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Susan Sarandon does a Bette Davis impression on ‘More, or Less’ – ‘Feud: Bette and Joan’ a recap

More, or Less thumbnailFor the run of Feud, I’ve been mentioning how Susan Sarandon’s been avoiding swooping, clipped speech of Bette Davis, but in “More, or Less” it seems as if the actress suddenly remembered she’s playing Bette Davis because inexplicably, the iconic – and much imitated – cadence is there. I’ve got a theory: that “Petah, Petah, Petah” way of talking was simply an affectation that Davis created for her public life; in private, she was much less colorful. In “More, or Less” we see Davis outside the relative privacy of a film studio or her mansion, and instead she’s whooping it up on TV talk shows to promote Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? so she carefully applies the speech idiosyncrasy, like an overcoat.

“More, or Less” shows our two divas prepping for the grueling publicity that’s required to make a movie a hit. Bette Davis, far more comfortable and confident, is enjoying the touring. Crawford, meanwhile, is angry about how the film turned out. Despite being the catalyst that got the picture made, yet again, she’s overshadowed by Davis, who’s just better in the film (watch the movie, and you know what I mean – Crawford’s solid, but Davis is transcendent) The reviews agree, as Davis is getting all of the hosannas, while Crawford is getting decent, respectable notices. All of this work, and she is still grasping for industry respect.

It’s a shame because if Crawford just allowed herself to enjoy the moment (as well as the money she’d make due to Baby Jane‘s success), she’d be a much happier, more stable person. There’s a glimpse of that kind of gracious, grateful Crawford when she exits a theater after a screening of Baby Jane, and a mob of bobbysoxers descend on her for autographs. She’s genuinely touched, and it’s a lovely moment (again, Jessica Lange is killing it).

But Crawford just had one lovely moment, before she retreated back into her defensive shell. Davis, meanwhile, the trooper that she is, is traipsing through Hollywood, guesting on TV shows and selling the hell of out this picture. In one surreal moment, she’s on Andy Williams’ variety show, doing an awful 60s pop/rock title tune of Baby Jane – it’s a terrible performance (Sarandon sells it), but it shows just what a good sport Davis was, despite her legendary reputation for being difficult. As a special treat, see the video below of the real Bette Davis warbling the shitty tune badly.

A large part of Feud is gender politics. The whole reason why Baby Jane was made was because actresses of Davis’ and Crawford’s age weren’t getting decent work. This episode – penned by Gina Welch and Tim Minear – keeps up the theme with the fictional character, Pauline Jameson (a wonderful Alison Wright). Jameson is Bob Aldrich’s right-hand woman, and is miraculously competent and smart. It’s interesting that the show decided to create a character like this, because for the most part, she doesn’t transcend the trope of the uber-efficient female assistant.

Apparently Pauline is an amalgam, and I think there may be the tiniest dash of Ida Lupino in the mix, as Pauline is an aspiring film director. She writes a script – The Black Slipper – which she hopes Crawford will star in. But unfortunately, Pauline is met with resistance by both Bob and Crawford who gracelessly turns down the role because Pauline’s a “nobody.” Truth be told, the script sounded really stupid and melodramatic, so I’m not sure how audiences are supposed to react to Pauline’s dreams of becoming a filmmaker: is it played for laughs? Are we supposed to pity her for being delusional? Or was the film supposed to come off as decent, and were we supposed to feel righteous anger on her behalf? I don’t know, because the idea – a dance teacher who’s falsely accused of murdering one her students – sounds pretty dumb. Alison Wright is great in the role, but I still don’t get Pauline, possibly because she’s the only “character” in this film that isn’t based on a real person.

“More, or Less” is one of the few times when we don’t get scenes with Sarandon and Lange together. But we do get some great scenes with Alfred Molina and Stanley Tucci. Molina’s Bob Aldrich is a frustrated artist, much like Crawford. He’s hoping that Baby Jane will rescue him from his string of shitty flops, and that he’ll graduate to much more challenging and interesting fare. Instead, he’s doing a crappy western comedy 4 for Texas, that stars a surly Frank Sinatra (Toby Huss) Just like with Davis and Crawford, Aldrich again is wearily dealing with a tempestuous star, and he feels as if the picture is beneath him. Aldrich squares off against Jack Warner (Tucci) for better work, and Warner doesn’t take too kindly, calling him a hack.

As if it’s not enough to just abuse Aldrich, Warner shows up at Crawford’s tacky estate to berate her for not joining Davis on the publicity tours. Lange and Tucci have a great scene in which the two bicker and sling accusations at each other – in a sad and pathetic attempt to woo him, Crawford tries to use her feminine charms, blunted by her drunkenness. Warner quickly rebukes her clumsy attempts, leaving Crawford humiliated and defeated.

As if the script wasn’t done shitting on Crawford though, we learn that she doesn’t get the Oscar nomination. The episode does a great job of showing just how bizarre Hollywood is when it comes to older actresses: despite the great reviews and the boffo box office, both Davis and Crawford are still starving for work. Davis is slumming it on Perry Mason, while Crawford isn’t even doing that. In a scene reminiscent of Faye Dunaway’s “Don’t fuck with me boys!” in Mommie Dearest, Crawford unleashes a string of f-bombs on a panel of agents at William Morris after being told there’s nothing for her. Davis, on the other hand, is shunted off to a junior agent, barely 23. So, tongue firmly in cheek, she takes out an ad in Variety that read “”Mother of three—10, 11 & 15—divorcee. American. Thirty years experience as an actress in Motion Pictures. Mobile still and more affable than rumor would have it. Wants steady employment in Hollywood. (Has had Broadway.)”

