Homecoming.

When I wrote about the pilot of Bunheads three months ago, I mentioned that I was thinking about taking up the subject weekly, reviewing the new episodes as they aired. And then I didn’t do that.

I’ve got a good reason, though.

Each week, as the thoroughly oddball first season of Bunheads progressed, I found myself more and more in love with the show, and less and less interested in breaking it down. Bunheads contained everything I was hoping for when I first heard about it and then some: the familiar warmth and humor of Gilmore Girls, its own unique sensibility, and the comfortable feeling of coming home after a long time away.

Bunheads is not Gilmore Girls, but it’s probably never going to stop inviting comparisons. I don’t think there was a single episode of this first season (or half season? Summer season? ABC Family has been a bit confusing on this matter) that didn’t feature at least one former Gilmore Girls actor. There was Kelly Bishop, of course, appearing in most but not all of the episodes, but also Todd Lowe, Sean Gunn, Rose Abdoo, Chris Eigman, Alex Borstein, Gregg Henry…I’m probably forgetting some. (And while we’re here, can I say I’m hoping to see Yanic Truesdale, Liza Weil and Keiko Agena at some point.)

And it makes sense that Amy Sherman-Palladino would bring back so many familiar faces. She writes wordy, witty dialogue that must, due to the time constraints of the medium, be delivered at an almost insane pace; it’s only logical that she would bring in actors who already know how to handle her words. But she didn’t do the easy thing, letting the familiar faces do necessary character work.  The faces were familiar, but the characters were not. Gregg Henry’s Rico could not have been further from his Mitchum Huntzberger, and I would heartily disagree with those who seem to think Fanny Flowers is just a replicated Emily Gilmore. She may have Emily’s command, but not her world-view.

I called the series “oddball” earlier, so maybe I should specify.

Whether it was a defeatist environmental ballet ending in the death of nature or an angsty/angry teen dancing furiously to “Istanbul Not Constantinople,” a mis-matched Fred and Ginger performing in a crowded bar or an entire production of The Nutcrackercollapsing after a mass-macing, the dance numbers on the show were consistent only in how bizarre they were. (The Fred and Ginger dance was preceded by a public confession of teenage like set to “It’s Not Easy Being Green,” which seems like relevant information.)

Then there was the way the show kept twisting off in new directions. What first seemed like a series about a woman finding love for the first time in her life after an impulsive decision to marry her stalker quickly revealed itself to be a series about a woman finding commitment for the first time in her life after her impulsive marriage ends when she finds herself widowed 17 hours in.

And then it took about 5 episodes for the show to establish its basic premise, that Michelle, after years of failing to commit to anything but a transient life, failing to establish the dance career she could have had if she hadn’t kept running away from her life, would finally find herself able to settle down as a teacher to a new generation of aspiring dancers.

Amy Sherman-Palladino’s plots have always moved at about 1/100th the pace of her dialogue, but Bunheads seemed to take that to a new level, with weeks going by in which Michelle grieved and poured wine into decanters and marveled about the strange little town she had landed in, but nothing really happened.

It never really bothered me, though. There was just something so pleasant about spending an hour every week in Paradise (California). I said above that it felt like coming home from a long vacation and I don’t think I can come up with a better way to describe it. Things have changed—the characters and the sets and many of the actors, but also, of course, me—but the foundation is the same. The voice. Week after week I responded emotionally to the show, not critically. I could see that it had flaws, of course, but that didn’t make me love it any less. If it were possible to give a show a great big hug I would be hugging the crap out of this one.

And I think my emotional point of view is a good thing. I founded this blog on the basis of sharing enthusiasm (“out of control enthusiasm,” actually) for television. I founded it because I love television. It is my default setting. And I can gape at my screen every Sunday night, astonished by all the moving pieces that make Breaking Bad a Truly Great show, the kind of show that will be dissected and studied and acclaimed for decades, probably, and yes, I can get very emotionally invested, at least in Jesse Pinkman’s fate. But the way I love a show like Breaking Bad is never going to be quite like the way I love a show like Bunheads or Gilmore Girls, it’s never going to be that deep, hearty love.

After all, there’s no place like home.

Worst Period Generation Period Ever Period.

Let’s talk about The Newsroom and let’s talk about Girls.

I wanted to like HBO’s The Newsroom. Even as the pans started piling up (none of which I’ve read yet, by the way, though the general sentiments surrounding the show are hard to avoid when you almost exclusively follow television critics on twitter, as I do), I wanted to love it. Because I do love so much of what Aaron Sorkin has done, The West Wing and Sports Night, The Social Network and The American President…I even love a good bit of Studio 60, though I can see its many failings, and because I read the pilot script months ago and I liked what I read.

But then I sat down to actually watch the episode.

Here’s the thing: I didn’t dislike everything about it. I like most of the cast, though I don’t necessarily like most of the characters, and I like the Sorkin-y verbal rhythms, that stylized speechifying he’s known for. I love Jim Harper, with his brains and his fumbling and his earnest sense of responsibility in journalism, and the last half hour of the pilot, when they actually start reporting the news, is invigorating. Most of the episode coasts on condescension, though, and I’m the person being condescended to.

