Case Study 63: Kindred: The Embraced, Episode 7–“Bad Moon Rising”

Original Airdate: May 1st, 1996 on FOX

With a track record of shows like The Love Boat, Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place, 7th Heaven and Charmed, Aaron Spelling is famous for producing television that strikes it rich with audiences and goes nowhere with critics, but his TV adaptation of the hit role-playing game Vampire: The Masquerade flopped. What went wrong?

Strengths

  • Julian Luna. The protagonist of this show is ostensibly boring old human Frank Kohanek (C. Thomas Howell, The Outsiders) but the real star is Julian (Mark Frankel,) the vampire prince of San Francisco. It would be easy to paint the leader of an underground society of vampires as violent and mercurial, but Julian tries to take the high road, believing that the best way to keep the existence of vampires secret and thereby maintain “the masquerade” is to defuse conflicts and keep things peaceful where possible. This is another entry in a long line of shows about vampires, but at its best it feels more like a noirish political thriller than a supernatural horror/fantasy series.
  • Soap operatics. Of course, Aaron Spelling is involved, so it’s still a very sudsy soap opera. Luna leads a squabbling group of five vampire clans, each with their own “primogen” or representative with a private personality and agenda, which leads to typical sparks and tensions. Here, Lillie Langtry (Stacy Haiduk, Superboy) is the sultry primogen of the Toreador clan, and she’s conspiring to kill Caitlin Byrne (Kelly Rutherford, Gossip Girl), her rival for Julian’s affections. Elsewhere, Frank is a police detective determined to protect the city from a vampire menace only he knows about, and his partner Sonny (Erik King, Dexter) is secretly a vampire equally determined to thwart Frank. Any TV show with vampires had better have a flair for the dramatic, and as a soap opera, it’s even more satisfying than The Vampire Diaries.
  • Vampire-on-vampire combat. While any given episode of this show features power struggles and smoldering human/vampire romance, here all that tension boils over into actual physical combat. Generally the more genres a show is able to touch on the more successful it is, because that means it can please multiple audiences seeking a variety of pleasures. With combat sequences between Julian and two rogue vampires who seek to kill a baby in a sacrificial ritual to become more powerful, Kindred adds action/adventure to its already sizable roster of enticements. It’s even more thrilling because Julian personally steps into the fight out of an abundance of leadership and nobility. The stakes are high not just for him but for all of San Francisco’s vampires: if Goth (Skipp Sudduth, Third Watch) and Camilla (Patricia Charbonneau, Desert Hearts) complete the ritual, it will shatter the Masquerade and completely upend the vampire power structure.

Weaknesses

  • Stilted dialogue. This show has a lot of ideas and robust worldbuilding, which makes sense, seeing as how an entire company of writers and game designers had been generating Vampire stories for years. Suffice it to say that this creative energy didn’t make it to the script. One scene opens with Julian and Caitlin making goo eyes at each other. “I’m afraid there’s no dessert,” she says. “It depends what you call dessert,” he replies, going in for a kiss. Their dessert will be SEX! Get it!? Does anyone actually talk like this? Ruth Doyle (Maureen Flannigan, Out Of This World) is the hapless teen mom whose baby gets stolen for the blood ritual. At one point we see her forlornly wandering through the park, calling out to the empty air, I guess in the hope that the baby will come crawling amiably out of the bushes, or that whatever perverted murderer who stole her baby will hear her sad cries and be like, “Oh, when I went to steal this baby, I didn’t think that anyone would actually be upset about it!” Anyway, Ruth says, “Please! I want my baby back. Her name’s Jessie. She’s a good baby.” Surprisingly, no one responds. Later, Caitlin enters the lair of the evil vampires who stole Jessie, where she encounters Camilla. Caitlin decides it’s the perfect time to open up to someone about her regrets over giving a baby up for adoption. An interesting, thematically appropriate snippet about the character’s background, revealed at a completely nonsensical moment in the story. In some ways it’s more painful to watch a show like this attempt to do something laudable and fail spectacularly than to watch shows where nothing goes right and no one involved gives a fuck.
  • C. Thomas Howell and Maureen Flannigan. You know who definitely doesn’t give a fuck, though? These two. Howell spits out all his lines like he has somewhere better to be (he probably does) and maintains the same facial expression whether he’s watching a man get burned alive, watching his lover throw herself over a bridge or consoling a grieving mom. Yes, he gets to share several scenes with tonight’s other least valuable player, Maureen Flannigan. As mentioned, she was the star of Out of This World, which sounds like exactly the sort of dreck that’d fit in well with the shows discussed on this blog, but apparently her star turn did not prepare her well for convincingly playing a mother who watched a freakish looking monster snatch her baby out of a public park. She never seems genuinely terrified, and even her desperation rings hollow. That baby’s probably going to get snatched at least three more times before coming of age.

