Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Simpsons: They've Still Got It

My first television fandom was The Simpsons. In 1996, I went away to university and got a computer that had internet FOR THE FIRST TIME, and the first thing I did was sign up to various Simpsons fan groups and listservs (I have my priorities). I engaged in the chatter, got involved in the arguments and discussions, and when I went to meet a publisher to talk about how to get into the industry, I think the fact that he and I talked about specific Simpsons episodes for half an hour might have had something to do with him ultimately deciding to hire me. One of my best pals, Jeremy, was also a massive Simpsons fan (he went in for all the merch and at one point had a wall of Simpsons figures that I seriously envied) and I would spend several evenings a month at his apartment just eating pizza and watching episodes. We could have entire discussions using just lines from the show. One time we were riding the subway and he was holding a magazine with Simpsons trivia and he said, "OK... when Bart and Homer are playing Scrabble, what fake word does Bart put down on the board?" "Kwyjibo," I responded without thinking, and Jer's eyes widened and he nodded with pride and said, "NICE." Considering he kicked my ass in the trivia games every time, that praise has clearly stuck with me.

When I wasn't online arguing the finer points of why Smithers' skin colour appears different in a few episodes (the people who inked the show got the wrong instructions), I was actually attending classes, believe it or not. And one day the professor was late, so I sat outside the class on a bench and another guy sat down next to me. He was in the class but we sat on opposite sides of the room, so we hadn't said much to each other. He saw the book I was reading and made a comment that was a quote from The Simpsons. I looked up and gave the proper response from the show, and we were instant friends. That guy is Christopher Lockett, the one who does the Game of Thrones episodes with me.

This was in the mid-90s, when The Simpsons was a seasoned show already, but new enough that people still thought it was the most hilarious thing on TV (it was). By the time it was entering its 11th and 12th seasons, it was considered old, and people were starting to move on to newer shows. The King of the Hill came and went, and the episode where Bobby was kicking everyone in the nads is still one of my favourite things on television EVER. Then South Park happened, and suddenly everything that seemed edgy about The Simpsons seemed stodgy and outdated. The Family Guy and subsequent Seth McFarlane shows used the formula from The Simpsons, and people were turning to them. As I became hooked on HBO series and Buffy and Lost, I completely lost touch with that animated show about the yellow family that I'd once loved with all my heart.

After a while, it became cool to bash The Simpsons. I heard people talking about how painfully unfunny it was, that they'd given up watching it. They boasted that they hadn't watched it in almost 10 years, because the show hadn't had a single funny episode in that whole time. I never stopped to realize that those two statements put together don't make any sense.

Then the Simpsons Movie came out, and my husband and I went to see it, and it was hysterically funny. We were doubled over in the theatre with laughter. Still didn't go back to watching the show. We constantly used lines from The Simpsons in our everyday lives. Still didn't go back. I bought the first few seasons on DVD and then realized I'd have to mortgage the house to own the whole series. When we moved in 2012, I dumped the DVDs.

And then... my daughter discovered it. She'd wanted to watch it earlier, but I thought it was a little too old for her. At age 9, I figured we were OK. At the breakfast table, she would perform entire scenes from an episode she'd seen the day before. She could do Cletus's accent perfectly, and would re-enact scenes of him calling out all of his children's names. When she got to "Rubella Scabies" and "International Harvester," I was in stitches. I started watching the show with her. And without exception, I laughed at all of them. There were the new Sunday episodes, but then Fox showed other episodes throughout the week, rarely going back before 2010, and I realized that the last four years of The Simpsons was just as funny as any of the earlier episodes I'd seen. In some cases, funnier.

South Park continues to be hilarious, but has become adult viewing. The Family Guy stopped being funny a really long time ago, and goes for stupid toilet humour above anything intelligent. Same goes for most of its spinoffs. I've watched all of them, and didn't manage to last more than a couple of episodes with most of them. Yes, I know The Family Guy has taken what The Simpsons started and pushed it further, but The Simpsons shows that they were ahead of the curve in the beginning, and recent episodes show they continue to be. We're in a (baffling) Redneck Renaissance right now, where every single reality show seems to be looking at redneck culture as if it's something to hold up with pride, whether it be Duck Dynasty or Honey Boo-Boo or that show where they submerge themselves in filthy water up to their chins and try to catch fish by hand. And Cletus was there LONG before any of them.

Just a couple of weeks ago, we discovered that the Comedy Network is playing old episodes each night, so now my daughter's watching the classics that I loved. The other night they played the Gummy Venus de Milo episode and I nearly lost it with glee, and was saying the words along with the episode... and I couldn't believe HOW MANY of the show's classic jokes were all crammed into one episode. From the satirical Rock Bottom news program to the kids telling Homer that the TV did a better job of raising them than he did, it was utterly brilliant.

