Korra and Me

Avatar: The Last Airbender is my all time favorite television series. (I’ve explained exactly why this is before, so I won’t rehash it; go see for yourself if it’s really that important). And when I found out that co-creators Mike DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko were hard at work developing a follow up show focusing on Avatar Aang’s successor, a 16-year-old girl named Korra, I was optimistic, but cautiously so. Back when Ron Moore and Jane Espenson launched the Battlestar Galactica prequel series Caprica, I’d been far too optimistic about the series’ quality, and ended up sorely disappointed–and at the time, BSG was my favorite series. (Yes, A:TLA bested it. Again, I have my reasons, and I’m not changing my mind. But let’s fight about this anyway!) I didn’t want that to happen again, so I had some apprehension.

Now, we’re four episodes into Korra, and I’m glad that apprehension was firmly in place, because it’s made this daring, dramatic, and altogether captivating show all the more satisfying.

It’s obvious that the series bears some similarities to its predecessor, but it differs in all the right ways. Beyond her avatar status, Korra bears little resemblance to Aang; where he was earnest and playful, she’s stubborn and rebellious, with a willingness to bend the rules set by her present guardian and airbending mentor, Aang’s son Tenzin. Rather than palling around with a pair of sparring Water Tribe siblings, an adorably brash earthbender, and two wacky animal sidekicks, she’s accompanied by orphaned brothers with a complicated past and … two wacky animal sidekicks, but one of them is essentially a red panda, so, you know, good enough.

Most importantly, the wars Aang and Korra fight are radically different. Aang took on the evils of the Fire Nation with the intent of bringing unity to the Four Nations once again. Korra lives in the world where the Four Nations are more or less united, and the villains within the walls of Republic City are somehow more terrifying than Fire Lord Ozai ever was. These villains are anti-benders who vow to rid the world of those who can manipulate elements. They possess the ability to take away benders’ abilities–and if they’re able to take away Korra’s avatar powers, then unity will be a near-impossible dream all over again.

Initially, I wasn’t sold on the strength of this story. A:TLA is borderline perfect in my mind, full of the kind of heart that precious few TV series possess. Even after the premiere, I was doubtful that the co-creators could somehow replicate A:TLA’s success. But three episodes later, I think they’re well on their way to a different sort of success. There are reflections of the same humor, heart, beauty, and drama we’ve seen before. But Korra is darker and somehow deeper than what came before it. And I could very well be speaking too soon here (check back in a few months), but I get the feeling that Korra, Republic City, and who and what she encounters there will be as memorable as Aang and his world.

Well, maybe not as memorable. But it could be close.

In Defense of Linda Holmes and Commentary on Zac Efron’s Facial Hair

Above: The bearded Efron at work with Taylor Schilling in The Lucky One.

At my last job, a collage of printed out portraits adorned my wall under the word “HEROIC.” Comedy Central’s newsworthy Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, music critic and memoir writer Rob Sheffield, Lost co-creators Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, Parks & Recreation’s Leslie Knope, and one other person covered that area of my workspace. I find each of these writers, performers, and character worthy of my admiration, and the last of them might just trump them all: Linda Holmes, the writer of NPR’s Monkey See pop culture commentary blog. Holmes does what I strive to do here in a much more polished and insightful way: she waxes philosophical about all manner of popular culture, from the idea of entertainment consumption to, more recently, Zac Efron’s beard.

That last piece has caused quite a stir. Within two days, it became Holmes’ all-time most controversial piece as it described, rather innocuously, Efron’s transformation from Disney Channel darling to hopeful Hollywood leading man. A confessed fan of the delightfully terrible High School Musical series and the much better musical Hairspray, I’ve always had a certain fondness for Efron. He takes parts in films considered awful and makes huge gaffes in the public eye, but there’s something about that face and that demeanor that makes you forgive him every time. Now, he’s got a beard and more mass appeal than ever before. That’s all Holmes is saying here. There are no harsh critiques or ad hominem attacks. It’s just Holmes being Holmes. And yet, the story is being taken wildly out of context, and in a most peculiar way.

