Review: The Final Season

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This review contains massive spoilers for the final season of Review, and all the proceeding seasons. I urge you to watch the show (it’s only 3 seasons) before reading any further. You won’t regret it.

Review isn’t, at its core, about reviewing things. Sure, that forms the basis for the life work of ‘life reviewer’ Forrest MacNeil, but it is his life and his actions that the show primarily concerns itself with. It is a character study of a deeply fucked up man and his undying allegiance to a TV show. That said, to say Review doesn’t have anything meaningful to say about the job of a critic would also be to miss something. I think the latter two reviews in Locorito, Pet Euthanasia, Dream prove as much. In Review, Forrest constantly interprets the reviews he’s given according to his own desires. He interprets the review ‘what’s it like to put a pet to sleep’ metaphorically, refusing AJ’s suggestion to sing a cat a lullaby and instead giving it its standard definition; killing a domesticated animal. However, in the very next review of ‘what’s it like to live your dream?’, as if unable to give himself a single happy review, he interprets it literally and reviews recreating a dream he has while asleep. Review recognises that critics bring something of themselves to reviews; us critics (and I realise I’m tooting my own horn calling myself a critic) always bring our own experiences and tastes to what we review. The show Review, for example, is perhaps my favourite tv show ever made, and as such I may ignore any flaws it may have (similarly, when playing games or watching films in a series or by a director whose work I enjoy, I tend to be more lenient). Similarly, our experience of something will be heavily influenced by the conditions in which we experience it. Review pumps both these factors up to 11; when interpreting the review, it seems to only be in a way that will bring him the most misfortune, and when giving the final score, his personal experience is king, with no regard for finding any universal meaning in his reviews. I hope, that in reviewing the final season of Review I can aim to find some justification for why I regard this show to be one of the greatest TV shows I have seen in my TV-watching experience (which, at least in regard to comedies, is embarrassingly large). If, however, this review descends into unadulterated gushing, you’ll just have to bear with me.

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I was initially planning this post as a sort of ‘Review retrospective’, covering all three seasons. However, the final season alone deserves special praise for the way it finishes up Forrest’s saga, and I feel that in talking about this season I can properly express why I love the whole show as much as I do. Let’s start by talking about the first episode of the season; Locorito, Pet Euthanasia, Dream. The first review here is not too much more than a funny premise, but it also introduces some important details. The first is, of course, that although Forrest thinks of himself as some sort of academic, he’s simply a TV host, and here he is, having been saved from the brink of death, having to do some good ol’ product placement. Of course, he can never call any of his reviews frivolous or unnecessary. He’s already destroyed his life enough for the show that to invalidate one suggestion would open too many troublesome trains of thought for Forrest. The second, more minor detail, is that the review comes from a 6 month old, now defunct fast food chain, foreshadowing the lack of reviews caused by the severe decrease in viewership. All three of the reviews in the first episode, it’s worth noting, serve to re-introduce the viewer to Review by rehashing some of the key ideas from earlier episodes. Locorito follows the ‘simple review becomes needlessly complicated’ model; reminiscent of something like ‘Rowboat’ from season 2. (There’s also the idea of Forrest getting involved in a court proceeding while in a Review, an idea visited in ‘Being Batman’ and ‘Helen Keller’.) Pet Euthanasia, meanwhile, has echoes of ‘Quitting your job’ – Forrest getting too attached to something in a Review, but tragic inevitability means that you know the horrible ending to come. I’m not sure Pet Euthanasia has the sting of ‘Quitting your job’, maybe because it’s only Forrest who’s hurt at the end of it all, or because he is spared having to kill Beyonce, the more obviously tragic outcome. The sly glimpse of Grant though, is perhaps important in reminding viewers what a slimy bastard he is. He knows before Forrest, or the viewer, does the outcome of putting the lizards together, and he revels in it. The final review in this episode is ‘Dream’, which is a ‘Forrest misinterprets the review’ skit à la ‘Sleeping with your teacher’ or ‘William Tell’. ‘Dream’ serves the express purpose of reintroducing the viewer to Forrest’s relationship with Suzanne, which will play a huge role in the finale. That Forrest rents Grant’s garage is another funny detail that again reasserts Grant’s antipathy to Forrest. The first episode, then, re-treads a lot of old ground; it is a reintroduction to Review, but one that becomes necessary when viewed in light of the finale.

The second episode, Co-host, Ass Slap, Helen Keller, Forgiveness, is much more vital in its job of setting up for the finale. ‘Co-Host’, of course, teaches Forrest how to use AJ’s tablet, but more importantly than that, it allows the viewer to see the importance of Review in Forrest’s life. I’ll quote here from Emily Stevens, who writes ‘Looking around A.J.’s cheerful, happy dressing room, Forrest remarks on what a small role the show plays in her life. From that, he doesn’t conclude that her life is enviably full, but that it’s empty and insignificant—because without Review propping him up, Forrest is empty and insignificant.’ (Source) Forrest is a man who has become absorbed by his work over the past 2 seasons of Review, and Susanne herself remarks on this in ‘Forgiveness’; she tells him he used to do things for fun, whereas now everything is for the show. In the finale, Forrest’s dependence on the show is what will allow Grant to manipulate him into the Veto, but this segment gives the viewer the information that we need to understand just how committed he is. He believes himself to be an intellectual, and seeing his vision destroyed by AJ is painful to him. His belief is so strong, it even allows him to be completely selfish, talking directly over AJ’s voiceover (ironically in which she learns much more than he does, despite not actually doing the review). In ‘Helen Keller’, we finally get the resolution of the murder trial, dismissed in the unexpected way consistent of the show. Still, the moment Forrest’s inept lawyer calls Helen to the stand is horrifically hilarious, in that classic Review fashion. ‘Forgiveness’, however, carries on the main theme of the episode; that of Forrest’s selfishness. He goes to Suzanne for the show, and the same can be said of Grant. He doesn’t do it for them, but for the show, which, as mentioned, has absorbed his life in a way as to be synonymous with Forrest. There’s another aspect to the show that is touched upon in this season, and this review; that Forrest calls Review and it’s mysterious selection process; ‘The hand of the universe’. His blind faith in the show and it’s absorption into his personality is one aspect of what makes him such a twisted human being, but this has given him a blind faith in its ‘powers’. Although not perhaps religious, Forrest worships the show, and it is this that has allowed it to so easily consume him. I don’t think the show is making a point about religion (Andy Daly himself has shot down the theory that it is a retelling of the Job story), but the parallels are certainly useful in helping understand the twisted mind of Forrest MacNeil.

