Epitosodes: Hey Arnold!

thanksgiving

By Allen

The Episode

Season: 3

Episode: 14

Title: “Arnold’s Thanksgiving”

The Review

It’s sometimes easier to see our lives fitting into a template than allowing the randomness of life to take control. We seek that uniformity because it lets us feel connected in a time where connection is severely lacking. This is especially true for young adults, who crave the validation provided by assigning their identity to one particular stereotype or niche. This manifests itself usually through tastes and brand loyalty, but more commonly in the United States, society’s need to fit into a category comes out during the holiday season.

As the son of two Syrian immigrants, I always felt a little bit left out of the traditional American childhood. I didn’t visit or have friends over my house in any meaningful way until high school, I didn’t have many outdoor adventures with the neighborhood kids, and I didn’t have anything resembling the Wonder Years-esque experience of young love whatsoever. I don’t regret these things not being part of my life, because I made up for them with meaningful, character-buildling experiences of my own. Sometimes, it’s nice to imagine what could have been.

I did watch a lot of cartoons though. When my family and I were still living in a lower middle class duplex, my sister and I watched a whole lot of Hey Arnold! It fit into Nickelodeon’s block of cartoons that bridged the gap between serious adult drama and slapstick kid’s show. Nickelodeon was doing what Pixar is today, essentially. For those that don’t know, Hey Arnold! was a show about a young nine year old boy living with his grandparents and various tenants in a boarding house located in some nebulous amalgamation of New York City, Chicago, and San Francisco. The general formula for an episode of Hey Arnold! was: Arnold sees something wrong with the world, tries to fix it, fails, learns something, and accepts that he can’t fix everything. The show was about disappointment, and realizing how little power we have to change the world. It’s a message that resonated deeply with me as a young kid, filled with optimism and hope that all of the world’s problems could be fixed with friendliness and a helping hand. That’s not to say the show was nihilistic or cynical; rather, Arnold’s accepting that he couldn’t change things led to him being a better person, and adjusting his world view to fix the world in small ways.

“Arnold’s Thanksgiving” is the episode that I frequently reference as an essential part of understanding why the show resonated with so many people. The episode starts with Arnold biking down a facsimile of the Brooklyn Bridge, when he stops to watch the christening of The Mayflower II as a city landmark. As the credits fade in, he looks on wistfully, as he so often does at history and culture. Craig Bartlett, the show’s creator and lead writer, has said that his original pitch for Hey Arnold! was that Arnold would start every episode dreaming of some fantastic scenario, then be woken up in class by his bully and secret admirer, Helga Pataki, shouting the show’s title. It’s clear that they kept the skeleton of this idea in “Arnold’s Thanksgiving”, where you can tell Arnold is dreaming of big ideas before heading back to reality.

The next scene takes place at Arnold’s school, PS 118. The students put on a play telling the story of the first Thanksgiving, and everything immediately falls apart. The hastily-made set collapses, the audience laughs, but the kids keep going. As every scene is ruined in some way, the students never stop the show. Arnold and his friend Gerald are backstage, and as Gerald espouses his love for the holiday, Arnold reveals why he looked on at the Mayflower II so hopefully; he doesn’t get to have a “real” Thanksgiving in the boarding home. His grandmother “gets mixed up”, and confuses Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July, meaning they have to go along with it and cook hot dogs on the roof in November year after year. Arnold’s grandmother’s identity confusion is clearly a sign of advanced dementia, and although the show plays it for comedy most of the time, they treat it with just the right amount of weight for it to feel real. The tenants accept her disability, and work around it.

Helga, the other half of this show, goes on a rant backstage about how her Thanksgiving’s aren’t very typical either; between her overbearingly perfect older sister Olga coming home, her alcoholic mother (don’t worry, the show plays this off as her mom just being a goofball who ‘likes smoothies’), and her father who can’t be bothered to do anything but eat and watch football. The irony of both of these scenes is that Arnold and Helga are playing lead characters in the final scene of the play; a re-enactment of a modern day Thanksgiving amongst a happy family. Both of them get to play the part, but once the curtain goes down, they feel left out again.

The next few scenes really highlight how much the creators cared equally about Helga and Arnold, with each scene bouncing between the two of them as their nontraditional Thanksgivings are shown. They both try to nudge their families into more traditional Thanksgiving celebration, but nobody listens to the nine year olds. These scenes hit home with me the most. I made efforts as a kid to fit into more stereotypes; wearing “cooler” clothes, having a messier room, asking to eat more “American food”. I just assumed that was all right, and fitting in would make me feel like less of an outsider.

Arnold and Helga eventually give up trying to fix their own Thanksgivings, and they both leave their homes for the afternoon. I always found the freedom of Hey Arnold!‘s young cast to come and go as they please fascinating, but it makes so much sense when you consider how truly little their guardians cared about their well-being, be it because of old age or neglect. They both cross paths outside of a store displaying models of a traditional American Thanksgiving, looking inside but always separated by glass. In a beautifully directed scene, they go for a friendly walk on the pier and pass by the Mayflower II, still cruising around the bay. As they look on, it crashes into a bridge and collapses. This is actually the funniest scene in the episode despite sounding so tragic, because it really highlights how willing the creators were to go for a visual gag if it also had a solid symbolic undercurrent. The image of the Mayflower crashing in front of two depressed and jaded young children says everything about this episode.

