Favorite funny shows of 2015

In the last five years or so, I’ve heard people bemoan the state of comedy series on television. The days of mega-comedies like Seinfeld and Friends are long gone. The Office, 30 Rock and How I Met Your Mother are off the air. The Simpsons and South Park are both (debatably) past their prime. And no new comedy has established itself as being that widely popular show that you wouldn’t feel slightly embarrassed to admit you watch.

But to anyone who says that comedy is dead, I say, ‘Look harder!’ There’s some very funny stuff out there, based on premises or perspectives that never would have seen the light of day before TV’s age of segmentation. Here’s five of my favorites:

rickandmorty_crop Rick and Morty (on Adult Swim)
Imagine ‘Doctor Who’ cut down to a pithy 22 minutes—with higher production values, and a zanier feel to smooth over some of the implausibilities in the plot. How do you do all this? By turning it into a cartoon! In this case Rick Sanchez is the irrepressible, dimension-hopping genius—but tinted with streaks of nihilism, misanthropy, and alcohol abuse.

This show, co-produced by Community’s Dan Harmon, offers some sharp new angles on some classic sci-fi tropes: alternate timelines, mind control, false memories, and lots of other mind-benders that would make our favorite Time-Master (or the Twilight Zone) proud. Rick and Morty was the most fun show I watched all year, and more than one episode hit me with a thought-provoking jab that stuck with me for days afterward. Oh yeah, and I still have ‘Get Schwifty’ stuck in my head.

whas_crop2Silicon Valley (on HBO)
Mike Judge… is there anybody better at finding what’s funny and fascinating about the most mundane parts of life? Add to that a great, geekly joie de vivre, and also what feels like a very authentic look at a segment of our economy where bros working out of garages can fight toe-to-toe with mega-corporations for their own piece of the American Dream. How great is this show? It mixed a penis joke with programming jargon and compression algorithms—and it earned an Emmy nomination for it.

nathanforyou

Nathan For You (on Comedy Central)
Now on it’s third season, I still don’t understand how this show isn’t more of a cultural phenomenon. Nathan Fielder (who graduated business school with ‘really good grades’) travels the country (well mostly southern California) ‘helping’ real business owners with his unique brand of ‘helpful’ ideas. Granted, this reality spoof/prank show isn’t quite as hilariously funny as it was in its first season (even Da Ali G Show only ran for 2 seasons), but it definitely serves up some moments that will have you cracking up—and cringing.

whas_cropWet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp (on Netflix)
J.J. Abrams isn’t the only writer/director who resucitated a decade-old property with a golden balance of nostalgia and newness. Michael Showalter and David Wain revived their 2001 cult hit movie by giving us a 8-episode prequel that perfectly brought back the schlocky humor of the original while adding some new wrinkles (pun intended) to create a fresher, deeper storyline.

anotherperiod_cropAnother Period (on Comedy Central)
How did this show ever get green-lighted? I’m guessing the pitch mentioned two enigmatically successful pop-culture phenomenons: Downton Abbey and Keeping Up With the Kardashians. That’s basically what we’ve got here. A group of filthy-rich aristocrats in 1910s Rhode Island, behaving obnoxiously, interspersed with jokes about women’s suffrage, Spanish Flu, and the Lindberg baby (too soon?). How DID this show ever get green-lighted? I don’t know, but I’m glad it did.

Hard Sci-Fi in Western Disguise

Thanks so much to sci-fi author Marcha Fox (@startrailsIV) for her review of IDYLL!

Marcha's Two-Cents Worth

idyllcover

I must say that this story started out a bit slow and even got to the point I consider monotonous. However, the fact it was so well written, nicely edited and rich with beautifully rendered descriptions coupled with enough suspense to make me wonder what was going on, I kept reading and was not disappointed.

The author did an excellent job of creating a new world to which Earthlings are immigrating to escape their own as it loses viability. The colonists have agreed to live a simpler lifestyle, similar to that of the pioneers who settled the American West in the 19th century. Settling a new planet is not a simple, matter, however, with a variety of new hazards including byproducts of terraforming including a marginally sentient species known as owylls, which are predatory yet seem to act at the command of a tall, mysterious bearded man. Colonists are being…

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[REVIEW] Idyll – James Derry

Thanks to fireflyreads.wordpress.com for the cool review!