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And so we come to the finale. Cryptically titled ‘Cryogenics, Lightning, Last Review’ (perhaps the only time in the series history wherein the name of a review is not mentioned in the title (unless you count the mini-reviews from ‘giving six stars’ (this interruption was pointless))), this might be one of my new favourite episodes. I don’t think anything can top the 1,2 punch of ‘Pancakes, Divorce, Pancakes’, but this certainly came close in terms of delivering a huge emotional gut punch. Forrest is likely spurred onto reviewing ‘Cryogenics’ by AJ saying ‘if I were you, I wouldn’t do it.’ Still desperate to regain his own perception of his work as important, Forrest now must do it, if only because AJ wouldn’t. This effect is sadly repeated after the revelations of ‘Cryogenics’ when AJ suggests a Veto to ‘Lightning’. The review of ‘Lightning’ is perhaps a bit poorly paced, but it only really needs to do two things. The first is the sight gag of Josh crushed under the lightning pole. The second is that Forrest does the review in the first place. The revelation he has in ‘Cryogenics’ is there, but AJ’s comments lead him to the wrong conclusion. While the answer is obvious to us that he should stop doing (at the very least) life-threatening reviews, he stretches the interpretation to allow him to continue with the show. It might be doubtful if Forrest believes that it really is the correct conclusion to draw; that it was putting himself in harm’s way that allowed him to get to one revelation, and doing it again will lead to another revelation. However, at this point it’s already too late. A long time ago Forrest dug in his heels to the show and now he cannot get out. He is trapped in a prison of his own making; a fervent belief that the show is ‘fate’ and will guide him correctly, and the absence of anything to fall back on (which can probably be traced back to his review of Divorce). And so Suzanne pulls out her trump card. She offers him an escape, which is to leave Review and come back to her. This is the natural end to Forrest’s story; a man who has lost everything because of his tragic flaw (in this case, the show), is allowed everything back. It’s a story of redemption. But I think two things prevent Forrest from being allowed back into Suzanne’s arms. The first is that along the way, Forrest has made enemies of a number of people, but none more so than his producer Grant. And Grant knows exactly how to push Forrest’s buttons. Grant is the one man who can tempt Forrest MacNeil back into Review, because, in a way, Grant has helped to create Forrest MacNeil, by helping pushing him ever further into the maw of Review right at the very beginning (remember that his first appearance was pushing Forrest to complete the review of Pancakes). But the more tragic reason Forrest cannot accept Suzanne’s review is because he’s already too far gone. Even without Grant, he would probably have reached the same conclusion, because by this point, Forrest MacNeil has risked everything for the project that he believes to be his intellectual life work, and he cannot let that go. And so he doesn’t. But, in the tragic twist of fate that is classic Review, the show betrays him. Were Review to simply be cancelled without the review of ‘What’s it like to be pranked?’ it would be tragic. I have no doubt that Forrest would kill himself as he threatens to do. But the writers of Review have it in for Forrest in the worst way, and so the show ends with probably the darkest ending of any TV show I’ve seen. The creator of the original Australian Review chimes in to ask Forrest ‘what’s it like to be pranked?’, and in such huge denial of the truth, Forrest is able to cling onto the only thing that gives his life meaning even though we, the viewer, knows that it’s gone. The ultimate dramatic irony. When Forrest realises that Review is, in fact, over, he may well kill himself. But to show us that is too much. Review is crueller than that, and leaves his awful fate to our imagination (it’s always worse when it’s implied). I guess the question every viewer has to answer is ‘Did Forrest deserve better?’. I can’t answer that for you, but I’m sure, as I do, you have your own answer for that. However, what is clear is that the Forrest at the start of Review did not deserve this. From the first episode onwards, we see the slow descent of a man from someone with a full life to someone with absolutely nothing. This descent is what is at the heart of Review.

I think the third season of Review manages to wrap up the show admirably. Each segment plays a part in contributing to the ending, which sends off Forrest MacNeil in one of the darkest ways possible. Hopefully in giving a bit of thought to why this season works, I have been able to put a small glimpse of an idea as to why I love the show so much. It’s a masterful tragicomedy. Both the comedic elements and the tragic core work off each other – both need to be excellent in order for the show to succeed, and, in my eyes, it works exceedingly well. Review is destined for cult classic status, but it should be recognised worldwide for the masterpiece that it is.

Review: The Good Place

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It’s very rare that a sitcom actually manages to improve so considerably on a second viewing – that re-watching really makes that big a difference. But The Good Place is a rather unique show, and as such demands a re-watch, and for fans to really reconsider the groundworks the series is based on. It’s for that reason that I cannot suggest reading this review without first having completed series one of The Good Place, because the spoilers here will be much more impactful to watching the show than for any other sitcom I think I’ve ever seen.

I think that really speaks to the scale and uniqueness that Mike Schur is aiming for in this show. Previously known for workplace sitcoms like Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Parks and Recreation (both great in their own right), Schur hasn’t really ever created something akin to this before. Let’s be honest – the reason for this is business based; workplace sitcoms without much of an overarching story are perfect for syndication, while a show like The Good Place which ends each episode on a cliff hanger, really isn’t. I guess that it’s only because NBC has Superstore and is trying to revive Thursday night comedy that Schur was allowed to be so experimental with The Good Place (but that’s complete speculation on my part). The premise of The Good Place is immediately unusual; it revolves around a woman (Kirsten Bell) who has mistakenly been put in ‘the good place’ by a fumbling deity-like figure played by Ted Danson. Of course, this turns out not to be the case – the real premise is that a malignant deity (played by Ted Danson) has trapped four people inside their own personal hell, playing each of their personalities off of each other in order to create a place of eternal torture. I think to see how impressive The Good Place is, it’s important to examine how each premise works on its own.