Final Judgment: 6/10. It’s now all too clear why this flopped—viewers that might have been interested in the knotty storytelling and the well-developed mythos would be put off by the terrible scripts and performances, and viewers looking for another bubblegum soap opera in the vein of Melrose would quickly change the channel after encountering a boatload of Vampire-specific terminology and five separate factions engaged in internecine squabbles. TV viewers got off easy, though—in the role-playing game, there are thirteen clans.

NEXT TIME: I return to my long lost and forgotten coverage of anime by looking at Michiko & Hatchin!

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Case Study 63: Kindred: The Embraced, Episode 7–“Bad Moon Rising”

Case Study 62: Dance Academy, Episode 32–“Like No One’s Watching”

Original Airdate: March 20th, 2012 on ABC3

Someone put Fame, Center Stage and Degrassi in a blender and what came out was a teen drama with the appropriately bland name of Dance Academy. Sydney’s National Academy of Dance is the prestigious art school this time around. I watched four episodes for this review, and while Academy manages to jettison its cliched roots early on, that doesn’t mean it gets more interesting. Let’s keep this brief, shall we?

Strengths

  • Alicia Banit. None of the characters are particularly distinctive, though the late addition Ben “Benster” Tickle (Thomas Lacey) possesses a not inconsiderable amount of well-observed douchiness. Despite this, Banit manages to set herself apart and successfully creates the illusion that her character Kat Karamakov has a personality. Here, she gamely tries out for a role as a cheerleader for a rugby team, managing to convey that she’s not super into it despite doing a credibly good job at the audition. She also manages to manufacture some chemistry with the otherwise questionable Ben. Pay those dues, girl!

Weaknesses

  • Too many plots. I blame Seinfeld, Friends, and other hip 90s sitcoms for this. Time was that you’d have at most two plotlines in any given episode of television and if that meant every single character didn’t get an equal share of screentime, too fucking bad. At least in the light-hearted, dynamic world of a sitcom you can still get plenty of laughs if the plot is gossamer-thin, but this doesn’t work so well for a 30 minute drama. With an hour long format you could hammer out a more soapy vibe, but if you were writing a soap opera you’d have to write better plot lines than these. Our heroine Tara (Xenia Goodwin) is feeling insecure about herself because she thinks she’s dating out of her league by hooking up with Christian (Jordan Rodrigues.) Kat’s been chucked out of the Academy and is trying to figure out what her next steps are. Sam (not that Tom Green, Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn) is waging an ongoing war about his future with his father (Anthony Cogin, Legend of the Guardians: Owls of Ga’hoole) and his proxy for this battle is his younger brother Ari (Narek Arman, Tomorrow, When the War Began.) None of this is really very interesting, and like the other episodes I watched, the oxygen-starved gasps of interest that occasionally emerged were quickly muffled with the reemergence of a different boring plotline. My advice here is to take one storyline and let it breathe. I don’t care about Tara and Christian because I have nothing invested in their relationship. I don’t buy for a second that they’re in love, because much as in The Secret Diaries of a Call Girl, the show hasn’t bothered to put in the work. That’s probably because it doesn’t have time to put in the work if we have to worry about two other plot lines. Kat and Sam’s stories are pretty perfunctory, but in other episodes I saw their more interesting plotlines got handled in the same way. Kat’s parents are both successful, experienced professional dancers who bring plenty of baggage to her life as a dancing student. That could be a fascinating angle on the ambitions and futures of the main characters, but there’s no space. There’s also no space for a story about Sam struggling with his sexuality. It’s all the more frustrating because you can see the show fighting to get these stories out in about as much time as a commercial break. It doesn’t work.