See I’m female. I’m also young. Aaron Sorkin’s writing is full of young women, like Natalie on Sports Night or Donna on The West Wing, like Lucy on Studio 60 and now Maggie on The Newsroom. And these young women have a lot in common. They’re all beautiful and fiery and intelligent and funny, in many ways they’re great characters–they all also work directly under men who are, so the narrative tells us, more intelligent. Men who can teach them things. (To be fair, Jeremy wasn’t technically Natalie’s professional superior on Sports Night, except in the way most of the stories played out.) These men are also generally their romantic interests. And this is only the beginning of the way that Aaron Sorkin talks down to his female characters.

The Newsroom opens with its main character, Jeff Daniels’ Will McAvoy, participating in a college seminar event, going off on a rant about all the ways that America is not the greatest country in the world. It’s a long rant and its overloaded with Sorkin-iness, from its lists of statistics (including the percentage of Americans who believe in angels, which I know he referenced on Studio 60 and probably elsewhere) to its turn towards sentimentality and nostalgia at the midpoint, and it’s all inspired by a question from a girl in the audience, a young college student.

This rant is supposed to be the inciting incident of the show, the moment that turns Will McAvoy, the “Jay Leno of news,” into a journalist with a mission statement. Here he’s supposed to realize that he can’t be great if he walks the fine line between two sides of any opinion. Mostly though, he just comes across as a mean old man. His rant is not really delivered to the room or to the world at large, it’s directed at this young woman, a college sophomore, someone he calls “sorority girl” and a member of “the worst period generation period ever period.”

Hey, that’s my generation.

Aaron Sorkin’s never had a great relationship with the internet–the fact that he won about a zillion awards for writing “the facebook movie” is actually quite ironic. (If you want the whole backstory I’d suggest a google search for “Aaron Sorkin” and “Television Without Pity.”) The pilot for The Newsroom, though, is littered with references to Twitter and YouTube, blogging and Wikipedia, as if someone reminded him that, hey, this show is supposed to be set in 2010–YEAH, 2010!–and these sites play a vital role in the way journalism works now/then.

There’s a character on the show, Sam Waterston’s older, drunk network executive Charlie Skinner, who gives a speech to a young woman (of course) working in the newsroom about how she should be tweeting about what she’s witnessing, the impressive broadcast that News Night with Will McAvoy is putting out. He tells her everything she should be saying, a full Sorkin speech, and she responds with a line about how you only get 140 characters. Sorkin shows always have white-haired men like this delivering speeches like this, but I think this may be the first time I’ve seen that character as a Sorkin surrogate–there’s always a Sorkin surrogate or twelve, too–the man getting left behind as the world moves on without him. On The Newsroom, though, the goal is to embrace Charlie Skinner’s journalistic values, to cling to the way things were before. The Newsroom wants to drag journalism back into its golden age, not look forward to whatever is next–even if that may be better.

The Newsroom, of course, is taking the Sunday night time slot vacated, a week ago, by the first season of Girls.

“I think I may be the voice of my generation,” said Hannah Horvath in the most noted scene of Girls‘ pilot. “Or at least a voice. Of a generation.” And then she fell on the floor.

Much has been said about this line since Girls premiered three months ago. A lot of people took it way too seriously–in spite of the fact that Hannah was falling-on-the-floor stoned when she said it–and believed it was a point that Lena Dunham, the creator and star, was trying to make, believed that Dunham created the show as a universal representation of Sorkin’s so-called “worst period generation period ever period.” I took it somewhat differently.

I talked, when the show first premiered, about the fact that I found Hannah very relatable, and I stand by that, but I wouldn’t begin to think she’d be relatable to everyone. I happen to share a situation with the Girls, I’m the same age and race and gender and in the same city, I have many of the same aspirations and almost all of the same bad habits (not the drugs though, Mom and Dad, I promise!). I have referred to Hannah Horvath as my worst self several times over the last few months and I’ve meant it. It’s probably why I have a much easier time sympathizing with these ladies than most seem to.

But I also don’t think Girls really expects you to sympathize with Hannah et al. Or at least, I don’t think Girls expects you to sympathize with them any more than you’re supposed to sympathize with the male characters.

The show did something very specific in that it built its ensemble out from Hannah. You get to know her first and you get to know her best, but as the season progresses you get to know Marnie and then Jessa and then Shoshanna (though not enough Shoshanna! Petition for more Shoshanna in season 2!), and then you get to know Charlie and then Adam–Adam, who I tossed off with “‘I wouldn’t take shit from my parents, they’re buffoons, but my grandma gives me $800 a month,’ he says, and that pretty much tells you what you need to know” in reviewing the pilot. How wrong I was!–and even, a little bit, Ray (petition for more Ray in season 2!). It’s not a show about a generation, it’s a show about people.

Girls contains infinite individual worlds, but its characters have trouble seeing past the walls of their own lives, even as they orbit each other, which is why Marnie doesn’t step foot in Charlie’s apartment until after they’ve broken up, and why it takes more than half the season for the audience to learn anything real about Adam–Hannah doesn’t even know anything real about Adam.

But is anyone not consumed by their own internal dramas? Is Will McAvoy not so distracted by his ex-girlfriend that he loses focus during a seminar? Or fails to notice that his staff doesn’t like him/his assistant isn’t really his assistant so much as an intern he believed to be his assistant/someone whose name he doesn’t know is writing a blog under his name? The Newsroom wants you to believe selfishness is generational. It’s not. It’s universal.