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The initial premise is the one that carries the series right up until the second half of the final episode on an initial watch, and so remains probably the most important in the minds of most casual viewers. The entire structure of the good place is immediately sketchy, however, and I did see people theorise that it might actually be the bad place from episode one. It’s important to note, however that the show does a good job of deflecting that theory, mainly by ignoring it and assuring constantly that not only is this the good place, but it must be because there is also a bad place (run by the amazing and always hilarious Adam Scott). All the problems with the good place are repeatedly asserted to be all Eleanor’s fault, which is a neat deflection, and one that creates an amusing premise within the fake premise. Speaking of Eleanor, both premises revolve around the four central characters (and Michael but more on him in a bit). These four are Eleanor (Kirsten Bell), Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and Jason (Manny Jacinto). Nicely, most of these are played by relative newcomers, and all of them play their parts well, with the exception of Jacinto, whose line delivery sometimes came across a bit forced. I also started off the series with a dislike for Tahini, but this is something that changed circa. Episode 3 or 4. These four are supposed to be ‘perfectly matched to torture each other’, yet this choice of characters somehow manages to work in the first premise as well. There’s great friendly chemistry between Bell and Jackson Harper but you can also see why they ‘torture’ each other, even if Chidi being a Kantian ethics professor facing a moral dilemma is a little bit on the nose. Once again, Tahani being so self-centred raises questions about the moral implications of the good place, but this is further stuffed under the carpet because the good place itself is so flimsily built for heaven. While we’re on the topic, the ethics of the good place are brilliantly specifically designed for comedy – and I urge everyone to screenshot any time some of the rules are bought up – there are gems a plenty. In fact, the entirety of the good place is funny – its plastic-y aesthetic really makes it a certain type of heaven; the one chock full of frozen yoghurt stands, to be precise. The initial premise, then, disguises it’s twist quite well, and a lot of that has to do with pacing – the series carries the audience from cliff-hanger to cliff-hanger, joke to joke at lightning speed, and we aren’t given much time to catch our breath and wonder about the problems of the good place.

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So yes, initially the show works well. But the show feels like it’s missing something right until the very end. Parts (like the giant insects) feel inconsistent with the rest of the show, and the whole thing feels like it should be a little funnier, that the characters should all be getting on more, and joshing about in the expanse of heaven. When I heard about a show about heaven from Mike Schur, I didn’t expect it to be quite as tense and quite as mopey for some of its characters. Of course, these fears are put to rest at the final moments, and during the subsequent re-watch. You see, the show isn’t aiming to be a traditional network sitcom, it has loftier ambitions. And these ambitions are revealed at the end of episode 13 by Michael.  And I’m not quite sure if I mean Michael Schur or Michael the architect. Clearly the name was intentional though, both are the ultimate creators of the universe the characters exist in, and both create the set-ups that lead to the torture of the protagonists. I’d like to give a special shout-out to Ted Danson, whose performance here is the performance of a career, simultaneously creepy and whimsical. And of course, there’s that smile. The final twist of the show manages to cleverly put everything into its rightful place in a way that I didn’t quite realise up until I’d seen the show again. It strikes a slightly false note that this elaborate set-up was made solely for four unremarkable people, but accepting that leads to an otherwise pretty perfect twist; guessable from the start, but something you’d never even consider. Of course, more is likely to be revealed in season two, so I’ll stop talking about it here, but it really is a feat of the kind I haven’t really seen in a sitcom like this.

I don’t think that The Good Place is a perfect show, mind. It could do with being a bit funnier, and some of the performances are a little off. I also have neglected areas of character development here, and focused mainly on the big picture (maybe I’ll go more in detail when it comes to season two), and that’s a shame, because the character stuff is where much of this show lives and dies. But I wanted to focus mainly on why this show is so special, so ambitious as to be worth talking about and worth remembering for years to come. Because it so is.

Top 16 of 2016

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This time of the year is when everyone and their mum comes up with their best things of the year, but you should listen to me because… um, I write it down I guess? In all seriousness, this year has been pretty good for entertainment, even if it hasn’t been so good for the rest of the world. This post will focus on the stuff that takes your mind off of it all though; Films, Video Games and TV. So without further adieu…

Best Films of the Year

Before I get into this; no, obviously I haven’t seen every good film this year. In fact, some films I’ve heard are great haven’t even come to the UK yet (see; La La Land). Also, the order is pretty arbitrary.

6) Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

Spinal Tap will never be topped as musical mockumentary, but this film comes pretty damn close. Much like the David Brent movie, the songs are one of the best things about this film, but even outside the Lonely Island’s usual musical comedy genius is a nifty little film that starts as a modern pop-star parody and ends in a glorious and over the top musical number starring the power of friendship and Michael Bolton. The film’s genius comes in hiding perhaps a rather standard plot in a guise of flashy songs and surreal humour, much as how it’s star Conner4Real masks a simple personality behind the veil of his superstardom. Perhaps the funniest gag in the film though is when Nas says of the song Karate Guy; ‘that song changed my life’, in the most deadpan tone he can manage when talking about a song who’s lyrics contain ‘We’re rolling with our friends, All over town, But we’re all in the car, We’re not rolling on the ground’. Brilliant.

5) Train to Busan

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I don’t watch many zombie films, but that doesn’t mean I don’t know a good one when I see it. Train to Busan takes a simple premise (zombies, but on a train) and extends it to its natural conclusion. The zombies move around in a thrillingly creepy way, their bodies twisting in a way that makes them seem like they were filmed in stop motion. The train itself is a fantastic setting, and it makes sense that the film is reluctant to move far away from it; it condenses the action into tight corridors and spaces, and makes the horde of zombies piling over each other an ever more terrifying sight as there’s only one way to run. The traditional zombie movie clichés may all be present, but the setting helps make them feel fresh, as does the acting and cinematography. These things come together in a surprisingly effective little package that breathes a little bit more life into the genre. (I could have made a zombie joke there, but that would be dead stupid)

4) Hell or High Water

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I don’t have much to say about this one to be really honest. A really solid film that harkens back to old Westerns while revolving around a modern day series of heists. Great performances from the main cast, and fantastic direction. Not necessarily the easiest film to watch, but well worth seeking out.

3) When Marnie was There

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No, this might not end up being Ghibli’s final film, but if it was it wouldn’t be a tragedy. In fact, When Marnie was There ends up a touching mini masterpiece that shies away from grand narratives and focuses on a small town and a relationship between two people, one of whom’s existence is called into question by the viewer and the protagonist herself. Really, however, the crux of the film rests on the protagonist. Throughout the film we question her sanity and reliability but she remains a fascinating lens to which to see the beautifully animated world through. As a Ghibli swan song, this may be a whimper rather than a bang, but in this case, that isn’t a negative.