IDYLL_Cover2cSummary
Characters – 4/5
Plot – 4/5
Style – 3/5
World Building – 4/5
Overall – 4/5

Quote
“Their loss was like the sea. When judged with distance, it seemed placid, something ethereal, something that could be abided. But to dwell on their loss, to give in to close scrutiny, led to turmoil. They might start to wallow; they might drown. Fixating on their grief, drawing it close and making it the dominant geological feature of their lives, would be a very bad thing. Then again, ignoring that absence entirely could be just as bad.”

Review
A bizarre plague named The Lullaby has Mother Earth’s second chance, Idyll, in its deadly grasp, and it seems that the only guaranteed way to survive is permanent quarantine. Three years after their father left in search of answers, Walt and Sam finally decide that they’ve had enough of hiding and move on from the family ranch to track him…

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I just read: The Dog Stars

The Dog StarsFirst off, I have to say the soft-color, retro-quirky cover does not belie the contents inside. The Dog Stars is not a soft, quiet book, although it includes lots of introspection. But those quiet, lonesome stretches are punctuated by scenes so sudden and brutal, they could have turned Mother Teresa into a misanthrope.

Lonesome introspection and man’s inhumanity to man. Yep, we’re talking about a post-apocalyptic thriller, in the vein of The Road or The Walking Dead. The Dog Stars is set in a world where any random encounter with a stranger is less likely to begin with a polite wave ‘hi’ than with a slug between the eyes.

‘The Dog Stars’ is the story of Hig, who lives in a small, abandoned airport in Colorado with a gun-nut neighbor and a loyal dog with macabre tastes in cuisine. The bad news: A pandemic has wiped out a majority of the population (including Hig’s wife), and irreversible global warming is rendering the ecosystem barren. The good news–if you want to call it that–is that Hig and his survivalist ally have established a fairly safe and well-stocked HQ, with Hig securing the perimeter with his small plane.

Then tragedy strikes, and Hig begins to reevaluate his current choice. I won’t go any further into the story, but the plot thickens–and Hig is faced with some serious, life-changing choices.

I really enjoyed this book. One of the best things about it was its tone. Peter Heller writes in a sort of brusque/poetic style. Every sentence fragment is like a snippet of a haiku. Some passages break into that choppy, whitewater stream-of-consciousness style that is so cool in upmarket Western novels.

Heller opts for other literary quirks. Quotation marks are extinct in his post-apocalyptic world. Commas work above their pay grade, doubling for periods and semi-colons. And Hig hops back and forth between flashbacks as much as he hops between run-on and fragmented sentences. Heller is a natural at beautifully breaking the rules. And unlike some other authors, Heller’s jagged minimalism doesn’t create a distance between his characters and the reader. At just the right times, he intersperses moments of humor and human weakness that keep his damaged and violent characters likable. Also, in the latter half of the book, Heller’s style seems to settle as he concentrates on spooling out the plot and character interaction.

All in all, a very good book. I look forward to reading Heller’s next book, The Painter, soon.

To the ends of the Earth

What is it lately with all the apocalypses? Everywhere you look in pop culture, someone’s trying to survive one. There’s your garden-variety plague apocalypses (Station Eleven). There’s your zombie plague apocalypses (Walking Dead, World War Z). Comedic apocalypes (Last Man on Earth). A capital-A Apocalypse (the villain from the upcoming X-Men movie). HBO apocalypses (The Left overs), celestial apocalypses (SevenEves), and apocalypse remakes (Fury Road).

Why are we so obsessed with the world ending? There’s a theory out there that says that the post-apocalyptic genre taps into a deep desire to return to our primal roots—and not necessarily in a good way. If the society’s infrastructure crumbles, then all social conventions go out the window. And then its totally acceptable to kill strangers. In fact, in the case of a zombie plague, it’s downright pragmatic.

I’m not sure I’m ready to go that far, that all post-apocalyptic stories are excuses for us to vicariously satisfy our bloodlust Besides, I think we’re probably just as bloodthirsty now as we were twenty or thirty years ago. So why are post-apocalyptic so overwhelmingly popular now? Why is Kansas’ governor officially declaring October zombie preparedness month? Why are Zombie Runs and Zombie Paintball so popular? Why is ‘Doomsday Preppers’ a thing?

