Home on Film

The last movie I saw in the theater was It Follows. It’s a good movie, maybe even a great movie, a sleepy horror story that embraces the idea of building dread throughout its run time rather than wasting its scare factor on jump moments. My favorite thing about it, though, has nothing to do with story or performances or score, all of which are more than satisfactory. The thing I liked most in It Follows — the thing that set it apart from so many movies like it, so many movies in general — was the setting.

(I’m going to get into personal anecdotes with this, so brace yourself or something.)

I was born in on the east side of Michigan’s lower peninsula, and though my family moved to the greater Grand Rapids area on the opposite side of the state when I was six years old, I still spent plenty of time back in Royal Oak and the surrounding suburbs. My grandma and grandpa on my mom’s side lived there, and from 1994 through 2008, my family and I would visit about once a month. As we got older, one sibling or another and their respective significant other would drop out for a month or a few, but we were all, as one, committed to sustaining our relationship with Grandpa, who passed away in 2006, and Grandma, who passed away in 2008.

I haven’t seen much of Royal Oak since then, but considering how much time I’ve spent there, my memories of the landscape are indelible. The Detroit suburbs have an indefinable midwestern beauty about them: trees that seem to drop their leaves through all four seasons, so-clear-you-can-see-forever skies, and crisp, cold air for half the year that’s suddenly interrupted by just the right amount of humidity sometime in the middle of May. The suburban streets are narrow, flanked by narrower sidewalks occupied by couples walking and children being pushed in strollers and dogs being dragged by their leashes. I always felt safe in those suburbs, however naive that may have been. Even as a charmingly jaded twenty-something, though, the thought of meandering through the streets of Royal Oak is a calming one. So naturally, since so much of It Follows was filmed in eastern Michigan was equally calming.

Don’t get me wrong here. It’s haunting, and some shots in particular stuck with me for hours after viewing. But mostly, it just made me nostalgic, even homesick. And that feeling lingered much longer than the creeping dread the movie so effectively creates. Yesterday, though, something reminded me that I have two homes now — my home state, and my city.

It happened when Scott and I were watching the Daredevil pilot. We’re not great at keeping up with current shows, but we were having a lazy evening, and neither of us wanted to commit to watching an entire movie after playing Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments as long as we had. So we tried out Daredevil, which, for the uninitiated (me), felt like a combination of the fifth season of Angel and the Toph Bei Fong black and white sequences in Avatar: The Last Airbender. In short, it’s great. And in the first few minutes, there was a single shot that really landed for me, something that never happened on Angel or Avatar or any other show I care about.

In one of the first scenes, we see the stupidly named Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) talking on the phone as he walks down a Manhattan street. He passes beneath a few awnings and soon reaches the 50th Street subway station. There was one awning in particular that Scott and I noticed and immediately recognized. We’d seen it for the first time in 2012. New to the city, we were still getting our bearings, and some friends of ours took us to a restaurant known by a few different names: Japas 27, East 27, or simply East. It’s known for its karaoke bar and its unorthodox method of serving sushi — via conveyor belt, with differently colored plates indicating different price points. More than once, I’ve eaten cheesecake with chopsticks there after having my fill of spicy shrimp rolls. It’s not right around the corner from our place, but we’re repeat customers. And there it was, smack dab in the middle of the Daredevil set.

I realize that living where we do means I’m going to see my home on TV and in movies, hear it mentioned in songs, see it as the setting in books, et cetera, et cetera. But seeing the beacon of a restaurant I’ve been enjoying for years, one of the literally thousands of restaurants in New York? That’s different. That’s special. And, silly or maudlin as it may seem, it reminded me that I belong here, and will for some time.

Nathan Fillion, Vampires, and Coming Around on Pop Culture

It took me a really long time (apparently over two months, whoops!) to think of something I wanted to write about. A number of ideas floated through my head—current podcast power rankings, my growing obsession with Thrilling Adventure Hour, that time Scott and I watched Twister because he jokingly suggested it and I jumped at the chance—but none of them stuck till this morning, and that’s all Nathan Fillion’s fault.

Up until recently, I never fully understood Nathan Fillion’s appeal. Fully embraced by geek culture for his Whedon pedigree and a bit of a heartthrob even outside those circles due to his charming “Aw, shucks, I guess I am awesome” act on Castle, he’s an undeniably likable guy. But his personality has always struck me as outsized, and that has a tendency to leak into his onscreen personae; I have an especially hard time with this on Firefly, and I realize that’s blasphemy, but it’s not my favorite Whedon property and it never has been. Malcolm Reynolds is a decent character, a big damn hero, even, but he’s no Buffy. So, before I became an avid Thrilling Adventure Hour listener, my view of Fillion was charitable at best. I liked him in Buffy, I liked him in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, and I could take him or leave him in any other case. But then, I heard him play Cactoid Jim.