2) 10 Cloverfield Lane

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You really shouldn’t know anything about this film before going in, but suffice to say while my expectations going in were low, this film blew me away. Sharing a similar dynamic to last year’s Ex Machina (three people alone in a remote location), 10 Cloverfield Lane feels more like an indie experiment than a sequel to a blockbuster monster movie, but it’s all the better for it. Claustrophobic direction courtesy of Dan Trachtenberg, combined with the masterful performance of John Goodman are what makes this film click as a tense psychological thriller. The ending has proved controversial but I rather liked it, and if you don’t, just forget it happened and enjoy the rest of one of the best films of the year.

1) Hunt for the Wilderpeople

I said the ratings for this were arbitrary, but for this entry they aren’t. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is my film of the year, hands down. The art of directing comedy seems to be lost on most mainstream comedy films, but a few directors still have the knack. One of these directors is Taika Waititi, and this is on full display here, even more so than in his last film What We Do In The Shadows. While that film had a premise that perhaps didn’t quite deserve the run time, Hunt for the Wilderpeople has both the heart and comedy to sustain a full film length. The humour is the gentle kind that Flight of the Conchords (another New Zealand comedy) mined brilliantly, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople has some lines that are up to par with that show’s comic genius (“You’re more like Sarah Connor. And in the first film, before she could do chin-ups.”). Julian Dennison, who plays Ricky, is a talented child actor of the kind any director would be lucky to find, and his chemistry with the gruff Sam Neill is pitch perfect. A real treat, and my unrivalled best film of the year.

Best Video Games of the Year

Another arbitrarily ranked list. Don’t expect any AAA titles on here, I didn’t play many of those this year. Instead, treat this as a list of quirky games you may have missed otherwise (but only if you own a 3DS)

N/A) The Last Guardian

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I can’t give this a ranking yet, because I haven’t finished it and I plan to write a full and comprehensive review when I have. However, The Last Guardian has completely won me over. It’s a broken game in parts, with a messy camera and an unstable frame rate. However, I simply found myself not caring. The coup this game pulled off was to get me to care about Trico, the giant dog/bird monster who guides you through the game’s mysterious world, and it did this successfully through every means available; cutscene, gameplay, animations and scripted sequences. This one’s shaping up to be a true classic.

4) Pocket Card Jockey

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Mobile games are a difficult thing to do well. They tend to be shallow little experiences, fun for a few minutes before becoming mind numbingly tedious. Pocket Card Jockey avoids this by taking the classic card game of solitaire, the ultimate boredom killer, and attaching it to fast fun horse racing with enough skill that winning feels like an achievement and enough luck that anyone can pick it up and play. Plus the game has a whole host of other little side options that make it feel well worth the price tag.

3) Rhythm Paradise Megamix

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Strange surreal mini-games played to the beat off catchy J-pop tunes. This one contains all the mini games from past Rhythm Paradise games as well as a host of catchy new ones. It’s fun, it’s addictive, but its ultimately bogged down on an initial play-through by a needlessly inserted story. Luckily forcing your way through that opens up a treasure trove of mini treats. Enjoy!

2) Kirby: Planet Robobot

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Occasionally, you have to celebrate a game for having not much more than really good level design. Kirby: Planet Robobot has that in abundance and I would have never even played it had it not been for a sale at a game shop I stumbled into. I’m not the biggest fan of the game’s steampunk aesthetic, but it solidifies it into a cohesive experience and links to the game’s new core mechanic. Unlike other gimmick Kirby power-ups, the Robobot armour isn’t used to solve obvious puzzles, but as a new way to traverse the level, sometimes even cutting off valuable collectables in exchange for a quicker path through. It has it’s own copy abilities, and it’s fun to control through the tightly designed corridor levels traditional to the Kirby series. Even the story is a step up from usual, a weird little muse on the ethics of colonialism. Well worth a play.

1) Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney: Spirit of Justice

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You can read my spoilerific review here, but for those yet to play it: the best addition to a fantastic series since Trials and Tribulations back in 2004.

Best New TV shows of the Year

Comedy dominates this list because it’s what I’m a specialist in, but I’ve heard there were lots of good drama shows as well. I’m just not the guy for that. Also, this is just new stuff, so no second series here (sorry Crazy Ex Girlfriend, It’s Always Sunny, Brooklyn Nine Nine and many more).

4) The Good Place

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Mike Schur is one of the most reliable names in comedy, so I had little doubt that The Good Place would be, well, good. What I didn’t expect was that this comedy would be so great even in its first season. Sure, there’s room for improvement but even as the series went on the quality of episodes kept increasing. Set in the afterlife, Kirsten Bell plays a woman who has been sent there mistakenly, while Ted Danson plays the afterlife’s oddball ‘architect’. Like Schur’s other comedies, the show rests on a balance between main and supporting cast both pulling their weight, and luckily they do. What’s different about The Good Place is that it feels less like a traditional sitcom – it’s much more structured and planned, each episode ending in a cliff hanger. For that reason, I’m excited for each new episode not just for the comedy, but also to see where the plot goes next.

3) Lady Dynamite

I already wrote about this one, and here’s what I said; With shows like Master of None; Love; Grace and Frankie; Bojack Horseman, as well as non-Netflix shows in a similar vein, this genre has become the new big thing. As a comedy fan and a Netflix user, I’m glad to see this uptick in odd comedies supported by a major streaming service. However, not all of these really hit the spot in what I’m looking for. Master of None probably came the closest (perhaps because of my innate Aziz Ansari bias), but I don’t know if it would have deserved a spot on this list. Then along came Lady Dynamite, created by Mitch Hurwitz of Arrested Development fame (another show you should really check out), and Maria Bamford, of strange stand-up semi-fame. Lady Dynamite edges out those other shows because its actually really funny, as well as building a convincing character portrait thorough a clever structural device of three timelines that chart Bamford’s fall into mental illness to her recovery. Lady Dynamite is extremely surreal, with buildings having names on them (Maria’s house has ‘Maria’s House’ written on it), and talking pugs, but this fits with Bamford’s often manic personality and surrealist humour. The show mainly focuses on Maria’s attempts to work her way into Hollywood fame, first by trying to capitalize on her eccentricities, then, after her breakdown, by trying to avoid this. In a way, the show itself provides an epilogue to the events that take place inside the show; in making Lady Dynamite, Bamford has manged to make the perfect show the fictionalized version of her dreams of creating. Thanks, Netflix.