What “More, or Less” also predicts is the Grand Guignol genre that sprung up from Whatever Happened to Baby JaneSuddenly, horror movies starring formerly glamorous female movie stars became a profitable genre, of which both Davis and Crawford took advantage (Davis would reunited with Aldrich on Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte which acts as a quasi-follow up to Baby Jane). Aldrich is getting offers to do more psycho biddy movies, which he turns down in revulsion, because he’s worried he’ll be pigeon holed.

The episode ends with the Oscar nominations. We learn that Crawford isn’t nominated. In a brilliant choice, we find this out by having Mamacita gently break the news to Crawford, and then we just get a shot of her mansion before we hear her horrified scream – as if we were in one of her trashy scary movies. Davis famously loses the Oscar to Anne Bancroft, and some (including Davis) blame Crawford’s anti-Davis campaigning for the loss. The next stage of this strange and twisted story will be fascinating to watch.

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My favorite episode – ‘The Brady Bunch’ – “Will the Real Jan Brady Please Stand Up?”

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.

Image result for the real jan brady

Picture from CBS/cbs.com

Nostalgia does a weird thing to memories – it can make something awful seem lovely and interesting: case in point, The Brady Bunch. The campy “classic” TV show that ran from 1969 to 1974, it has become legendary in its cheesy badness. It’s difficult to pinpoint its enduring hold on pop culture. Some of it may be explained by nostalgia, but most of the show’s fans were born decades after the show went off the air. So what is it? One explanation is that it was a hermetically-sealed environment that seemed impervious to the turmoils of the outside world. During the run of the show, the country saw Vietnam, race rebellions, the surge of the women’s movement, Watergate. These were troubled times, and yet in the sunny, Day-Glo world of the Bradys, none of this managed to get through. It was really an aggressively-innocent show in which people loved each other, and were able to get past their differences in about twenty minutes.

For detractors, The Brady Bunch was saccharine dreck. That’s why I chose “Will the Real Jan Brady Please Stand Up?” as my favorite episode because it touched upon one of the show’s more complex and interesting characters:  Jan Brady. Unlike supermodel-hot Marcia (Maureen McCormick) or adorable Cindy (Susan Olsen), Jan – played by Eve Plumb – was caught in the middle, forever identified by her relationships with her sisters: she was always “Marcia’s younger sister” or “Cindy’s older sister.” This must’ve fucked up Jan’s head bad because a good source of the show’s actual tension and angst comes from Jan’s search for identity and self-confidence. When Jan fumes “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” in one of the show’s classic lines, it’s a great peek into the frustrated pent-up outrage that resides in Jan Brady.

“Will the Real Jan Brady Please Stand Up?” is great viewing because for once, the show manages to shake off some of its Formica-stiff camp and actually function as a bit of story telling. Now, it’s not great story telling, but it’s solid, mainly because of the performance of Eve Plumb. Though Florence Henderson and Robert Reed did solid work as parents Carol and Mike Brady (and Ann B. Davis was a hoot as Alice), the six kids – the main draw of the show – were a mixed bag when it came to acting. There were some cringey moments throughout the show when the banal scripts pushed the children do to more than just stand there, looking groovy. But Plumb was a dark horse among the Brady bunch, because she actually could act.

The episode made good use of Plumb’s abilities, but it also told her story with surprising sensitivity, despite the central gag being Jan wearing a crazy black wig. Ah, the wig. In the theme song, the kids warble the premise to the show and introduce the girls and their mother as “A lovely lady who was bringing three very lovely girls/All of them had hair of gold.” So immediately, we get that these characters are partly-defined by their looks, mainly their blonde hair. So when Jan feels a crisis of self-identity, it’s natural that she works to destroy the main thing that makes her blend into the background: her hair of gold.

So inspired by a magazine ad, Jan skips over to a wig shop – staffed by future Edna Krabapple/Carol Kester, Marcia Wallace. Wigs are fun for a lot of people because they can put them on, and assume new personas. That’s why it makes sense that Jan turns to wigs to giver her personality a new twist. After looking through various pieces, she settles an on unflattering tight crown of black curls. In the priceless 1995 parody film, the wig is changed from a dowdy short cut to an impressively gargantuan afro.

Once her family catches her wearing the wig, she gets the standard “be yourself” lesson. And I gotta say, all of that is garbage, because being yourself includes altering parts of yourself that you feel need changing. The show was filmed in the early 1970s, so it makes sense that such pat, conservative bromides are spoon fed to its viewers. Folks weren’t encouraged to experiment with identity and appearance – doing so would seem like deception or lie. That’s why “Will the Real Jan Brady Please Stand Up?” feels like such a resolutely queer episode: we want the “real” Jan Brady to stand up, but we’re not quite sure who that is – and more importantly, Jan doesn’t either.

In a telling exchange, when confronted with the ugly wig, Jan insists that she wants to wear her wig all the time. When asked why she fumes, “I wanna be me. I’m tired of looking like everyone else. I wanna be Jan Brady.”

“But Honey,” Carol says in that plaintive, soothing way that she does. “Jan Brady has blonde hair.”

“Nobody notices that Jan Brady,” is Jan’s poignant response.