And that brings us to this past weekend's premiere. As season 26 began, many people who hadn't watched the show in years tuned in because A) in one episode we were going to lose a character, and B) they were doing a crossover episode of The Family Guy. And afterwards, I saw many people on my Facebook feed complaining that they hadn't watched The Simpsons in years and it hasn't been funny in all that time (question: how do you know it hasn't been funny if you HAVEN'T BEEN WATCHING IT?!) and complaining about the godawful humour of The Family Guy. But if there was anything you could take away from that episode, it was just how vastly superior The Simpsons is with subtle humour. The Family Guy wouldn't know subtle if it drove over Brian in the street.

But I'd rather focus on the other episode. The entire family sat around the TV to watch The Simpsons as the kids speculated on whether it would be Apu (NO!) or Homer (Uh, no) or Reverend Lovejoy or his wife (I said it wouldn't be his wife because they offed Maude Flanders and they wouldn't take out a second wife) and in the end... it was Krusty's dad. The kids were annoyed it wasn't someone major, and I was simply relieved. But that had very little to do with what made that episode brilliant. While The Simpsons has always shown religion in a way other shows no longer dare to do (the family goes to church every Sunday; Reverend Lovejoy is a tit; Ned Flanders is annoying but means well), this week they focused on the Jewish religion, and did a superb job with it. When Krusty's dad tells him that what he really thinks about him as a comedian is "Eh..." and then dies, Krusty is faced with the vast black hole of not knowing if his father approved of him, and it's a sad episode, always made funny with Krusty's drunken spiral. There are a ton of jokes in there for the kids, who laughed and laughed throughout, and really good ones for the adults, like when Marge tells Krusty she made him some chicken soup, and he says he never eats soup. "So why do you have that little spoon around your neck all the time?" she asks. My husband and I were howling with laughter, while the kids kept begging us to explain that joke.

The Simpsons is still funny. REALLY funny. Every time I've watched it with my daughter, it's as funny as I remember it being years ago. Sure, they miss a note once in a while, but for god's sakes, they've done over 500 episodes. There are few comedies these days that can make it to a fifth season while still having anything funny to say, and even Buffy had what I call the throwaway episodes each season, but The Simpsons just keeps on going, and does it brilliantly. While all those other animated shows have come, gone, and will fade into obscurity, The Simpsons will keep going until one of the voice actors from the Simpsons family dies, I suspect.

And think of it this way: I loved The Simpsons as a teenager. Now my daughter is watching NEW EPISODES of the same show, and she loves it as much as I did. This isn't like Buffy, which I keep promising her we can start watching when she's 12, where she's going to be watching a show that's near and dear to my heart, but is so outdated already that no one owns a cellphone, and in one episode Willow scans a book by running the hand scanner over every page individually. This isn't even like Doctor Who, which I love with all my heart, but has different characters, different sensibilities, and different styles than the episodes that aired when I was a kid. The Simpsons now is like The Simpsons then, with the jokes updated to the present day. When I recently went back to watch The Animaniacs with the kids, all the jokes were very Clinton-related, and went right over their heads and felt old to me. The Simpsons, on the other hand, makes topical jokes, yet makes them seem timeless. Who knows how much longer this show will be on the air, but regardless of how many years it has left in it, we should be celebrating a show that has remained fresh and funny for 25 years, rather than knocking it down because it's been around for 25 years.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

New TV! Sleepy Hollow and Gotham

This fall I've made a pact with myself (that will last a total of one day, because "myself" has become a super unreliable person these days, so I warn you now) that I would watch new shows the night they premiere. That isn't helped by the fact that the shows I needed to watch last night — Gotham and  Sleepy Hollow — ran from 8 to 10pm, and my daughter wouldn't go to bed until 9, and then kept coming downstairs asking for a bagel/apple/banana/water/hot chocolate/milk/wrath of her mother until 9:45. But I soldiered on and watched them! And watching these shows back to back was a little unsettling, since Gotham is set in the dark, seedy underbelly of Gotham City, where otherworldly villains plot to run the town while ruining the lives of its residents and they kill Bruce Wayne's parents, leading the future Commissioner Gordon to declare war on all of them... and Sleepy Hollow is set in the dark, seedy underbelly of Sleepy Hollow, where otherworldly villains try to break through a barrier from purgatory into our world to destroy the world and everyone in it, and Ichabod Crane and Abigail Mills declare war on all of them. The first time the "leff-tenant" said, "This is war," I thought, wait, didn't someone already say that? Oh right, that was over on Gotham.

Bottom line: I thought Gotham was great, but Sleepy Hollow was excellent.