Final Judgment: 5/10. Dance Academy is a glass of plain water. It’s beige Soylent sludge. It’s something to fill the gaps between the advertisements. I can’t say I hate it, though—what’s there to hate? Readers, I challenge you to have a feeling about Dance Academy.

NEXT TIME: Did you know Aaron Spelling made a TV adaptation of Vampire: The Masquerade? Come back soon to read about Kindred: The Embraced!

Case Study 62: Dance Academy, Episode 32–“Like No One’s Watching”

Case Study 61: All In The Family, Episode 25–“Cousin Maude’s Visit”

Original Airdate: December 11th, 1971 on CBS

Back in the 1970s, All In The Family was a big deal. It wasn’t just because it was a ratings smash, though it was the number one show on TV for five years running. It was incredibly controversial in an era when any individual television show had a much larger slice of the zeitgeist. Sure, shows like Game of Thrones and True Detective get a lot of buzz, but consider this: the most recent season finale of Thrones enjoyed the highest ratings pull the series has drawn in its history with nearly nine million viewers. During the season this episode of Family aired, it was averaging 34 million a week. Take all the hype you heard about the Red Wedding and imagine four times that many people talking about Archie Bunker’s toilet. The show’s astronomical success made Norman Lear the de facto king of the 1970s sitcom, and he became known for a slate of hilarious sitcoms that took on social issues from varying sides of class, racial and gender divides. Sanford and Son, One Day At A Time, The Jeffersons and Good Times were also big hits, and as it happens, this particular episode of Family was the jumping-off point for another successful spinoff in the form of Maude.

Strengths

  • Strong characters. At first blush, the cause for controversy is obvious. Family patriarch Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor) was a TV antihero before it was cool. He comes across in 2016 as the raging id of a Trump supporter. Still, even in 1971, people were understandably uncomfortable about having people yell racial slurs in a primetime sitcom. But Archie isn’t a Cartman-esque sociopath. He’s a three-dimensional character who displays real depth and humanity alongside knee-jerk bigotry and reactionary vitriol. Here we get to hear about his typically crude courtship of his wife, Edith (Jean Stapleton.) It involves, among other things, Archie putting straws up his nose and pretending to be a walrus. Sure, he’s mean to Edith and he yells at her and calls her names…but he makes her laugh. It definitely doesn’t excuse his behavior, but it does make him seem like a real person.
  • Great cast, especially Bea Arthur. O’Connor and Stapleton are gems as always—I challenge you not to laugh at the sequence where Edith is timing a minute by counting 60 Mississippi’s, loses count, and starts to sing the Minute Waltz—but the real star here is Maude, as played by the indomitable Arthur (The Golden Girls.) Her dynamic with O’Connor is perfect, and I love the role Maude plays in the story as well. Not many people can successfully hold their own up against Archie’s endless supply of bluster, but Maude shuts him down, and it is perfect. She makes a pointedly menacing comment about Edith—”I’d kill for that girl”—and O’Connor’s reaction is spot on. Ever the asshole, he eventually comes back with a deliciously nasty comment about how she already buried two husbands, but despite the fact that he always needs to get the last word, the real reason he spends so much of the first act fulminating about Maude’s impending visit is that he knows he’s met his match, and Arthur is more than up for the job.
  • Funny. The comedic genius of this show is such that it’s not exactly easy to point to a handful of lines or gags out of context that make it solid gold material. It’s a holistic experience. So much of the comedy comes from a stellar cast performing well-written characters in an interesting dynamic. When Maude rouses Archie by cheerfully singing “Good Morning” from Singin’ in the Rain, it tells us something about Maude’s unique variety of passive-aggression, and it’s also funny for three different reasons: Archie’s miserable reaction, the fact that Maude is being a dick but has plausible deniability because she’s being jaunty about it, and because Bea Arthur sells the hell out of the bit. The strength of the comedy is only enhanced by the fact that the writers aren’t afraid to have the characters openly adhere to distinct political viewpoints. In the third act Archie and Maude have a climactic argument about Maude’s beloved Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Of Eleanor, Archie fulminates that “she was the one who discovered the coloreds in this country. We never knew they was there!” This line is great because in addition to exposing the foolishness of its underlying ideology, it’s entirely plausible that the inarticulate Archie would say this without realizing how ridiculous it sounds. Archie genuinely believes that the world has been made a worse place thanks to women and minorities creating a culture of grievance, and while William F. Buckley might agree, it’s clear that the emperor has no clothes when Archie puts forth the issue in his inimitable style.
  • Politics. And let’s all just take a moment and appreciate the fact that this sitcom spends a full three minutes of its runtime on a heated shouting match about FDR’s legacy. These days television shows are mostly apolitical. Producers want characters that “everyone” can relate to, so those characters don’t have weird sexual, religious, political, ethnic, national or gender identities, unlike the people you probably know in your real life. Of course, the end result is very few people can actually relate. In real life, political beliefs are a core aspect of most people’s identity. The FDR argument is entertaining, but it also provides refreshing insight into Maude and Archie’s respective worldviews. It’s also quite novel. Part of the reason this show was such a hit was because it was unlike anything else on TV. Nobody was talking about the Yalta Conference on Mister Ed.