It’s not hard to figure out why movies in the 1950s featured atomic monsters like Godzilla or Them!. (Not ‘them,’ ‘Them!’) Back then, nations were legitimately scared of being wiped off the map by nuclear war. Compared to the real fear of a nuclear holocaust, ‘It Came From Beneath the Sea,’ or ’The Giant Gila Monster’ seem downright cozy.

So what’s zinging our zeitgeist in 2015?

How about the fact that we’re just too damn connected? Facebook, Skype, texts, emails, tweets, photo streams… We are inundated with enough messages and info to choke the most robust of data plans. Thank goodness for those of us with phone phobia, the only means of communication that seems to be going extinct are actual phone calls. Still, it’s becoming a bit alienating as constant contact replaces human contact.

For many Millennials, who have grown up in a world of Google searches, push notifications, Netflix queues, and geofencing, the idea of all those connections suddenly ceasing probably seems equally fascinating and horrifying.

So what are we going to do about it? Move into a solar/wind powered cabin, somewhere off the grid? Actually it would be far easier to download The Dog Stars to our phone and visit the post-apocalypse whenever we like—in short escapist bursts—between checking Tinder.

PS: I guess I should complain about the ubiquity of post-apocalyptic stories, since I just contributed to the genre myself. (Try Idyll for an apocalypse on another planet!)

PPS: I just finished Peter Heller’s ‘The Dog Stars,’ so I’m hoping to write a review in about a week.

The Agony and the X-stasy

MODERN X-MEN COMICS

If you’ve been an X-Men comics fan in the last ten years, you’ve had to deal with some pretty crappy premises. Illogical… Ill-conceived… The good thing is: If you dove beneath the high-concepts, most of the actual storylines were pretty good. Let’s take a look at the ways X-Men writers shook up the status quo and created new drama for our favorite mutants.

1336639-1162858_no_moreM-Day
In 2005, the powers-that-be at Marvel editorial decided that the world was filled with too many mutants. Mutant ghosts, reality-star mutants, sentient mutant viruses. There were probably less mutants in the world than there were Inuits, but Marvel editorial decided that being a mutant wasn’t ‘special’ any more. So the decision came down to cull the herd. The editors decided to do this with a magical event call ‘M-Day.’ On that day, 99% of the mutant population suddenly lose their powers.

‘Wow!’ you might say. “Which of my favorite X-Men lost their powers?” To which, my answer would be ‘Iceman and Magneto.”

That’s right. 99% of all mutants lose their powers, but only about 2% of the popular ones. And no  narrative explanation is ever offered as to why the more marketable mutants got to keep their power.

250px-X-Men_EndageredDecimation/Endangered Species
So, all the mutants you’ve never heard of lose their powers. And all the popular mutants lose their damn minds. Foremost on this list of crazies was Cyclops. You would think someone who has furious blasts of destruction coming out of his eyes AT ALL TIMES, would realize that losing one’s mutant powers might not be the worst thing in the world. But no.

Granted, a lot of the remaining powered mutants are ‘concentrated’ in ‘camps,’ by the U.S. government, supposedly for their own protection. Also, a bus-full of depowered mutants are bombed by a gang of anti-mutant terrorists.

But the crux of this era is focused on the idea of unborn mutant babies. Cyclops is fixated on the idea that no more babies will be born with dangerous, disfiguring mutations. He declares that mutants are now an endangered species, and that the X-Men need to hunker together and rectify this situation. Yes, after 40 years of Professor Xavier espousing the belief that mutants are just ordinary people who just happen to have extraordinary powers, Xavier’s star pupil now decides that mutants are a separate ‘species’ that has to protect and advance themselves BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY. OK, I get that the mutant ‘family’ might be more vulnerable than its ever been, and that they have to protect themselves. But why are they so concerned about making sure that future generations have mutants in them? The worst thing about this is that nearly every other mutant buys into it. It’s especially weird that Beast, the X-Mens’ most annoyingly sanctimonious member, buys into it too.