2) Search Party

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This one was a real surprise to me; I had no real idea about it until it aired, but I binged the entire show in two nights. This is an almost perfect package of a show, a fascinating psychological study of Dory (played brilliantly by Alia Shawkat), a woman struggling to find purpose in her dull life until she gets swept up in a missing persons case involving an old acquaintance from University. Some see this show as a critique of so-called millennials, others shun that interpretation. In my opinion this show acts more as a reflection on contemporary characters; it’s too loving towards some of its key players and too engaged in their culture to be a simple critique, but too damning of their efforts to be a celebration of it. Whatever it is, I’m sure everyone can agree that this is smart, funny television that can exist even without social context as it’s own thing.

1) The People vs OJ Simpson

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Like many viewers of The People vs OJ Simpson, I was not alive to witness the original trial. However, the cultural memory has lingered in the imagination long enough for lines like ‘if the gloves don’t fit, you must acquit’ to exist apart from the original tragedy. FX’s show The People vs OJ Simpson brings back the trial to TV screens and is every bit as gripping as what I’ve heard of the original. The cast playing the roles are all superb, even David Schwimmer surprises as Rob Kardashian (more like Ross Kardashian), but Sarah Paulson is the undeniable best performance of the show as Marcia Clark. The show looks at the case from multiple angles, each as intriguing as the last, and slowly guides you into understanding how the shock verdict came to be. This one stands at the top of many a ‘year’s best’ list and for good reason. I wish I could write for longer about this one but I feel I’ve already gone on long enough. This is one of the best TV shows not only of this year, but that I’ve ever seen, and it deserves to be remembered as a faithful and telling depiction of tragedy and the role of law in public life.

So that was my top 16 of 2016. Obviously I’ve not seen everything, and if you disagree with any of my suggestions, or want to recommend me something to review, please say in the comments. Additionally, if you want to hear my full thoughts on any of these, drop a comment and I’ll try and write a longer review. Thanks, and here’s to a better 2017!

Backlog Review: Bored to Death Season Two

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Annoyingly, my opinions aren’t always 100% correct all the time (surprising, I know). I’ll admit, it took me until half way through Season Two to properly get Bored to Death. I’ll fully take the blame on this one, but it’s interesting to examine why it took me so long to understand. For one thing, I think it was a sub-par first season. I re-watched parts of the first season of Bored to Death just to check if I’d completely screwed up, but alas no; that first season is still not very good. Mostly, the slip up (for yours truly, at least), came in the advertising. A detective noir show on HBO starring Jason Schwartzman, Ted Danson and Zak Galifianakis conjures a certain image to mind. That show is funny, quick and stylish; it focuses on the interplay between normal life and funny well directed detective stories. It also doesn’t exist quite yet. Parts of this imaginary show seep into the existing Bored to Death; it shares a cast, it shares some key ideas and even parts of a few episodes. Some of the characters, like Patton Oswalt’s crazy spy shop salesman, or Vikram the driver, come from this show, as does a stellar OST. The rest of the show is quite different and it’s this confused dichotomy that stopped me from fully understanding Bored to Death.

It helped with finally getting it, of course, that the second season of Bored to Death is just that much better than the first season. Some problems still remain; I continue to be creeped out by the self-insert nature of the Jonathan Ames character, especially as he starts to date his own student (although I do appreciate the real Ames casting himself as the crazy Jewish stalker). The characters still espouse the benefits of weed too much for me to care anymore, and Jenny Slate is still annoying for the parts of the show she’s in. Most egregiously, Jonathan Ames remains a bad character who doesn’t quite care or emote enough, something made a little worse in this season as the detective plots become a lot crazier. He’s also quite self centered, although this is utilised more for comic effect (one scene that comes to mind is when he uses the dominatrix as a therapist.) I do also still think the visual direction of the whole show could be a little better but it matters less now that the detective plots give a little visual flair by being in more interesting locations.

However, I did say I liked the second season a lot more, and I also said that I finally got the show. So what did I get? Well, Bored to Death seemed to be moving a bit away from the detective plots and more towards three chill guys hanging out and dealing with their problems, which become much more major. Jonathan and his wacky detective hijinks are now only a third of the ensemble, so even though I said those detective stories were becoming more interesting they’re also fading into the background a bit. More prescient is George’s magazine which has somehow contracted a bad case of the religious right and is now firing George and *gasp* conducting drug tests. George also has to deal with cancer, and while this turns out a red herring the emotional journey he goes through is very real. When George and Jonathan have a father/son moment in the hospital, I felt it because the characters this time were making a lot better written. George may still have a problem of making big speeches about the world but he also shows a lot more of his personal life and insecurities. Similarly making me care is Zak Galifianakis’ Ray, having relationship problems that hit hard because he remains the sappy but relatable character. I’m still a little sore he isn’t funnier, but I see again that’s just my expectations for Galifianakis rather than a fault of the show. The success he finds with his comic book is also nice but someone has to one day explain to me why anyone would ever read ‘The Adventures of Super Ray’ (maybe I’m just not much of a comics guy).

In fact, the chilling out stuff works so well I wonder why Jonathan is a detective in the first place. His cases often have some thematic relevance and give him something to do but they really aren’t needed. They make the show confused and it saddens me that I took so long to understand that at it’s heart Bored to Death is just about three guys chilling. Jonathan’s detective career is a smoke screen and isn’t nearly enjoyable enough to be worth keeping. Other shows have had elements that could easily be stripped away to reveal a simpler show underneath, but none so frustratingly as Bored to Death. I do now like this show butI keep the right to have my major reservations about it.

This is the shortest review I’ve ever written fyi (mainly because I already said much of what I thought in the review of season one). I’ll be back in a few days with a review of a comedy mystery show I enjoyed much more unconditionally; Search Party

Backlog Review: Bored to Death Season One

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Knowing my love of detective fiction and American comedy, a friend recommended me Bored to Death, the Johnathan Ames show that had been on my radar for a while but I’d never gotten round to watching. He lent me the first season DVD and I watched it in less than two days. The elements were all there; detective theming; Zach Galifianakis; Ted Danson (starring now in the excellent The Good Place btw); Jason Schwartzman, and HBO, who have produced some of the best half-hour comedies of the last decade, from Flight of the Conchords to Curb your Enthusiasm. However quickly I worked through it, though, I felt like this show never really came together. It started awfully, and while it was admittedly much improved by the end, overall I never felt it was anything like as good as it should have been.