Thrilling Adventure Hour—a new-time podcast told in the style of old-time radio, as the introduction informs us—features regular segments ranging from staples “Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars,” a space western, and “Beyond Belief,” an ongoing tale of an alcohol-loving married couple who happens to see ghosts, to “The Cross-Time Adventures of Colonel Tick-Tock” and “Amelia Earhart, Fearless Flyer,” time-traveling yarns with plenty of puns and humor picking apart the very concept of shifting through time. A few months’ worth of episodes into the podcast, a new character is added to the “Sparks Nevada” cast: Cactoid Jim, an almost absurdly Good Guy played by Fillion. And no one could do it better than he does. He’s an ideal counterpoint to Marc Evan Jackson’s Sparks and a surprisingly dynamic love interest for Busy Phillips’ Red Plains Rider, with a knack for oratory greatness and helping his fellow man. Or robot. Or alien. Once I got into this role of his, I remembered how much Fillion added to Buffy when he was added to the cast in season seven. As Caleb, an inarguably insane preacher working with the Big Bad First Evil, Fillion was one of the show’s most memorable villains by far—compelling from the start, and deeper as the season progressed. And I’ve always loved Fillion in Dr. Horrible, if only because he seems like he’s playing a parody of himself, a self-important but entirely harmless hunk. So I’ve come around completely on Nathan Fillion, and that got me wondering if there are any other circumstances in which I’ve done the same

The most obvious is my recent turnaround on Joshua Malina, who I’d previously only seen in The West Wing. I don’t care for Malina’s West Wing character at all; the less said about that, the better, because I may start weeping over the loss of Sam Seaborn again. But once I heard an episode or two of Thrilling Adventure Hour featuring Malina as the barkeep at Sparks Nevada’s favorite saloon, I grew to really like the guy. It reminded me of the time he was on Jordan Jesse Go!, an occasionally terrific podcast, and how endearing he’d been there. And then he started singing, and I needed no more convincing that Joshua Malina was A-OK.

Of course, these things can go the opposite way. The first time I ever remember this happening was nearly ten years ago now. I was a fairly insufferable teenager, a fan of pseudo-intellectual literature and the films of Wes Anderson (which I probably called “films,” ew). One of my favorite authors was (ugh, this hurts) Chuck Palahniuk, the man behind the debatably well-done Fight Club and the kind of awful Lullaby, Invisible Monsters, and, now, many other pulpy novels chockfull of the kind of hedonism that is not in any way appealing. Nymphomania! Rampant drug abuse! Esoteric references to Radiohead! At some point, this got to be too much for even 17-year-old Christy, so I gave up on the guy and haven’t touched a Palahniuk book since. (Also, I wrote an editorial for my school newspaper lambasting his body of work. Please do me a favor and never, ever find this.)

TV is a harder medium to pin down in terms of varying tastes from season to season. That’s because the nature of a show is to evolve, and sometimes, if you’re particularly attached to the way a show was going, that can feel more like devolution. I’m not sure if that’s what happened with The Vampire Diaries, but I know I haven’t seen 75% of last season, and before that, I was a staunch defender of the show. Sure, it went down the love triangle road too often, a character dying meant essentially nothing, and the montages set to weepy postmodern love songs were cringe-inducing, but it also had a lot of heart, a great cast of characters, and, on occasion, surprisingly strong writing. That might all still be true, but I wouldn’t know, because I just got over it. Let me know if I should return to the show, because at one point, I really did love it.

Can this situation of love-to-ambivalence or vice versa happen to the same thing twice? This year, I found out that yes, it certainly can. I so disliked the How I Met Your Mother finale that I literally couldn’t watch it in syndication for months on end. But I just picked back up with it, and guess what? The episodes that were endlessly charming and sharply written and, often, truly resonant still are! I don’t find myself picking apart interactions between Ted and Robin, looking for hints at what was to come. Instead, I’m just laughing and saying out loud to Scott, “This is a really great episode.” So maybe I’ll come back to The Vampire Diaries, and maybe I’ll decide to dislike Joshua Malina again. (Just kidding about the latter. Probably. Probably kidding about that.) In the meantime, I will marvel at my own shifting opinions, and I will write that marveling down, just like all good blahggers should.

