Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

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Monday

29

July 2019

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Revisiting Veronica Mars’ “Meet John Smith”

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Despite its relatively small audience, Veronica Mars made an impact in 2004 with its strong feminist lead and mature themes that took high school life seriously. The show took on grief, mental illness, and income inequality among other hard-hitting topics, rarely content to dive into the kind of melodrama that defined other teen narratives. While the show typically handled complex issues with grace, its early first season episode “Meet John Smith” made an absolute mess of transgender rights.

The episode begins with Justin (Bobby Edner), a run of the mill, mildly misogynistic teen who enjoys ranking girls based on their attractiveness with his buddies. Justin works at a video rental store, where a customer (Melissa Leo) seems to enjoy his recommendations. A visit to the store by Veronica and Keith leads to Justin enlisting Veronica’s help to find his long-lost father.

From the first scene of the episode, it’s clear that something’s up with Justin’s case. Not only is it odd that a one-time character with a seemingly sympathetic case would be introduced in a scene painting him as a desperate womanizer, it makes little sense that Justin would know so little about his own father’s absence. There is no trace of “John Smith,” cut out from family photos and rarely spoken of by Justin’s mother. Justin suspects something is astray, but wants to find his dad to help with his family’s poor financial situation.

The case gets weirder when Veronica asks Wallace to pull Justin’s file after an extensive letter-writing campaign aimed at finding the John Smith in a haystack. It turns out that Justin’s father died while he was in the first grade, a detail he declined to share with Veronica. To muddy the waters further, Veronica receives a letter from one of the John Smiths with impeccable handwriting. An effort to track the local John Smiths based on the letter’s area code narrows the field down quite a bit.

A convenient grocery list in one of the John Smith’s cars leads Veronica and Justin to uncover the mystery. The man they thought was John Smith turns out to be a parole officer, dating the woman who wrote to Veronica. John Smith is actually Julia Smith. Justin’s father is a transgender woman, the very same one who relies on his movie recommendation prowess.

There’s more than a few things wrong with this whole “better dead than trans” narrative. It’s unclear how the custody battle over Justin played out, but Julia clearly isn’t okay with being completely absent from her son’s life. She drives 90 miles just for brief interactions with her son, a painfully sad notion. Justin’s mother doesn’t appear in the episode, but Veronica lets her off the hook, noting that she understands why her mother opted for the whole false-death narrative.

What’s missing in all of that is how messed up it is for anyone to have told a young child, a first-grader, that they had lost a parent who was alive and well. “Well” being the keyword here. Julia is shown to be in a stable relationship with the man they mistook for John Smith, leaving grocery list post-it notes on his rear-view mirror. There simply isn’t a compelling reason why Julia couldn’t be a part of her son’s life.

Justin’s initial “circus freak” reaction is a bit more understandable, given the shock and the idea that trans issues were hardly mainstream in 2004 let alone to a high school boy, but what’s missing from this narrative is any time to process those emotions. After a conversation with Veronica, Justin extends an olive branch to Julia, letting her know that a film he’d recommended was in stock.

To some extent, the brevity with which Veronica Mars engages with its transgender moment is perfectly understandable. Justin isn’t a main character, with this episode being his sole appearance on the show. This episode also has to deal with Duncan’s struggles with his anti-depressants and Veronica’s own relationship with her mother.

There are some aspects of the way the show handles transgender issues that can be forgiven due to the time period, such as casting Melissa Leo in a trans role. That issue, in particular, persists to the present day. Film and television have only recently begun to take trans representation seriously, taking much of the weight off an episode that aired in 2004 to get everything right.

This episode mines transgender issues for a cheap plot twist without dedicating the time to adequately grapple with the consequences of its narrative. “Meet John Smith” ends on a relatively happy note, though nothing can make up for the needless time lost between Justin and Julia. For any closeted trans people watching, Veronica Mars paints a bleak portrait of what lies ahead. For a show that handled so many issues with grace and dignity, this episode was among its lowest moments.

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Tuesday

23

July 2019

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Veronica Mars Shows Its Story Can Look Forward While Its Characters Linger in the Past

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

The television landscape has changed quite a bit since Veronica Mars made its debut in 2004. Its first network, UPN, hasn’t been around for more than a decade. Its current home, Hulu, didn’t exist yet, as cable networks were only just starting to focus on original programming, let alone streaming. The quirky high school detective show felt like a breath of fresh air, taking on the youthful territory of rival network The WB with an adult sense of maturity.

Like practically all high school dramas, Veronica Mars experienced some growing pains after graduation. The UPN/WB merger left plenty of shows fighting for space on The CW, which cancelled Mars after its third season, the first overall on the new network. The show’s cult fanbase has ensured that its legacy has lived on, first in a 2014 film of the same name, and now a fourth season of eight episodes.

The fourth season follows its predecessors’ lead in having one big mystery, but the shortened episode order leaves this case as the predominant narrative. The early years let the cases unfold over the course of a twenty-two-episode arc, allowing plenty of time for character development and other various subplots. This season manages the balance between mystery and character, but its execution leaves a lot to be desired.

Plenty of Veronica Mars characters return over the course of the fourth season, but only Veronica (Kristen Bell), Keith (Enrico Colatoni), and Logan (Jason Dohring) remain at the heart of the narrative. Trouble is, the show doesn’t really have anything new to say about Veronica’s relationship with either man. There’s still plenty of witty banter between Veronica and Keith, but Logan mostly mopes around while on leave from the Navy.

The “will they/won’t they” relationship between Logan and Veronica existed at the heart of the show’s narrative for its entire run. Season four maintains the status quo to its own detriment, pursuing this well-trodden turf at the expense of any other kind of character development. For all the ways this season managed to put high school in the past, the melodrama between two grown adults feels like misplaced nostalgia.

The mystery at the heart of the season involves the bombing of several Spring Break destinations across Neptune. Patton Oswalt and J.K. Simmons stand out as newcomers Penn Epner, a pizza delivery guy and amateur sleuth solver, and Clyde Pickett, an ex-con serving as a fixer for Dick Casablancas Sr. The mystery has plenty of twists and turns, serving as the season’s primary focus without feeling overly drawn out.

To its credit, season four hardly lives in the shadows of what came before it. Old Veronica Mars characters return infrequently, almost always with purpose. Fan favorites such as series regulars Wallace (Percy Daggs III), Weevil (Francis Capra), and Dick (Ryan Hansen) aren’t around much, consistent with the passage of time since these characters would have played natural roles in each other’s lives. The show demonstrates a sense of maturity for not picking the low hanging fruit of forcing these people together to recapture the good old days.

Season four exists in a state of limbo, a revival that doesn’t cling to the past while not being overly committed to the idea of a future for Veronica Mars either. High school is over. The show knows that, but what comes next remains oddly up in the air. As a revival, this kind of makes sense since no one really knows what the future will hold for the series, but the narrative doesn’t face the same obligations.

Veronica Mars is still a fun show to watch. It’s decidedly less fun than it used to be. Thoughts of its theme song’s refrain, “we used to be friends,” remain ever-present. We all have memories of days gone by. Television possesses the ability to bring those dreams alive again, but some of the magic is lost when wishful thinking becomes reality.

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Monday

11

February 2019

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PEN15 Is One Of Hulu’s Best Original Shows

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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

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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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