Weaknesses

  • Bathroom humor. Okay, a big part of what makes Archie Bunker who he is is that he’s unapologetically crude. It’s in the show’s DNA. That still doesn’t make it particularly funny when we’re all meant to enjoy a good laugh when Edith gives Archie Milk of Magnesia instead of Kaopectate. You get it?! Because it’s going to make him shit more! And he’s already got diarrhea! That’s not to say this sort of thing is entirely hopeless. It can work if it’s reasonably well-integrated into the story. Maude gives Archie a delicious breakfast of cream of wheat with cheese (“It’s light, but it binds,” she reassures him) but it doesn’t help. He angrily declares that Maude was wrong again as he rushes to the bathroom. It’s pretty choice that he’s making it a point to one-up her in the middle of his intestinal distress, and the fact that he’s a jerk makes his mild suffering funnier, and “it’s light, but it binds” is an intrinsically amusing phrase, especially coming out of Bea Arthur. Nevertheless, I could have done with less about Archie’s bowels.

Final Judgment: 9/10. Family is unquestionably classic television. It lands comfortably in any top ten list of the best shows of all time, and “Cousin Maude’s Visit” was the entry TV Guide chose for Family’s ninth-place berth on their Top 100 Episodes list. Nevertheless, much like Don Draper, Sterling Archer or Frank Underwood, Archie is decidedly an acquired taste.

NEXT TIME: I cover our first Australian offering when I review the YA hit Dance Academy.

Case Study 61: All In The Family, Episode 25–“Cousin Maude’s Visit”

Case Study 60: La Femme Nikita, Episode 80–“Line In The Sand”

Original Airdate: July 2nd, 2000 on USA

Nowadays, basic cable channels air some of the best TV shows around, but it was not always thus. During the time that La Femme Nikita was on the air, the other USA Network original series available were Pacific Blue, Silk Stalkings, The War Next Door, G vs. E, Manhattan Arizona and Cover Me. Based on the notoriety and legacy of that lineup, it’s no surprise that the absolutely wretched Femme was enough of a hit to merit nearly 100 episodes and a four season reboot as Nikita on The CW. Let it be known that anyone who starts to get complacent about the bumper crop of excellence on hand in the golden age of television need only look upon La Femme Nikita and despair. It’s also worth noting that I make no claims about the quality of the original 1990 movie Nikita or its 1993 American remake, Point Of No Return.

Strengths

  • Internal strife. I watched five episodes of Femme for this review, and on the “strength” of the first three I was eagerly anticipating giving my second 0/10 review, but it would seem that in the third and fourth season the show picked up a little slack. Only a little, though. This episode adds a tiny bit of texture to the usual bland action plot by having 99% of the conflict coming from inside Section One, which is the name of the generic extralegal espionage/paramilitary organization where we lay our scene. The plot is spurred into action when resident computer nerd Seymour Birkoff (Matthew Ferguson) tracks down The Cardinal, the head of the equally generic bad guy organization Red Cell, but instead of having the action center around Section vs. Red Cell, our heroes spend most of their time fighting with people inside their own organization. Birkoff’s discovery triggers an interminable pissing match with his hacker rival, the smarmy ratprick Greg Hillinger (Kris Lemche, Final Destination 3.) Hillinger answers to a higher up in the organization by the name of George (David Hemblen, Earth: Final Conflict) and George has it out for Birkoff’s boss, who has the creative name of “Operations” (Eugene Robert Glazer.) It’s at least a little creative to show us how the Section is far from a united front and just as vulnerable to internal force as anything the Ruskies or whomever have to throw at them.

