay his comedic persona – the grunting, wannabe Alpha-male – into an appealing sitcom character. Home Improvement was a smash hit, lodged permanently in the top 10 for all of its 8 seasons (peaking at an incredible number 2 in season three). At one point in the show’s history, over 20 million people watched Tim Allen’s Tim Taylor hurt himself in a variety of ways by misusing and abusing power tools. Even though the show was a ratings hit, critics were dismissive, and though it pops up form time to time in syndication (often paired with Last Man Standing), it’s barely remembered as an important program of the 1990s.

Despite Allen’s presence, the show still manages to say something, despite its deadening blandness. Those who defend the show’s conservatism – and those who lambaste it – are missing the point. Yeah, Mike Baxter was a conservative and he hated Obama and Hillary Clinton, but the anti-liberal jokes were incredibly soft (this could be because as Allen pointed out, most of the writers were liberals) When Mike Baxter got on a rant against something – whether it’s political correctness, gender, or taxes – he morphed into the archetypal cranky old white guy. There was little bite to what he was saying, because he wasn’t saying all that much.

And there was so much potential. The show ran during the Obama Administration when so much of the country was divided by a backlash against his progressive policies and against the fact that a Black man was running the country. Mike Baxter could’ve been a voice for that backlash – a humanizing voice that would complicated the image of the eccentric and violent yahoos who burned effigies of Obama at protests. Because the show is centered on an upper-middle class family, none of the economic issues that the country faced, namely the crawling recovery from the Great Recession, are handled in any sort of meaningful manner. During the Obama administration, queer rights had made some startling leaps forward, and the show barely mentioned queer people. The reason for this is probably because Friday nights on ABC tend to skew to family-oriented shows. In its salad days, ABC marketed Friday nights with a bloc of family sitcoms, TGIF. Such classics of mediorcrity like Family Matters, Perfect Strangers, My Two Dads, and the magnus opus of suckitude, Full House were event watching for a lot of 80s kids. So the real estate probably wasn’t the most hospitable for a hard-hitting, socially relevant sitcom.

But there’s another show in Last Man Standing, a far more interesting show that hardly anyone looks at: and that show stars Nancy Travis. Travis is TV’s most appealing character actress/comedienne, whose career is marked by an inability to find a sustaining vehicle for her abundant talents. The fact that Last Man Standing gave her work for six straight years is reason enough to praise the show because Travis is a find.

On the show, Travis played  Vanessa Baxter, a geologist who is married to Allen’s sporting goods store exec. It’s with Vanessa that the show starts to gel into something somewhat interesting. The story of how a moderately progressive, intelligent scientist can stand being married to a sometimes-blowhard like Mike Baxter makes for some solid TV watching. Unfortunately, despite Travis’ lovely presence, too often, she was pushed into the role of the straight man to Allen’s grumpy goof. Her politics skew center-left, and she supported Hillary Clinton – though her liberalism is treated much like Mike’s conservatism, it’s a trait, like “blonde” or “pretty” and there is precious little exploration into why Vanessa likes Clinton outside of her being a woman and a Democrat. One episode decent episode explored Vanessa’s personal convictions well. In it, she had to defend her support of fracking to a group of high school kids. Fracking is indefensible, and I think this was probably Allen’s influence, but it gave Vanessa some shading – something that doesn’t exist in the fictional world of Last Man Standing. If Travis was spun off into her own show, one of say, a recently widowed Vanessa Baxter working as a geologist or high school teacher, and juggling the demands of motherhood (and grandmotherhood), then I’d probably watch that show.

But Allen was the star of Last Man Standing and his comedic fingerprints are everywhere. He never worked to challenge his audiences, nor did he want them to question their assumptions. Instead, he was a genial, if slightly insufferable, dad who would grouse  about how weird kids are nowadays. Last Man Standing could’ve been a good show if it found a strong voice and stuck to it and was committed to it; instead, it coasted on being mildly dickish, sticking it to liberals, when really, they weren’t watching it anyways.