153_x_men__second_coming_1g_02Messiah Complex & X-Nation & Second Coming
Cyclops starts forming death-squads to take out anti-mutant terrorists. I don’t remember any scenes where the X-Men start taking prisoners and waterboarding them, but there are definite correlations between this era of X-Men comics and the era of the Bush Doctrine. I can’t decide if the writers intentionally created these parallels. ‘You’re either with us, or you’re against us.’ This is what Cyclops tells the rest of the ’superpowers’ of the Marvel Universe. Namely SHIELD and the Avengers. Probably not the greatest idea.

Also not a great idea? Taking all the people you want to protect and publicly sequestering them onto one small landmass that could be obliterated by a nuclear bomb or biological weapon. Also not the best PR decision? This new base used to be Magneto’s headquarters when he was in his world-domination phase.

Oh yeah, and then there’s this baby who’s born with mystically ill-defined mutant powers. Cable, a mutant from an ill-defined future, makes an ill-defined prophecy that this mutant will be the Messiah for mutant kind. Does anything ever come of this? I guess sorta. Like many long-running MacGuffin plots in the X-Men saga (‘The Twelve,’ ‘The X-Traitor,’ ‘The X-Ternals’), the Messiah  storyline slowly collapses under its own inertia of mysteriousness. The less spoken about Hope, the better. And yes, the baby-Messiah’s name is Hope. Cheese.

Wolverine_and_the_X-Men_cover1Schism
For generations, Professor X has called his X-Men students. He calls himself ‘Professor,’ after all! But at the same time he gives his students quasi-military uniforms to wear, he puts them through dangerous training exercises, and he occasionally sends them out to fight in life-or-death battles. So the X-Men are students, but they are also soldiers. Even the youngest among them. This dichotomy has been established for 40 years of comics. People have questioned it, but they’ve never really done anything about it. (Because, let’s be honest, reading 40 years of comics of kids in math class would be pretty boring.) That all changes once Cyclops becomes the mutant’s primary leader. Cyclops (who has always been prone to bouts of assholey-ness) goes 100% military and 0% mentor. Wolverine decides he doesn’t like this, and he splits, taking about half the world’s mutants with him. While Cyclops is holed up in his fortified island base, Wolverine and his friends start a new School for Gifted Youngsters.

I guess on its face, this premise makes sense. For decades, Cyclops and Wolverine have been the polar-opposite pivots of the X-Men family. And it’s cool to see Cyclops go from stick-up-his-butt do-gooder to rigid dictator. And Wolverine goes from roguish warrior to world-weary father-figure. But something about the execution, or the timing of the execution, didn’t entirely work for me. Maybe it’s that Wolverine doesn’t seem to acknowledge the fact that 13- or 14-year-olds have been fighting in X-Men comics for years. He himself gave Kitty Pryde some training to be a ninja. It also doesn’t help that Wolverine was one of Cyclops’ most X-Treme (crack open the Mountain Dew!) killers, just a year before this.

Avengers_vs._X-MenAvengers vs. X-Men
Okay, I have to mention Hope again. The X-men and the Avengers figure out that the Phoenix force is coming to Earth to find link up with Hope. The Phoenix is this amoral cosmic entity that possessed Cyclop’s girlfriend, Jean Grey. It made her blow up an alien planet and eventually kill herself. Despite all this, Cyclops is all for Hope and the Phoenix merging because, you know, unborn mutant babies. The Avengers are not keen on the idea because, you know, the possessing and the planet-exploding.

Cyclops turning to the Phoenix to fix the mutant genetics problem is a bit like Van Helsing deciding that he wants to Dracula to turn him so that he can treat Mina Harker’s high blood pressure. The logic doesn’t quite track. Still, Cyclops goes to war with the Avengers so that he can give this a try. The pros: It ends up working. The cons: Cyclops himself becomes possessed by the Phoenix (hmm, who could have seen that coming?). He takes over the world, and he kills Professor X. Cyclops is then defeated, and he’s viewed as one of the biggest villains on the planet.