Weaknesses

  • Cheesy. For proof, look no further than the opening sequence. You know it’s a good sign when the theme song is meaningless vocalizations and grunts. The people behind Femme never met an awful, fake looking software interface that they didn’t like. (Though Femme is hardly a lone wolf in this respect.) I suppose I should grant that it’s entirely possible that my faith in this show’s ability to strike a serious tone was completely eroded by a scene in an early episode where Nikita (Peta Wilson, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) dramatically reveals that she’s been in disguise by removing a rubber mask fit for a Scooby Doo villain, which was the only thing I saw that truly achieved Manimal-esque heights.
  • Bad acting. I’m sure that all the nice people on the cast of the show struggled just as much as I did to take it seriously, but for people supposedly fighting for the safety of the free world constantly facing torture and death, they sure don’t display a lot of urgency, emotion or concern for their own welfare. Maybe this is one of the drawbacks of setting the tone for your series by casting a supermodel as the lead? I suppose now is as good a time as any to show you a 2001 picture of Russia’s biggest Femme fan.
  • Vagueness. Listen, the spy genre thrives on nitty-gritty specifics. Most people can only fantasize about being a globetrotting, crime-fighting action hero, but espionage fiction tantalizes us with the possibility that such people actually exist and are out fighting for the best interests of the world, or at least the best interests of a particular country. The thing is that all fantasies live and die in the details. We want to know about the exotic locales. We want to know what the bad guys are like. We want to know the crimes they’ve committed, and we want to know about their cool lair of villainy, and we want them to have henchmen. We want spy tricks and gadgets and tradecraft, dammit. Of course, since we’re watching Femme, we get absolutely none of those things. When Birkoff finds The Cardinal, he is in a non-specified Northern European country. Look, I realize on-location shooting is prohibitively expensive and even creating a convincing mock-up in a Toronto soundstage is pushing it. But throw me a bone. Have The Cardinal’s base look like something other than the basement of a community college. Tell me that the Finnish ambassador is very upset. Make the bad guys somehow distinguishable from any of the other endless parade of bad guys featured on this show. They’re just not even trying with this.
  • No one to root for. Ah, the perennial challenge of the gritty antihero. Over the years, the writers decided to make things more interesting by establishing that Section bosses like Operations are 100% okay with torturing and killing people to get the job done. In fact, Operations almost tortures Birkoff in this episode and has Hillinger killed. The problem that develops is that George and Hillinger’s beef with the main characters winds up being entirely justified. Operations is a megalomaniac constantly pushing the boundaries of his role within the organization and Hillinger was straight-up kidnapped from his home as a snot-nosed teenager so that his government could exploit his technological finesse. I’d be pissed, too, but it’s hard to applaud the two of them actively sabotaging the effort to catch the leader of a notorious terrorist cell to one-up their rivals. I guess you can put your stock in the front-line goons like Nikita and Birkoff, but they’re trapped in an amoral organization that sees them as expendable cannon fodder with no chance of getting out. Even though the stakes are life and death, it feels like there are no stakes because the assholes have all the power and the grunts can do nothing to change that. I do think the show is capable of profitably exploiting that dynamic—I was heartened to see that happen in the third season premiere—but it isn’t happening here.

Final Judgment: 2/10. Yes, it’s worse than Agent X. I like pulpy, action-oriented spy fiction. I really do. The sad thing is, I haven’t seen anything yet that convinces me that it can be done well on television. The Americans is great, but it’s much more psychological when compared to something like The Bourne Identity. Please, TV: prove me wrong.

NEXT TIME: I review a stone-cold classic episode of All In The Family!