Mike pipes in by saying, “A person doesn’t make himself different by just putting on a wig.”

“It’s what’s inside that counts,” Carol practically coos.

It’s here where I think the show really peaks in its queerness. Jan wanting to be different and insisting that changing her outside will make her different, and her conformist parents telling her that her inside and her outside should match.

Look, I know it’s a stretch to say that this show can work as an allegory for drag, trans, gay, or any other queer/non-hetero identities – after all, this is The Brady Bunch, after all. But there are all kinds of queer pings throughout the show’s history and its legacy. Queer people – especially gay men – love schlock, and we embrace it. But there’s subtext, too. Knowing what we know about Robert Reed, it feels weird having him be the mouthpiece of this kind of mainstream, square kind of thinking.

The plot comes to a head in the last third, when Jan debuts her new look at a birthday party. Instead of being wowed by the new Jan Brady, her friends assume it’s a joke, and they laugh. The teasing is the kind of low-level, milquetoast roasting that would pass as bullying in a world as corny as the one depicted in The Brady Bunch. But it stings and Jan leaves (again, Plumb does some great subtle work here, letting her look of pride dissolve into confusion, and then hurt as she runs away).

At home, she tells her parents what happens, and she’s full of self-recrimination. It’s here that the show’s message of conformity really hit home, despite the nudge towards self-expression heralded earlier. Jan admits that she looks like “some kind of freak” in her wig, and blames herself for her friends’ boorish behavior – never mind that it was the kids who were laughing at her and acting like assholes. The narrative constructed is that Jan’s to blame because she was trying to be somebody she’s not.

As if this “lesson” wasn’t enough to bare, we get even further into gendered concerns, when Jan’s friends come to the door, hoping to apologize. Instead of apologizing for acting like jackasses, the girls appeal to Jan’s vanity, admitting that they’re envious of her long blonde hair. And just like that, all’s well in the world, because Jan’s identity as a blonde is affirmed (and is proven to be a source of envy among her clique).

It’s too bad that an episode that starts off so daringly ends up cliff diving into conformity so quickly. It’s too much to ask of The Brady Bunch to question notions of identity, I know. But still, this episode remains the strongest of its run because its problems present a darker, more complex side of the toothy family than what we’re normally shown. In fact, any episode that centers on Jan tends to be a stronger episode. A lot of that is due to Plumb’s distinct qualities as an actress, but a lot of it is also due to the writers seeming free to explore these weirder feelings in that character, instead of trying them in the Barbie-doll pretty Marcia or the Kewpie-doll pretty Cindy.

 

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John Cena has fun in a so-so episode of ‘SNL’

John Cena and Maren Morris Bumper PhotosWhen John Cena exposed his arms during his monologue, I gasped. But not in lust like Leslie Jones, but in shock (and curiosity). They weren’t arms so much as lumpy pillars of marble. It was a scary sight. In fact, John Cena is a sight. The wrestler-turned-actor follows in the tradition of Hulk Hogan, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, as the muscle man-turned comedic film actor. Cena has proven that he has solid comic chops (see his great turn in the Amy Poehler/Tina Fey starrer Sisters). He gets a lot of comic mileage from his mountainous physique, go-for-broke attitude, and smirky good looks.

As host of Saturday Night Live, he proves to be a genial presence who seems to have a lot of fun playing off his macho man image. The writing on this episode wasn’t on par with the last three excellent episodes, so it’s a testament to Cena’s considerable likability that this episode wasn’t a total dud.

The cold open wasn’t a Donald Trump bit, which is good because as great as Alec Baldwin in, the show is running out of ideas on what to do with the character. There’s only so much you can do with the two-dimensional Trump that the writers boxed Baldwin in, and maybe a couple weeks off will let the writers come up with stronger stuff (and there will probably be more Trump-related news stories, ripe for satire). Instead, we get a great cameo from Bryan Cranston as Walter White, who is the new head of DEA. It’s a great joke, as all of Trump’s cabinet appointments feel like they’re out to destroy the very agencies they’re in charge of. Having Walter White be the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration is a great gag that unfortunately doesn’t get taken to its potential, because before we get settled into the joke of Trump’s asinine choices, Cranston-as-White shouts out, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday night!”

As a monologist, Cena did well, supported by an incredible Bobby Moynihan, who challenges the real-life Adonis to a wrestling match (he’s easily vanquished). Of course when Leslie Jones enters the stage, she’s a worthy opponent, but is quickly undone by her attraction to Cena (she slips him her room key card). Kenan Thompson also slips by, with a sly move, slamming a folding chair across Cena’s back (which turns the chair into toothpicks). Cena coasts on his charm and easy sense of humor, and the heavy lifting (no pun intended) is left to Thompson, Jones, and Moynihan, and it’s a nice monologue.

In fact, that’s how the show worked for the most part. Cena is thrown into a sketch – primarily as a sight gag or straight man – and the other performers graciously do the hard work. I’m not writing this to imply that Cena is a lazy performer, just a limited one, but one that knows how to work within his limits. And though the writers hewed too close to the “big lug” theme, Cena seemed to transcend any hackiness of the material with his good attitude.