The kids decide to go join what they think is a “real Thanksgiving” at the home of their teacher and writer of the school play, Mr. Simmons. When they (yet again) look through glass to see Simmons’s house and witness a family dinner almost perfectly resembling the characters in his play, they long to go inside. This time, they pass through the barrier and ask Mr. Simmons if they can join him for dinner. He politely obliges, and the dramatic turn of the episode becomes clear. Mr. Simmons’s Thanksgiving is anything from idyllic; his mother is overbearingly judgemental, his two friends are miserable thirty-somethings that take joy in ridiculing others, and his uncle is an oafishly loud eater (who is also inexplicably Canadian). The whole scene ends in a shouting contest, which Arnold and Helga take as their cue to leave. They realize as they converse in Mr. Simmons’s kitchen that he wrote the play as an idealized version of his own family, and that maybe there isn’t such a thing as a perfect Thanksgiving. Simmons comforts them, saying: “This may not make much sense to you now, but I’m truly thankful for them”. Family gatherings are messy and loud, people don’t get along well, but happiness comes from accepting each other’s flaws and being together. The kids realize this, and head home to their families.

The world does pay you back for being a good person, according to Hey Arnold! Helga comes home to a family that misses her, and they put her handmade centerpiece on the table as they eat together. Arnold comes home to an abandoned rooftop grill, but it turns out the tenants and his grandparents decided to meet him halfway and throw him a surprise party that mixes both Fourth of July and Thanksgiving celebrations.

This episode holds a special place in my heart not just because it echoes many of the same things I worried about as a young child, but it’s also hopeful and honest in a way most cartoons are not. The credits roll as we cut back to the Mayflower II. All of its passengers are safe, and the hull of the ship rises back to the surface. Everything is okay, just a few buffs and scratches. And that’s how family can be; rough and constantly on the verge of sinking, but always capable of rising back to a healthy medium.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Advertisements

Epitosodes: Game Grumps

S'Grep

By Allen

The Episode

Series: Wind Waker HD

Episode: 19

Title: “Fresh Air”

The Review

I implore you to watch the episode of the YouTube show Game Grumps in question before reading this article. It’s about 16 minutes long, and even if you hate YouTube shows and the culture surrounding them, trust me when I say this episode is nothing like what you’d expect from a “Let’s Play” channel.

Friendship. It’s the third most powerful relationship between living things after family and love. It is also my favorite thing about Game Grumps, a tri-daily video series on YouTube where two hosts play video games and shoot the shit. Traditionally, this format appeals to adolescent teens coming home after school to watch their crazy Internet shows filled with memes and people screaming into cameras. However, Game Grumps one-ups its contemporaries by not only putting real discussion over the games in question, but by consistently feeling like a window into the hosts’ personal lives.

In November, the Game Grumps, animator Arin “Egoraptor” Hanson and Daniel Avidan began a series on the HD remake of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. Having never played the game after hearing so many good things, I was excited to watch along with this playthrough. Episode 19 specifically, entitled “Fresh Air”, exemplifies exactly what I find so captivating about the show.

Arin begins the episode with a typical recurring joke, replacing the “game” in the show’s title with something off the top of his head (in this case, “Psychology Grumps”.) In-game, he controls Link in the Forbidden Forest, immediately impeding his own progress by dropping an essential platform out of reach. As he fixes his mistake, co-host Dan jumps in to thank the viewers for sending them emails about how the show helps them deal with depression. Right off the bat, this is something I love about Game Grumps. You feel like you’re watching with a community of diverse, unique people. Dan then opens up about his own personal story, which dictates the tone of the rest of the episode. Essentially, after becoming very ill in his late teens, he developed early stages of depression and anxiety. This leads to both him and Arin discussing topics like OCD and how it affects creativity and relationships, loneliness, and finding comfort online. This loops back to why I love this episode, which is that it makes you feel like you’re part of something immense. Dan was relieved to realize that OCD is a treatable disease, and the viewers are taking comfort in the fact that someone else can share  their most personal issues. Few things make people feel happier than a sense of togetherness and validation.

From there, Dan offers advice to the viewer while Arin guides Link over muddy forest water. Halfway through the episode comes the kicker, where Dan describes how he threw his Prozac medication into a river, and learned to solve his own problems internally. It’s practically a Lifetime movie ending, but it clearly comes from such a place of honesty that it doesn’t feel false or exaggerated whatsoever. Arin thanks Dan for sharing in such a public forum, to which Dan responds that he’s “just returning the favor”. Once again, from someone else, these words would sound so cheesy and useless, but Dan seems to be a mature enough person to just open up to people. This is where Game Grumps separates itself from the target demographic and its less thoughtful contemporaries; not once did I mention in this recap what happens in-game in detail. When two close friends sit on a couch and open up to each other over games, what’s on the screen doesn’t matter. It’s the emotions, confessions, jokes, and observations that make those moments memorable.