You can’t make TV shows about perfect people, because they wouldn’t be interesting, and you can’t make TV shows about imperfect people and tell you they’re perfect people, because they wouldn’t be honest. I think this is my biggest problem with The Newsroom. It wants you to see Will McAvoy as a hero, a great man stepping out from behind the non-partisan, non-opinionated wall he’s been hiding behind to report the news (because in an Aaron Sorkin show the stakes, whether you have the nuclear launch codes or are trying to get a late night sketch show on the air, can never be high enough), despite the fact that they can’t even be bothered to portray him as a good man. Girls, meanwhile, is a show about exclusively imperfect people, all of them stumbling constantly over their own imperfections, none of them ever really changing that much. You get to know more about them and maybe the way you see them shifts, but they themselves stay the same.

Right now I plan to keep watching The Newsroom, because I don’t believe in judging a show exclusively by its pilot, and because, as I said, there is stuff going on that I like. Maybe something will change my overall opinion of the show–I certainly hope so.

Attitude, my friends.

Warning: Here be spoilers for the Bunheads pilot. If you haven’t watched it yet, read at your own risk. (If you want to watch it, it’s currently free on iTunes.)

The first time I watched the Bunheads pilot, I watched emotionally, not critically. I’ve talked before about my relationship with Gilmore Girls and my excitement for this new show from Amy Sherman-Palladino, long one of my writing heroes, and I think even if I had tried to watch critically I would have failed. Bunheads is going to be my show this summer. Even if it were to suck it would probably be my show.

But guess what? It doesn’t suck!

In fact, it’s wonderful. Quick-witted and talky, funny and a little cynical, but not excessively cynical. Much like its predecessor, it looks like it plans to balance stories between its adult characters and its teen characters, so there’s something for everyone, and everything is set to a Sam Phillips score; even the cues will take you back to Stars Hollow.

If there’s one constant in Amy Sherman-Palladino’s writing it’s the exploration of relationships between women. That’s not to say that she can’t tell a good story about men and women–up until she intentionally ran everything into the ground, Gilmore Girls always told strong stories about Lorelai and Luke, and if you ever want to watch me sob hysterically all you need do is show me a scene between Lorelai and Richard–but the central relationships in Gilmore Girls were between Lorelai and Rory and Lorelai and Emily, and the central relationship of The Return of Jezebel James was between Sarah and Coco. If nothing else, this leads to series that consistently slay the Bechdel test–for every conversation Lorelai and Rory had about Luke and Dean and Logan and Max and Jess and Christopher, they had a million more about Rory’s future, about Emily and Richard, about school and work and what cuisine was on the menu at Al’s Pancake World that week.

At first Bunheads seems to be setting up a story about a woman who falls in love with her husband after she marries him, with a side of teaching precocious teens how to dance, but as the episode progresses, and in particular in the last five minutes, it becomes clear that Bunheads is not a show about Michelle (Sutton Foster) and Hubbell (Alan Ruck), the relationship at the center of this show is between Michelle and Fanny (Kelly Bishop), her new mother-in-law.

In that final scene, as Michelle and Fanny do shots at the local bar, they discuss Hubbell, yes, but mostly they talk about missed opportunities, dreams that didn’t come true either because life or a lack of focus got in the way. These women are both living their lives full of regret, as Sherman-Palladino beautifully illustrates in earlier moments of quiet, such as the scene where Michelle drinks a beer on the walk-way outside her apartment, the Vegas strip glittering in the distance behind her complex, or the scene where Fanny dances before the mirror in her empty dance studio, then offers herself a little nod as if to say, “that was okay.” The two women find uneasy common ground in their shared failures.

And then they dance together.

It’s an ecstatic moment, the tension between them breaks and they let loose a little, and it’s almost immediately cut short by the revelation, in the last moments of the episode, that Hubbell, out searching for his wife and mother, has been in some sort of accident, and the implication that he has died.

As a pilot, this episode has to do a lot of maneuvering. When the series starts Michelle lives in Vegas and knows Hubbell as little more than a harmless stalker who brings her shoes and buys her dinner once a month, but within the first ten minutes she’s had what she sees as her final chance at her dream shot down, gotten drunk over another dinner with her stalker and found herself married and en route to Paradise. Literally.

Paradise, California, doesn’t seem all that different from Gilmore Girls‘ Stars Hollow, Connecticut, with its nosey eccentrics. The residents have a warm sort of crazy–Michelle jokes that Truly (Stacey Oristano), Hubbell’s ex, has “driving-cross-country-in-diapers-to-kill-you potential,” but she mostly comes across as overly-emotional, and Oristano, who was so excellent in a more dramatic role on Friday Night Lights, delivers some of the best line-readings of the episode–much like the denizens of Stars Hollow, but they’ve got a more relaxed attitude than Taylor Doose and his town meetings. And hey, Stars Hollow had a movie theatre…part-time.

And while the pilot effectively sets up Bunheads‘ setting and its characters–I haven’t even touched on the four teenage ballerinas that make up the younger spectrum of the ensemble–its final twist leaves me curious to see what the rest of the series will look like. This is a place-setting pilot, not one that establishes a template for the series. In the past, Sherman-Palladino has often written towards character and location more than she has toward plot, and I suspect this show will continue along that pattern, but the pilot was very much about putting the pieces on the board. You think that Michelle’s decision to marry Hubbell and leave her life in Vegas behind is the catalyst for the series, but in actuality the catalyst doesn’t come until those final moments–we don’t yet know what to expect from this show.