Ranking Every Episode of Sherlock A Couple Months Late

It’s odd how little I’ve talked about Sherlock on this blahg, given that it’s one of my favorite shows with one of my favorite casts. Because every episode plays a bit like a movie, I really enjoy comparing them against each other, if only in my head. Now I’m going to write the comparisons down, though, because I haven’t written anything here in quite awhile, and that should be rectified.

Before I start, though… If you haven’t watched Sherlock, it would be very silly to read this, and you should go watch Sherlock right away, because it’s quite wonderful. There are nine episodes, each 90 minutes long, and all are loosely inspired by some Holmesian story or another. But you don’t have to have read any Arthur Conan Doyle to enjoy these beautifully crafted, wonderfully acted, intricately written mysteries. For me, the mysteries have never been the most important part; for me, there’s nothing better than the unusual friendship between Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and John Watson (Martin Freeman), one of my all-time favorite relationships on TV.

So go boldly forth and watch, or stay right here and read. You will almost certainly disagree with everything from 6 till 9, so have fun with that!

Sherlock Episodes from Least to Most Loved by Me

  1. “The Blind Banker.” I don’t recall much of this episode, which is a bad sign, because I can vividly remember all the others on this list, and some I haven’t watched in literally years. (Most, actually–I knocked out the first six episodes in maybe twice that many days in 2012, if memory serves.) I just know that it wasn’t much of a character study, which all Sherlock episodes should be at least a little, and no one did anything particularly quirky or endearing. Failure on all accounts. But since it’s Sherlock, it’s probably still better than 90% of other TV.
  2. “The Hounds of Baskerville.” It’s kind of a bummer, putting this so low on the list, because it’s one of Mark Gatiss’ contributions as a writer, and that makes me want to like it a lot more. (Gatiss is the show’s co-creator, and he plays Mycroft Holmes.) Pity it’s written a bit like a B-grade X-Files episode. BUT it does feature one of my favorite “John and Sherlock are BFFs” moments, and it includes more laugh out loud moments than your average episode, so it’s still got a lot on “The Blind Banker.”
  3. “The Empty Hearse.” Now it gets tricky, because everything from here on in, I love, at the very least. But I do think “The Empty Hearse” is a weaker opener than the series premiere or “A Scandal in Belgravia” (duh), if only because Sherlock’s return from alleged death doesn’t quite pack the punch you’d expect. (John does punch Sherlock in the face a few times, though.) Still, the mystery’s a very fun one, and it’s great to learn that we’ll never really know how Sherlock faked it. I find it much more satisfying not knowing.
  4. “The Sign of Three.” This is an exceptionally goofy episode. You get to see John and Sherlock very drunk, and it’s terrific. You get to see Sherlock ruin Lestrade’s night and, later, get his name wrong, and it’s delightful. You get to see Sherlock flirting, and John being in love, and that kid who played Dean Thomas in the Harry Potter movies nearly die, and all of that is just splendid. But there’s nothing truly remarkable about this episode. “The Sign of Three” is just a solid hour and a half of deductions and fast-paced dialogue and flashbacks, so it seems like this should be right around the middle.
  5. “His Last Vow.” OK, so I can see where there might be some controversy here, seeing as Sherlock shoots a guy point blank. But man, isn’t it great to see Sherlock care about another non-John person? I liked Mary from the start, and I liked learning that there was more to John’s wife, however sinister her past may be. (And we’ll never know about it, which I appreciate, because there’s no need–that’s not her character anymore.) I liked seeing Sherlock interfere, because it really was in John’s best interest, and Sherlock had faith that things would be resolved, and of course they were, because he’s always right. I liked Mycroft’s disgust over Les Miz, and I loved seeing a certain familiar face at the very end. 8/10.
  6. “A Scandal in Belgravia.” Just wait a second, OK? “A Scandal in Belgravia” might be the best episode of the series. Everything about it is mesmerizing. But … it’s a Sherlock episode. And while I love Sherlock, and I understand that this is his show, I like when the focus is more divided. This one’s all him, all about his emotions (or lack thereof) and motivations and what makes him tick. It makes for a great story, but it doesn’t make for something I would put above, say, 90 minutes of John, Mycroft, and Lestrade drinking coffee. (Slight exaggeration. But the point remains.)
  7. “A Study in Pink.” This episode is just such a good hook. Immediately, you want to know more about the clearly insane consulting detective and his new unassuming acquaintance. You think you’ve already met the series’ ultimate villain, but no, it’s just Sherlock’s posh older brother. And you get introduced to Lestrade (Rupert Graves) and his and Sherlock’s wonderful dynamic. (Also, his hair. You get to see Rupert Graves’ hair. And fall madly in love with it.) And John, oh, John is just perfect in this episode. I don’t know if I ever like him more than I do when he’s enthusiastically agreeing to continue on with Sherlock. And thank goodness he does.
  8. “The Great Game.” Oh, Moriarty. Moriarty, Moriarty, Moriarty. Andrew Scott takes dialogue that could sound absolutely ridiculous and makes it terrifying, and by the time Sherlock shows up at that swimming pool, you’re so excited to meet him even though you shouldn’t be–this guy might be Sherlock’s undoing, and his shadow will hang over the rest of the series till there’s some kind of confrontation. But he’s just so fun to watch, and he brings out the fiercest (and, to some extent, most fear-fueled) sides of John and Sherlock. Also, his ring tone. How can you not love that?
  9. “The Reichenbach Fall.” For me, this is Sherlock at its most watchable. You have the series’ best villain all but taking over London with his sheer insanity. You have Sherlock falling apart at the seams and John unable to calm him. And you have every other recurring cast member–chiefly Mycroft, Lestrade, Mrs. Hudson (Una Stubbs), and Molly (Louise Brealey)–in the spotlight at some point or another. This one’s truly an ensemble piece, though ultimately, Sherlock, John, and Moriarty steal the show in what look to be Sherlock’s final moments on earth. It’s deeply emotional and truly shocking, and John’s conversation with Sherlock’s gravestone is some of the best writing and acting on the show. I think I’m going to bed now. But I’d rather rewatch Sherlock instead.