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Melissa McCarthy steals the show on her 5th ‘SNL’ hosting gig

HOST and MUSICAL GUEST Bumper PhotosMelissa McCarthy joined the Five-Timers Club, having hosted Saturday Night Live for the fifth time this year. She’s only the fifth woman to reach the milestone, and it’s clear that she’ll probably have the honor of hosting a few more times. McCarthy is the kind of guest host who would’ve been a cast member – she’s a strong physical comedienne and versatile actress. In her fifth hosting gig, she once again stole the show and dominated the sketches with her on point physical comedy and her ability to create fully-formed characters in the tiny five-minute sketches. Her episode was also helped tremendously by some above-average writing, as well (something that elevated last week’s Chris Pine episode, too).

As per usual, the cold open was a political sketch, with Alec Baldwin popping by to do his increasingly diminishing Donald Trump. At this point the writers have gotten lazy with the Trump sketches and are relying on simply lambasting the guy’s physicality and verbal tics. This week, Trump’s in the news because he fired James Comey, head of the FBI. This development provided SNL with some much-needed oomph, and as a result, though not a great sketch, it still shone brighter than the other Trump sketches because it actually had something to say.

McCarthy’s monologues are always delightful. Often the writers have her do a musical number or perform some kind of slapstick, but this time, it was a sweet bit in which she grabs a mom, Joan, from the audience, and takes her on a breakneck speed tour of the studio. On her way, the pair gets to meet Baldwin, Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively, musical guests HAIM, and some of the cast members. Joan’s a good sport and McCarthy gets to use her improv chops (she’s a Groundling alumna), and it makes for a sweet bit. I’m liking the “taking a tour of the studio” gimmick that is becoming more popular among the hosts (Jimmy Fallon did a sparking version of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” with a dance troupe around the studio).

The best of this episode combined great jokes and quality storytelling. Add to that McCarthy’s acting chops (Oscar nominated, no less), and you get what could be conceived as an ideal episode. The cold open was pretty toothless, but McCarthy’s return as Sean Spicer was great. Aidy Bryant cameoed as Sarah Huckabee Sanders as a supposedly even-keeled, thoughtful alternative to the blustery Spicer (though I think Huckabee Sanders is simply a slick oil saleswoman, as well). The sketch takes an unexpected turn when Spicer hears that he may be the latest in Trump’s administration to be given a pink slip. He plunges into self doubt as he jets away on his lectern-mobile to Trump’s golf course in New Jersey to confront the guy. The sketches loses some steam at the end (and yeah, the open-mouth kiss was predictable), but it was great to see McCarthy’s Spicer do his crazy, violent antics (and his demonstration of Comey’s firing by using Russian nesting dolls was great), but it was smart to fold in some more actor-y moments in which Spicer begins to doubt his importance within the Trump administration.

McCarthy also does wonder with her Gaye Fontaine, the wizened Hollywood vet who is on a film panel with her pal Debette Goldry (Kate McKinnon). Joining the two “legends” are Lupita Nyong’o (Sasheer Zamata, finally given something to do) and Cecily Strong’s Marion Cotillard. Often when a host joins a cast member in a recurring sketch, the writers create some weird twin of the recurring character, and the results are often kinda sad because a) the host is not as funny as the cast member and b) the “other” character is rarely as interesting. It’s smart then that in this sketch Gaye Fontaine is a character on her own, that relates to Debette because they both had to suffer through the same sexist indignities in Hollywood yesteryear. The implications behind these sketches is that actresses now don’t know how good they have it. And yeah, there is some of that, but there’s also a pointed critique in how long sexism has endured in the film industry. McCarthy does some great character work as Gaye, and whoever told her to play the lady as a stroke survivor was pretty aces.

But as great as McCarthy is at creating characters, she’s also a wonderful physical comic, so the game show sketch was predictably a highlight. The premise is so simply and hacky, it’s almost embarrassing – essentially it’s “how to get Melissa McCarthy to be repeatedly pied in the face.” And the actress takes it like a trouper, being pelted with pies repeatedly. It’s low brow, broad, and ridiculous, but McCarthy goes all in, recalling Lucille Ball at her best. The bravest comics are the ones who abandon all sense of vanity.

Even low key sketches in which McCarthy is merely featured – I’m thinking of the production logo sketch and the birthday sketch – benefit from the star’s presence. In the logo sketch, especially, she is given room to play, creating yet another one of her unlikable social misfits.