The best sketch of the mixed big is “Hook a Hunk” a fake MTV dating show that has Cecily Strong’s babe choosing from three hunks: Beck Bennett, Kyle Mooney, and Mikey Day. Cena pops up as the hunky host, and before we know what’s happening Strong and Cena find themselves attracted to each other, much to the consternation of the other guys. Cena’s smiley goofiness works well with Strong’s increasingly besotted and committed character. And as a neat and sweet twist, Bennett and Mooney find themselves in each others arms. It’s a surprisingly nice ending (that shows how far SNL progressed from the bro queer-baiting humor of the early 1990s).

The other great sketch – which wasn’t funny out loud, but well written was the Through Donald’s Eyes sketch that allows for us the viewers to see the world the way Donald Trump does – and it’s as messed as you’d imagine. Trump’s world is filled with syncophantic loved ones, his triumphs, and most importantly, gigantic hands and the chiseled looks of He-Man Cena.

The other great moments happened during the Weekend Update with Kate McKinnon as Angela Merkel and Strong as her recurring  Cathy Anne character, and the recurring Dyke & Fats sketch with McKinnon and Aidy Bryant. I’m not a huge fan of recurring sketches – often they lean hard on catch phrases, but what’s great about the aforementioned sketches is the strong writing and the committed performances. McKinnon as Merkel is great because it has shades of her Clinton – a frustrated, brilliant woman in a man’s world (though Merkel’s vulnerable while Clinton’s a shark – at least according to McKinnon’s performances). McKinnon’s Merkel is still pining for President Obama and is lamenting the lost opportunities of working with Clinton (she imagines the two having slumber parties – can you imagine?) As Kathy Anne, Strong slides up to the Update desk to decry the decline of American civility since the election, grousing about the rise of the Alt-Right. The joke, of course, is Kathy Anne’s sour look at the world, coupled with her malapropism. Strong’s physicality often has her playing beauties, so it’s great to have her play a grotesque.

The Dyke & Fats sketch is great because again, like with the gay twist in the Hook a Hunk sketch, it wouldn’t happen before. It’s great for the fictitious Chicago cops to embrace labels that would’ve normally been slurs – and Cena’s chief avoids insulting them, before condescending to them by offering the backhanded compliment that they’re great cops “for women” which sends both Dyke and Fats on a righteous tirade. It looks like a lot went into these sketches, production wise, so it’s a bit strange, that they’re so brief – I’d like to see these sketches extended.

The rest of the show was a solid C+ effort. Cena was the brightest spot in all of the sketches that exploited his looks and physical presence. The Science Fair sketch was alright – we get it, colleges reward athletes at the expense of academic integrity, with Cena’s college athlete putting together a dismal science project (tacking bananas onto a board), while the other students offer real projects, only to be shot down by the panel.

Another judging sketch – an America’s Got Talent-like sketch – has Cena and Day as a pair of falconers, except they’re using an owl, instead, who just keeps vomiting in their faces. Thompson has some nice moments as the befuddled judge, but otherwise, this sketch is a bit of a did.

There was also a couple ho-hum sketches in which Cena was merely a prop – an office Christmas party sketch and a romance bookstore sketch. Both benefited immensely from Aidy Bryant’s committed character work – in the former, she’s hanging on the ledge of her building by the tips of her fingers, while gripping the office Christmas tree. Instead of being concerned for her safety, her office mates are more worried about the Christmas tree. In the romance bookstore sketch, Bryant’s bookstore clerk scurries to a bookstack, where she meets up with her Fabio-like bodice-ripper romance hero, Cena, done up with a long, flowing wig and a puffy white dress shirt. Both sketches are nothing sketches – not bad, exactly, but very funny, though they prove that even in mediocre muck, Bryant is a find.

As far as pre-taped segments go, the aforementioned Dyke & Fats ruled, but there was a solid, if unspectacular, Karate Kid parody that went on for too long, and hammered the joke (Cena’s bully blasted Day’s Karate Kid through a succession of walls so hard, that Day flew out of his pants) relentlessly which diluted the impact of the joke. Still, Thompson was on hand to provide some nice, underplayed comic relief.

Random thoughts:

  • It’s funny that the show parodied America’s Got Talent – cast member Melissa Villaseñor was a contestant on the show. BTW, she was chosen because of her mimicking skills, and she’s not being used very well.
  • Even though McKinnon slayed as usual, Strong and Thompson were right up there, proving their mettle,too.
  • In the game show sketch, Thompson as Charles Barkley, showed that he is filling in nicely for Bill Hader’s former job of hosting fake game shows.
  • Next week, Casey Affleck, out doing the awards circuit right now for his new film Manchester by the Sea will be hosting. Brother Ben is an SNL vet, so we’ll see if humor runs in the family.

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Cult Classics Revisited: ‘Gimme Gimme Gimme’ is a bawdy, hilarious mess

Gimme, Gimme, Gimme: Series 1, 2 & 3 [Regions 2 & 4]Imagine if Will & Grace and Absolutely Fabulous had a baby: then you’d have Gimme Gimme Gimme a strange, but funny sitcom that ran for three series on BBC. Starring Kathy Burke and James Dreyfus, the show was at once extremely low brow and witty. Flouting all kinds of taboos and ideas of political correctness, Gimme Gimme Gimme was a loud, goofy, yet hilarious sitcom that deserves extra viewing.

Kathy Burke is Linda, a bespectacled gorgon of a woman who has no decent job prospects and is a stylized grotesque. What’s great about Linda is that despite her ridiculous appearance – a fright wig of bright orange hair and appalling fashion choices – she has an nearly indestructible self-confidence. She believes she’s the belle of the ball, and though a mirror would set her straight, she chooses to go through life thinking that everyone fancies her. This sort of self-delusion is important and necessary for Linda who doesn’t have much going for her.