The show revolves around a writer named Johnathan Ames, played by Jason Schwartzman, who, recently single and struggling to write a second novel, decides to try moonlighting as a Private Investigator. Jason Schwartzman is a great pick for the role; equal parts cool and nerdy. However, his performance here leaves a lot to be desired. It never feels like he commits to his role either as a PI or a writer, and he has this bored expression on his face about 95% of the time (insert lousy ‘he looks bored to death’ line here). This does admittedly make his occasional breakdown (such as when he gets tased or runs from gangsters) all the more humorous, but it’s hard to care about a character who looks so detached. Another that annoyed me about John is a little more petty. I have a hatred for writers who name their lead characters after themselves, especially when it’s so obviously self-insert writing (for God’s sake, even the names of their novels are the same). This wouldn’t bother me so much if a large part of the final two episodes didn’t involve Johnathan beating up a critic who gave him a bad review – the critic, by the way, played by another writer-comedian John Hodgman. It just feels so… masturbatory, for lack of a better word. As Hodgman’s character might say, maybe next time he should try writing with both hands.

Ted Danson and Zach Galifianakis also don’t come out of this unscathed. Danson’s character starts off nothing but a weed obsessed millionaire and is only redeemed in the last few episodes when he gets something to do. I don’t mind a character that’s bored with life, but this only works when they’re trying to get out of it, not indulging in it.  When Danson puts on a wacky outfit to look young or accompanies Aimes on detective work just to have something fun to do, it’s funny. When he’s just smoking pot and talking about ‘life’, it’s no fun to watch, especially not when sober (although I can’t imagine it being much better stoned, either). The show’s obsession with pot again feels like Aimes shoving his world view down our throats. We get it, you like smoking weed and talking about how great it is. It’s boring to hear once, and repeating the same kind of scene once an episode is just infuriating. Galifianakis’ character Ray suffers the same problem as the other two. He’s bored, he’s pessimistic, he doesn’t emote much. Galifianakis is great at playing it low-key, but he needs some jokes in order to exercise that comedic timing I imagine you’d hire him for. Without that, he’s…boring me to death (sorry).

So far, not so great. Another failing comes in how it all looks. The direction in the show is bland, bland, bland; falling back on hoping we find the streets of New York or the interiors of empty looking apartments enough to keep our interest without providing anything of interest direction-wise for the viewer to latch onto. Take another HBO show, Flight of the Conchords for a good example of how to do this right. It also takes place in New York and doesn’t have too much going for it in terms of the direction in normal dialogue scenes, but it makes up for this through the music videos and cut-ins that give it some stylistic flair. More than that, FotC is consistently laugh-out-loud funny, while Bored to Death never elicited more than a few chuckles an episode, if it was lucky. Again, towards the end of the first series this improved, but not too much. What’s frustrating is that the whole premise sets itself up for stylistic flair; it’s based on noir detective novels, notorious for a very specific look. Apart from the occasional smoky bar or dimly lit avenue, however, it never makes good on its premise. If it wanted to show that being a PI wasn’t like in the novels, then fine. However, that isn’t what the show aims for. Aimes loves being a PI, but the show never embraces this like he does.

I’m being maybe too harsh. I liked the show as a whole; it had enough funny stuff and well-written scenes that I never quite veered into the realm of dislike. But a lot of it bored me; the characters are bored, the directors are boring, and this comes through. I have a feeling that the second season will be better if I get round to watching it, but this first season failed to lock-pick its way into my heart. (I think I’ll also have to console myself that I will never be as good at snappy lines as John Hodgman’s fictional critic…)

 

The Toatali Guide to Modern TV Comedy

If there’s one thing I know a lot about, it’s modern TV comedies. I’ve spent way too much of my life watching 20-30 minute TV sitcoms, and while I haven’t seen them all, my knowledge is pretty extensive. So, today I present a small guide to what you should be watching if you want to get into the now flourishing world of (mostly American, I admit) TV comedies. Before we begin, though, a few ground rules.

  • No rankings – This isn’t me telling you what the best and worst shows are, it’s more of a series of recommendations, depending on what you want to watch. Obviously, all of these shows are great, or I wouldn’t be recommending them, but don’t take the order I put them in as some sort of ranking system.
  • What is modern? – Any show that finished post 2013. This is pretty arbitrary, but such is life.
  • My favourite show isn’t on here… – Tough. Maybe I haven’t seen it, or maybe I didn’t like it. If you want, put a show recommendation in the comments, and I’ll try and get round to watching it.

What to watch if you want awkward comedy.

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Maybe putting Curb your Enthusiasm under the label of awkward comedy is a disservice to the show so let me calm your fears – if you hated Meet the Parents, there’s still a good chance you’ll like this. Curb is often called one of the best TV comedies of all time, and while I don’t think that’s the case, there’s still a lot to be said for it. The show hinges on the performance of Larry David, who plays a fictionalized version of himself. Each episode sees him getting into another dilemma, that he handles (mostly) extremely badly. Where the show succeeds is in the relatability of these problems. While most of them you won’t run into unless you’re a successful Jewish comedian living in L.A., you almost always side with Larry, and that makes the situations he gets himself into even funnier than they might otherwise be. Larry is an annoying guy, but seeing everything from his perspective is seeing a different Larry to the rest of the characters in the show.

The supporting cast also excel; Jeff Garlin is perhaps my favourite of them, but Cheryl Hines also pulls her weight as Larry’s exasperated wife. The semi-improvised nature of the script allows more more natural conversations than any fully scripted show would give. I talked in my review of The Grinder about how characters didn’t speak like normal people, but here they do, and it was the right choice for this style of comedy. The show may too often divulge into screaming, but this isn’t really noticeable if you don’t binge watch, and instead take your time. Curb Your Enthusiasm was recently renewed for a ninth season, 5 years after the last episode aired (which just makes it eligible for a spot in this list), and if you haven’t already seen it, I highly recommend watching all 8 brilliant seasons to prepare.