I’m excited to find out, though. The patter of Sherman-Palladino’s dialogue is familiar, the quick-witted oddball characters are, too, but she’s telling a different story here. Gilmore Girls was very much about a woman whose life revolved around her daughter, but Michelle’s life revolves around Michelle. Gilmore Girls begins just as Lorelai is starting to live her own life again, separate from the one she’s had with Rory, while Bunheads is beginning with Michelle learning to let others in, whether that’s developing a friendship with Fanny–and, I hope I hope, Truly, just because I found her to be so enjoyable–or becoming a mentor to the girls. There are a lot of stories in those relationships, and I look forward to watching them unfold.

Other Things:

  • Of the four teenage girls, only two stand out especially in the pilot, Sasha with her technique and her disinterest, and Boo with her enthusiasm and uncertainty. I look forward to seeing Melanie and Ginny develop as well.
  • Oristano’s Truly is so different from the stripper-turned-mother that she played on Friday Night Lights, but I already love her nearly as much. She’s very funny without being too broad.
  • Familiar faces from Gilmore Girls include Alex Borstein as the prostitute who lives next door to Michelle in Vegas (she played Drella the harpist and Miss Celine the stylist, and was originally cast as Sookie, but had to drop out due to her commitment to MadTV), Rose Abdoo as the owner of Sparkles (Gypsy the mechanic) and, of course, Kelly Bishop.
  • Hubbell’s proposal by way of extended Godzilla metaphor is beautiful, and does a lot to overcome his initial portrayal as a stalker. The fact that he’s played by Alan Ruck helps, too.
  • This Vulture interview with Amy Sherman-Palladino did a lot to remind me how much I love her. It’s worth a read.
  • I’m thinking about covering this show on a week-to-week basis. Would that be of interest to anyone?

TV Burnout

I spent the spring of 2008 studying abroad in London. It was an excellent semester, one of those life-changing experiences that taught me about the world, about myself, about growing up and surviving on my own, and I wouldn’t trade that semester for anything. It was also a three month period in which I allowed myself to be almost completely consumed by Doctor Who fandom.

This was in the fourth series of the show, the last full year with David Tennant and Russel T. Davies, with Catherine Tate as the Doctor’s (best?) companion Donna and periodic appearances by various ex-residents of the TARDIS, most notably Billie Piper’s Rose Tyler, one of my all-time favorite television characters, whose tragic exit from the series at the end of its second year still leaves me a bit heart-achey. The show was having a truly fantastic season, and for the first time I could watch it on my TV every Saturday, in its first run, in its country of origin. This often involved acrobatic feats–to achieve anything resembling a clear picture I had to carry the antenna around the room, hoisting it into the air, balancing on one leg, standing on chairs and occasionally tables, and readjusting any time the wind changed, not to mention terrifying the relative strangers I called flatmates–but it was thrilling. My show. Live.

But by the time series 4 came to an end, late in July of that year, I had been home for a couple of months. The show was still excellent, and my love for it hadn’t changed, but the thrill of being right there was gone. After a particularly emotional finale I was drained. I couldn’t even think about the show. A friend diagnosed me with “fandom burnout.”

Even our hobbies–maybe especially our hobbies–can be exhausting. Caring about something with enthusiasm–which is, as you know, my modus operandi–requires effort, time, emotion. I may prefer the exhaustion of a marathon viewing or a long conversation about character motivation to the exhaustion of homework or a long night at the office, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t wear me out. It’s possible to burn out on the stuff that gives us pleasure.

So I was a little relieved as this latest TV season started to run down a few weeks ago. Sure there are still a couple episodes of Girls left, and Mad Men finishes its season this Sunday, but I’m not struggling to get through overloaded Thursday nights anymore. Keeping up with everything I watch, as much as I love it, can start to feel like a full-time job.

Now, though, it’s summer. There’s still television to watch–you already know how excited I am for Bunheads, and even more so now that I’ve seen the outstanding pilot–and I do plan on watching The Wire, continuing with a very slow O.C. rewatch I’ve been working on for months, and probably taking up some sort of project with my roommate–last year we rewatched all of Scrubs, but we haven’t yet made any decisions about this summer–but I also plan to step away from the screen a bit. Spend my evenings at the gym, or curled up with books. Use the weekends to explore the city a little more. I have plans for this summer and they don’t include spending all of my time awash in the artificial glow of the TV.

I think it’s good to take a break, even from the things you love. It’s healing, refreshing, and when you come back after some time away there’s a new enthusiasm. I will be thrilled when TV comes back in the fall, not just because I’m waiting to see how various cliff-hangers turn out, but because I genuinely love television, especially in that first rush of new episodes, new stories, new time-slots and series and characters that arrives each fall. Come September I’ll be burnt out on summer (and hopefully not too sun-burnt), ready to dive in with all new fall TV (spoiler alert: I’m going to be obsessed with The Mindy Project).

For now I’m going to relax a little. I’m going to listen to “Call Me Maybe” very loudly on repeat as I train my body to run more than a quarter-mile at a time, and I’m going to spend some sticky Saturday afternoons in Central Park with a book and a bottle of water. That seems like the best possible cure for TV burnout.

Summer Project.

The idea behind this blog was always practice. I want to be a better writer, and I want to be a better critical writer, and I am madly, passionately enthusiastic about television. Logically, those things intersect at a blog about television.