The hosts spend the rest of the episode espousing inspirational quotations from literature, separating this episode yet again from other Let’s Play shows. And like any great bit of pop culture, this episode opens up the possibility for so much more exploration of the topics discussed. Dan and Arin recommend books and videos for people to watch related to self-actualization and creativity, all of which educate the viewers in ways that one video can not. At the end of the day, Game Grumps does still fall under the category of “YouTube shows aimed at a young demographic.” But this made it all the more exciting to see an episode like “Fresh Air” pop up in my subscriptions feed, knowing that thousands of young people are taking these lessons into the real world and improving their own lives. That’s Game Grumps in a nutshell. It’s occasionally crass, the games aren’t always good, and the discussion isn’t always entertaining, but like with real life conversations with the ones you love, it’s the important moments and episodes that stick with you when the video ends.

Epitosodes: Duck Dodgers

Duck Dodgers

By Magellan

The Episode

Season: 1
Episode: 9
Title: “The Green Loontern”

The Review

If I were to compose a list of my favorite television shows, it would have a healthy mix of Mad Men-style period dramas, quirky sitcoms from the 00s, and Warner Brothers cartoons like Animaniacs and Justice League that are smarter than they have any right to be. 2003’s Duck Dodgers covers all three. It follows the zany day-to-day adventures of a deeply sardonic and manipulative protagonist who must make his way through a highly stylized world that wants to do anything but accept him for who he is (Don Draper = DuckDodgers, see the connection?). Oh, also he’s an anthropomorphic duck who flies through space with his pig sidekick.

For those who don’t know, Duck Dodgers is based on a Merry Melodies cartoon from 1953 entitled “Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2th Century” (watch it here, it’s delightful: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RqAUiUDyFlY). Or, in a sentence, it’s Daffy Duck in space. That short film on its own is one of the more fun takes on Daffy that I’ve seen (matched perhaps by “Duck Amuck”), and Duck Dodgers runs with it. The show is wall-to-wall classic Looney Tunes-style slapstick and wordplay, along with biting science fiction parody.

The episode that I’ve chosen to focus on, “The Green Loontern,” is a bit of a special case. It deviates from the standard Duck Dodgersformula, telling a full-episode story rather than two ten-minute-long stories. It’s also much more iconic and memorable than most episodes, if only because of the DC Comics crossover. Now, I didn’t pick this episode to focus on because it’s the funniest (it isn’t) or because it’s the smartest (it isn’t) but because the way in which this episode shakes up the Dodgers status quo helps to elucidate just what makes that status quo so great.

First, let’s run down the plot. It starts off in typical Duck Dodgers fashion, with Dodgers leading the Cadet (aka Porky Pig in a space onesie) around town as he does errands. The brief minute or so that we see of this does a great job of establishing Duck Dodgers as an endearing jerk who just wants to make sure that the Cadet doesn’t put any of his things down on “the filthy sidewalk.” Eventually, Dodgers has to go pick up his dry-cleaning, which is when the story kicks into gear.

The cleaner’s seems to have had a mix-up, as Dodgers finds himself with a uniform much different and greener than his own. He tries the baggy number on, and finds that it magically fits his form when he dons the glowing ring that comes with it. Dodgers has now gained the powers of a Green Lantern, which leads to a delightful sequence as he tries out his newfound abilities around the city. Every line out his mouth in this sequence is pure gold (my favorites: “Time to mete out some sophomoric justice,” and “Whoa, check out the serious babe-age!”), and I could watch Daffy Duck fly around as a Green Lantern for hours.

“The Green Loontern” begins to lose me, however, when the crossover becomes more exaggerated. After Dodgers hangs the Cadet off a flagpole by his industrial-strength underpants, he’s whisked away to the Green Lantern base planet of Oa by a distress call. The planet is being ransacked by Sinestro (or, as Dodgers calls him, “Say-what-stro”) and an army of robots. The attack leaves three Lanterns and Dodgers to formulate a counter-attack and free the other members of the Corps. Although there are certainly some great moments of comedy thanks to how little Dodgers knows or cares about the Lanterns Corps. (take, for example, his version of the Green Lantern Oath:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OfO5S1Iu_VU), the entire sequence on Oa, and the rest of the episode, smacks of tonal dissonance.

Maybe it’s unfair of me to criticize a children’s cartoon for mishandling its tone, but this particular cartoon is clever enough that I feel it’s warranted. My issue with the episode lies in the way it plays the classic straight-man/funny-man relationship. Normally, Dodgers has the Cadet or Marvin the Martian to act as his straight-men, characters who are, on some level, just as ridiculous as he is. The Cadet cleans up all of Dodger’s messes, but he does so while talking in that hilarious, stuttering, Porky Pig way. When Dodgers is forced to interact with and play off of characters that are more grounded in real-world reality and consequences, the formula begins to tear at the seams.