The Weekend Update sketch was okay, but it was Pete Davidson and Strong who made the sketch truly remarkable. Davidson appeared, essentially doing his stand-up act. He was candid and honest, talking about his sobriety – his delivery is idiosyncratic – some may be put off by his lazy manner, but I find it appealing. I also like how unsparing he was in talking about getting sober (and his story about going to horse therapy is hilarious, especially when shares how as a child he didn’t know he was allergic to horses because his family was too poor to ever be around them). Strong appeared as Cathy Anne, a politically-astute grotesque whose life is filled with drugs and tragedy, but she manages to soldier on, despite her demons. Cathy Anne initially was a recurring character that was about just how ugly and ridiculous Cecily Strong can be. As time went on though, she became a great voice for someone who is fed up with how ugly and ridiculous politics can be.

Though Saturday Night Live is ostensibly live, some of its highest moments are the pre-taped bits. In a beautifully filmed and acted piece, Kyle Mooney and Leslie Jones are in a committed relationship – with an adorable moppet named Lorne – that is in trouble. Her rising star and career demands means that he’s feeling left out and neglected. What I love about this film is that the writers and the performers don’t fall into the racist and sexist trap of making it about how tiny, nebbish Mooney is in love with the tall and athletic Jones; instead, it’s treated pretty straight forward. The absurdity comes in Mooney’s besotted misery and Jones’ busy indifference. Jones has gotten a lot of flack for her live performances, because she often will fumble a line or miss a cue. These pre-taped sketches show audiences just what an asset she is to the show.

The other pre-taped sketch was also a winner – the Amazon Echo, which helps old people out. As with the pie sketch, it’s a threadbare conceit: old people are old! They like it to be hot in a room! They’re cranky! What makes this sketch work is the pure performances of the cast members. Again, Jones is an appealing presence as an old woman who eyes some neighborhood kids warily, while Kenan Thompson is a marvel as a befuddled grandpa who relies on his Amazon Echo to decipher just what he needs from it. Both the pie sketch and the Amazon Echo sketch prove that one doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel to be funny – if we have to go back to cliches – which is sometimes unavoidable – doing a committed job with engaging actors can sometimes be enough.

Next week, the host will be fellow Five-Timer Dwayne Johnson (who will be hosting for the sixth time). Johnson, out promoting Baywatch, is a genial and funny presence himself. If the writing is as good next week, then we’re looking at a pretty strong streak for SNL.

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Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon cinch Emmy nominations in the final ‘Feud: Bette and Joan’ recap

The last episode of the first season of Feud is suitably sad and free from the delicious camp that made the first few episodes so enjoyable. But that’s okay, because the end of Joan Crawford’s and Bette Davis’s stories is so sad. Since last week’s episode covering the filming of Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, Bette and Joan became estranged from each other. Both their careers took ignominious turns, with b-movies and cheapie “indies” in Europe. The final episode takes its title – “You Mean All This Time We Could Have Been Friends?” – from Bette Davis’ final line in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?. It takes place in 1969, when Joan Crawford is living a solitary existence in a tiny appointment in Manhattan. She just took a role in Trog, a notoriously bad horror flick about a scientist who tussles with the missing link.

The filming of Trog makes up a depressing sequence of scenes because the film is a shitshow of corner cutting. Crawford is years from her heyday as the Queen of MGM or Warner’s, but she still has her standards. And seeing Crawford humbled by the shoestring production – she has to change her clothes in a van and freshen up in a public toilet – is hard to watch. Her manager urges her to turn down Trog, but Crawford’s desperate enough that the tawdry film appears to be a viable comeback vehicle. Just a few years ago, Crawford was able to demand perks and salary hikes, but by 1969, she was past her prime.

Along with her career troubles, she’s also very sick. Jessica Lange is physically transformed into a wreck. Instead of the raven hair and Hollywood tan, she’s sporting chalk-white foundation and unflattering red hair, and later a fright wig of gray. And when she sees a terrible picture of herself in a newspaper, she vows to never appear in public again. As her health starts to fade, she takes stock of her life, and it’s all very depressing. She feels bruised because daughter Christina is about to publish Mommie Dearest, which accuses her of physical and emotional abuse. The show doesn’t take sides in this case: she’s a loving mother to Kathy and a tolerant grandmother to her children; but when a teary Joan broaches the subject of Christina, she doesn’t actually deny the abuse charges.