But there’s more that goes into TV criticism than just watching a lot of TV, you have to have some sort of foundation to build on, and increasingly I’ve been feeling like, if I ever want to be taken seriously as a television critic, I need to build up that foundation. So this summer, as the scripted television season dies down (mostly), I’m going to take on a viewing project.
I’ve narrowed my list to three possible options, and I’d like you to help me pick!
  • The Sopranos: The series is iconic, and from everything I’ve read, a lot of current television storytelling owes a debt to this show.
  • The Simpsons: I’ve seen episodes, as well as the movie, but so much comedy traces back to Springfield and I don’t really have a working knowledge of the world. (I probably wouldn’t make it through the whole series, but I could at least make a dent.)
  • The Wire: It’s largely considered to be the greatest drama series of the last decade, and I can easily get my hands on the complete series on DVD.
So opinions? Whatever I choose to watch will probably come up in posts to East Cupcake, so drop me a comment.

Intersections.

If you’re just a casual TV viewer, or a rampant channel surfer, a college student with a light schedule or laid up in bed for some reason, procedurals can be a godsend. They’re very easy to dive into without requiring much fore-knowledge and without needing any place-setting, and pretty much no matter the time of day, it’s not that difficult to find one in reruns. Especially the Law & Order franchise.

Procedurals work because they all follow a basic formula. Even if you stop in on an episode of Law & Order that’s half-over, it’s not that difficult to figure out where you are in the story. Someone’s (usually) dead–if it’s SVU they may have been raped, or a child may have gone missing, but original recipe L&O deals mostly in murder–and there are suspects and witness interviews and dimly lit scenes where bit players in lab coats stand over bodies and computer screens to share exposition. There are district attorneys, also dimly lit, having late-night meetings over Chinese take-out to discuss circumstantial evidence and drink scotch. There’s local color and there are cheesy one-liners and someone is falsely accused. There are “chung chungs.” And whether or not the good guys succeed in nailing the bad guys for their crimes, episodes always end on some bleak note. The process grinds on, there’s always a call for more law & order on Law & Order.

The other side of the narrative coin is serial storytelling, where one week leads into the next, and the next and the next and the next. Show like Lost and Heroes were heavily serialized, and it made it very difficult to just dive in in the middle. If procedurals are the ultimate in accessible television, serialized shows are about as inaccessible as it gets. They cater to die-hards, the people who will tune in each week without fail.

Most television these days falls somewhere in between. Shows like Bones, House and Castle follow a case-of-the-week format, but they’re more concerned with their characters than the who-done-its, and shows like Veronica Mars and Life built season long arcs alongside smaller individual mysteries. Sitcoms are generally designed for syndication, so that even if you’re just catching an episode at the gym or turning on the TV while you fold laundry, you’ll be able to step in and then out of the story.

And then there are shows like Community.

Community is frequently excellent. It’s a very smart, rich series, it knows its characters really well, it’s not afraid to try unusual things–episodes that are war movies, episodes that are action movies, episodes that are done entirely in claymation, episodes in the style of Ken Burns documentaries, episodes where everyone sits at a table and plays Dungeons and Dragons–and it is very, very funny, but it is not remotely accessible. Unless you’re already in on the wonderful, weird world of the show, you can’t just drop in on episodes. Or you can, but you might hate them. It’s for this reason that Community is never going to be a massive hit. Its fanbase is small, but intensely loyal.

On the surface, it doesn’t seem like Law & Order and Community have all that much in common. But Community doesn’t have all that much in common with Ken Burns documentaries, either, or with Apollo 13 or Star Wars or westerns or really any of the styles it’s aped over the last three years. Despite the fact that the series has tremendous respect for its own medium, and could not exist without shows that came before it like Spaced and Scrubs and NewsRadioCommunity is a show that’s often best when it’s trying to figure out how to put a new spin on that medium. Sometimes that’s a clip show episode composed entirely of new clips. Sometimes that’s a self-aware bottle episode. Last week it was a thorough homage to the Law & Order franchise.

From its opening moments, “Basic Lupine Urology” was an episode of Law & Order. The direction, the tone, the performances, the costuming, the script–anyone who has ever spent Memorial Day vegged out on the couch could tell you that Community nailed the essence of the series. They even brought in one of the actual L&O medical examiners, they adopted the in media res scene-setting and handheld camerawork. But that alone doesn’t make an homage successful. That’s just fanfiction. Where Community truly succeeded was in the way it deployed its own characters, slotting them into the archetypes that make up the cast of any episode of the Law & Order franchise.

Logically, Troy and Abed step in as the detectives, with Shirley doing her best S. Epatha Merkerson.

Though the format of the episode is immediately apparent, Shirley is the one who establishes the homage to the other characters, confessing that she watches crime shows when she’s bored and then taking over the “crime scene,” assigning tasks to the rest of the characters. She’s the one who establishes the rules of the episode, rewrites the Miranda Rights, shares personal experience with her “detectives” so they know where to look, keeps a watchful eye over interrogations from behind a two-way mirror dirty aquarium.

Troy and Abed, meanwhile, live their lives like buddy cops, and they’re pop culture-vores. Out of all of the characters on the show, Troy and Abed are the ones who can best see the procedural structure that has taken over their lives. They try and out-zinger each other, switch out on good cop/bad cop (“I’m sorry about my partner, he’s been on edge ever since we switched,” may be my favorite line of the night), and, once the premise has been established, they start showing up dressed like Lennie Briscoe, with bad ties and oversized overcoats. They’ve been playing make-believe more than usual this season, using their dreamatorium to turn their lives into episodes of Inspector Spacetime, and they’re more than happy to do that here as well. They commit to the structure because that’s what Troy and Abed do, and that commitment is what makes the episode hum.