You've probably already read what Gotham is about: it's basically the Batman version of Smallville, where we're going to see Catwoman and Penguin and the Riddler and Bruce Wayne before they become villains/dark heroes, and the final episode of the series will no doubt see Batman suit up for the first time (if Fox lets the show get that far). There's nothing subtle about the show — Penguin's mentor-turned-enemy is named Fish (played by Jada Pinkett-Smith, who I really liked in the role), so we know that will end badly; little Ivy's dad is the most poisonous father you could imagine; the Riddler is named E. Nigma (no, really) and works at the police station — but that's okay, because this stuff was never meant to be subtle. The acting is quite good, and where the cops are usually the dull side of comics, I thought the casting of Ben McKenzie and Donal Logue as the good cop/bad cop detectives is a stroke of genius, because I was as interested in them as all of the creepy characters running around. The most fun to watch is Robin Lord Taylor (also the best name of any of the actors), who plays the Penguin. When Fish Mooney figures out he betrayed her, she beats his legs, and in the next scene you see him doing the creepy penguin waddle that we assume will never go away. (The little prosthetic they put on the actor's nose to make it oh-so-subtly pointy is well done, too.) I thought he was wonderful. As is the boy who plays Bruce Wayne himself. Casting kids is a dicey business. As we saw on Lost, they grow up quickly, so you have to be careful that the storyline moves along at the same pace as the child's aging. But there's also the worry that the kid won't be effective. Henry on Once Upon a Time was cute in the beginning, and just became stilted and whiny a season or two later. But this kid seems mature, as if he's playing younger than he is (which is good) and has that glowering look of hatred in his eyes that runs so deep, you just know he'll eventually be donning black spandex and beating the crap out of bad guys in a low, growly voice.

Over on Sleepy Hollow, we open with what this series does best: show what a fish out of water Ichabod Crane still is in our 21st century. We think he's still in the pine box, calling out for the lieutenant out of fear for himself and her, but in fact he's in a dark room because she's about to surprise him with a birthday cupcake. And poof, we're one year after the incident, and I guess the escape was going to be too boring and since we KNOW they're going to make it, maybe this is a clever way to do it? (The writers want you to be confused at this point, and it works.) The scene is glorious, from the fact that Abbie went with a red white and blue motif on the cupcake (ha!) to his astonishment and bafflement at our weird traditions. "Why does your era celebrate terror with dessert?" he asks after she has left him in a dark and stormy room and then suddenly flipped on a light switch and yelled surprise at him. When she explains the tradition, he says in his stilted "I'm trying to be cool" way, "I shall consider myself punk'd." LOL!

Ichabod: So what, you just stare at it?
Abbie: You blow it out, you make a wish.
Ichabod: A wish.
Abbie: Another... modern tradition.
Ichabod: And here I thought science had won over superstition in modern America. Fine. I wish...
Abbie: Not out loud...
Ichabod: Is there no end to this birthday madness?!

Oh Ichabod. How I have MISSED you!!

For the first 15 minutes, they continue to play out this present-day/we've already been saved scenario: if we assume this show is in the present, and several months have passed in our time, those same months have passed in theirs as well.  They presumably got out of the coffin/purgatory back in January/February at some point and have been having adventures, and we're joining them in September, where they will inevitably flash back to show us what happened in the past. Throughout this first 15 minutes I enjoyed the action immensely, as they broke into an office and battled the Headless Horseman, etc., but I kept wondering how exactly they got out of their fixes. They go to see the Sin Eater Henry (Ichabod Junior) and he makes a comment about how even though he's using artificial sunlight on his plants, they don't seem to know the difference and will believe what they're told. And I thought, "Hold on... wait a..." and immediately after, we discover this was all an elaborate trick, they're still in purgatory/coffin, and they've been punk'd for reals. Amazing.

Of course, there's a key and they get out of the coffin and purgatory and manage to keep Moloch in but he's raising an army of evil dead and Jenny's still alive and Headless Horseman Abraham has Katrina and he's being skeezy with her and Henry apologizes to Moloch but Moloch has other plans and introduces Headless Horseman #2 — WAR — and Henry gets to control him like one of the guys controlling the robots in Real Steel (now I just want to see two Headless Horsemen playing Rock 'Em Sock 'Em) and Abbie declares war on everything.

So, the usual awesomeness.

But there are so many other highlights throughout, usually by the brilliant Tom Mison, who plays Ichabod with such arrogant charm and yet complete bafflement that I can't imagine anyone else pulling off this role.


  • Benjamin Franklin is played by Timothy Busfield, who is always amazing in any role. The first time we see him, he's entirely in the nude, and Ichabod shows his disgust with an exaggerated eye roll, making the scene even more hilarious. We see instantly why Ichabod didn't like him, but as Abbie points out, they're pretty much equal when it comes to arrogance. 
  • How many more times he seems to have said "Leff-tenant," especially now that it's been established as the key part of a viewing drinking game (and that that would be her one way of figuring out the fake Ichabod was indeed a fake!) 
  • Ichabod's surprise that Harvard (a university that was established before the American Revolution, as were most of the Ivy League schools) still exists.
  • Aside from the cupcake moment, my favourite scene is Ichabod, about to blow up the coffin and possibly killing himself in the process, deciding to use this newfangled technology in his pocket and leave one last message for his dear friend Abbie on his camera phone: "If I die, Lieutenant, I want you to know that I never stopped fighting... [phone suddenly says MEMORY FULL] ... AND none of that recorded." HAHAHAHA! 
Sleepy Hollow had an excellent return, and Gotham a promising premiere. Here's hoping the rest of this week's premieres are as much fun! 

