Here are some random notes and thoughts on things we watched in February:
If you’re not watching Abbott Elementary, I really don’t know what you’re doing with your life. I was getting kind of tired of the whole “workplace documentary” sitcom subgenre that The Office blew up, spawning a dozen imitators, but the characters in Abbott Elementary are just so fun and compelling that all the usual “workplace documentary” stuff–the knowing glances at the camera, the “stealth shots” of characters’ hidden reactions to things other people are saying or doing–don’t feel at all forced. If you’re unfamiliar, Abbott Elementary takes place in an inner city elementary school in Philadelphia, where talented and well-meaning teachers work with too little resources and too little money to teach their overstuffed classrooms. Yes, there is a slow-burn romance subplot a la Jim-and-Pam from The Office, and yes, the boss figure, Principal Ava Coleman, is portrayed in the grand Michael Scott tradition as an often-inept obstacle that the teachers have to overcome. But where The Office would occasionally try to portray Michael as a guy who was actually a much better boss than he was usually depicted (and as many funny moments as there were with Michael Scott, this was not an angle the show was terribly successful), Principal Coleman actually does have more than a few moments where you see that she’s good at her job–or really would be if she was actually invested in it.
:: Our other sitcom candy of the moment is Home Economics, a show about three siblings and their families. The original notion is that the three siblings are all at different levels of financial success: the millionaire techbro, the middle-class brother who is a writer, and the social-worker sister who is in a constant financial struggle. Now in its third season all of those lines have been blurred a bit and the show is mainly about the quirky goings-on of this family with all their extended things going on, but it’s a fun and mostly positive show where nobody is unlikeable. Honestly, that goes a long way. (I think the show may have ended for the season! Apparently it had a 13-episode order, which does not leave me terribly optimistic for a fourth season.)
:: Then there’s American Auto, another mockumentary workplace sitcom that somehow works despite everybody being fairly unlikeable. This show is a strange case. It focuses on the upper management team of a car maker company. I suppose the pleasure here is mostly on watching upper management look like a bunch of rubes on a regular basis. The second season is unfolding now, and it’s full of a lot of madcap antics that don’t portray American management in too flattering of a light. The show does have a kind-of slow-burn romance subplot going on, but so far it’s really a slow burn, and I do find the show entertaining in its skewering way. It was created by the guy who previously created Superstore, which was also a terrific workplace comedy, so all of this tracks. Plus, alumni of Superstore show up on American Auto regularly.
:: The latest season of Hell’s Kitchen wrapped up recently, and wow, has that show become a robotic paint-by-numbers exercise. We’re watching more out of habit now than anything else. Gordon Ramsay is always fun to watch, but the challenges are almost always the same, and the punishments are just goofy (“All of our peppercorns are being delivered today, but they screwed up and mixed them all together, so you have to manually separate the black peppercorns from the white peppercorns!”), and honestly, at this point I’m not sure how much shelf life Hell’s Kitchen still has, if it doesn’t do something to mix itself up a bit. Twenty-one seasons in, watching new cooks screw up the scallops and the Beef Wellington isn’t nearly as interesting as it used to be…and with every individual cooking challenge being a 45-minute cook, watching every dish served be a “protein on top of a root vegetable puree” isn’t all that exciting, either. (But yes, we’ll watch Season 22. It’s a show that can be on in the background while I read.)
:: Then there was Pressure Cooker, a cooking competition show that actually added a Survivor/Big Brother wrinkle. A bunch of chefs are brought to live in a house that’s outfitted with a killer kitchen, and they are submitted to cooking challenges that result in elimination challenges. So in addition to cooking, this show adds the subterfuge and “alliance forming” that informs the Survivor genres. One particular chef, a young woman named Jeana, was depicted as one of the bigger “villains” in the show, as she did a lot of scheming and at one point her strategizing and, well, outright lying managed to get one of the strongest competitors eliminated. Now, I know that this woman is the villain and we’re not supposed to like her, but I don’t know…there was just something about her….
I dunno, it’s a mystery.
:: Next Level Chef has started a second season. It’s a strange concept: the set is three kitchens, stacked on top of one another, with the top level being a state-of-the-art kitchen with the very best stuff, the middle being a standard commercial kitchen that’s decent but not as good as the top level, and the basement being where old equipment, pans with loose handles, uncalibrated gas burners, and the like reside. There are three teams of cooks, and based on the results each week the teams are slotted into one of the kitchens, and each week someone is eliminated. It’s a fun concept, though the “basement level” is still good enough that we don’t really see those cooks struggle all that much. I was thinking in terms of the sabotages from Cutthroat Kitchen here, but no dice. I like the show mainly because it has a relatively fresh concept, unlike Hell’s Kitchen which is honestly just pure formula at this point.