The centerpiece of the Joan Crawford scenes is a dinner party scene that takes place in Crawford’s fevered imagination. Hedda Hopper and Jack Warner, young and untouched by time, are trading quips and playing cards. Crawford, looking awful, in a billowy nightgown and her bedraggled gray hair, shuffles to the table, instantly transformed to her prime, glamorous in a gorgeous red gown. Bette Davis joins the party, too, also Hollywood glossy.

The conversation is far more honest and piercing than anything these characters have said to each other before. Because it’s all in Crawford’s head, the exchange works to figure out why Crawford’s life and career has been marked by pain and anger. Warner sums it up as movie people are looking to make up for their insecurities by gaining the approval of their audiences. It’s a little clichéd and too pat. But once the imaginary Hedda and Jack leave the table, it’s just Bette and Joan. For much of the episode, Sarandon is a reduced presence (more on her later), but when the two divas have a tete-a-tete alone, it’s a rallying moment of beauty. Crawford’s neediness creates a scene in which both admit that they would like to be closer friends. It’s painful to watch just how kind Davis is to Crawford, and when the latter leaps up in joy, you almost believe this is actually happening, until Mamacita interrupts the scene and we’re back to a scraggly, sick Joan Crawford, sitting alone in her living room.

This episode will cement Jessica Lange’s chances of an Emmy nod. She’s masterful in this episode. It’s difficult to pinpoint which moment she’s strongest, but when she dissolves into grateful tears after Kathy insists that she was a good mother, she packs a wallop. Susan Sarandon is every bit Lange’s equal, though, because Bette Davis had a far more even keeled approach to life, her story is less tragic and operatic. But the finale does put Davis through her paces, too – especially when it comes to B.D. (Kiernan Shipka), who, like Christian Crawford, has a jaundiced view of her childhood.

Like Crawford, Davis is going through a career valley. Unlike Crawford, she’s able to maintain a semblance of dignity because at the end of the day, Davis is a workhorse, who can still fall back on her talent. Because Crawford’s major draw was her beauty, she felt that once it fades, she’s at a disadvantage. Though Davis is piqued by her career misfortunes, she knows that she can still deliver fantastic performances (and she’d pull out of her career dumps in the late 1970s with a string of well-received TV movies).

But it’s hard.

It’s hard because by 1969, Bette Davis is no longer a vibrant movie queen, but an ossified legend. She’s not seen as a vital actress, but one who had an iconic past. She’s frustrated that her repeated attempts at TV pilots have all failed, and is looking at Katharine Hepburn as her new rival. Unlike Davis, Hepburn managed to maintain a consistent film career. When Hepburn refuses to pose for a Life magazine cover with Davis, Sarandon does a great job in conveying the hurt and humiliation that Davis must’ve felt (and the hurt and humiliation that Crawford must’ve felt). It’s a telling moment that shows that even though Davis sees herself as the efficient, “together” one, she is full of insecurities, too.

And that’s what Feud is all about: insecurities. Both Davis and Crawford nursed some serious feelings of doubt about their place in their industry. Sexism and misogyny factored largely in the obstacles the two women had to overcome, but much of what they battled – aside from each other – was their own feelings of self-worth. When Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? was filmed, both Davis and Crawford were on the precipice of the end of their career; unfortunately, Crawford wasn’t able to capitalize on the film’s success nor was she able to use the success to find personal happiness. Davis, on the other hand, may have pulled off a second career with Baby Jane, but like Crawford, her personal life was still sad and unsatisfied.