Monday, September 22, 2014

Ten Years On... How Lost Changed My Life

September 22, 2004
Ten years ago today. I was still sad that there would be no Joss Whedon show on my TV that fall for the first time since 1997. I had just become a mom, and was struggling with a month-old newborn that wasn't eating properly, never slept, and in 30 days had shown me the beautiful side of motherhood (the immense love I could feel for my own child, the pride I took in friends and family seeing her for the first time and the looks of awe on their faces) as well as the dark side of motherhood (the judgement I got from non-parents and parents for choosing to breastfeed, the physical pain following the childbirth, the lack of understanding of what I was going through from friends and family, the sleepless nights).

Light and dark. Two sides of that same extraordinary thing we call life.

While pregnant I had written two books, and one of them was about to come back from the printer that week (the book on Alias) and the Angel book would appear a couple of weeks after that.

And there was some new show premiering that night about a group of people on a mysterious island, and critics were saying the opening scenes were some of the most extraordinary moments they'd seen in a pilot. So I was excited, to say the least. Exhausted, and faced with the very real possibility of not actually staying awake through the episode, but excited.

And then it aired. And it truly was one of the most — if not the most — extraordinary pilots I'd ever seen.

The scenery was spectacular. The acting was brilliant. The writing was fast-paced and deep. And I stayed awake for it, with my baby in my arms, riveted. I couldn't wait for the following week's episode.

I thought Angel and Alias would be my swan song. There was no way I'd be able to write any more books after having children, right?

September 22, 2005
I had just started talking to my publisher about a possible Lost book. Maybe Angel and Alias wouldn't be my swan song.

September 22, 2006
Eight years ago today. The third season of Lost was still a couple of weeks away, but I was holding the first volume in what was going to become a series of books on Lost, a book I'd written. My daughter was two years old, and we'd actually developed a sleeping routine where she'd be asleep by 8 and Mommy would work during the day, and after she would go to sleep, I'd write from 8 until 11 each night, and somehow managed to get a book out of it in the end. I was also about to have my first and only book launch for it, and I was excited.

I had just started blogging in July for the first time, and had just been hired by Wizard magazine to do a weekly Lost column. Plus side: I got a ton of people who read that magazine to follow me over to the blog, many of whom stayed with me until the end of Lost and afterwards. Down side: they balked when I asked for a paltry sum of money to be paid to me each week, because, like many online magazines, they just assumed they could find professional writers and pay them the sum total of NOTHING and they would be thrilled to do the work for free. (When the writer's strike happened, they used the opportunity to replace me with an intern, who wrote a lousy column for about three weeks before they quietly cancelled it.)

September 22, 2007
Seven years ago today. I was giving birth to my son. My doula and husband were both Lost fans, and by all doctor's accounts, I was going to give birth to that boy on the anniversary of the plane crash. But the boy had other ideas, and he decided to wedge himself into a strange position and not come out. Instead, I'd be in final active labour for many hours before the nurse from 2pm finally got the 11pm nurse to wheel in an ultrasound machine, where they discovered that he was wedged in my pelvis and had the cord wrapped around his neck. Panic. As they prepped for surgery, a doctor rushed in and manually turned the baby just before midnight (they had already frozen me in anticipation for a C-section, so I didn't feel what would normally have been an extremely painful procedure). As my doula and I watched the clock tick past midnight, she turned to me and cheerfully said, "Oh well, he'll be born on the 23rd. That's still one of Hurley's numbers, right?!" Despite the worry and pain, I remember laughing and laughing. He was born shortly afterwards, with the cord wrapped twice around his neck... and his little hand under it, pulling the cord away from his neck and up onto his chin, holding tightly to prevent himself from being suffocated. Even when he was a few seconds old, I knew I had the smartest baby in that hospital.

September 22, 2008
I had just experienced my first Slayage conference in June and was suddenly opened to the vast world of pop culture academia, and began incorporating some of that broader thinking onto my blog and into my writing. My son was one day away from his first birthday, the blog had exploded into a flurry of activity, and because I didn't write the season 4 book during my maternity leave, I had to get started on it now, and write the season 5 book at the same time when the show would start up again in January. I thought there was no way I could write one book with one child, and now I had to write two books with two children.

September 22, 2009
By this point Lost's season premieres had switched to January, so Septembers no longer had that special meaning for the show. But this time, in anticipation of the final season, I was in the midst of a Lost rewatch on the blog. Two days earlier Michael Emerson had finally won the Emmy for Best Supporting Actor for his work as Ben Linus on Lost (so deserved) and the day after this, I held my Finding Lost Season 5 book in my hand for the first time. There was a lot of sadness and excitement and anticipation surrounding a premiere that was still four months away, but what had started out five years earlier as a show about a plane crash on a mysterious island had become much, MUCH bigger than that.

September 22, 2010
It was over. It had finished almost exactly four months earlier, and I and many others thought the ending was a spectacular finish. While others thought it was the worst ending of all time. And still others were stuck in the middle, not quite sure what they thought of it. We had laughed, we had cried, we had argued, we had colluded... we had expounded theories and written haikus, and some of my favourite moments in my life were some of the discussions that had popped up on this blog.