Annie and Jeff, meanwhile, stand in as the crack legal team, the ones who discuss their case over Chinese take-out containers. Jeff actually is a lawyer, kind of, and knows what it takes to win a case, what questions to ask the witness, what to look for with the testimonies they hear, and Annie is just the sort of driven second-chair he needs to back him up. She’s motivated after all–if they can’t find the culprit she’ll have to take a C, which is about as bad as getting “pregnant at a bus station.” And the over-enthusiastic dance she does when she gets her confession is what manages to push the moment from Law & Order to Law & Order parody, while remaining completely in character.

Britta and Pierce aren’t given much to do, with Britta stepping in as one of the techs, who can’t do much with a photo alibi except turn it “old west color,” and attempt to offer her opinion as a psych major. Pierce is, naturally, the first suspect. Though neither of them has more than a scene in the spotlight, they both embrace their roles. The skill is in the details. It’s in the way Britta carries her mug to the computer, in Pierce’s visor, in the way the tech tosses self-deprecating quips at no one and the first suspect immediately passes the blame onto someone else.

Plenty of Community‘s supporting players are brought in to flesh out the episode: Garrett and Magnitude, Todd and Starburns, Professor Kane and Vicki, Fat Neil. Most of them are suspects, which makes sense given the way the study group tends to treat people who aren’t in the study group, especially their arch-nemesis Todd.

The detail that really makes the episode sing, though, is the final moment, the bleak note that is such a Law & Order staple: as the characters debrief and unwind in the Dean’s office after the “trial” is over, a call comes in on the Dean’s phone. The meth lab that Starburns was building in the trunk of his car, a detail established when he was questioned by Troy and Abed, has exploded in a car accident. He’s dead. And cut to “special thanks to Dick Wolf.”

A few extra things:

  • I’m embarrassed to admit how long it took me to figure out where they got the episode title.
  • There were several pitch-perfect references I couldn’t fit in above: the cops and lawyers meeting at Garrett’s hotdog truck, repeated references to Todd’s time in Iraq, “Whoever did do this does owe you guys a letter…an A,” Fat Neil walking around the main office with his arms full of folders, Annie stating that “the case really was about biology,” the entire courtroom sequence, from Todd’s war stories on the stand to Annie withdrawing accusations to Todd’s outburst to the way Annie encourages Todd to “diffuse the I.E.D. of dishonesty”…and plenty more.
  • “Why were you late?”/”I fell asleep in a sunbeam.”/”Likely story.”/”Actually it is. I used to live with him. It’s kind of adorable.”
  • “Keep the change Garrett. You know what, keep the hotdog.”
  • The tag was completely disconnected from the rest of the episode, as is generally the case with Community, and while the abrupt departure from the style is a little disarming, it’s worth it for the Dean’s incredibly creepy singing voice. “Sweet Deans!”

A Voice of a Generation.

I don’t want to freak you out, but I think that I may be the voice of my generation. Or at least a voice. Of a generation. – Hannah, Girls.

I am 24 years old, almost 3 years out of college, an aspiring writer and I live in New York City. In other words, I have a great deal in common with Hannah (Lena Dunham), the main character on the new HBO series Girls.

I’m not her exact twin (I’m pretty much financially independent, for one, and hopefully a little less entitled), but there’s enough similarity that I don’t find it particularly difficult to relate to Girls, to the feeling that you’re not really sure where you’re headed, or if you’re doing what you need to be doing to get to where you’re headed or where you want to be headed. After growing up hearing we could be anything and do anything, so long as we set our mind to it, we early-to-mid-twenty-somethings graduated from college at pretty much the worst possible time, and struck out into the world with, yes, a certain amount of entitlement. And the world didn’t exactly follow through for most of us. So maybe I went into Girls tonight with a bit of a bias, maybe to some extent I enjoyed it because I saw myself on the screen, but I don’t think that’s all there is to it.

Girls is funny. It’s really funny. But it’s not funny the way that 30 Rock or Community or New Girl or pretty much any other sitcom is funny. This show isn’t all cut-away gags and physical comedy (there is some physical comedy). This show is funny the way your friends are funny. Your especially sharp and insightful friends, but still–it’s funny the way people you actually know are funny.

It’s also a little tragic. Hannah’s broke. She’s not directionless–she knows she wants to be a memoirist, and she’s actually written about half of that memoir–but she’s not exactly together either. She’s financially dependent on parents that cut her off in the pilot’s opening scene, pursuing a relationship with a guy who won’t respond to a text message and barely offers her a seat in his apartment (“I wouldn’t take shit from my parents, they’re buffoons, but my grandma gives me $800 a month,” he says, and that pretty much tells you what you need to know), and she’s just quit/been fired from her internship because she lacks the special skills that would turn it into a paying job. Meanwhile her best friend and roommate, Marnie (Allison Williams), is dating the perfect guy, but she kind of can’t stand him, and their free-spirited friend Jessa (Jemima Kirke) has just returned pregnant from adventuring through Europe.