Avengers_vs._X-Men_Vol_1_6_Textless2I think that X-Men and Avengers fans alike were frustrated by parts of this crossover, and the way the writers worked the characters into knots to wring out the most chop-busting conflict possible. Did Captain America and his team act as reasonably as they could? Probably not. Did Cyclops? Pfft, please. But it was pretty cool to see Phoenix-Cyclops re-create the world in his own image, with a really cool selection of characters as in inner circle.

One of the best things about the X-Men is that the plight of mutants (which at is, at its heart, is a metaphor of puberty and growing up to embrace differences) can be so easily portrayed as an allegory to other issues. Bullying. Racism, Religious intolerance. The struggle for civil rights. The second X-Man movie effectively compared its young heroes to gay teens coming out of the closet. In this era of ‘Cyclops the Reactionary Militant,’ several new parallels can be drawn. Already, we’ve seen similarities to Cyclops and the Bush era. Or some might compared Cyclops’ island HQ, a tiny nation beset on all sides by potential enemies, to Israel and its Mossad forces. Or maybe you’d rather compare Cyclops to a separatist militia-leader. Or he becomes the new ‘Malcolm X’ to Professor X’s MLK persona.

Or you could just say that Cyclops becomes Magneto. That’s basically the point. If you wanted to wrap up the ‘arc’ of X-Men for the last eight years: Cyclops becomes the new Magneto. Cyclops is now a militaristic, separatist anti-hero. And as this fact dawns on more and more of the X-Men, Cyclops loses more and more of his followers.

allnewxmenAll-New X-Men
Nobody hates Magneto-Cyclops more than Beast. The uber-annoyingly sanctimonious super-scientist decides to extract Cyclops’ younger self out of the past and show him to Evil-Cyclops, to show him how far he’s traveled down the super-villain path. It’s still unclear if this whole time-warp thing is more of a punishment to Older-Cyclops or to Younger-Cyclops. After all, Younger-Cyclops ends up stuck in a supposedly inevitable future, where everyone thinks he’s a jackass.In fact, all of the original X-Men (including Beast’s younger self) end up stuck in the present day—their future. Even Bill & Ted could tell you introducing your past-self to his future-self can create all kinds of time-warping paradoxes. Surely Beast considered this before he went all wobbly-wobbly timey-wimey? Not really.

Forget all us nerds screaming ‘Foul;’ the All-New X-Men premise leads to some pretty good moments. The premise is messy, and illogical, and just plain bat-sh*t crazy. But the young, original X-Men add a breath of fresh air, especially after so many years of doom and gloom.

Eventually, it’s sort of retconned that Beast suffered a nervous breakdown when he hatched his crazy paradox plan. So what happens when the younger X-Men learn everything about their future fates? Or when the younger Angel gets new cosmic wings, which the older never had? Or when the past-version of Ice-Man realizes he’s gay, while the current-version of Ice-Man apparently isn’t? Wibbly-wobbly. Fortunately for the time-space continuum (and unfortunately for those of us enjoying the stories), all of these concerns are rendered moot by the ‘Secret Wars’ mega-event, which is ripping apart the Marvel Universe and rearranging the timeline anyway.

Because of Secret Wars, this tumultuous era of Magneto-Cyclops is closing with a whimper rather than a bang. (A corporate fight over film rights might also be a factor.) In fact, the last issue of the Cyclops era, Uncanny X-Men #600, has been delayed for about six months, to be released as Secret Wars is drawing to a close.

Overall, it’s been a wild ride, at turns fascinating and frustrating. One complaint that’s often leveled against super-hero comic is that nothing ever really changes. No one can say that’s the case with the X-Men for the last ten years.

The best parts of Wet Hot American Summer

WHAS4Back in 2001, Wet Hot American Summer became one of my all-time favorite comedies. I think it’s the only DVD I ever rented more than once (Remember video stores? The ones other than Blockbuster?). I even listened to the DVDs commentary track, which was pretty hilarious. With all that said, I’m as surprised as anyone that Netflix has brought the movie back for a prequel series, 14 years after it settled into its cult status.