What to watch if you want a Netfilx dramedy

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Yes, Netflix dramedy gets a spot on this list. With shows like Master of None; Love; Grace and Frankie; Bojack Horseman, as well as non-Netflix shows in a similar vein, this genre has become the new big thing. As a comedy fan and a Netflix user, I’m glad to see this uptick in odd comedies supported by a major streaming service. However, not all of these really hit the spot in what I’m looking for. Master of None probably came the closest (perhaps because of my innate Aziz Ansari bias), but I don’t know if it would have deserved a spot on this list. Then along came Lady Dynamite, created by Mitch Hurwitz of Arrested Development fame (another show you should really check out), and Maria Bamford, of strange stand-up semi-fame. Lady Dynamite edges out those other shows because its actually really funny, as well as building a convincing character portrait thorough a clever structural device of three timelines that chart Bamford’s fall into mental illness to her recovery.

Lady Dynamite is extremely surreal, with buildings having names on them (Maria’s house has ‘Maria’s House’ written on it), and talking pugs, but this fits with Bamford’s often manic personality and surrealist humour. The show mainly focuses on Maria’s attempts to work her way into Hollywood fame, first by trying to capitalize on her eccentricities, then, after her breakdown, by trying to avoid this. In a way, the show itself provides an epilogue to the events that take place inside the show; in making Lady Dynamite, Bamford has manged to make the perfect show the fictionalized version of her dreams of creating. Thanks, Netflix.

What to watch if you want to laugh

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Unfortunately, TV comedy these days isn’t primarily concerned with making you laugh. It wants you to think, to cry, maybe to chuckle inwardly at the strangeness or the awkwardness of a situation, but very few shows simply put the jokes first. Then there’s Angie Tribeca, which puts the jokes before everything else. The plot is paper thin; it’s a spoof of cop shows, and the characters are one line stereotypes. But it doesn’t matter. At all. Because Angie Tribeca is really, really, funny. It succeeds in creating what one reviewer called ‘an atmosphere of comedy’; not every joke is funny on its own, but the sheer volume and speed means that by the end of each episode, you’ll be belly laughing. (It’s worth noting here that the second series is much better than the first). Rashida Jones plays the title character, and while her deadpan tone might lead you to believe that she plays a ‘straight man’ role, you’d be mistaken. Angie is just as silly as the rest of the cast, but like them, she doesn’t take any notice of the absurdities that are going on around her. Because of the joke based nature of the show, it’s hard to write much about, so please, just watch it.

What to watch if you want a musical

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A lot of the shows on this list are ‘character studies’. This is a natural consequence of TV shows that take themselves more seriously, and are usually headed up by one main comedian/comedienne. Ensemble casts seem to have, for the most part, disappeared. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is another ‘character study’ show, but this one has a big difference; it’s a musical. Really, it’s the songs that carry this one into a place on this list. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend follows Rebecca Bunch (played by Youtube star Rachel Bloom), as she moves to West Covina (California (Only two hours from the beach (four in traffic))), in order to win back her summer camp love, Josh Chan.

Vulture called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend their best show on TV right now, and while I don’t agree with that (you’ll see what mine is later), it’s pretty damn good. Rebecca Bunch is an amazing comic creation, a product of Disney films who imagines musical numbers in her head that spring off from songs and genres we all recognize (much like Flight of the Conchords, which sadly missed this list by about 4 years), and reveal a fascinating look into her psyche. The supporting cast, much like the viewer, is drawn into Rebecca’s quest to win back Josh, including her new best friend Paula, who reveals herself even more damaged than Rebecca in her mad-cap schemes to get Josh. But perhaps the best thing about CEG, is that it doesn’t rely on you reading too much into it. It throws everything to the surface in its musical numbers, which even without a knowledge of the plot are simply enjoyable. It’s not the best show on TV, but it comes close.

What to watch if you can’t stand dips in quality

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These titles are getting a bit crazy now… Anyway, with most long running shows, there’s often a noticeable dip in quality towards the end (see Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock, Friends etc). It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia has been going for 11 seasons now and each season has at least a few classic episodes. Even in its latest season, where you can see the show runners following one of their character’s advice (“Well, I don’t know how many years on this earth I got left. I’m gonna get real weird with it”), it still had some really great episodes.

I said that the ensemble comedy was slowly dying, and this show is the only real one on my list. Luckily, it takes the ensemble cast model, which is often used for ‘cosy’, friends living together type shows, and makes it a dark comedy about a group of friends who run a bar together, and the various despicable schemes they get up to, all funded by Danny DeVito’s Frank Renyolds, who supports the strange ideas of Charlie Day, Rob McElhenney and Glenn Howerton’s characters, who drag along and abuse Kaitlin Olson’s birdlike Dee Renyolds. The various schemes would be funny by themselves, but the way the cast play off each other and the way various rifts between them pull their ideas apart really makes each episode click. The other good thing about IASIP is that none of the characters change, or become better people. This may seem like a downside from a story-telling perspective, but IASIP only works because of the character dynamics, and the writers know that old adage ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. The character’s various flaws become more exaggerated, but only to expand on pre-existing traits and mine them for comedy. Plus it’s all on Netflix, and perfect for binging. So there’s that!

What to watch if you want something British

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As an Englishman, I should really be more supportive of modern British comedies, but aside from a few stand out shows (Toast of London, The IT Crowd), America seems to be dominating the sitcom right now. The best British comedies tend to be panel shows; I love Would I Lie to You, and Have I Got News For You is great satire in the British tradition. But the one British sitcom that really stands out among the crowd is Peep Show. Known for its unique first person view, the show is much more than a visual gimmick. In a way, Peep Show functions as a combination of many of the shows I’ve talked about here; it borrows some of the awkward comedy from Curb your Enthusiasm (although that’s probably a side effect of David Mitchell’s exaggerated British-ness), the dark schemes of IASIP, and the deep character studies of awful people from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

Dream team David Mitchell and Robert Webb play Mark and Jeremy, two mates who live together, but whose lives are mostly failures. Mark works at a dead-end job and is always trying to win the affections of some women he creepily stalks, and Jeremy is a wannabe musician whose endeavors are mostly failures. Sometimes it hurts to see the odd couple fail in such spectacular ways, in a similar way to the UK version of The Office (I still find it hard to watch the book launch for Business Secrets of the Pharaohs), but the show so rarely misses the balance between horrifically unwatchable and funny, that it often manages to reach the heights of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s masterclass of comedy. Anyone who liked that show or wants to check out something that encapsulates what many people think of as ‘British’ comedy should definitely check out Peep Show.