Throughout the show’s 10 episodes, critics were praising Jessica Lange’s performance, insisting that she should make some room on her groaning mantle for another award. I think Lange’s work on Feud has been superb, some of the best work she’s ever done. But Susan Sarandon shouldn’t be ignored, either. Her role was harder because Ryan Murphy and company had envisioned Feud to be really Joan Crawford’s story. Crawford is the character who changes the most and has to suffer the most – all of this giving Lange a wide range of emotions to sell. Bette Davis could have been a caricature, but Sarandon seemed to shy away from the famous mannerisms and speech patterns until the last few episodes. Also, Feud depicts Davis’ life as much more stable and Crawford is much more tragic. Speaking of award-worthy performances, it would be remiss if Stanley Tucci, Alfred Molina, Jackie Hoffman, and Judy Davis were all shut own – each was wonderful, holding his/her own against the titular titans. Kiernan Shipka and Kathy Bates were great, but their presence was far too brief, while Catherine Zeta-Jones was just weird in the choices she made as Olivia de Havilland (though Feud could do a spin-off in the third season and have it be Feud: Olivia and Joan (Fontaine). The writers – for the most part – did a masterful job in creating a compelling drama and not just a by-the-numbers biopic.

The ending of Feud: Bette and Joan show the two divas laughing right before filming starts – right before all of the backstabbing, sniping, fighting. Crawford extends an olive branch of sorts and hopes the two can become friends. Davis takes a beat and concurs. It’s a shame that these two ladies never got on, and it’s a shame that their industry thrived on pitting women against each other; by only offering a few choice roles to women, the film industry made natural enemies of people who should be colleagues. As fun and campy as Feud got, it also was a serious social critique on misogyny and sexism and the havoc it can wreak.

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‘Veep’ predicts the horror that was the 2016 presidential election in its 5th season

Veep‘s 5th season aired from April to June in 2016, three months before the horrifying election day that turned our political landscape into one long, unending Saturday Night Live sketch. In its fifth season, Veep managed to survive the departure of its showrunner, creator Armando Iannucci, intact and deliver 10 satisfying and hilarious episodes. Watching the show after the election takes on added irony, poignancy, and just sheer feelings of the uncanny and just how prescient the show would prove to be.

In the fourth season, President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) found herself in a strange situation on election night. She was tied with her rival (though she won the popular vote – the Electoral College screws over pioneering female presidential candidates even in fiction), which set forth an obscure and arcane set of rules that meant congress would vote for the next president of the United States. Much of season five concerns itself with Selina’s campaign in wooing members of congress to back her.

Throughout the season, Selina is not only trying to hold on to her position as president, she’s also trying to enact legislation that would leave a legacy (she even wants to push forward talks between Tibet and China in hopes of a Nobel Peace Prize). The problem is, as always, Selina and her band of misfits are incapable of not screwing up. In the reality of Veep, a narcissistic nincompoop like Selina Meyer can be president, which is a hilarious conceit. While she has drive and ambition, she’s also lazy, distracted, and extremely self-serving. And it doesn’t help that she’s assembled what is probably the most inefficient team in presidential history. While all of this politicking is going on, Selina’s daughter Catherine is filming Selina’s annus horribilis for a student film.

While Selina’s story takes center stage,  supporting characters have minor arcs, as well. Mike (Matt Walsh) is in the process of adopting a baby from China; Amy (Anna Chlumsky) and Dan (Reid Scott) are going through a will-they/won’t they; and Jonah (Timothy Simons, brilliant and deserving of some serious Emmy love) runs for congress. These stories provide background and often act as white noise for the main plot, which focuses on Selina’s desperate and oft-foiled fight to stay president.

I imagine that the writers of Veep had a field day creating outlandish and ridiculous scenarios to put their characters in – whether it’s in Camp David, where Selina tricks Catherine into thinking they’re sharing a family Christmas (when really, she’s hosting the Chinese president); or in a hospital bed, cheering over her mother’s deathbed because she got good news about her campaign – but watching Veep now feels scary in its accuracy. Selina is not meant to be president and doesn’t want the position out of patriotism or sense of duty. She sees it as a source of power, influence, and wealth. None of that would be so terrible if Selina was good at her job, but she’s a series of blunders and fuck ups, one more catastrophic than the next. And like any seasoned politician, Selina lacks empathy and self-awareness and cannot acknowledge her role in her downfall.

But despite her many flaws and faults, Selina remains a compelling anti-heroine that viewers will want to watch (though I’m not sure how many would root for her). She’s not a stupid woman, nor is she without any political instinct or know how. The problem is she doesn’t have an internal filter – she merely works off her id. And when her blunders result in some devastating loss or setback, her instinct isn’t to have a postmortem to figure out where she went wrong; instead, she lashes out at those around her.

