Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

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February 2019

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PEN15 Is One Of Hulu’s Best Original Shows

Written by , Posted in Blog, Movie Reviews, Pop Culture

The first episode of Dawson’s Creek garnered much controversy all the way back in 1998 for daring to talk about subjects like masturbation and premarital sex, airing at a time before premium cable changed the television landscape. Two decades later, shock value just doesn’t carry the same weight. The idea of a TV show set in middle school starring two adult actresses covering similar subjects in a far more graphic manner barely raises an eyebrow.

PEN15 sets its sights on the most cringe-worthy chapter in many people’s educational experience. As much as high school can be defined as a time full of awkwardness and poor decisions, middle school offers an environment with far less freedom and a lot more puberty. The sexual tension that fuels so many high school dramas essentially begins in middle school, though television has been reluctant to cover that period for obvious reasons. The material is too graphic for child actors, and adult actors don’t exactly look convincing playing thirteen-year-olds.

While co-creators and stars Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle hardly look like children, both actresses are immensely effective in sidestepping that issue completely. PEN15 crafts its own funhouse version of reality that allows Maya and Anna to navigate its halls with relative grace, considering the heavy dose of cringe comedy offered in practically every scene. Suspension of disbelief is hardly needed, as PEN15 eloquently captures the zeitgeist of adolescence in the early 2000s.

Though the adult actors carry the bulk of the drama, PEN15 does have an impressive cast of child actors in supporting roles. Each episode is mostly self-contained, allowing the show to thoroughly cover a wide variety of topics in its first season. There isn’t a single episode that reeks of filler, a rarity among streaming shows, especially in their first seasons.

What sets PEN15 apart from many shows that depict childhood is its unapologetic refusal to force resolution. For many, if not most, middle school is a cringe-worthy time that we’d like to forget. All the efforts made by ABC’s Afterschool Specials and shows like 7th Heaven and Boy Meets World to turn each conflict into a teachable moment seem to forget how often bad things happen that don’t serve some broader purpose. Kids can be mean. Often, justice isn’t served. The bad guys win all the time. Shows can pretend like there’s some silver lining hidden in bullying, but PEN15 deserves a lot of credit for throwing conflict out there in a way that doesn’t try to package it all up by the end of the episode.

Back in 2015, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp crafted a hilarious prequel that worked around the fact that actors in their 40s were playing teenagers. PEN15 deployed a similar approach, wielding the surreal to offer some brutally honest commentary on the struggles of growing up. The show has quickly become one of Hulu’s best original series. Few shows dare to take on middle school, but Maya and Anna prove how powerful such a journey can be while providing a hilarious experience along the way.

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Monday

23

July 2018

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UnReal Goes Out with a Whimper

Written by , Posted in Blog, Pop Culture

UnReal entered the TV landscape as a singular entity. The idea of a Lifetime scripted series winning any award, let alone the prestigious Peabody, still seems pretty ridiculous years after the Bachelor-style scripted drama claimed the prize. UnReal’s first season was a refreshing breath of fresh air for summer programming, which made its downfall all the more unfortunate as each of its three subsequent seasons failed to approach the high bar set by its freshman effort.

The news that season four had dropped on Hulu in its entirety, mere months after April’s season three finale, seemed quite odd, as if Lifetime was looking to dump the remainder of the show on someone else’s doorstep. This confusion fit in perfectly with the chaos that defined the show after its first season, a hot commodity with zero direction. Where season one served as an indoctrination on The Bachelor’s manipulative nature and false premise, season two tried to turn the spotlight on seemingly every other political issue facing the nation, including a much-maligned effort to offer something compelling on the state of racism in the country. Season two was a mess.

Season three corrected some of the issues by avoiding broader American politics, but mostly came up short in its effort to recapture the magic of the first with a season that felt increasingly unnecessary as time went on. UnReal has always had something interesting to say about feminism, with two leads who reveled in the contrast between female empowerment and ruthless ambition, but the show has consistently faltered in its execution of these ideas as fictional stories that a viewer is supposed to actually consume.

It’s far easier to root for the idea of Shiri Appleby’s Rachel Goldberg than the character herself. The character Rachel is a terrible person who does terrible things for reasons that are never really clear or particularly compelling. She acts in service to Everlasting, but something is always missing from the carnage left behind in her wake. Multiple characters die and a penis is severed over the course of our time with Everlasting, but the viewer is never really given much of a reason to support the fictitious show or its mean-spirited showrunners.

While this wasn’t really a problem in season one, when Rachel’s motives were still left relatively undefined and the critiques against reality TV were still fresh, the passage of time was not particularly beneficial to either Rachel or Constance Zimmer’s Quinn, whose conscience looked worse and worse in the face of continued complicity. Rachel and Quinn are fun to watch together. Appleby and Zimmer have great chemistry are frequently able to string together compelling scenes that hint at the idea that there’s something greater at play behind their antics at Everlasting. If only UnReal was better at explaining its motives to the viewer.

Season four meanders quite a bit. Everlasting shifts gears to mirror Bachelor in Paradise with a game show competition for a million dollar prize that the show never fully invests itself in. What could’ve been a great opportunity to use prior contestants to diagnose the symptoms of reality TV became mostly a sideshow dominated by Natalie Hall’s Candy, a plant marketed as a “superfan” competing on Everlasting in an effort to establish her for a later spinoff. Candy distracts from the entire All-Star premise and takes up much of the screen time at the expense of contestants from UnReal’s earlier seasons.

UnReal probably wants to tell you that reality TV exploits sexism for ratings and that those who produce it are awful people who would do anything to top their previous stunts. That message gets lost along the way by the lack any sort of follow-through by the show to endear a single element of its existence to the audience. The closest it comes to succeeding in this task comes in the form of Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman’s Jay, a gay producer who possesses one of the few moral consciences on the set of Everlasting. Problem is, Jay never truly evolves past being the person there to tell everyone else they’d gone too far. Certain events in season four make this notion a little empty as time goes on, a nice sentiment if nothing more.

Season four of UnReal is terrible television. It is not simply bad because it’s entirely made up of bad people doing bad things for bad reasons. It wants us to believe that it acts in service to broader ideas, but never cares to actually engage with the implications of reality TV’s existence. The entire genre exploits its cast, but tens of millions of people still tune in. UnReal wants to say something interesting about that dichotomy, but ends up mirroring the material it parodies by coming up empty on substance. The Bachelor isn’t love, and UnReal isn’t really satire. Both are eerily similar in their core being, as products of consumption without any real depth.

I loved UnReal when it first debuted. It was different, it was raw, and it was exciting. Almost immediately after, it sunk into self-parody and misguided attempts to shine a light on issues it shouldn’t have gone near. None of its final three seasons came anywhere close to the highs experienced in that first year inside the house, which I guess probably says something about the audience that stuck with it, myself included.

I often ridicule the idea of “peak TV” and the people who assign importance to a medium long-regarded as mindless entertainment. Neither ends of this spectrum are representative of television as a whole, but neither could be. We don’t live in a world with absolutes, even if politics and the media constantly try to make us think otherwise.

UnReal existed as a deeply flawed indictment on American culture. It usually failed to shed light on topics it tried to engage with. Despite this, I kept watching anyway. I don’t want there to be a fifth season, but I’d probably watch it, if only to see Quinn rag on Graham one more time. Entertainment can tell us a lot about the world, but sometimes it shouldn’t. Sometimes we watch TV because it feels good, or it used to feel good, and rather than sit and write thousand word think pieces as to why we do the things we do, often it’s better to kick back and enjoy the show.

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