Sharing her flat is Tom (James Dreyfus), a feckless wannabe thespian who is the epitome of the struggling actor. Despite his pretensions, his career goes no where and he plugs away either working as an extra on tawdry TV or doing odd jobs to supplement his income. Like Linda, his life is miserable by any objective measure, but he employs a similarly rock-hard deluded sense of entitlement and confidence, which lets him go through life without falling apart in misery and despair.

Like Patsy and Edina from AbFab, Tom and Linda lurch from one unseemly adventure to the next. Written by Jonathan Harvey (best known for the sensitive queer coming-of-age drama Beautiful Thing), Gimme Gimme Gimme revels in the decadent and debauched way the characters live their lives. They are both indiscriminate in their sexuality – and proudly so, eschewing respectability politics. They also do away with any sort of sense of politeness or propriety – like Donald Trump, they say the firs thing that pops in their heard, regardless of how awful or ridiculous it sounds.

As with most British sitcoms, Gimme Gimme Gimme has very short seasons – six episodes, and the plots are pretty thin. There’s some variation on Linda or Tom trying to move forward in either their careers or their social lives, but some kind of obstacle messes up their plans. Like lots of British sitcoms, there’s a strange rhythm and speed to the plots, and often the endings feel rushed, with a lack of a satisfying resolution (it’s as if  Harvey wrote and wrote the plot and then realized, “Oh shit, I need to end this, and simply wrote ‘The End'”). But that’s okay because the plots aren’t important – the show is really a chance to see Burke and Dreyfus spar with each other.

Many people have credited Will & Grace with being ground breaking and revolutionary – our vice president even credited it with the passing of marriage equality in the United States. A decade after its end makes it clear that a lot of the praise for the show is unearned. But the template – straight girl who lives with gay guy – works well with Gimme Gimme Gimme, and thankfully, Harvey chose to go in a wildly different direction. Instead of sweet episodes with fun, quirky jokes, we got two horrible monsters of selfishness who don’t think twice about screwing over the people around them. The jokes are an extravagant mix of queer jokes, sex gags, and large doses of scatological humor. And Harvey seems interested in smashing every taboo  he can imagine: in one episode, Linda’s long-estranged son returns, but quickly the relationship sours and so, inspired by Oedipus Rex (see what I mean by high culture and low brow humor mixing?), Tom urges Linda to seduce her son. In another episode, Tom and Linda compete for the affections of a convicted murderer.

Much of the success of the show is owed to Harvey’s writing, but Burke and Dreyfus are also very important. Burke – known to many as the fast-talking Magda in Absolutely Fabulous – has a ball playing the repellent Linda. It’s a broad performance with no nuance or subtlety, but that’s okay, because it’s a lot of fun. She’s able to modulate her voice to match Linda’s mood – it’s sweet and cloying when she’s playing the coquette, but it turns into a horrible growl when she’s angry or defiant. Like Burke, Dreyfus is also having a lot of fun with a role that doesn’t tax his acting skills too much – he’s also a crack physical comedian and can throw his lanky, pipe cleaner body around, and performs as much with his limbs as he does with his expressive, rubbery face. Though other shows like AbFabFawlty Towers, or The Office have more sterling reputations (deserved, I might add), Gimme Gimme Gimme is a fun – if minor – entry in British cult comedy.

Click here to buy Gimme Gimme Gimme on amazon.com.

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Second season of ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ bests first season

The first season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was all about how Kimmy Schmidt (Ellie Kemper) gets acquainted with a world that has changed during her 15 years living in a bunker with a maniacal cult leader and her fellow victims. Because she’s so strong and resilient, Kimmy was able to carve out a life of some normalcy – she got a job, made new friends, even started to date. Most people take these kinds of life markers for granted, but Kimmy was entering a new adolescence at 30.

The second season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt looks at the damage Kimmy suffered in that bunker. Though she’s smart, perky, and extremely competent, Kimmy is also bruised. The writers barely hinted at the dark trauma, and for the most part, even the worst parts of Kimmy’s imprisonment were played for laughs. But in the second season, Tina Fey and company are willing to push the character into new emotional depths. She still maintains her rigorous positive outlook on life, but throughout the second season we also see cracks in her upbeat facade.

The first season ended with Kimmy successfully sending the Reverend Gary (Jon Hamm) to jail. Meanwhile her best friend Tituss (Titus Burgess) finds out he’s married. And Kimmy’s socialite boss/friend Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski) reconnects with her Lakota roots. And landlady Lillian (Carol Kane), who was rather under served last  season gets her own plot in which she futilely battles against the oncoming gentrification of her neighborhood.

Kimmy’s journey to fulfillment is riddled with obstacles. Though she finds a job at a Christmas store, her dogged commitment to her friends causes her to lose it; her love for Dong (Ki Hong Lee) causes her much heartache, and though the two try to reconcile and pick up their attraction, it ends disastrously; but the most important thing going in Kimmy’s life is her disintegrating self-control.