Finally: Andor is the latest Star Wars show on DisneyPlus. I was looking forward to it after a whole bunch of people opined that it’s the best Star Wars show yet and it might even be one of the best pieces of Star Wars filmed entertainment of all, including all of the movies. So imagine my shock when I found myself bored and unengaged with the characters, to the point that my enthusiasm petered out completely and we stopped watching it after the 8th episode. (There are 12.) Andor tells the backstory of Rebel spy Cassian Andor, who was one of the leads in Rogue One. In so doing, we also get a lot of background on the earliest days of the Rebel Alliance and some citizen’s-eye-view of life under the Galactic Empire. The show is crafted as a political thriller with some heist action along the way, but the pacing was incredibly slow for me to the point of tedium, and the characters were nearly impossible for me to connect with. Andor didn’t work for me at all, being too disjointed and having too many concurrent subplots for me to invest fully in any of them. (After giving up, I learned that there’s a post-credits scene on the last episode, so I tracked it down and watched it…and it turns out that when Andor is sent to an Imperial prison-labor planet, the electronic parts he and others are forced to make are components for the super-laser for the still-under-construction Death Star. My eyes rolled at this revelation, if I’m being honest; at this point I am so tired of everything in Star Wars being tied back to the same story.)
:: The Age of Adaline is a deeply affecting fantasy about a woman who was born in 1908 and who, when she is 29 years old, is in an accident that arrests her body’s natural aging process, basically making her forever 29. The events of the the film unfold in the present day, when Adaline’s daughter–born before Adaline’s husband’s death in 1937, just ten months before the accident–is an old woman herself, and Adaline is getting ready to push the “reset” button on her life yet again, something that became necessary when she realized people were starting to ask questions about the woman who never seems to get older. Over the course of the movie Adaline meets a man who somehow manages to slip through the defense mechanisms she’s set up for herself over the years, and then more complications develop when the new guy’s past intersects Adaline’s past in ways she couldn’t have seen coming. The story is like a kind-of Back to the Future in reverse, and it’s a beautifully made film, wonderfully shot and acted with Blake Lively in the lead as Adaline and a frankly amazing supporting role played by Harrison Ford.
:: Top Gun: Maverick wasn’t a movie that interested me in the slightest when I learned they were making it. I was never a fan of the original movie, which I found to be really predictable and kind of boring, as great as the fighter-pilot flying sequences were in that picture. I never really cared about the characters in that movie, so I wasn’t going to watch this new one…except that the buzz on it has been exceptionally strong, and curiosity got the better of me. Wouldn’t you know it: the new one is a terrific movie, that somehow makes Tom Cruise’s “Maverick” character somebody I can actually relate to, and he’s surrounded by interesting characters of their own, as well. The movie’s story is every bit as predictable as the first film, but a story’s strength does not always lie in its surprises and its twists and turns. I enjoyed this movie immensely. (For The Wife, Tom Cruise’s perfectly brown hair without a hint of salt-and-pepper was a point of contention. I’m not sure why that particular item was what tripped off her Plausibility Meter, but there it is.)
:: Like Father is an insightful story about a young woman and her troubled reconnection with her estranged father…trapped inside a dumb sitcom. The bad parts are a shame, because they drag down the good parts; but the good parts are good enough to lift the bad parts, so much so that I’m not sure where I even come down on this movie. Kristen Bell plays a young professional who is so work-obsessed that she is late to walk down the aisle at her own wedding because she took a work call as she was waiting outside the venue. This enrages her fiance, who leaves her on the altar when her phone falls out of her bouquet (because, in the movie’s first sitcom moment, she realizes she has no place to put her phone so she stuffs it down in the bouquet). As she stands on the altar not even sure what’s just happened, she recognizes her estranged father (Kelsey Grammer), whom she has not seen in years, ducking out the back. Tracking him down, they go out and get ripping drunk to the point that they don’t even remember getting on the cruise ship that was already booked for her honeymoon; thus, trapped together for the length of the cruise, they start to wear each other down and figure out where they stand, where they went wrong, and where they can go from here.
Like I said, there’s a lot of good stuff in here, mostly when the two of them put aside all the shenanigans that the movie forces upon them and just talk. When the conversation finally comes as to just why it is that now, of all times, Dad has re-emerged into the picture, it’s a welcome scene indeed and Bell and Grammer do it justice. In fact, they both sell the idea of their relationship very well, even through obnoxious stuff like their participation in the cruise ship’s lip-sync contest or other episodes that are pure sitcom. We’re talking Three’s Company-level stuff here, folks. It’s a maddening movie, honestly, because there’s enough of a really good relationship study here to make me wonder throughout, “Then why are we watching all this other goofy shit for?”
:: Finally, I randomly found Foul Play on YouTube (right here, though I wouldn’t be surprised to see it gone for copyright violation at some point). This is a movie I saw as a kid when it came out, featuring Goldie Hawn as the adorkable librarian who finds herself in the middle of some kind of criminal conspiracy that keeps ending up with dead bodies in her presence…but when she goes to notify someone about the dead bodies, the bad guys have whisked them away. It’s the classic “Normal person caught in a conspiracy but nobody believes her” story, until a cop played by Chevy Chase comes along and starts to think that maybe she has stumbled on to something. Which she has: a plot to assassinate the Pope. It’s kind of a love letter to the kind of Hitchcockian screwball mystery flick, and it still holds up pretty well. Chase is especially noteworthy here because he actually gives a performance; aside from exactly two pratfalls, none of his SNL antics are on display here, and he’s nowhere near the full-on gonzo work he’d later do for the Vacation movies and whatever else he did. Chase has had a long and productive career, even with his reputation for being enormously difficult to work with, so I guess he’s done fine, but it’s interesting to look at Foul Play and wonder what he might have done if he’d followed this line of work instead of creating Clark Griswold.