The commenters are divided between praising Holmes for an incisive, humorous piece on the nature of young celebrity and criticizing her for posting something that is not newsworthy on an NPR domain. What the latter group fails to recognize is that Monkey See is not a news blog. It’s not about unrest in the Middle East, congressional mishaps, or the presidential race. It’s never been about anything but pop culture. That’s its intended purpose: commentary. Not breaking news, not startling revelations, not Morning Edition anecdotes about frivolous lawsuits or hot dog eating contests–just pop cultural commentary.

The Efron piece is not a news post, nor is it a takedown of the actor as a person and performer. It’s about Zac Efron, his beard, and what his looks and demeanor mean in our celebrity landscape. It’s not a question of Efron’s integrity or a treatise regarding how he impacts Libyan riots. It’s a great example of what Holmes does week in and week out, representative of why Holmes deserved a place in my collage of heroes. It’s just intellect, people. Maybe next time, you should read a blog’s description and every word of that post before you decide what its content should be.

Read Holmes’ original piece here.

Female Friendships That Work

Warning: this post contains mild spoilers for each series mentioned, however oblique. Apologies for not catching that sooner.

A while back, I wrote a post documenting my favorite fictional bromances. Then last night, I started thinking about female friendships on TV and how hard it was to find examples of really great ones. But I was able to make a list anyway, and aren’t you glad of that? (Note: the alternative would be me posting pictures of my cat’s surgery scar, and I really don’t think you want that.)

Buffy Summers and Willow Rosenberg, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

There’s a moment in the second season of Buffy that occurs shortly after vampire slayer Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) loses her virginity to Angel (David Boreanaz), the brooding vampire with a soul. Buffy’s not quite ready to tell anyone what happened, even her closest friends. But all it takes is a single meaningful glance for Willow (Alyson Hannigan) to know what occurred and know Buffy needs, more than anything else, a friend who understands why she did what she did and what the consequences might be. (As it turns out, they’re pretty dire, but that’s a story for another time.) That exchange of glances is emblematic of Buffy and Willow’s still young friendship. It establishes how well connected they are and how much they need each other’s companionship–and there’s no definition of friendship that’s purer than that. By the time season seven rolls around, Buffy and Willow have been through all kinds of hell together and they’re closer than ever, just as the best of friends should be.

Leslie Knope and Ann Perkins, Parks & Recreation

Though Leslie (Amy Poehler) and Ann’s (Rashida Jones) relationship isn’t the most interesting or entertaining on Parks & Recreation, it feels the realest. They’re two relatively normal people living and thriving in Pawnee, Indiana, brought together more by circumstance than shared interests or common bonds. And yet, they end up having the most organic-feeling friendship, partnering over projects, supporting each other in the trials and tribulations of romantic relationships, and accepting each other’s occasional quirks and shortcomings.

Caroline Forbes and Elena Gilbert, The Vampire Diaries

Though Elena (Nina Dobrev) doesn’t often describe Caroline (Candice Accola) as her best friend, Caroline is unquestionably the most reliable person in her life. No matter how terrible circumstances get for Caroline–and sometimes, they’re terrible by any measure–she’s still up for doing whatever it takes to protect, comfort, and support Elena. This is a tall order, one Elena’s best friend Bonnie (Kat Graham) and vampire loves Stefan (Paul Wesley) and Damon Salvatore (Ian Somerhalder) can’t consistently live up to. But Caroline can, making her scenes, with Elena and otherwise, some of the most emotionally resonant and convincing the show produces.

Annie Edison, Britta Perry, and Shirley Bennett, Community

Annie (Alison Brie), Britta (Gillian Jacobs), and Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) have next to nothing in common. Annie’s a young, overachieving eternal optimist, Britta’s a hardened 20-something causehead, and Shirley’s a mother of three with a strong moral compass and a tendency to nurture everyone in sight. Somehow, though, their differing viewpoints make their friendships work wonderfully as they help each other to understand the struggles presented by enrolling in community college when there’s so much more for them beyond the Greendale campus. Plus, few things are funnier than seeing Shirley help Annie back to the on-campus med center in only her flimsy hospital gown or Annie handing Britta a banana reading “You are a lying junkie.”