Some Frivolous Lists Ranking Frivolous Things

Things You Should Know About The Goldfinch

  1. The Goldfinch is a ludicrously lengthy novel, clocking in somewhere around 750 pages in the version I read (eBook, because no way was I hauling that many pages onto the subway). About 650 of those pages are worth reading. More on that last 100, and some spoilers, later in this list.
  2. The Goldfinch features Theo, a Jesse Pinkman-style protagonist, by which I mean after a while, every action he takes forces you to think to yourself, “Oh, Theo, no.”
  3. Theo suffers from intense attachment issues. They are not subtle, and over time, they become progressively less interesting.
  4. They hit their uninteresting fever pitch when the narration begins including phrases like “as if anyone will read this.” I hate that kind of pseudo-self awareness. Why? We know we’re reading a novel, and it’s not like it’s meta or something! It’s not like it’s a clever narrative decision!
  5. At some point, Theo kills a guy. It’s around when you really start disliking him for more than the attachment issues.
  6. Probably don’t invest the time in this novel unless you love something that starts strong, stays strong, then is suddenly not very strong at all.

Olympic Sports I Find Duly Entertaining

  1. Figure skating. Obvious.
  2. Biathlon. Less obvious, due largely to the overly enthusiastic commentary.
  3. Aerials. People on skis flipping over? Tell me more!
  4. Slope style. People on skis flipping over on a course? Tell me more!

Things I Think You Should Probably Get Into

  1. The Marvel Now! Hawkeye comic. Since I’ve gotten into the wonderful world of Avengers fan fiction, my affection for the delightfully sarcastic, largely enigmatic Clint Barton has resurfaced, and now, with the comic, it’s definitely increased. Plus, you have this strong, feisty heroine in Kate Bishop, the other Hawkeye, who remains devoted to helping Clint no matter how ridiculously he’s behaving. PLUS, you have Lucky/Pizza Dog. What more could you want?
  2. If you do want more, then Brian K. Vaughan’s Saga remains awesome.
  3. Is the Hold Steady coming to your city? Go see them! I did last week, and it was quite possibly the best show I’ve ever been to. Granted, this had a lot to do with it being an anniversary show and thus very long and very personal. (22 songs. That is not an insignificant number of songs.) It was totally worth staying up way past my bedtime and extremely sore feet, because you know I was fighting for the front most of the show.
  4. Did you forget about Community? It’s good again! Tell your friends.
  5. I love that Archer completely remade itself this season, and you probably would, too. Of course, if you haven’t seen what came before it–and why haven’t you? Come on, shape up!–then you’ll want to check out the first four seasons and get really into the spy spoof format. Then you’ll love the turn it takes in the first episode of season five. I promise.