Because Kimmy was defined by her strength, it was easy for her to fall back on it, rather than deal with what kinds of wrong the bunker did to her. But in the second season, she’s starting to exhibit some symptoms of PTSD that were merely hinted at in the first season: she’s triggered by certain stimuli, she has unresolved issues with Velcro, and whenever she mentions the bunker, she retches uncontrollably and belches foully. To this end, we get a wonderful recurring character, Andrea Bayden (Tina Fey), a horrible shit show of a person who’s a superb analyst and psychologist, but also a hopeless drunk. What makes the episodes with Andrea work so well is that though her character’s alcoholism is funny (in the way that Fey plays it), it’s also very sad, highlighting yet another damaged character. It won’t be a surprise to many viewers to see that as much as Kimmy needs Andrea’s help, she also wants to save her doctor, too. There’s a wonderful moment of epiphany for Kimmy at the end of the Andrea story arc that fully explains why Kimmy is so hellbent on helping people, even at the expense of her own mental health. It’s a profound realization that isn’t pat nor easy – and the story line ends rather bleakly for Kimmy.

Along with Tina Fey, we also get Lisa Kudrow guesting as Kimmy’s mother Lori-Ann, a disaster of a parent who spends her life riding roller coasters. Like Fey, Kudrow is perfectly cast as the fey, somewhat distant and scattered mother, but the writers are careful to imbue Lori-Ann with poignancy. Like Kimmy, Lori-Ann’s life largely became defined by the kidnapping: she was either a figure of pity or a figure of derision. She’s not off the hook for her neglectful parenting, but she isn’t necessarily pillared by it, either. Like every other character on the show, she’s flawed and very human.

Part of Kimmy’s life involves her work. She’s industrious and good at her job. The problem is her job left when Jacqueline left for her parents’ reservation. Jacqueline’s Native American heritage is tricky to play (and the backlash was spoofed in one of the episodes), but the writers just managed to push the story along by adding great comedy and sentiment. Since Jacqueline’s divorce and exile from Manhattan high society, she’s become a transitional figure: she doesn’t belong in her old world, but she doesn’t belong with her parents, either. They not-so-gently kick her out, and Jacqueline decides to return to Manhattan, humbled and poorer (though not poor), and vows to use her wealth and frayed society connections to help Native American causes. Making Jacqueline altruistic is an interesting choice, given that she’s often a monster of selfishness.

Like Kimmy, Jacqueline is looking for a mate, but this isn’t about love. She believes that her worth lies mainly in her beauty. And if she wants to raise any money for her cause, she needs to bag herself a rich man. She gets a sidekick in her endeavors, Mimi Kanasis (Amy Sedaris), a fellow trophy wife who has been thrown aside. And though Kimmy is willing to be on hand to be Jacqueline’s accomplice, their relationship changes as they are no longer employer/employee, but friends. But because Jacqueline is so far up her own ass, she often doesn’t recognize just how entitled and awful she can be, which causes a deep strain between the two. Again, the writers gift Krakowski and Kemper with some great and hilarious scenes together as they try to figure out their new relationship, which is missing what defined their former relationship: their lopsided power dynamic.

For Tituss, the second season is all about self-discovery. His career as a singer-actor is going no where, and though he’s very talented, he’s struggling to make any kind of progress. But thankfully the writers give Tituss a love interest, Mikey (Mike Carlson), the construction worker from season one, who sexually harassed Kimmy on the street (to no avail, due to her naive nature), and who later came out. Carlson is an excellent addition to the cast because he brings such warmth and stability in Titus’ life – and he and Burgess have great chemistry and the relationship grounds what can be a rather cartoony character.

Speaking of cartoony characters, the only mildly sour note of the first season – Lillian – was fixed when the writers decided to make the character more than just a wacky neighbor. Carol Kane is a great actress with crack comic timing, but her large, saucer eyes always seem on the verge of tears, which works out great for her story line: her neighborhood is starting to gentrify as hipsters start to infiltrate, swapping pawn shops and greasy spoons with cafes and trendy sneaker stores. Lillian isn’t railing against this onslaught because she’s old and recalcitrant; instead, she sees this move as a way of erasing not only her past but her presence, as well. Where will she fit in, if her neighborhood suddenly becomes a haven for trendy millenials? The general apathy of her friends and neighbors also has her spooked, as this is her family, and she feels that she must fight his war solo. And though there are the requisite hipster jokes (they’re so quirky!), the story line packs a strong emotional wallop when you see just Lillian’s world threatened.

If my review makes Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt sound sad, well, it’s because the show is sad. It’s very sad. In fact, if it wasn’t for the gags, the show could work as a drama. The cliche of comedy being tragedy plus timing is never more true than with Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, especially in its second season, in which the writers aren’t scared to deliver a one-two punch of sad/funny. And the biggest thing going for the show is Ellie Kemper, who proves with the show that she’s the greatest tragicomic comedienne working today. She’s an expressive actress, and her takes, even if she’s in the background are a wonder. But what works best is when she has to portray the anger or despair behind the smile. In one particularly affecting scene, Kimmy has to confront the fact that she may lose a close friend, someone whom she protected in the bunker. The thought drives her into panic mode and she starts to cry – something we’ve never seen Kimmy do. And it’s alarming and unnerving to see her break down. It’s this kind of blend of loopy humor and heartbreaking sadness that makes me wonder how Kemper hasn’t been festooned with awards for her work.