Part of what makes Selina so interesting and fascinating to watch is the furious comedic energy Julia Louis-Dreyfus brings to the role. Veep is a wonderful opportunity for the comedienne to show off not only her genius for savage one liners, but also her estimable skills as a physical comic. Selina Meyer is a monster and there’s something subversive and awesome in watching a female sitcom lead not be likable or adorable. Even in moments when we are naturally drawn toward sympathy, like during the moments when Selina’s mother is dying, Selina still manages to reward our momentary lapses of judgement by doing something heinous and awful, thereby restoring order.

The sixth season started with Selina humbled and bruised. She’s a mere private citizen now, being buried underneath the shadow of the second female president of the United States, Laura Montez, who quickly swallowed up any lasting imprint that Selina left in Washington. The show has taken on unintended shading, given the state of world politics at the moment. It’s satire, but it’s satire that hits uncomfortably close to home. Veep has evolved over its six seasons into a gallows, whistling past the graveyard kind of show. It’s no longer just funny ha-ha, but also funny OhMyGodWhatIsGoingOn. And right now, we could all use some laughs.

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Bette Davis plays boss and Joan Crawford overplays her hand in “Abandoned!” ‘Feud: Bette and Joan’ recap

Abandoned thumbnailThe end of the penultimate episode of Feud: Bette and Joan is the ultimate insult to Joan Crawford. Unceremoniously dumped from Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, Crawford has to see Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta-Jones) waltz in and steal her part, but worst of all: for a publicity shot, Bette Davis and de Havilland pose on top of a Coca-Cola machine.

“Abandoned!” is a very sad episode and it really charts the end of Joan Crawford’s career. Increasingly Lear-like, Crawford is stalking the set of Charlotte, paranoid that Davis and Bob Aldridge are out to get her. As on Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Davis is the queen bee, intimidating and bullying Crawford with efficiency, workmanship, and talent. Crawford – no slouch – just can’t keep up with her costar, and every tiny speck of vulnerability is amplified. Aldridge is a referee trying to finish up the film, but he sees that he cannot control the filming of Charlotte. Davis – a producer of the film – starts to flex her creative muscles behind the cameras, and even though her intentions are often to screw Crawford over, her suggestions are on-point. In fact, in certain moments, it looks like Davis should take over directing the film.

This episode was directed by Oscar and Emmy winning actress Helen Hunt. There’s some interesting meta stuff going on, having an actress direct an episode of a TV show that’s about how Hollywood treats women like shit. We saw in an earlier episode how Aldridge’s right-hand woman, Pauline (Alison Wright) was rebuked from her colleagues and peers when she tried to venture into directing and directing. And Hunt, Sarandon, and Lange seem to be exceptions to the rule that the film industry still abandons actresses once they reach middle age.

Beauty is a minor theme in the film. Both Crawford and Davis care about beauty – namely because Davis was always told she wasn’t beautiful (which is nonsense, she was gorgeous) and Crawford was always told beauty was all she had (again, nonsense). Crawford is in a precarious situation because her looks have faded, but she doesn’t have the respect for her talent that could mitigate the loss. Because Davis was an artist first, so she had a touch more space to age (though she was facing an industry unwilling to accommodate for women of her age).

When Crawford and Davis face off, Crawford hisses, “You don’t make yourself more attractive by making yourself uglier.” But Davis rears back and announces grandly, “I’m a character actress.” Then screenwriters – Jaffe Cohen & Michael Zam – lift some dialogue from Barbra Streisand’s 1996 comedy The Mirror Has Two Faces, when Streisand asks her onscreen mom, Lauren Bacall what it was like being beautiful. Davis asks Crawford what was it like being beautiful, and Crawford sighed, “Wonderful…but never enough.” When Crawford in turn, asks Davis what was it like being talented, Davis answers, “Great…but never enough.”