An Argument for the Quality of the First Three Seasons of The West Wing

Recently, a friend admitted to me she’d read 18 reviews of the penultimate Breaking Bad. I couldn’t judge her for this. I’d just enjoyed a scathing critique of the Dexter series finale, and I saw approximately 45 minutes of that eight-season series. Minute-by-minute, frame-by-frame analysis of TV is ubiquitous now. And that’s because it’s fun to read what someone else thought of your favorite show, or that show you use as white noise, or that show you tried for half a season and gave up.

Granted, it isn’t always good for this coverage to become all encompassing. When production teams listen too closely to viewers, things get messy. But mostly, whether the coverage is positive, negative, or anywhere in between, it feels OK for readers and critics—and perhaps production teams as well, although they may want to steer clear of comments sections. What I wonder is how minute-by-minute, frame-by-frame coverage would read for shows I’m watching today, relatively older shows—in particular, The West Wing.

(In the interest of full disclosure, the only full seasons I’ve seen of The West Wing are the first three. I know Aaron Sorkin relinquished control of the show after season four concluded, and I know there’s a drop-off in quality at that point—preceded by Rob Lowe’s departure midway through season four. That’s where I am, and I’m trying to love Joshua Malina as his de facto replacement. Sometimes, for five-minute stretches, it works.)

The pre-title sequence of The West Wing’s pilot is objectively strong and subjectively great. Within a matter of minutes, viewers meet each member of its main cast aside from the President himself. You doubtless know The West Wing is about the inner workings of a fictionalized White House. You probably know Lowe, Martin Sheen, and Allison Janney are involved. What you might not know is each character feels fully realized in that pre-title. This sets the tone for the next three seasons in such a way I imagine Aaron Sorkin had a vault in his basement filled entirely with scripts for each episode.

Sure, The West Wing has its clunkers, and they become more frequent as the show progresses. The dialogue can be cheesy, the plots contrived, and the character interactions stale. But those flaws are overshadowed by how it feels when it works—and I’d argue that 80% of the time throughout those seasons, it does.

The early West Wing doesn’t talk down to its audience. It’s assumed the audience is able to follow what’s going on, whether it pertains to the fictional country of Qumar or house committees that don’t even sound real. There’s no handholding here. And yet it’s approachably intellectual—as long as you can watch someone walk while they talk, you can keep up.

Plot contrivances are canceled out by how the collective administration responds to them. Sheen’s Jed Bartlet is not perfect and addresses challenges the way a liberal with evident religious beliefs and an air of pretension would. The few conservatives in the Bartlet White House—particularly Ainsley Hayes (Emily Procter)—are portrayed as intelligent, thoughtful people who may not have voted for Bartlet but have a stake in his success and cling to integrity because of that. When Janney’s Press Secretary CJ Cregg and Bradley Whitford’s Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman respond emotionally to questions from reporters, or Lowe’s Deputy White House Communications Director Sam Seaborn enters into a relationship that may call Bartlet’s judgment of character into question, there are repercussions, and they continue to echo through several episodes.

Thanks to a combination of snappy writing and superb acting, Sam Seaborn is a delicate balance of intellectual, confident, and flawed. In the same way, CJ Cregg is downright heroic, the kind of Strong Female Character audiences desperately seek (just without a stake or FBI-issued flashlight in hand). And Josh Lyman is irresistible in his combination of self-doubt and swagger. Every member of the main cast is solid—and when they weren’t, when they belonged firmly in the 20% of the show that didn’t work, the writers ditched them and replaced them with someone who was.

I’ve watched countless television episodes since I watched each of The West Wing’s first three finales. I’ve watched outstanding pilots, remarkable mid-season cliffhangers, and series finales that left me speechless. But I can’t think of any individual episodes that caused quite the reactions I experienced watching these finales. (There is one exception, but it’s a season two episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender and I really don’t want to talk about it.)

Everyone who touched those finales, everyone who had a hand in them, was clearly trying his or her hardest to make Good Television, the kind of television that gets described as cinematic. And they succeeded. The emotional beats ring true. The scripts are airtight. And even if a Bartlet speech would read melodramatically on paper, when Sheen speaks the words, you can’t help being captivated and convinced his words are gold.

Are Aaron Sorkin’s gender politics unsophisticated? Is it hard to take him seriously in a post-Newsroom world? Does his public persona taint his body of work? In 2013, I’d say yes. But were it 1999-2002 and I were judging purely by minute-by-minute, frame-by-frame analysis of The West Wing, I’d say all I knew of Aaron Sorkin was he knew how to helm a damn fine TV drama.