But it was over. There was still a flurry of activity on the blog, because my final book was about to come out and I was holding a contest where people photoshopped Lost photos with characters holding my books. It wasn't the 500-comments-per-Lost-post I'd experienced in the final season of the show, but slowing down that activity was a bit of a welcome thing. Leading up to the series finale, I had been quoted in so many newspapers, done so much television, and had been interviewed on so many radio shows my head was spinning. I actually took a week of vacation time just to handle the media for the week leading up to the May 23rd ender. It was a whirlwind, and exhausting, but fun.

But in September, I'd just had the worst summer of my life, with far too many upsets and things happening to me personally all at the same time like a giant pile of suck, but I wasn't about to share them on the blog and bring down the room. I was going through a personal low point, and it was feeling harder and harder to smile every day, and I just wanted that feeling to go away. And without having Lost around and the lively discussions that followed, I almost felt lost myself.

But what I was going through was small potatoes to what the creators of the show were going through, being called every name in the book and then some. I'd seen fan vitriol, but nothing like this. And what was so sad about it is that Damon Lindelof eventually threw in the social media towel, and no longer gives any interviews involving Lost, and that's all because, like all of us sensitive artist types, he was so focused on the hatred and cruelty of fans that he couldn't actually appreciate all of the positivity sent his way.

Damon, your show changed my life. And I LOVED that ending. It was an extremely personal ending to the show, which meant it was only going to resonate with a certain population of the Lost crowd. And it resonated with me.

September 22, 2011
I had just undergone a painful and stressful heart procedure, and was just beginning to walk again (of all the arteries they can use to send the electrical wires into your body, they choose the ones in your groin. Why thank you, you sadistic heart prodecure pricks). And in less than two weeks, I was heading to New Orleans to give the keynote address at a small Lost academic conference. The show had been over for almost a year and a half, but people still wanted to talk about it. Especially that ending. And I went to New Orleans, and it was glorious and wonderful (and I want to go baaack!), and I managed to trick everyone there into thinking I was walking without pain, and I met the lovely and amazing Jo Garfein and we went to dinner and yammered about Lost the entire time (duh). And Chris "humanebean" Doran was there with his partner and it was so lovely to see them (for the second time that year, I might add!). There were a ton of Lost folks I hadn't previously met, and there we were in the city of music, talking about a show that had changed all of us. We were all ready to go on, and yet we'd all been deeply changed by this show. I no longer blogged the way I used to, and oddly, I don't think I actually blogged about the Lost conference at all. There'd been a time when I would have blogged three times a day on it, detailing every second of it. But I no longer had that drive to do that. I just wanted to enjoy the moment, and not document it.

September 22, 2012
My husband and I had made the decision earlier that year to move away from Toronto, and we still had a few boxes to unpack at this point but my kids were ensconced in a new school and enjoying it, my son was about to celebrate his birthday in our new house, and I sat on this day and looked out my office window and was happy. Really, really happy. I hadn't written a book in two years, because after writing five books in five years, I needed a break. This was the point where people started asking me what was next, and I happily said, "At this point, nothing." And I was OK with that. In an increasingly turbulent and stressful world, we'd found peace.

September 22, 2013
I opened my eyes early in the morning, threw on my bathing suit and headed out at 5 in the morning to the beach, where I sat and watched the sun come up over the water. I was in Hawaii on the ninth anniversary of a show I'd written about for five years, and my husband was already out golfing (surprise) and there was no one else on this small beach. Just me and my thoughts, watching that sun come up on what was going to be another gorgeous day. I had gone on the Lost KOS Tour just a few days earlier, and had been drilled by the guy on Lost trivia, and there was only one thing I got wrong which really niggled at me, until I found out that they'd come up with the question from reading MY book (ack!). I imagined what it must have been like to have lived in this place for six years, as many of the cast of the show did. How difficult it must have been to leave. How the luckier ones like Daniel Dae Kim found a way to stay. And how this beautiful island provided a setting for a show that changed what we expect from television. Even the dumbest programs on TV now seem to have something smart about them; no longer are executives going for the lowest common denominator when they're trying to figure out their fall schedules. Lost upped the ante of what we should come to expect from a network show. And it all started with a plane crash on a beach only a few miles from where I was sitting at that exact moment. Earlier this year, I had lost someone very close to me, and the last trip he took before he died was to this very place. I thought of him, and I thought of the show, and I knew there was going to be a huge celebration for the show's 10th anniversary the following year. Since I was in Hawaii in 2013, it was doubtful I was going to make it back for 2014. But that was OK. I watched the sun continuing its climb into the sky, and the early-morning swimmers coming out to the beach.