That’s not to say that superheroes are real, but they do care more about realism in terms of danger and consequence than cartoons. If Duck Dodgers were on any other mission, he could get blown up or disintegrated and stand up to do the next scene. In the world of the Green Lanterns, however, every threat has to be de-clawed in order for him to cope with them. The ray beams have to teleport people rather than injure them, the robots have to be given dopey personalities so that they can squabble about robot high school rivalries, and Sinestro has to be rendered no more intimidating than your corny uncle in a Sinestro costume. Mixing these two worlds has the doubly troublesome effect of cutting out the slapstick half of Dodger’s shtick, as well as neutering Sinestro and the Lantern Corps. in order for everything to mesh.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed this episode quite a bit. Even though it was cheesy, I thought the Dodgers-Sinestro banter was hilarious. And, like I said, everything on Dodgers’s home world with the Lantern ring was classic in its charm and rapid-fire pace. All I’m trying to say is that there’s a lesson to learn here about blending worlds together and about adding well-known and specific rules to an otherwise zany and off-the-cuff cartoon universe. When you mix two properties together, you should think of it less as a liquid concoction and more as slicing two balls in half and sewing part of each together. No matter what you do, you’re losing fifty percent of what makes each universe special and compelling, so it’s vital that you pick two worlds that end up complementary. Some mash-ups are like a tennis ball and baseball, a sort of Frankenstein that you can get away with and still play either game passably well. This episode was more like a stitched together basketball and football. It’s amusing, and you can probably still have a lot of fun with it, but first you have to spend twenty minutes figuring out how to handle the damn thing.

Epitosodes: The League

The LeagueBy Magellan

The Episode

Season: 3
Episode: 1
Title: “The Lockout”

The Review

September is rapidly coming to an end and we just passed the equinox last week, so it’s safe to say that autumn is in the air. For some, that means back-to-school and changing leaves, for others that means turkey and Halloween costumes. For me, it means football. But not watching football. And not playing football. And not even playing a football video game. No, autumn means watching a television show that is tangentially focused on a group of dysfunctional adults participating in a fantasy football league. It’s quite a few degrees of separation away from anything remotely athletic, but that’s usually how I operate.

Minute for minute, joke for joke, The League is by far one of the funniest shows on TV today, and you don’t have to know jack about football to get a kick out of it. I can only assume that being familiar with a few players would in some way enrich the viewing experience, but for now we’ll leave that as a silly hypothesis. After all, I’d much rather gush about my love for this show by highlighting one of my favorite episodes. (And no, I’m not talking about the one where Eliza Dushku is the sexy, flirtatious Krav Maga instructor, though anybody who’s read my Dollhouse article knows the affinity I have for the woman.)

The focus here is going to be on “The Lockout,” the third season premiere, and quite possibly the best season premiere of the bunch. See, the first episode of most seasons of The League tend to go all out, pulling out all the stops and sending the group on some gimmicky romp (like the Vegas draft that started Season Two, or the trip to the Dallas Cowboys training camp in Season Three). This episode, though, stays at home in Chicago, and because of that it’s a reasonably accessible jumping-on point, and in many ways a better first episode to watch than the pilot.

It helps that it hits the ground running with Rodney Ruxin’s absurd, cameo-filled musical number, “The Shiva Bowl Shuffle.” It’s a taste of how ridiculous the show is willing to become to get a laugh (a theme that ends up defining the climax of this episode). What follows is a fairly standard re-introduction to the main characters, with Andre serving out his punishment for losing the previous year by playing the flute at a bus stop as the others watch with glee. This flows into a run-of-the-mill (by League standards) bar scene, complete with semi-improvised dialogue and a dash of exposition. The stand-out moment, which in a way is indicative of the quality of ribald humor that this show’s peculiar structure is able to elicit, comes from Ruxin. He turns to a ragged Andre and asks “Do you see yourself more as a rapist who does magic, or a magician who also likes to rape?” That alone would be enough to make me giggle, but it’s Andre’s pitch-perfect, dead-pan response that speaks volumes about this show’s edgy, unremorseful sense of humor: “Okay, well, with me magic always comes first.”

Other than that line, it would appear that this episode is relatively tame. Within the first ten minutes or so, all the plot development we really get is Jenny trying to train her husband Kevin like a dog and the group fudging the draft order results to keep Ruxin from picking first. The situation remains fairly benign, typically sitcom-y. Of course, this is The League, so the status quo only sticks for a few minutes at most.

When Taco, Kevin’s stoner brother, is reintroduced, we are treated to a clip of his appearance on a Middle Eastern soap opera as an American “rapper/cowboy/cautionary tale” whose catchphrase of choice is “Bang, bang, what’s the hang?!” It’s goofy, but it’s Taco, so this really isn’t out of the ordinary. But it warms us up rather nicely for the reappearance of another bizarre character and audience favorite: Jason Mantzoukas as Ruxin’s criminally insane brother-in-law, Rafi.