Lena Dunham, who is 25 and also the creator, writer and director of the show, is outstandingly fearless. She’s beautiful, but she doesn’t look like your typical TV star, and she frequently puts herself in front of the camera in less-than-flattering lights, whether that’s hanging naked out of a bathtub to eat a cupcake or wearing clothes that don’t quite fit. She’s been compared a lot to Louis C.K. and I’d say that’s apt, and not just for the level of creative control she has taken over the series (C.K. is the writer, director, star and, until recently, editor of Louie). Girls and Louie are both somewhat bleak and very funny, and they’re both informed by their setting (the fact that these series take place in New York is important), but they’re very different shows–Louie is essentially a series of vignettes, sliding up and down the scale of realism, about the life of a forty-something comedian and single dad, while Girls is (probably, at least from what I’ve seen so far) a bit more grounded, and centers around a group of friends who haven’t figured out how to be much of anything quite yet.

 

A lot of comparisons have also been drawn to another HBO series about four women in New York City. Girls is not Sex and the City for Millennials, but it couldn’t exist without Sex and the City, which, even for those of us who weren’t ever really fans, has played such a role in the girl-in-the-city culture that it can’t be ignored. Girls even acknowledges the debt with the character of Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), who is barely introduced before she shares that she’s a Carrie, but sometimes the part of her that’s more of a Samantha comes out to play (and she tries to wear her “Miranda hat” at school). It’s not too difficult to imagine that one day the girls of Girls will be used as similar markers of personality.

And from what I’ve seen so far? Well, I’m a Hannah…with a bit of Shoshanna mixed in.

Low-stakes television with lots of Hart.

Hart of Dixie is not a show about how up-and-coming young surgeon Zoe Hart came to Bluebell and fell in love with a boy. It is a story about how Zoe Hart came to Bluebell and fell in love with Bluebell, and with being a family doctor. And the story of how Bluebell fell in love with her. It’s a story about identity, about family (both the ones you’re born into and the ones you make for yourself), about the paths we choose to take (and those that are chosen for us). And yes, there’s a love triangle there–or maybe more of a love pentagon, a love star–and sometimes it drives the plot, but it doesn’t define the show.

So there’s lots to love about Hart of Dixie, and that’s not even mentioning its cast. Cress Williams, Scott Porter, Wilson Bethel and Tim Matheson are all great as the various men in Zoe’s life (friends and love interests and her professional rival), and Jamie King, though her southern accent can spin out underneath her like tires on a slick road, has imbued Lemon, Zoe’s romantic rival, with some depth, cracking the shell of her picture perfect exterior to reveal her insecurities and motivations. And then there are the various bit-players, characters that make up the town of Bluebell (aiming for the charming quirk of Gilmore Girls’ Stars Hollow, right down to the same set, and mostly succeeding), who are varied, distinct, and wholly entertaining.

The real “Hart” of the show, though–if you’ll permit a pun on a pun–is Zoe herself. Rachel Bilson drew some snark when she was first cast from those who didn’t think anyone would buy her as a no nonsense surgeon lacking in bedside manner. To some extent they were right–Bilson exudes a friendliness that defies Meredith Grey’s “dark and twisty” world view, even when she’s sneering at Bluebell, or bitterly raging against her parents. But as the show has evolved, Zoe has relaxed into a role better suited for Bilson. While she’s still having trouble gaining the trust of Bluebell’s residents, it’s got more to do with her tendency to bungle social functions and a lack of tact than with an unfriendliness. And as far as buying her as a surgeon goes, there’s no question that the character is more than capable. She’s never more confident than when diagnosing a patient or cooler than in the face of an emergency.

Hart of Dixie is the fourth show from Josh Schwartz, after The O.C., Gossip Girl, and Chuck, and perhaps the most distinct thing these shows share–other than well-suited soundtracks–is a sense that they know themselves. The O.C. was never afraid of its soapy roots, it could acknowledge when things didn’t work, and it regularly dipped into self-parody, Chuck found its core audience and played straight to it, never more so than with its guest stars, an endless list of stars and cult icons from the eighties and nineties, and Gossip Girl regularly reaches for new levels of insanity–a recent example: a supposed long lost cousin who was unmasked as a con artist by a real long lost cousin who is also, surprise, a half sibling–and new levels of couture. Hart of Dixie, meanwhile, has found itself in its own goofiness.

Now, goofy is not a bad thing. The show is light on gravitas, but it does have a sweet charm. Bluebell’s a strange town, where they celebrate “Planksgiving” instead of Thanksgiving (a far more pirate-y holiday), and heat waves drive the citizens a little insane. I compared it a bit to Stars Hollow earlier and I think that’s apt, both Stars Hollow and Bluebell share in the old trope of small towns with big traditions. You see some of that in Mystic Falls on The Vampire Diaries and in Pawnee on Parks and Recreation and really in just about every small town that TV has ever dreamed up. But it’s not just Bluebell that’s goofy. The show itself seems to be saying, “Yup, this is what we’re going to be, take it or leave it.” They’ve embraced the jokes about Zoe’s affinity for dressy shorts, and they’ve dressed her up in a hideous Southern Belle dress–complete with hoop skirt–and asked her to sing on cue. They’ve teased secret romances and then revealed them as secret friendships and introduced an alligator named Burt Reynolds. Even the CW’s promo department plays into the goofier side of the show:

That’s not to say that there’s no depth to Hart of Dixie. While the found-family relationships are loving, there tends to be quite a bit of strife in the traditional families, from Zoe’s discovery that the father she’s always known and admired and aspired to be is not related to her biologically–and the fall-out with both of her parents that accompanies that discovery–to Lemon coming to terms with the fact that the mother that left when she was a teenager has moved on with a new family. George (Porter) struggles for his parents’ approval while–without even knowing it–trapped in a love triangle with Lemon and Lavon (Williams). Wade (Bethel), meanwhile, is trying to figure out what he wants out of his life, and what sort of relationship he wants with his father, the town drunk, and how he feels about Zoe.