Lily Aldrin and Robin Scherbatsky, How I Met Your Mother

No matter how unsatisfying it can sometimes be, I’ll always love one thing about How I Met Your Mother: the friendships feel real. When the gang meets Robin (Cobie Smulders) in the series premiere, it shifts their group dynamic in such a way that Lily (Alyson Hannigan–hi again!) finally has a female friend, one with whom she can chat about the things she’d never tell hopeless romantic Ted (Josh Radnor), philandering suit-wearer Barney (Neil Patrick Harris), or even her husband Marshall (Jason Segel). Sure, they argue about things both trivial and serious, but what real life friends don’t? No matter how tough or personal their conflicts become, they always end up finding ways to resolve them and get back together at McLaren’s Pub for the umpteenth time.

For the Love of Traverse City

Scott’s and my weekend visits to Traverse City, Michigan are few and far between, but after this past trip, I’m thinking that needs to change. Before you’ve been to TC, it’s easy to dismiss it as a typical smallish town that hosts a cherry-themed festival once a year and doesn’t have much to its name beyond that. And that’s a shame, because it’s much more than that. There are wineries and beer bars and a one-screen theater that shows the kinds of movies you never knew you wanted to see, but for $3 (or 2 for $5!), how could you ever say no? It’s bursting with culture and personality and a thorough hipness that’s somehow untainted by pretension–thus making it unavoidably enjoyable.

This time around, we saw two movies, ate all kinds of food, glorious food, and stopped by something like four bars. My brother, our host, made us French toast, introduced us to another party-style Wii game, and took us to a cidery for a tasting. And we spent a solid hour or two walking around the lake as the Scotts (my brother’s name is Scott, too, because of course it is) talked about my brother’s future in law, state politics, and boat ownership while I studied the water and the multitude of dogs that made their way up and down the pier.

Now, let’s talk about these movies.

I’d be hard pressed to think of two movies more different than The Room and The Cabin in the WoodsThe Room is widely regarded as one of the worst films ever made; The Cabin in the Woods is a highly praised borderline brilliant horror comedy. It’s good to prepare for The Room, knowing what to yell at the screen, when to sing the Full House theme, and how many spoons you’ll need to throw at the too-large images of Tommy Wiseau awkwardly making love to the undeserving object of his affection. But with The Cabin in the Woods, it’s best to go in completely blind. Even a simple plot summary works as a spoiler, and knowing nothing leads to the best kind of surprises. No one should ever be quiet during a showing of The Room; everyone should be dead silent in a screening of The Cabin in the Woods. You get the idea.

And yet somehow I enjoyed one as much as the other, albeit in completely different ways. First, let’s talk about The Room. As I said, this is a movie worthy of examination simply because of its badness. The dialogue is stilted, the story is laughable, and the production value, well, it leaves more than a little bit to be desired. It begs to be mocked, and that’s what audiences have been doing for nearly a decade now. Sarcastic comments, spoon tossing, direct responses to the more absurd lines of dialogue–all is welcome, even encouraged. I can’t imagine experiencing The Room in any other way and am so grateful to have done so at 11 pm in a comfy theater seat with a bucket of popcorn on my lap and spoons in hand.

Now, the less said about The Cabin in the Woods, the better. I hesitate to recommend it to just anyone, as it really is unlike any other horror film I’ve seen. It’s frightening, sure, with its fair share of surprises and spurts of violence, but those moments are more than redeemed with the consistently witty dialogue and the impressively clever conceit of [REDACTED]. It’s not overwhelmingly Whedonesque, but it has his fingerprints sprinkled throughout it, tempered by the deft direction of Buffy, Angel, and Lost alum Drew Goddard. This is a well performed, well written, and extremely satisfying movie, a perfect cap on a weekend filled with homemade breakfast, gorgeous Michigan weather, locally made cider, candy factory floors turned lofts, artisan pizzas, recollections of near-miss bar fights, and the kind of fun you feel like you deserve every now and again.