And though Kemper is easily the best of the bunch, Burgess, Karkowski, and Kane all do great, sometimes incredible work. Krakowski in particular is given some wonderful scenes, and though Burgess is an easy stand-out, she should be given the MVP title for this season’s show. Recurring guest star Tina Fey also is superb – she’s not the most versatile or natural of actresses, but she gives probably her best onscreen performance as the wildly inebriated Andrea. Lisa Kudrow, the master of combining light and dark, also does personable work. Other guest stars include David Cross, Fred Armisen, Ice-T, Judy Gold, Jeff Goldblum, Josh Charles, Joshua Jackson, Zosia Mamet, and Kenan Thompson. It’s a testament to the writing, directing, and acting, that none of these feel like stunt casting (Martin Short’s cameo last season as Dr. Grant felt a little spotlighted), and the actors manage to blend into the crazy world of the show.

The tagline of the second season is “making the world a Kimmier place.” In one of the adverts, Kimmy is walking blindly through the streets, making everything pretty and cute while mayhem ensues in her wake. I don’t think the ad is a good representation of the show because Kimmy is not blind or oblivious to what’s happening around her. And while Kemper’s smiling visage would imply that making the world a “Kimmier” place would mean making it light, airy, and fun – the truth is Kimmy’s no Pollyanna. And though Pollyanna played the Glad Game with shot got tough, Kimmy’s 10-second rule (if she’s going through something, she counts to 10, reasoning that one can stand anything for 10 seconds) is no Glad Game because it’s a way of coping with something that is terrible. It’s a credit to the writers that they refuse to soft peddle what Kimmie went through – it was awful. But the genius of the show is that it portrays something so terrible, but does it with so much humor and funny.

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Maya Rudolph and Martin Short try (and mostly fail) to revive the variety show genre with ‘Maya & Marty’

Maya & MartyDuring the monologue for the premier episode, Maya & Marty, co-hosts Maya Rudolph and Martin Short trade some canned banter about how weird and ill-fitting their show is. They’re joking of course, but their feigned confusion about what kind of show Maya & Marty is supposed to be will be shared by viewers as well. Is Maya & Marty a spoof on the variety show genre? Is it a spin-off from Saturday Night Live (both Rudolph and Short are alum of SNL)? And another question raised is why?

The last question is the biggest one because the existence of Maya & Martin is a bit of a head-scratcher. Two years ago, Rudolph headlined a one-off special, The Maya Rudolph Show, which was a pleasant summer show that showed off the comedienne’s brilliance well. But it felt like one of those TV specials that were so popular in the 1970s: a bright, charismatic celebrity stars in a series of sketches and musical numbers, and greets her famous celebrity pals who join in.

And due to the shared good will of the two stars (not to mention their long lists of contacts on their phones), Maya & Marty boast big-named guests like Kenan Thompson, Jimmy Fallon, Larry David, Tom Hanks, Miley Cyrus, Savion Glover, Kate McKinnon, and even SNL scribes John Mulaney and Mikey Day are on board as writers for the show. Given that Rudolph and Short have a shared history of SNL, and Lorne Michaels is the producer on the show, it’s not a surprise that the whole thing feels and looks like a weird bizzaro episode of Saturday Night Live, in which Short and Rudolph are guest hosting, and they receive all of the rejected sketches. Unfortunately, save for a few bright spots, and the always-reliable talent of the hosts, Maya & Marty feels like a dud.

Few of the evening’s sketches worked all that well – the ones that did, predictably relied on the superior talents of Martin and Rudolph. Two highlights of the night include the return of Short’s Jiminy Glick, whose interview-victim is Larry David and Rudolph’s hilariously cruel send-up of Melania Trump. What works about these two sketches is that the writing matches the talent. Short’s Glick character is always a welcome needle to deflate Hollywood sycophancy, while Rudolph’s sketch lets the comic show off her incredibly versatile talent. It feels as if the writers committed to writing two great sketches and then let the rest of the show just go blah.

In between the ho-hum comedy, Miley Cyrus stops by in Dietrich drag to warble Leonard Cohen’s “I’m Your Man” before being joined on stage with Rudolph to belt out the torchy standard “I’m a Woman.” And Savion Glover’s show-closing tap dancing routine with the troupe from the Broadway show Shuffle Along outclasses Maya & Martin (a few moments earlier, we watched Rudolph pretend to be a skanky rabbit peeing on someone’s lawn).

Look, I wanted to like Maya & Marty, after all, Maya Rudolph and Martin Short are wonderful talents. But the show is a strange and weird showcase for them, and it’s unclear if the show can improve on its shaky premier. Both Rudolph and Short are brilliant sketch comics, so Maya & Marty should’ve been a no brainer – and, as proven in the Jiminy Glick and Melanie Trump sketch, if the pair is given good writing, they can work their usual magic. Hopefully, the writing improves, as it looks as if the folks on Maya & Marty are having a ball producing the show – and it’d be shame to put a stop to their fun.

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Fred Armisen brings some pals to close a spotty season of ‘SNL’

Fred Armisen and Courtney Barnett Bumper PhotosFred Armisen is the sixth former SNL cast member to return to Studio 8H as a host and he did not disappoint. Armisen’s style of comedy is super old school – and owes a lot to Martin Short (who is starring in an upcoming variety show with fellow SNL alumni Maya Rudolph), and no where is Short’s influence more apparent than in Armisen’s excellent monologue that had the comedian share a bit of his fake one-man show with the audience. Armisen expertly pivoted from hackey voices to smarmy schmaltz, all while peddling a cliched tale of leaving Long Island for Manhattan, and becoming a star. It’s exactly the kind of thing Martin Short excelled at, and it’s exactly the kind of thing that Armisen’s so fantastic at: smarmy showbizzyness that has a simmering layer of devastating irony – five minutes of Armisen is more potent at Hollywood-deflating than an hour of Ricky Gervais’ increasingly-toxic material. The straighter Armisen played the scene, imbuing it with calculated/crass pathos, the funnier it became. To drive the point home, Armisen has to micromanage everything, from an audience member’s reaction to the dimming of the lights at the close of his monologue. A terrific start to a mostly-terrific show.