September 22, 2014
It's unseasonably cool here at home. I'm sitting in my office after having seen so many beautiful pictures from friends who are in Hawaii right now at the Lost 10th anniversary celebration. I'm thrilled that so many people had to go baaack to celebrate this wonderful show. And while it feels like Lost had its premiere date on September 22, 2004, and then I blinked, and now I'm sitting right here, I realize what a long journey it's been to get here. Ten years ago today I thought I'd retired from writing after my fifth book, I didn't have a clue what awaited me as a mother, and I thought no other TV creator was going to move me the way Joss Whedon did. In that 10 years, television has changed entirely for me. Aside from the shows I wrote about, I actually watched very little other television. Now I'm pumped for several premieres this week, and can't wait to see which ones stick. My daughter has reached double digits, and my son will be seven tomorrow. The two cats who curled up on either side of the chair when I watched the Lost premiere are both gone, but now we have two kittens, who are curled up in a box that's far too small for them, right near my desk. The job I'd had for seven years when the show premiered was the one I thought I'd die in, but I'm no longer at that office. I have dozens of people in my life now I didn't even know back then. A lot can happen in a decade, and Lost has been beside me the entire way. To everyone I've met because of Lost, thank you for being a part of my life. I have met people I never would have met because of Lost. I've read books I never would have read because of Lost. I've watched movies and other television shows I had no interest in before Lost. I'm a different person now, and a lot of that is due to a show about a bunch of people on a mysterious island, and the people on this mysterious ball of a planet that I met as a result.

And thus endeth my seemingly endless ruminations on Lost. It's really time to move on and let it go, and I think I'm finally able to. Besides, I've got to go and get working on my new Sherlock book. That thing ain't gonna write itself.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Trip to Italy

There’s a word in the English language that I relish. Often, when my husband and I are away somewhere hot, sitting at an upscale restaurant, one of these beauties will appear on the side of my plate as a garnish, and I never fail to pick it up, look at him and say, “kumquat” in as clipped a fashion as I possibly can.

So imagine my delight when, in their latest film, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon turn that word into the funniest back and forth gag since the “Gentlemen, to bed!” fake dialogue they improvised in their first film, The Trip.

Now, in The Trip to Italy, they’re back, riffing on everything from Alanis Morrisette to who was more unintelligible in the Batman films: Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne (not Batman, but Wayne) or Tom Hardy as Bane?

As one account has pointed out, if these guys were sitting beside you at a table in a restaurant, you’d first poke their eyes out with a fork before doing yourself in. But onscreen (and edited) they are wildly funny, if still occasionally annoying. I know Rob Brydon is very popular in the UK, and the people I went to see it with are big Brydon fans, but I’m still a Coogan gal myself, and think his comedy is very understated and hilarious. Brydon is known for his impressions, and he so rarely uses his own voice that you wonder if he ever forgets who he actually is. And, oddly, whenever Coogan corrects him and does the impression himself, he almost always does it better. There were times when Brydon was doing either Sean Connery or Hugh Grant for the billionth time that the woman behind me in the theatre would groan, “Oh no...” and I couldn’t blame her. But then he would say something so off-the-wall hilarious that all is forgiven. And he does pull off an extended riff on his “man in a box” routine that is so funny I was doubled over throughout the scene.

As in The Trip, the two men are sent on a foodie holiday by a newspaper — in the first film it was to northern England, and in this one it’s Italy — and the images of the countryside are so gorgeous it’ll take your breath away, and the food will just make you hungry for the entire film. But the real meat of the movie is in the conversation between the two men. I can’t imagine how many hundreds of hours of improv director Michael Winterbottom had to edit to winnow it down to the 90 minutes of the film, but he must have had a hilariously fun time doing so.

Yes, they do try to shoehorn in a plot. In the first film, it was about Steve Coogan having a midlife crisis, trying to figure out where he is in the world, why he’s not more popular as an actor than he is, why no one recognizes him on the street, why women no longer look at him the way they once did, what happened to his marriage, and why his son won’t speak to him. Brydon, on the other hand, was happily married and had a newborn baby, and was recognized everywhere they went. In this outing it’s Brydon who’s unhappy: his wife is so caught up in their three-year-old daughter that she doesn’t have time for his phone calls, and his mind and eyes begin to stray to other women. The problem is, if you’ve ever been left at home alone caring for young children while your spouse travels, you know how exhausting and time-consuming it is, and that he’s living his life’s dream while his wife toils away at home with the youngster. So, unfortunately, he was utterly unsympathetic to me as he worked through his issues, and I thought the subplot was handled better in The Trip.

That said, I would recommend this to anyone who loved The Trip (and if you haven’t seen that movie, do), if for no other reason than to hear them riff on the word kumquat.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Thoughts on The Leftovers

For the first three weeks of HBO’s The Leftovers, I blogged on it immediately following the episode. But after the third week, the summer turned into craziness, my husband (who is a golf writer) was away for most of it, I was at home alone with the kids, and I ended up falling behind on watching the show. By the time five episodes had piled up I knew I’d missed the boat on keeping up with the blogging. So I decided I’d sit down and watch the rest of the season in one fell swoop and blog about it at the end.

And what a season it was.

I adored it.

What started off a little slow, not really focusing on one character over another and showing a world that was intolerable in its gloominess turned into a deep, philosophical look at how we handle grief and the unknown. How we turn against each other in the very moment we should be coming closer together. How we try to move past things but they always follow us wherever we go.