Now, Rafi is one of the more ridiculous characters in a cast full of sociopaths and vengeful competitors, so you might think that he would seem out-of-place in a season premiere that I have, thus far, touted as grounded. But that’s the real accomplishment of this episode, that it can bring Rafi back to the group in a public library, introducing himself by saying (in a sing-song voice) “I am day-drunk and ready to see my dick,” and have that mesh with the rest of the plot. He doesn’t feel shoehorned into the episode, and it really does make sense for him and his associate Dirty Randy (played by Seth Rogan) to want to shoot a porno film called “My Orgy at Andre’s” at Andre’s apartment. It’s difficult to explain how seamlessly “The Lockout” flows from suburban married shenanigans, to fantasy football politics, to absurdist smut humor without forcibly sitting you down and making you watch it. Instead, I will simply reiterate that this episode is one of the best introductions you can have to The League, since it assumes you know nothing while still throwing you into the deep end of its more disgusting humor without so much as a warning or a floatie.

The ending of this episode also represents something that I love about The League: it’s a show that doesn’t care about consequences. Most of the time when I watch television, I pick it apart and become frustrated that events aren’t followed to their logical conclusions, that actions don’t bring about proper consequences. When it comes to The League, though, I never have that problem. Every episode reaches an insane, almost infeasible climax, and as soon as the punchline is delivered the credits roll. They make no qualms about the fact that The League exists solely in the service of humor, as a vehicle for a joke, and once it’s fulfilled that role it has no more reason to exist. Sure, I like character development as much as the next guy, but sometimes it’s just nice to sit down knowing that for the next twenty minutes I’m going to laugh, and as soon as I’m done laughing the episode will end.

So you can be excited about whatever you want this autumn. You can look forward to apple picking and pumpkin carving and whatever else. I’ll be over here laughing my ass off.

Epitosodes: Spaced

SpacedBy Magellan

The Episode

Series: 2
Episode: 5
Title: “Gone”

The Review

I’m hardly the resident Anglophile here at Pop Modern, so it’s rare for me to seek out a British television show when the time comes to binge. Part of me, I think, is put off by how short-lived most series from across the pond tend to be, when I’m used to immersing myself in sitcoms and dramas that nearly straddle a decade. Hell, I’m still coping with the fact that Breaking Bad is stopping short at five seasons, and that’s already a lot of television. So you can imagine the mental block I experienced when I first saw Spaced scroll across my Netflix homepage. What finally tipped the scales and got me to sit down and watch the show was seeing The World’s End. You see, that movie was an incredible cinematic experience, and it put me in the mood for more Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright. To satiate that thirst, I went straight to the well, so to speak, to a cult favorite early project of theirs: Spaced.

The series stars (and is written by) Simon Pegg and Jessica Hynes as Tim and Daisy, two twenty-something wannabe creative types living in London and posing as a couple to appease their drunken landlady. The series is directed by Edgar Wright, and also stars Nick Frost as one of the supporting cast: Tim’s military-obsessed best friend, Mike. I knew that this combination of people would produce a great series, but I was surprised by how upset I felt after those mere fourteen episodes were so quickly over.

Rather than bemoan what I can’t have, though, I’m going to focus on what I do have and try to communicate my appreciation for the unique voice of this show. I decided to focus on one of the later episodes of Series 2, “Gone,” for a few reasons that will soon become apparent. First off, the episode exhibits a level of narrative framing that most of the others don’t have. Namely, it begins in medias res with Tim and Daisy running down an alley, only to be stopped by a group of street punks intent on beating them up. We as the viewers have no clue what’s going on, and Tim and Daisy react by moving to pull out what we can only assume are guns when the episode transitions back to six hours beforehand.

That opening tinges this episode with a kind of gritty tension that meshes surprisingly well with its normal pop-culture-laden dialogue and absurdist humor. It speaks to the versatility of this show that it can transition from that grimy, frightening alley scene to a peaceful moment in Tim and Daisy’s flat, where Daisy is using some exotic oregano to cook a stew and Tim is trying on shirts for his big date with Sophie, a character introduced in the previous episode. The scene also speaks to the subtle, sophisticated aspects of this show’s comedy. In this few-minutes-long scene alone, I noticed at least two or three jokes that I didn’t the first time around, and I enjoyed the jokes I recognized the first time all the more. For instance, there’s a great bit of acting by Pegg when he answers the phone to talk to Sophie and his voice cracks, prompting him to make a shocked, disgusted face that only somebody like Pegg, with his slacker British charm, can pull off.

I didn’t pick this episode for the jokes, though. I wanted to focus on “Gone” because it showcases some brilliant, early manifestations of Edgar Wright’s unique directing style. As an example, when Sophie says she can’t go out, Daisy says that she and Tim should just go drinking, asking Tim what he would do otherwise. The audience is then treated to a long-exposure shot of Tim sitting in his beanbag chair playing Playstation all night as people flit in and out of the flat. Even better, though, is the part where Brian (their eccentric, painter neighbor) comes in and Tim and Mike rope him into an imaginary gun fight. It’s the kind of silly fake gun fight that elementary school kids have, with histrionic gestures and self-made noises, but it’s shot like a legitimate action sequence. It has the same frenetic, fast-cutting style of some of the best bits of Hot Fuzz or Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, turning a mundane, silly activity into a visually enthralling piece of television.