Case Study 60: La Femme Nikita, Episode 80–“Line In The Sand”

Case Study 59: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Episode 6–“My First Thanksgiving With Josh!”

Original Airdate: November 16th, 2015 on The CW

You don’t see a lot of musicals on television. There’s a couple reasons for this—they’re a lot of work to produce, and the financial outlay is considerable if you want to have things like dancers, costumes and unique sets. As television budgets have gone up, public interest in musicals has decreased, Hamilton-mania aside. Live-action film musicals were once a staple of the Hollywood diet. When the Golden Globes were founded in the early 1950s, it made sense to have a category called “Best Musical or Comedy.” But aside from outliers like Les Miserables, Sweeney Todd and Mamma Mia, there just aren’t many musicals in theaters these days outside of Disney animation. So Crazy Ex-Girlfriend took a chance, and I’m happy to say that for the most part, it paid off.

Strengths:

  • Musical numbers. So let’s talk about them. This is for the most part virgin territory and Crazy executes its musical sequences remarkably well. Unlike Glee, every song is original, which must make it hard to crank out forty a season. Unlike The Flight of the Conchords, the songs are smoothly integrated into a larger storyline about the quintessential musical-comedy topic of romance. Unlike Cop Rock, it wasn’t cancelled instantly. I watched the first six episodes of Crazy for this review, and while the early episodes had three songs apiece, the pace has slowed to two by this point and that’s mostly a good choice. A song isn’t like a joke—if it falls flat it sucks up two to three minutes of screen time and the show starts to feel like Saturday Night Live. The songs here are both amusing and creative. The first number features our heroine Rebecca (Rachel Bloom) rapping about how she always impresses the parents of her romantic paramours and the second is a loose parody of “Piano Man” about how bitter bartender Greg (Santino Fontana, Frozen) hates being trapped in the sleepy California suburb of West Covina. Songwriting is a completely separate skill from television writing, and it’s impressive that the creators are able to bring both talents to the table.
  • Droll. Crazy is not uproariously funny, and sometimes it’s unsure about whether or not it wants to be funny at all. In the six episodes I watched, there was palpable push and pull over whether the audience is here to laugh or to hear a story. Those things aren’t mutually exclusive, but various outings struggled with offering a reasonable balance. Happily, “Thanksgiving” performs well in this department, but don’t expect belly laughs, either. For an example of what to expect, there’s a gag in the “I Give Good Parent” song where Rebecca and her backup dancers turn around to reveal booty shorts emblazoned with inscriptions like “Polite,” “Smart” and “Good Hygiene.” But it’s hard to maintain the rapid-fire humor of something like The Simpsons or 30 Rock when you’ve got a B-plot about how Greg’s dreams are getting crushed under the weight of his father’s medical bills or an unstoppable urge to move a protracted romance plot ever forward. It turns out that same focus that gives Crazy a leg-up on Conchords is also a drawback if the show is viewed strictly as a comedy.
  • Rachel Bloom & Donna Lynne Champlin. When you’ve got a comedy that’s kinda sorta a comedy but not really, it’s important that you have funny actors who can sell an otherwise uninspired bit. Champlin plays Paula, Rachel’s best friend and co-conspirator in affairs of the heart. Today’s conspiracy involves insinuating Rachel into a Thanksgiving dinner hosted by the family of her crush, Josh (Vincent Rodriguez III.) Paula and Rachel encounter Josh’s mom (Amy Hill, 50 First Dates) and Paula urges her to invite Rachel for the holiday. “I would ask her to come to my house,” she lies, “but we’re going to Paris. ‘Cause that’s where we autumn. It’s like wintering, but cheaper.” This line isn’t especially funny on paper, but the comedic energy Champlin brings to the performance is priceless, and there are a million moments like this for both Champlin and Bloom. Bloom goes the extra mile, as Rebecca is regularly seized by anxiety, self-loathing and anguish as she pines for Josh and fumbles her way into his life. I’ve said before that the chops required for comedic acting are underestimated and Bloom’s performance is a great case study. Rebecca’s experiences really run the gamut, whether she’s confidently rapping, listening to Josh and his girlfriend Valencia (Gabriella Ruiz) have sex, or eating tacos on the couch with Greg.
  • Expanding universe. This show would get pretty suffocating if it was just an endless cruise on the SS Josh & Rebecca, so it makes the smart move and develops a strong cast of supporting characters. Paula is a high-spirited enabler of Rebecca’s romantic schemes, but at home her romance consists of a husband who prides himself on remembering that his wife likes a soap opera that he thinks is called All Of My Days. Greg is quick with a jaundiced one-liner, but it turns out he learned it from his father (Robin Thomas, The Banger Sisters), who uses humor as a defense mechanism to deflect Greg’s attempts to show care and concern.
  • Thematic cohesiveness. Too often, a show will have a perfunctory subplot to pad out the runtime that adds nothing useful, but Greg’s story tonight underscores the theme of Rebecca’s troubles: neither has control over the critical aspects of life that they see as essential to their future. Rebecca moved across the country to chase after a man she had a fling with in summer camp, and it’s a surprise to no one that it isn’t working out for her. This is only reinforced when her Thanksgiving scheme is derailed by Josh asking Valencia to move in together. Greg wants to leave his crappy job as a bartender to go to business school, but he can’t get out from under his dad’s medical bills, whereas Paula is so helpless that she’s living vicariously through Rebecca even more so than usual: she’s got her miked for video and sound. When Greg and Rebecca end up together at the end of the episode goofing off, watching TV and eating tacos, the show makes the tantalizing suggestion that they’d be better together than Rebecca and clueless pretty boy Josh. But Josh doesn’t have control of his life, either—it’s made clear that Valencia is manipulating him with sex.