What to watch if you are a human being

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It’s ReviewReview is not just my favourite modern TV comedy, it’s my favourite TV show, full stop. If you haven’t seen Review, read this at your own risk, because what I would advise is to leave this blog post right now, and go and watch both seasons. If your life isn’t changed for the better having watched a spectacular piece of television whose ambitions seems to rival that of a groundbreaking drama like Mad Men, but told in the form of small sketches rather than hour long mood setting smoke-a-thons, then I’ll forfeit my job as a critic.

For those who still need convincing (really?), Review centers around Forrest MacNeil, played by comedic genius Andy Daly, a man who reviews various life experiences for his TV show, from eating 15 pancakes to blackmailing a person. The show’s genius revolves around how each review (there are usually three an episode) changes and shapes a part of Forrest’s personality – try as he might, he cannot separate his life from his reviews, or his reviews from his life. Gradually, they start to destroy him and the lives of the people around him, but without him really ever noticing. The menace of the show Forrest runs creeps up on him as it creeps up on the viewer, but it never becomes another omnipresent character like Veridian Dynamics in Better Off Ted, because the show is so tied up in Forrest himself, even when he tries to convince himself there’s a true bad guy behind the operation. Review deals with a multitude of topics, from the problems with being a critic, to the problems of being Batman, but the show links each little thread back to the quilt that is Forrest’s messed up life, and if that sounds too dark for you, don’t worry, because it still manages to be funny. Some reviews go so over the top or deal with such silly things, that even at it’s darkest it still reminds you that this is a comedy. Andy Daly has always explored unassuming characters with seriously dark sides, but here he buries it so deep and plays it so perfectly that it’s no wonder Forrest is his only character to make it to a full TV show, instead of just a guest appearance on Comedy Bang Bang! I love Review, and I’m sure anyone who watches it will too.

So there it is. My guide to modern comedy. I wish I could have written for longer on each of these shows, but then this post will have really overstayed its welcome, and I don’t want that. Thanks for reading, and I hope anyone who did got something out of it.

The Grinder – Review

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“Grindsight is 20/20”

So, farewell, The Grinder. We hardly knew ye. (also considered; Alas, poor Grinder. I watched it, Horatio…) Canceled after just one season, The Grinder was a sitcom that many defined as a ‘meta-comedy’. That particular term is one that’s bandied around a lot these days, but seems quite apt in this case. While seeming to be a simple spoof of American legal dramas (such as Suits, which has been reviewed on this website), The Grinder uses that conceit to comment on itself and American TV shows in general while maintaining the facade of a solid family sitcom about the relationship of two brothers.

Even without its ‘meta’ flavourings, The Grinder would still be a good show, although perhaps not quite as memorable. The key thing that needed to work for the show to be a success is that the chemistry between the shows leads, played by Rob Lowe and Fred Savage, needed to be good. Luckily, it most certainly is, but what elevates this dynamic is how it’s supported by Lowe’s and Savage’s relationships with their co-stars, a wonderful ensemble cast that includes the likes of Mary Elizabeth Ellis and Natalie Morales. The banter between the characters is sometimes unrealistic (no one I know is that fast with the witty dialogue, even on a good day), but always entertaining to watch. Sitcoms don’t need realistic dialogue to work; in fact, unless you’re The Office (UK), it’s much harder to get a laugh while maintaining an air that these people are like people you know on more than a superficial level. As a result, the lightning fast back and forth (especially between Fred Savage and Mary Elizabeth Ellis) is simply enjoyable.

The Grinder is a ‘meta’ show, however, and a lot of that comes from its premise, which I will now belatedly explain. The Grinder centers around Stewart (Fred Savage), a lawyer, whose brother Dean (Rob Lowe), a successful TV lawyer (think Harvey Specter), comes to live with him and work at their father’s firm Sanderson and Yao in Boise, Indiana. Each episode starts with the family watching an episode of The Grinder, the show in which Dean used to star, and the plot of that episode reflects the plot of the episode of The Grinder (wait, I’m confused). It’s a really clever technique that starts off with simple foreshadowing that also allows us to look into the hilarious world of The Grinder (the fictional one). As the series progresses, this only gets better; one episode that stands out is ‘A System on Trial’, that, while slightly heavy-handed with its ‘meta’ (never Community levels, but still), provides a fun look into the critical reception of The Grinder (the real one). The Grinder is a show that plays with its self-referential knowledge in a really nice way. It’s too easy for a show to become complacent when it has a ‘meta’ theme. The Grinder understands that it needs to do something clever, but it also has the solid foundation of the character dynamics underneath to back it all up.

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“You got me off, just like you said you would, son”

As always, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows, but my list of criticisms for The Grinder is surprisingly low. One of the most common criticisms I’ve heard is that The Grinder puts clever before funny, a cardinal sin in comedy. I can’t bring myself to agree with this, however. The Grinder just made me laugh too much for me to justify saying it wasn’t funny. Some shows, like Friends, survive on simple jokes alone. Others, such as Arrested Development, Better off Ted and The Grinder use their smartness to complement and add to the comedy. None of these shows are laugh a minute like Friends, but that isn’t necessarily a criticism; they’re funny in a different way (boy, what a cop out). A criticism I can agree with is that Natalie Morales was criminally underused. This happened in Parks and Recreation too, but that show had plenty of funny female leads. The worst thing is that the writers were clearly aware (there’s a joke about it), but did nothing. Now that’s what I mean by lazy meta. I’m also unsure if the show was sustainable. I had little qualms with one season, but I’m not sure if the central gag wouldn’t wear out after two. I realise that this is why they bought in plot-lines like Dean’s house, but they seemed to have already forgotten about that by the end. This, however, is simply conjecture; the series ended on a high, so for that, I can’t complain.

There are a few things I wanted to fit in, but was too lazy to write about; the hilarious children, just Todd in general and how brilliantly Kumail Nanjiani was used. To sum it all up though, The Grinder is a fantastic show.

But what if it wasn’t?

But it is.