The episode goes on to play with its visual style, as Daisy and Tim describe their respective desires for how the night will play out. Daisy’s are shown in snapshots, like scrap pictures in a photo album, whereas Tim’s are shown as sketches in a notebook, since he is an up-and-coming comic book illustrator. This is followed by a particularly clever transition shot, where Tim flips a coin to see whose plan will be followed, and the coin fans out into the coins that Tim has just slammed onto the table at the bar they end up going to. From that point forward, the direction grows zanier as the protagonists get drunker.

Slowly, we find out that the lead punk from the beginning of the episode ran into Tim in the bathroom and wanted to buy weed off of him, but Tim refused. We then see Daisy talking to Dwayne, a minor character who stole Tim’s last girlfriend, and who was shot in the balls with a paintball gun several episodes ago. It’s a good integration of this bit character, and he once again gets his just desserts by episode’s end. It’s soon revealed that Tim and Daisy were stopped by the punks outside the bar and forced to hand over their weed, but accidentally gave them Daisy’s oregano instead. This understandably pisses the kids off when they find out, explaining the situation that we found ourselves in at the beginning of this episode.

The climax plays out beautifully, with the scene that I so admired in the apartment paying off in a big way: Tim and Daisy were in fact reaching for guns like it seemed before the shot cut at the beginning, but fake guns. They have the episode’s second fake gun fight (once again directed like something straight out of a high-budget action flick) with the punks, and leave them lying “dead” in the street. It’s a hilarious moment, but it’s made all the more hilarious by the how seriously it’s taken with regards to the visuals. In the end, it’s the attention to detail that makes Spaced such a phenomenal show.

If there’s one gripe to have with this episode, it’s that the four supporting stars (Mike, Brian, the landlady Marsha, and Daisy’s fashion-obsessed best friend, Twist) are almost not used at all. Twist isn’t even in the episode, save for a disturbing cubist painting of her that Brian has in his apartment. And Marsha also gets little play, other than a flashback Daisy has of a conversation with her that fills in Marsha’s tragic backstory a little bit. Mike and Brian at least get an adventure of their own, wandering the night searching for Colin, Daisy’s dog, who escaped out the front door. As viewers, though, we really only see them leave and come back, so they don’t factor into the outcome of the plot. Despite this squandering of the supporting talent, this episode is bolstered by Tim and Daisy’s relationship, which is entertaining to watch and see hints of its development towards the end.

The credits roll over Tim, Daisy, Mike, and Brian spacing out on the couch, having unbeknownst to them consumed a serving of Daisy’s stew dosed with Tim’s weed rather than oregano. It’s a charming ending, and it’s emblematic of the show’s relaxed tone. Overall, “Gone” does a great job letting its leads shine and exhibiting the narrative and tonal flexibility of this show. Too bad it only had fourteen episode in which to flex.

Epitosodes: Veep

veep-cast_510

By Allen

The Episode

Season: 1
Episode: 7
Title: “Full Disclosure”

The Review

“Veep is gonna go apeshit menstrual over this!” shouts White House aid and towering, gargoyle-like lackey Jonah Ryan to Vice President staffer Dan Egan in the first scene of “Full Disclosure”, the penultimate episode of Veep’s first season. This is a show that I have come to love very dearly this summer. I had heard that Julia Louis-Dreyfus played the vice president, and the show centered on her and her staff’s hysterical adventures. I expected something akin to The Office, but with higher stakes. What I got was a show that examines the internal politics of Washington D.C. from a comically dark point of view that fits perfectly in HBO’s current lineup.

I chose “Full Disclosure” not only because it showcases the best of the ensemble cast, but also because it is smack dab in the middle of some of the show’s best plot revelations. Dreyfus’s character, VP (or “veep”) Selina Meyers, has confided in her right-hand lady Amy Brookheimer that she is pregnant with her boyfriend’s baby. The problem is that she’s not married. The relationship between Selina and her lover is not lingered on for too long, and the viewer gets the feeling that she can’t keep a stable relationship together in addition to her demanding career. That demanding career, ironically, dehumanizes her and her staff, because the hard part of being the Vice President is convincing the public that you are human and know what you’re doing.

“Full Disclosure” starts with various members of the cast listening to a radio show, where the hosts ard criticizing Amy for firing a White House security officer for smiling at a joke. This leads to some negative press for Selina, and it’s up to her team of experts to defuse the situation. In a group meeting, Amy suggests that they release…everything. Every email, text message, and phone call made by the office will be laid out for the press to see. Following up with the show’s theme of false honesty in the public eye, the idea here is not to reveal secrets to the press; rather, the plan is to inundate them with so much information that they can’t actually discover the real secrets of the office. There’s an offhand line in this exchange that I’d like to examine. In the previous scene, the staff finds out that Selina had a miscarriage. It’s immediately glossed over, and the matter at hand is dealt with. Amy says “Dan, just because this isn’t your baby…ooh, wow. I’m sorry, ma’am”. Selina then delivers the most thematically important line of the episode, free of any inflection or sarcasm.