Weaknesses

  • Racism. It’s sad to report that something that’s been hailed as “a breakthrough television show for Asian-Americans” for its casting of a sexy Asian man as a romantic lead is still susceptible to lazy, racist jokes. Rebecca imagines “basking in the warm embrace of a loving Filipino family” and being “surrounded by the unconditional love of a hundred Filipinos.” She even punctuates this thought with a bizarre fantasy where she’s Mary Poppins and is surrounded by an adoring crowd of children hanging on her every word. Even though stereotypes about Asians being overly dedicated to strong family units are mostly positive, they’re still stereotypes and it’s weird to watch the show uncritically reify them. That article I linked above specifically mentions this episode’s bit about dinuguan. The interviewer says that he’s never seen a joke about dinuguan on mainstream TV. It’s true that representation is important, but I do wish that the joke wasn’t that it smells disgusting and gives you the shits, which is what ends up happening to Rebecca. “Your culture’s food is weird and gross” isn’t what you’d call a super-empowering message. It also doesn’t help that Paula ridicules Valencia by calling her “Venezuela” and “Valderrama.” That’s what she gets for having a Spanish name! Look, Crazy isn’t exactly Birth Of A Nation. The decision to have the romantic lead be an Asian man is huge and has been rightfully applauded, but the show shouldn’t get a free pass on everything. This episode also helpfully illustrates an important point about racism: one reason Paula dreads Thanksgiving is that it means she’ll have to put up with her husband’s “racist uncle.” Later, she tells him “Everyone hates you. You’re racist.” See, that’s the thing—racism isn’t an on-or-off switch, where someone’s either Jesse Jackson or David Duke. Most, if not all, white people inadvertently say or do racist things on a semi-regular basis. Racism is a cultural failing, not a strictly personal flaw, and it often comes across in microaggressions—fantasies about positive stereotypes, open displays of disgust about unfamiliar foods, jokes about someone’s unfamiliar name. When we confine our willingness to acknowledge racism to a crusty old guy at Thanksgiving dinner, white people let ourselves off the hook. I think progressives and liberals are especially eager to do this so they can identify someone else as the bad guy, and I’ll bet the progressives who wrote this show are no exception. They were conscious enough to cast Rodriguez, but they’re by no means perfect.

Final Judgment: 8/10. If you like romcoms, musicals or both, Crazy will fit nicely into your regular rotation. Yes, the racial politics are sometimes fraught, but in American television, it would seem that there are two settings for racial politics: fraught and whitewashed. So I guess the former is preferable???

NEXT TIME: I review another TV show based on a movie when I take on the original La Femme Nikita!

Case Study 59: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Episode 6–“My First Thanksgiving With Josh!”