The series works because it takes its characters emotions seriously, even if it doesn’t always take itself too seriously. They mix-and-match the characters to explore new dynamics–it took awhile to see Wade and Lemon interact, but when they did they proved a fun pairing–and they expand the town of Bluebell almost weekly, bringing new residents into Zoe’s, and the audience’s, circle.

Hart of Dixie isn’t going to win any major awards, and I have no clue where it stands in terms of getting picked up for a second season, but it’s certainly an enjoyable way to spend an hour. The stakes aren’t very high in Bluebell, this is low-stress TV, and sometimes, especially on Monday evenings, coming down from Mad Men and The Good Wife and the rest of Sunday night’s high-stakes television, that’s just what you need.

Reading List.

Oral history of One Tree Hill

One Tree Hill may never have been a great show, but there’s something to be said for staying power, and after nine years it’s probably earned the right to the media attention they’ve received this week. This oral history with much of the cast and crew was done by a local Wilmington, North Carolina, paper, so when they start going off into specifics about what it was like to call Wilmington home I lost interest somewhat, but overall it’s a pretty interesting read. Especially when they talk about that time a dog ate a human heart:

Linda Holmes and Alyssa Rosenberg on Lee Aronsohn

If you were somehow left unaware of the Two and a Half Men co-creator’s sexist, oblivious remarks this week, well, you were lucky. If not, you might find Alyssa Rosenberg and Linda Holmes’ ire as therapeutic as I did.

Martha Plimpton interview at the A.V. Club

I always enjoy it when the A.V. Club does a random roles interview, where they ask actors about various credits, significant and not so much, that are listed on their imdb pages. This one with Martha Plimpton is a great read because a) Martha Plimpton’s pretty awesome and b) she’s been working since the early 80s, in everything from after school specials to The Goonies to Raising Hope.

You wanna be a bunhead, huh?

When I was 15 I wrote a fan letter to Amy Sherman-Palladino. It was largely incoherent, unnecessarily long–I think about 17 pages, front and back–scribbled in the hasty handwriting of a teenager who had more feelings than sufficient words, and, thank God, it was never sent. That was one of my earliest attempts to explain what Gilmore Girls meant to me, and the role it was playing in my life at the time.

 

I’m 24 now and I still haven’t really figured out how to put my relationship with the series into words. It’s not enough to say that it’s my favorite TV show of all time, or even just to say that I loved it. Gilmore Girls represents something larger about who I am. It shaped my sense of humor, my sense of taste, my sense of style…it’s the reason I speak at outrageous speeds. It has played a part in small decisions in my life–what book to read next, which t-shirt to buy–and some big ones–where to go to college. Maybe most importantly, Gilmore Girls was the show that first brought me online, lead me to fan fiction and message boards and eventually LiveJournal, to some significant long distance friendships that I’ve been sustaining for upwards of 8 years. And that, more than anything, is why I am sitting here, writing a TV blog.

 

Or, to put it simply, if you asked me to choose one piece of pop culture, something to point to and say, “this, if you get this then you get me,” well that’s Gilmore Girls.

 

All of this is to say that I probably have unreasonable expectations for Bunheads going in. Not critical expectations necessarily, but certainly emotional ones. I know that, probably because I’m not twelve years old anymore, it will not–it cannot–affect me the way that Gilmore Girls did. There’s a place inside of us that’s reserved for the culture of our childhoods and teen years, the culture that helps shape us when we’re still as moldable as playdough, and that’s untouchable after a certain point. No matter how much I have loved other series since, they have never touched that part of me.

This first trailer is all we have of Bunheads so far–not very much. It doesn’t really tell you anything beyond “ballet!” and “Sutton Foster!” And yet I can’t watch it without tearing up. And maybe that’s just a response to Mr. ABC Family intoning “From executive producer Amy Sherman-Palladino, creator of Gilmore Girls,” in that way that Mr. ABC Family intones things, but I think it’s something more. I think it’s something in the little bit of set design we see, in the costuming, in the words “attitude, my friends,” and in the way Sutton Foster is delivering them.

This is not Amy Sherman-Palladino’s first series since leaving Gilmore Girls at the end of its sixth season. She had a very short-lived (only three episodes aired) mid-season sitcom called The Return of Jezebel James in 2008. It was not the worst show ever, but it wasn’t the best either. Parker Posey was miscast in the lead role, her comic rhythms didn’t match with Sherman-Palladino’s particular style–nor did the sitcom format, for that matter. Given the chance it probably could have grown into a pretty good show, but there’s a reason I didn’t feel compelled to watch it until just a few months ago.

But what “attitude, my friends,” tells me is that Sutton Foster might just have the, well, attitude to pull this off. There’s a patter and wit and speed to Amy Sherman-Palladino’s dialogue that not everyone can navigate, and there’s a tone to her writing, something that goes beyond just her pace and her constant stream of cultural references–there’s a warmth to her characters and to the stories she can tell with them. Maybe I’m reading too much into a 16 second trailer, maybe I’m seeing what I want to see, but I feel like this show could restore some of that warmth to my pop culture diet.

My inner teen will keep her fingers crossed.