“Oh. It’s fine, it’s fine. I mean, it was like a heavy period. Don’t worry about it.”

The exchange demonstrates how soulless this group really is. It’s strange to think a show that offers a (supposedly semi-accurate) look at the Vice President’s office would choose to portray them as ignoring the death of an unborn child. After finishing Season One, I did some research on the mind behind the show, and I learned that the show runner is Armando Iannucci, Italian-born filmmaker living in England who is known for directing 2009’s In the Loop and 2005’s British comedy series The Thick of It (which Veep is an American remake of). It makes a lot more sense to view Veep as the exaggerated views of an outsider to American politics than as someone who has lived and breathed it for all his life. Similar to In the Loop, Iannucci uses Veep not to criticize American politicians, but to deconstruct how inaccurately they are portrayed in the media. These men and women aren’t sitting in desk chairs all day, reading memos and shaking hands with businessmen. When the doors close, they swear, they have sex, they do drugs, and they are brutally, overwhelmingly, human.

The reason I like Veep, and the reason “Full Disclosure” is such a good episode, is that we’re seeing the staff at their worst. In a later scene, Selina plans to fire at least one of her three main staff members for incompetence, and they opt to lie to each other and go for the “suicide pact”, where they all supposedly quit if one of them is fired. The plan ultimately fails, because nobody is willing to go through with it. There’s a background gag in this scene where Gary (Tony Hale), Selina’s bag boy, is offering to make her tea with the hope of seeing one of his coworkers get fired, only to be shooed out of the room like the meaningless bug that Selina sees him as. Even when there are people’s livelihoods at stake, Selina needs to be the one laying down the verdict. As the meeting comes to a close, Gary and Selina being the only two remaining in the room, they both glare at the door, regretting that fact that nobody was sacked. Later, when Selina brings her boyfriend Ted to Gary’s house to privately break up with him, she has the chance to be a good person and accept that their relationship is over. Instead, she chooses the more conniving option, and leaves Ted with his hands in his pockets, and tells Gary to let him go. “But do it very sensitively, and make sure there aren’t any repercussions or something like that.” And just to make sure Gary doesn’t harbor any resentment for having to do this, she makes sure to compliment him on his beautiful home before she leaves.

The role of the Vice President as her boss’s footstool is explored in the series through many different perspectives. Since it’s a show about the veep, the big man upstairs is never shown nor mentioned by name. It goes to show how selfish she is, and how she uses her minor position of power to weasel her way into the decision-making of the superiors that she holds so much contempt for.

“Full Disclosure” ends on a tragic note that feels like it would fit better in another HBO series like Boardwalk Empire or The Wire. Without actually saying anything, Selina forces Amy to throw herself under the bus and claim that the pregnancy and miscarriage were hers, and to essentially embarrass herself publically to improve the reputation of the veep.

Selina Meyers is not an inherently bad person. She’s simply an ambitious person who was dealt the wrong hand in life, and she’s dealing with it the best way she can. By bringing others down with her, she asserts her power in government, and manages to make the public think she’s only a little crazy. I think that’s why Veep isn’t as popular as some of HBO’s other comedy series. It’s hilarious, but most of the good jokes are at the expense of nice characters, and the viewer can’t help but feel like the focus of the show is just to make politicians look bad. But look a little deeper, and it becomes clear that Veep is a show that highlights how being in the public eye can make a person completely and utterly crazy, and how the humor within that scenario can bubble up to the surface.

Epitosodes: Dollhouse

DollhouseBy Magellan

The Episode

Season: 1
Episode: 9
Title: “A Spy in the House of Love”

The Review

It’s no secret that Joss Whedon is a beloved creator in the nerd community. This isn’t news to you, I’m sure. You’ve already heard about how great Buffy is, you saw Avengers in the theaters at least three times, you know the drill. Listen, I’m not here to talk about that stuff. I’m here to talk about the show that I like more than Firefly, the show that I don’t think gets enough love among Whedonites: Dollhouse.

For those who don’t know, Dollhouse follows the adventures of Echo (played by Eliza Dushku, who also served as a producer for the show), an operative of a clandestine facility known as “The Dollhouse,” which imprints its Actives with personalities to fit the needs of their clients. These personalities range from lovers to assassins, and when the missions end, the Actives revert to a “tabula rasa” state. It’s an interesting premise for a sci-fi drama, and it gives the story a lot of different directions it can go, which is showcased by the episode I’ve decided to focus on: “A Spy in the House of Love.” It’s an episode from later on in the first season, after things started to pick up. See, the issue that many people will have with Dollhouse when they first try to watch (beyond the “Dushku-is-a-kung-fu-prostitute” over-simplification of the show that we’ll discuss later) is that the series starts off rough. The first few episodes are self-contained and don’t represent Whedon’s knack for developing larger stories. Part of this can be explained by the disputes over the pilot episode, which had to be re-worked to fit suggestions from FOX. Granted, “A Spy in the House of Love” isn’t the best or most interesting episode, but it’s structured in an interesting way.