The first truly spectacular episode was the third one, in which Christopher Eccleston’s reverend moved to the foreground and we focused on one particular character and what happened to his life on that fateful day. His episode culminated in the Guilty Remnants taking over his church, painting it all white, and continuing their crusade to ensure no one would forget what had happened. The rest of the season fanned out to include the other characters, and by the end of the final episode, there were enough archetypes that you could identify with at least one of them.

For me, it was Nora Durst, for no other reason than she’s married with two children. I didn’t identify with her much at all in the beginning; I didn’t like her character, I thought she was cold and strange, and didn’t quite get where she was coming from. I admired her for trying to move past the tragedy and smile in the direction of people who meant her harm (like the stupid teenagers who rob her car early on), but even when the focus moved to her trying to go to the convention as a legacy, and being upset that they’d given her the wrong badge, only to overhear how tired other people were of the legacies throwing around their tragedies instead of moving on... I still wasn’t quite sure what I thought of her.

And then the finale happened.

The season has been building to an all-out war between the Guilty Remnants cult and the rest of the citizens of the town. Officer Garvey has been warning the mayor that the GR is trouble, and that they do mean harm to the people who are there. However, Garvey is clearly suffering from a mental breakdown and people are starting to recognize that. He closes his eyes and loses long periods of time, as if he’s flitting between two universes — one in which he’s got everything under control and he sees a light at the end of this dark tunnel, and another in which he’s lost all control, the world is against him, and he’s only going to sink deeper into his own grief and heartbreak. And since the world is a dark and horrible place, we the viewers have no idea sometimes which world he’s in.

I loved the structure of the episodes. The flashback happens exactly where it needed to: in the penultimate episode, to remind us who these people once were before all hell breaks loose. Or the Christmas episode, which opens with the factory making hundreds of little rubber baby dolls, which not only becomes Kevin’s obsession in the episode, but foreshadows what happens in the finale and how the Guilty Remnants do what they do with factory-like precision.

Patti is the ringleader of the GR. I swung back and forth on my sympathy for her, but landed hard in the “NOPE” category by the end of it. I’m still trying to wrap my head around why the Guilty Remnants think what they do is OK, but Patti’s even worse than they are, because, like the best cult leaders, she’s tricking them into believing that their way is the only way. She arranges for one of their own to be killed in a brutal attack (that Patti herself led while hooded) and then tricks Garvey into capturing her while he’s in a fugue state, and goads him into killing her. He comes to his senses and won’t do it, knowing that to martyr her would make everything so much worse. He knows the truth about what she did, and she knows the truth about what he did. She could tell everyone about him tying her up and beating her up, even though he has no memory of doing so (just the mysterious dog killer knows about it aside from her). He, on the other hand, could tell everyone about what she did to one of her followers. The only way his argument loses ground is if she’s not around to answer for it. And so she does the only thing that will leave him entirely screwed: she cuts her own throat open and leaves the mess for him to clean up.

Garvey manages to get the reverend back on his side, but at what cost? In one of Garvey’s fugue states he imagines the reverend locking him away in a mental institution, which he could very well have done (was that real? Is what happens next real? There are moments where it’s not clear, but it does seem for the purpose of the other characters’ stories that it was his imagination).

Garvey’s father had a mental breakdown shortly after The Disappearance, and he’s in a mental institution, save for one episode where he tried to convince Garvey that the voices in his head are insisting that Garvey read a May 1972 issue of National Geographic.

Why this particular issue? Does it have something to do with the cover story of Yellowstone visitors being mauled by bears? Archaeological digs on the island of Thera solving the mystery of the Minoans? In any case, Garvey will have none of it, and keeps trashing each copy he gets.

Garvey’s son has been on a mission to keep safe The One, the pregnant woman carrying Holy Wayne’s child, until he discovers that she is One of Many, and there are several other poor saps trying to keep safe pregnant Asian women. And so he decides to break away and keep her safe on his own, but she escapes and leaves the baby behind. So he returns home, the only place where he thinks he might actually find help.

The prodigal son returns, but the angry teen daughter has defected over to the Guilty Remnants, putting mother Laurie in a quandary; with Patti gone, she’s now the de facto leader, and needs to be behind the GR cause, but is this a life she wants for her daughter? And if she doesn’t want to see her daughter chain-smoking and bringing pain to others, and wearing white and refusing to speak, then how can she convince the other followers that this is the correct path to follow?

What sets up the show for the beautiful and horrifying finale is the episode that comes before it, which, like the best Lost episodes, provides us with a flashback to what the lives of everyone looked like before. And what was so glorious about this episode was the acting: If you thought that Laurie was just an unsmiling, quiet, chain-smoking weirdo in the Guilty Remnant, think again. She was a vibrant mother with a wicked sense of humour who loved her family dearly, even though she knew that things between her and Kevin were in trouble. The daughter was sweet and funny, the son came and went but he was a loving member of the family. Patti was sad and confused, and believed something terrible was going to happen to everyone. The reverend and his wife were engaged members of society, part of the local parties and social scene. Kevin’s dad was a respected member of the police force. Nora Durst was a mother of two sweetly annoying children and a happy wife who was testing the waters of moving back into the workforce. And when everyone Disappeared, Kevin later says his children were so happy to see him alive, and he was grateful he didn’t lose anyone in his family. But he did... for in that moment of disappearance, Laurie was having an ultrasound, looking at the very healthy baby on the screen. The one who was there one second, and gone the next. Only she knows that she and Kevin lost a baby that day.