If you’ve never seen the original movie, I say check it out. I’d also suggest you be forewarned, this is one of those bits of art that is fairly divisive. It’s like the cinematic version of a Vampire Weekend or a Velvet Underground album. You’ll either fall in love in the first 10 minutes, or you’ll scratch your head and wonder what all the fuss is about. WHAS_cast

At the very least, you’ll be shocked by the cast breakout stars: Bradley Cooper, Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, as well as a lot of funny faces you’ll recognize: Michael Ian Black, Christopher Meloni, Joe Lo Truglio, Ken Marino… all of them ‘young,’ before their careers took off. I put ‘young’ in quotes because most of them were in their late 20s, playing teenage camp counselors. The movie goes for the typical belly laughs that you might expect from an ‘end-of-summer’ sleepaway camp teen comedy from the 1980s. But the best parts of the movie are more subtle homage or skewering of the sloppy conventions of those movies.

First of all, as mentioned above, all sleepaway camp movies must feature twenty-something actors pretending to be teenagers. The editing, the effects, and direction have to look as shoddy as possible. If you have seen the original movie, then check out some of my favorite moments. Hopefully this will get you fired up for the new series premiere on July 31.

7:00
David Hyde Pierce and Janeane Garofalo have their first bit of hilariously awkward dialog. Listen for the canned ‘breaking glass’ sound effect whenever anything flies off screen. The producers use the same sound in the next scene with Christopher Meloni.

25:00
Blocking? What is blocking? Blocking is where the director plans positions for actors as they stand or walk—or how they enter or exit a scene—to create the most narrative impact, and to create the least amount of distraction. This is one of the movie’s first bits of ‘absurdist blocking humor.’ What do you do with Zak Orth to get him out of a scene so that Paul Rudd and Elizabeth Banks can have ‘a moment alone?’ You have him take a long walk off a short pier. WHAS5 25:10
Paul Rudd calls his Journal a ‘Gournal.’ No one corrects him.

33:00
Another bit of absurdist blocking humor. Several excited counselors frolic out of Garofalo’s car, to go stand against a cabin wall, Blair Witch style.

37:15
Ken Marino drives a van, sings ‘chain of love,’ and then rams a tree for no good reason. WHAS6 39:50
Check out the horrible wig on Joe Lo Truglio’s stunt double as his motorcyle chase is stymied by a single bale of hay in the road. This is made doubly hilarious (or maybe just disturbing) by the fact that the filmmakers seem to be throwing real child actors out of a moving van during several other scenes of the movie.

42:00
Zak Orth and A.D. Miles slyly exchange a secret handshake—which is pretty much a regular handshake. Right after that, Michael Ian Black and Bradley Cooper share sweet, sweet man love in their athletic socks.

59:30
Who’s the voice of that can? Why it’s H. Jon Benjamin, future star of Archer and Bob’s Burgers!

1:09:30
The movie launches into the obligatory 80s motivational musical montage. And the song (Higher and Higher) is that perfect blend of parody and actually cheesy greatness. Like the part in Boogie Nights where Dirk Diggler sings The Touch, which was also in the BEST Transformer Movie.

1:14:00
Can’t afford a big river rescue scene to rev up the climax of your movie? Just pan in on Joe Lo Truglio mugging for 15 seconds over splashing sound effects. He can wow the viewers with ‘you shoulda seen what I just saw!’ awesomeness. Also, don’t bother to tell the child actors being rescued to bother acting scared.

That’s a few of my favorite scenes in WHAS. Wha’s yours?

A Family Parasite? (A Review of James Derry’s “Line of Descent”)

Thanks so much for the great review from the Word Smithe blog!

TheWordSmithe

Goodreads.com Description: “Some women dread the idea of turning into their mothers. For Elise Gardener, that dread has twisted into an all-too-real nightmare. Elise has always been the spooky misfit of her wealthy family—and a disappointment to her overbearing mother. Elise’s problem is that she’s supernaturally sensitive. She’s an empath who can’t help seeing and feeling the intimate emotions—sometimes painful or shameful—of every person she meets. While her cousins are starting glamorous and lucrative careers, Elise is happy working as an unseen housekeeper at a camp for underprivileged children. But Elise’s cloistered life is shattered when her mother seemingly drowns herself. Elise invites her tenuous best friend—Mallory, a girl she’s only known for two months—to the memorial at the Gardeners’ private isle on the Georgia coast. Together, they discover that Elise’s family have a sinister secret that they’ve been keeping for generations. They are in the thrall of a dark…

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