Despite all that these women share in common, “Abandoned!” is all about their mutual distrust of each other. It seems that no slight is too petty. Crawford’s treated very badly on Charlotte. Her performances are constantly undermined by Davis, who also seems intent on pruning down Crawford’s role to a cameo. The most ignominious moment was when the crew and cast left Crawford, drunk and passed out in her trailer, all by herself on the plantation set.

It’s no surprise that Crawford plays sick to punish the set. But Ryan Murphy’s vision of the Crawford/Davis feud has Crawford as the underdog. The ploy to be sick blows up in her face and she’s fired from the film, left to rant and rave in her hospital room when she learns that de Havilland glided into the role. When Crawford, in a pathetic fury, lobs a vase at poor Mamacita (Jackie Hoffman, Emmy worthy), she is left alone to twist in misery as her faithful servant makes good on her threat to leave.

Though Davis is setting the rules on the film set, she has her own personal travails, namely with her daughter B.D. (Kiernan Shipka, also, Emmy worthy), who wants to marry Elliot Hyman, nephew of the owner of the production company that made Baby Jane. Initially against the wedding, she acquiesces, and decides to orchestrate an extravagant wedding  It appears as if B.D. is allergic to her mother’s attempts to reach out, and the two have a fantastic fight that ends with B.D. admitting that she and Hyman eloped. Bette Davis suffering whilst trying to plan an elaborate wedding reminded me of her 1956 drama The Catered Affair.

I watched Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte years ago. It was a great movie, despite its Grand Guignol trappings. And as sad as it was when Crawford was dumped, it was better for the film: Davis was predictably great, but de Havilland was the better choice. At this point in Crawford’s career, her acting had calcified into an unwatchable Kabuki, and she wouldn’t have been able to give the character the necessary complexities to fool the audiences (I won’t go into the twist of Charlotte).

Feud: Bette and Joan is stunning in its consistency. All of the episodes were strong, with strong writing and brilliant acting. Next week is the final episode – we see moments of Trog (I can’t wait to see that). Ryan Murphy and company have been able to construct a wonderful plot arc that is coming to a logical and constructive end.

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Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange step aside and let Alfred Molina lead in “Hagsploitation” ‘Feud: Bette and Joan’ recap

Hagsploitation thumbnailWhen I first heard about Feud: Bette and Joan, and its premise, I assumed that the whole 10-episode show would be about the filming of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, but that period only took about three episodes. Instead, the film is merely an episode in the ongoing feud between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford (Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange, respectively). Despite their feud, the two women benefited greatly from Baby Jane because during the early 1960s, their careers were in free fall. And because Baby Jane was such a big hit, it’s easy to see why Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci) is hoping for a follow up.

The title refers to the ugly way Warner characterizes the Grand Guignol genre – a particularly ugly film genre that takes former movie queens and puts them in exploitative horror films. After Baby Jane, both Davis and Crawford, along with their colleagues like Olivia de Havilland, Shelly Winters, and Debbie Reynolds all settled for cheapie b-thrillers to keep their name in the public, and to get paid. In “Hagsploitation,” Bob Aldridge (Alfred Molina) is tasked with directing the Baby Jane sorta sequel Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Davis and Crawford are reunited, though the two are making fresh demands: Crawford’s concerns are primarily financial (she was screwed by the alleged backend deal for Baby Jane), while Davis’ are professional. Crawford gets a generous advance, while Davis gets creative control.

But even though both Crawford and Davis (as well as Lange and Sarandon) are oversized personalities, “Hagsploitation” is primarily Alfred Molina’s show, and he’s a great lead. Aldridge is having serious professional and personal troubles: his wife is leaving him, and he hasn’t had a hit since Baby Jane. Making Sweet Charlotte is key for his personal and professional lives: it’s his way of proving to Jack Warner that  Baby Jane success was primarily due to his direction and if the film succeeds, then his marriage didn’t fail in vain. Telling Warner off is particularly satisfying for audiences who had to watch Aldridge grovel. When Aldridge says with a smirk, “I came here to gety my balls back…you hear them clanging?” Molina swishes the line like a delicious wine.