And that brings us to the final horrible act the GR commits. For a couple of episodes we see Patti and the GR stealing family photos out of people’s homes; Patti uses the church to arrange clothes on the floor, and I suspected they were somehow connected (especially when she kept consulting a book of photographs to make sure the outfits were correct). And then what appeared to be bodies in white sheets were carried into the church. Do they know what happened to the Disappeared? Is it possible they’ve found the bodies? What the hell are they doing?

Nope. Somehow they seem to have stashed thousands and thousands of dollars away to have meticulous wax figures made of the Disappeared, made to look exactly like the photographs, and they break into people’s homes in the dead of night and set them up as a horrifying tableau, ready to shock the Left Behinds when they wake up in the morning.

Because we saw what Nora and her family were like in the moment of the Disappearance, that the last thing she did was yell at her daughter before she was gone (every mother’s nightmare), that she read to them every night and kissed their foreheads and was an involved and engaged mother, the scene awaiting her in the kitchen — the last place she saw them all alive — is the most gut-wrenching thing I’ve seen on TV this year. It’s not exact — the GR has the boy sitting in the girl’s spot, as if to say something is slightly wrong here — but the look on Nora’s face, and the keening howl of despair that escapes her mouth she sees them, was enough to send my heart into my mouth. For the first time, she’s trying to move on with Kevin and rely on the sweet and happy memories of her family, but seeing them all sitting there looking so much like they did in life, and yet waxy and all wrong, her entire world falls out from under her.

Most of the episode happens between here and the end, and when we come back to her, she hasn’t fallen onto the floor or raced out of the house. We can only imagine how long the wailing went on, or what went through her mind when she realized what was going on or who had left these grotesque statues in her kitchen. But when we come back to her, she’s sitting at her spot at the table, stroking the hands of her fake children. To me, that was even more devastating, and I finally identified with her 100%. I imagine wanting to fold those phony statues into my chest, and hugging them so hard they would begin to disintegrate. Not wanting to let them go, not wanting to head back into the world, and just hoping I could disappear along with them. And perhaps all these thoughts race through her head, but instead she sits there for hours and hours, stroking their hands, not talking or moving, and realizing just like these statues, the memories of her children will be staring her in the face whenever she thinks she’s moved on. And she can’t move on.

The episode ends with Nora’s voiceover dictating the letter she leaves for Kevin, that she’s realized she’s stuck and can’t move on, and she will carry these children with her forever. As it’s read over an image of her carrying the wax statues upstairs and putting the children to bed one last time, the tears were streaming down my face. The heavy anvil that was sitting on my heart got heavier, and I couldn’t imagine going through anything like this. What sounds like a suicide note isn’t; she’s simply leaving, and moving far away from the house, from the wax statues, and from the horrible GR cult that has done this to her and the other townspeople.

Kevin returns to town in the midst of an all-out riot, with people setting the GR homes on fire and starting a bonfire in front of it as they toss their waxy family members into it. “How could you DO this?” asks the aging parents of the man with Down’s Syndrome as they throw his likeness into the fire. The mayor stands in the middle of the street, shocked and horrified, and looks at Kevin and blankly says, “you were right.” He’s the one who told everyone the GR were trouble, and no one listened to him. Now look what’s happened.

Kevin helps Laurie out of the burning house, but a look of terror crosses on his face as she says her first word in two years — “JILL!!” — and he races back into the house to save his daughter. The two of them walk back home together in time to find Nora standing on the porch, holding the Chosen Baby that Kevin’s son has clearly put there because he doesn’t know what else to do. A smile crosses her face as she realizes the world is full of so much death, but maybe new life can begin to change that.

If The Leftovers hadn’t gotten renewed (and it was as of last week), this actually would have been a fitting ending. Open-ended, yes, but one where we would have felt like we’d had a snapshot into their lives, and there’s hope for everyone.

But as we move into S2, things are looking up, except for the fact that the town looks like they will kill any GR member they see, and Kevin’s mental state is so precarious he’s now imagining Patti straddling him and whispering evil thoughts into his head.

The show is dark, yes, and I’m sure that has put some viewers off. But for me it does best what so many shows of its ilk do: it shows us the darkest moments one can imagine and asks what we would do in that situation.

And then, at least for me, it makes me appreciate the people I have around me all the more, because I can’t imagine suddenly losing any of them in this way.

I'm running through the entire season by memory, because I decided to just sit down and watch it with no notes. Yes, I'm sure I've missed some items, but I'm focusing on the things that affected me the most. What did you think about the first season? Will you be tuning in to the second?