The cold open was as usual, a political sketch, with Larry David returning as Bernie Sanders, and Kate McKinnon back as Hillary Clinton. David and McKinnon are pros are great – it’s interesting to see how McKinnon has had to develop her character, as Clinton’s road to the nomination seems harder and harder to get. No longer is she gliding towards the White House with entitled confidence, but she’s dragging a bloated and lumbering campaign, while Sanders keeps adding more weight to it. It’s also nice to see the writers ding Clinton – pointing out that despite her lead in the delegate count, she’s losing states to Sanders. Sanders’ position as a populist also gets tweaked and there’s something so endearingly silly about the Vermont Senator’s dream of having a tuna fish sandwich…on a croissant, like the fancy people do. SNL will never be known as a devastating source of trenchant political comedy – the Sarah Palin stuff notwithstanding, most of what passes for political humor on the show is decent impressions, catch phrases, and mining tabloids for supposedly topical material. That in this season David and McKinnon are called upon to create real characters is impressive.

Anyways, on with the rest of the show.

It felt like a good episode from Armisen’s tenure. The best sketches used Armisen to the best of his abilities, and despite his singular talent, he’s also a great team player, rarely ever showboating or showing up his teammates.

The sketch that’s getting the most attention is the pretaped Dead Poets Society spoof, “Farewell Mr. Bunting” that has Armisen playing a beloved teacher who is leaving his classroom – but instead of the “Oh Captain, my Captain” recital that took place in the Robin Williams weepie, we get an orgy of decapitations, as Pete Davidson’s student climbs on his chair to join in on the goodbye Mr. Chips moment, he stands too close to a ceiling fan slicing his head off, which leads to a gruesome game of hot potato as the head is tossed from one screaming student to another. While I’m not as enamored with it as everyone else in America, it’s a funny sketch.

Another pretaped sketch that scored was the return of Andy Samberg and Lonely Island. It’s obviously a plug for Samberg’s new movie Popstar, but the short – “Finest Girl” – is just the sort of thing that Lonely Island is great at: a Justin Timberlake/Justin Bieber amalgam of top 40 pop with some seriously f’d up lyrics, this time about a young lady who has a “killing Osama bin Laden fetish.” Samberg’s pop star alter ego (again a weird mashup of Timberlake and Bieber and every other whimpering wannabe soul man) is great fun and even he – as self-involved and deluded as he is – takes pause at his paramours obsession with Bin Laden.

Popping in for a well-received cameo was Jason Sudeikis in a Regine sketch. I never found drag terribly  funny, but I do like the perennially-put upon Regine who is reduced to a pile of quivering flesh whenever Sudeikis shows her any physical affection. Sudeikis is totally committed to his character, plowing through, despite Armisen’s Regine writhing and turning all over the place.

Another recurring sketch, the Student Theater Showcase, scored points. Some find this sketch one note, but I like it. The kids are always doing their best to be politically correct and they strenuously try to expand the minds of their audiences. As funny as the kids are, it’s the parents – particularly Vanessa Bayer – who are the best, reacting to their kids’ nonsense with annoyance and shame.

The Weekend Update was okay – but notable for the fantastic return of Maya Rudolph as recently-impeached Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff. Brazilian readers can school me if Rudolph’s accent was credible (I suspect not), but yet again, she brings the funny by portraying the embattled politico as someone who couldn’t give any fucks about losing her job, and sees her impeachment as an excuse to party. Just as Samberg was appearing to promote Popstar, I suspect that Rudolph’s appearance was killing two birds with one stone: honoring her friend Fred Armisen’s return as well as reminding folks of her upcoming show with Martin Short. Either way, we don’t need an excuse to see Maya Rudolph, and she needs to come back to host.

There was an escape pod sketch that worked solely because of Arimsen’s needling comic persona – and for its attention to strange details (i.e. Armisen’s  character picks City Slickers 2 as his movie of choice when escaping a doomed space ship). The writing wasn’t anything special, but the scribes must’ve realized that having Armisen play one of his nudniks would be enough.

The only bad sketch – and it was pretty bad, with a noxious premise – was the Lewis & Clark sketch. Kyle Mooney and Cecily Strong join Armisen as an acting troupe that is hired by Aidy Bryant’s middle school teacher to perform the Lewis & Clark story. The performance devolves into some ugliness about Mooney’s character being raped by Armisen – I don’t know how many times comics will blunder to try and make rape funny. It was a dark and unnecessary moment in an otherwise bright show.

So, the 41st season of SNL was so-so. I’m thinking that it will be the final season for Sasheer Zamata, which is a shame because she is a bright and funny comic, but was woefully underused. New guy Jon Rudnitsky should also look around for a new job as his inaugural season seemed rather in auspicious. Leslie Jones, Pete Davidson, and Michael Che should all be bumped up to the main cast – each proved to be invaluable. I’m also thinking that Kate McKinnon’s star is on the rise, and it won’t be long before she follows Kirsten Wiig’s trajectory.

 

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