This episode plays around with time and with the unique perspectives of its characters. It opens on a shot of someone being forced into the imprinting chair, but we as viewers are not shown who it is. The only clue we get as to what’s going on is from Echo, who’s standing with her fellow pajama-clad Doll, Sierra, outside the imprinting room. When Sierra voices curiosity as to what’s going on, Echo says “She made a mistake, now she’s sad.” The whole episode is concerned with figuring out what the hell that means.

We then flash back twelve hours, to Echo in the van on her way back from an engagement, talking to her handler, Boyd, about the philosophy of S&M. She’s dressed as a dominatrix; scanty leather, whip, and all. This is one of Echo’s more egregious get-ups, and it’s not as if the show isn’t self-aware here. In fact, Victor’s handler, who Echo and Boyd pass on their way in, off-handedly calls Echo “S&M Barbie.” The show acknowledges the fact that people in the universe see Echo and the other Actives as playthings and sex objects, but it’s clear that the audience isn’t meant to see them that way. The whole dominatrix thing isn’t played sexually; it’s just a casual occurrence, and Echo is in control of her body and her opinions (or at least, the personality they implanted in her is). Much like Whedon’s other work, this show respects and elevates women, even while it’s portraying them as the sex robots of the rich and lonely. That’s a point that may not come across in writing, but trust me when I say that this show is far from senseless objectification.

Once we get inside the Dollhouse, we find out that Topher (the nebbishy scientist often used as comic relief) has discovered evidence of espionage in the form of a mysterious chip in the imprinting chair. We see the ensuing hub-bub from Echo’s outsider perspective, as she wanders around in her emotionless Doll state, looking through windows and watching people yell at each other. All she knows is that something bad is going on, but she has no way of understanding what that is. She goes to Topher in her curiosity, and exhibits a strange new behavior: she sits in the chair and asks him to change her, like he changes everybody else. Echo is gaining some form of self-awareness, a theme which is explored throughout the series and expanded upon in later episodes. It’s the central conflict of the show: having to define who you are in a world where people can be imprinted with new personalities at the drop of a hat. This is a show which tackles issues of identity and self, and that’s part of why I like it so much.

From this point forward, the episode switches between different Actives’ perspectives every commercial break, starting with November and moving through Sierra, Victor, and back to Echo. It’s a pretty genius framing device, since each part of the episode traces the path of each Active and shows how they interacted with Echo through the limited perspective of the opening segment. A conversation that we hear one sentence of when Sierra and Dominic pass Echo in the first part of the episode is given to us in full when we’re seeing things from Sierra’s perspective. All of the stories branch off like that, intersecting with and deepening characters in a way that an Echo-centric episode wouldn’t be able to do. November’s story, for example, shows her returning to her imprint as Paul Ballard’s neighbor. Paul is a disgraced former FBI agent intent on finding the Dollhouse, and, through November, we see how he’s descended into paranoia, with extra locks on the door and articles and yarn all over his wall, mapping out the conspiracy. Through Victor’s story, we find out that DeWitt has been secretly hiring out Dolls to fulfill her own fantasies. For the first time in the series, this ice-cold, British hard-ass has a moment of weakness. The Echo story is also good for character development, since she takes on the role of a master interrogator, sitting down the major operators of the Dollhouse. Among them is Boyd, who gives the best quote of the episode, and also the best summation of the series’ premise: “We’re pimps and killers, but in a philanthropic way.” The Sierra story is your typical mission-of-the-week Dollhouse fare, with her breaking into an NSA building and stealing some secret government files to figure out who’s been spying on the Dollhouse. Although it doesn’t do much in the way of character development, this segment does a great job of keeping up the episode’s pace and showcasing the bulk of its action.

That’s ultimately why I picked this episode: it’s incredibly well-paced. It offers both intimate moments (such as November and Victor’s imprints) and energetic ones (such as Sierra and Echo’s imprints). The episode’s ability to switch between these various perspectives and still offer a suspenseful, cohesive story speaks volumes about Dollhouse’s versatility. Everything comes together when Echo discovers that (spoiler) Dominic had a false document planted for Sierra to find, and that he’s been the spy all along. The episode returns to a more complete version of the chair sequence from the opening, but not before showing Dominic smugly reminding Echo that she’s just going to get her memories wiped again. This exchange brings together the whole episode’s point about identity, and about how much of your personality is innate. The cherry on top comes when Topher brings DeWitt a hard drive that he calls “The unabridged Lawrence Dominic.”

Honestly, when I first watched Dollhouse it was because I had a long-standing crush on Eliza Dushku, and I wanted to see her play dress-up. This show is so much more than that. It’s as interesting and clever as any Joss Whedon series, with a great cast of characters that the actors fully embody. It asks important questions about what identity will look like as our society advances, and it all hangs on a main character that evolves from nothing, that starts out as a blank slate and becomes a complex, human entity. When I first watched Dollhouse, I was after a rather two-dimensional form of entertainment, but I ended up getting more than I bargained for. I came for Eliza, but I stayed for Echo.