Though “Hagsploitation” deals primarily with Aldridge, Crawford is still a dominant figure. She’s on tour pushing a terrible piece-of-shit film, Straight Jacket, she has to put in personal appearances in theaters, popping up, wielding an ax in evening gown. The goofy gimmicks include Crawford pretending to chop Straight-Jacket director William Castle’s (John Waters in an awesome cameo) head. It’s tawdry in a way that made Bette Davis singing on Andy Williams’ variety show seem like Brecht. The trailer for Straight-Jacket reveal the movie for the crapfest it is – and the film does a commendable job in recreating it:

Davis’ career is in a similarly dismal state, and she’s bitter about the Oscar fiasco, blaming Crawford’s machinations. Both need Sweet Charlotte in the same way they both needed Baby Jane, but the movie’s success was a mixed blessing, because the financial windfall and career resurgence just did not materialize. Davis was seen as a movie monster, while Crawford’s performance was overwhelmed by Davis’. The scenes of Aldridge working Davis and Crawford separately to convince both to make the movie is technically brilliant: the quick shots show both interviews at the same time, intercutting both Davis’ and Crawford’s reactions, edited seamlessly to blend both conversations into one.

As if career worries aren’t enough, Crawford is dealing with her shit heel of a brother, who is bitter about his failed acting career as well as his sister’s affected airs. He’s a constant reminder of her working class past and is an extortionist, blackmailing her to keep her unseemly secrets safe. When Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis) warns her of alleged stag films, Crawford suspects her brother, who works at a fleabag hotel. The two share little love with each other and snipe at each other. And while she gives him the money that she can, he isn’t satisfied. Their relationship hits an awful low when in the hospital, he reminds Crawford of her poor past, spitefully spitting accusations of snobbery at her. When he dies, she reacts by canceling the check she wrote out for him.

Though Crawford’s showdown with her brother is disturbing, it’s nothing compared to her war with Davis. The two are mortal enemies (I wouldn’t piss on Crawford if she were on fire!” Davis roars). When they meet for a table read of Sweet Charlotte, the two vow to present a united front, but that quickly dissolves when it’s clear that Davis has some strong ideas and vision for the film and Crawford is yet again, out of her intellectual depth. While Davis is highlighting the script’s technical issues, Crawford is dimly pointing out nonexistent grammar issues. To prove a point, Davis uses Straight-Jacket as an example, much to Crawford’s consternation. The reading sputters to a stop, with Davis stomping away in righteous fury. Crawford is able to posit herself as the amiable trouper.

But Feud doesn’t want Crawford to have the upper hand for too long. Flying to Louisiana to film Sweet Charlotte, Crawford is reminded again of Davis’ queen bee status. Upon arriving at the airport, she’s discovers that the film production fails to send a car for her. At when she finally makes it to the hotel, she is rebuffed by the front desk clerk who doesn’t realize Crawford’s in the film; it takes a falsely gracious Davis who intervenes on Crawford’s part to right the snafu.

Of course, as soon as filming starts, Davis is causing trouble for Aldridge, Pauline (Alison Wright), and the others with her imperious manner and her demands. (her initial choice of playing Charlotte as both young and old shows that she’s as vulnerable to terrible acting choices as Crawford; her concession to that choice’s absurdity shows why she’s the better actress of the two) Though Aldridge started the project as a victor, vanquishing that asshole, Jack Warner, he’s reduced to crying underneath the poplars, mourning the end of his marriage. He would have a kindred spirit in Crawford, if he only would recognize it; she, like he, is vulnerable, feeling put out and snubbed by her inauspicious arrival to Louisiana. Trying to continue her role as the workhorse, she calls Aldridge from her ugly hotel room to report to duty, but is politely dismissed by him (with Crawford clearly hearing Davis cackling in the background)

We know that Crawford will leave the film, only to be replaced by Olivia de Havilland, who got great reviews for her performance. The filming of Sweet Charlotte cannot be as dramatic as Baby Jane, because Crawford cuts out too soon. Still Feud seems more interested in exploring the complex psychology that drives the feud, than the film itself. “Hagsploitation” is a great episode because it gives Molina a chance to carry an episode. Though Lange and Sarandon clearly own the series, Molina is an integral part of the show’s success, and he does a beautiful job playing the conflicted, sympathetic, though oft-unlikable Aldridge. Lange will dominated when it comes to award season, but it would be a huge oversight if Molina is ignored.

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