Saturday, April 09, 2016

2015 in Review: Music

This is the fifth in a series looking back on 2015. Other entries will include booksmovies, food, television, and more.

The last time I posted an entry from my 2015 year-in-review series, it was January 30th. At the time, I felt sheepish about the fact that January was coming to an end and I was still recapping the previous year. Then I practically stopped writing blog entries at all. Here it is, touching on mid-April, and I still haven’t completed my year-in-review of 2015. It seems completely absurd to start it up again at this point, I’m sure, and yet I’m going to do so. I had stuff I wanted to say about my musical year of 2015, and I’m going to embrace the whole “better late than never” philosophy when it comes to this. So here we go…

For me, the first standout album in 2015, although an album much older than that, is Men Without Hats’ 1987 release, Pop Goes the World. I got this album from the library in early February and listened to it almost non-stop for weeks. I found it unbelievably catchy, and it coincided with my coming to a point of clarity in my spiritual journey that also left me feeling giddy. The album served as a perfectly upbeat companion to a time in my life when things were changing, when anything seemed possible, and when I was deliriously happy—which is the precise term I used in a blog entry I wrote at that time, wherein I give credit to both Pop Goes the World and my religious revolution. I now think of Pop Goes the World as my conversion album. Many of you will be familiar with the title track “Pop Goes the World,” a decent hit for Men Without Hats back when it came out. If you’re like I was just 14 months ago, you’ve never heard the rest of the album. But, man, it’s fun. Although there are several songs that are certifiable earworms, I’ve chosen to share “Moonbeam” below. Apparently, it was also released as a single in ‘87, but I have no recollection of it. Does it ring a bell with any of my readers? I apologize that the video is of such terrible quality, both visually and creatively speaking. But the audio isn’t bad, and that’s what we’re going for here.

I discovered The John Butler Trio in 2015 thanks to a YouTube video shared on Facebook. I admit, I haven’t listened much to this band since, but I was blown away by the solo acoustic performance of “Ocean,” which I will post below. It’s impressive enough to be worth sharing, no matter how much (or how little) the band has otherwise taken root in my mind. The guitar-playing is mind-blowing.

One of my favorite folksy artists is Canadian singer-songwriter Hayden. Hayden released Hey Love in late March 2015, and while it may be one of the least memorable of his albums, it’s still good. Here’s the video for “Troubled Times”:

One of my favorite punk bands, Stiff Little Fingers, released a new album in 2015 titled No Going Back. Their first three albums, released between 1979 and 1981, will forever remain their best, but they’re in pretty good form considering. I need to spend more time with No Going Back, but here’s a sample for you: “Throwing It All Away,” a rather radio-friendly none-too-raucous ditty if I do say so myself.

Barenaked Ladies also reappeared on the scene in 2015 with the release of Silverball, just in time to spend some time on our car CD player as we drove to Illinois to spend seven weeks living in Nauvoo. Silverball is a marked improvement over 2013’s Grinning Streak, but still near the bottom of the band’s extensive catalog. Multi-instrumentalist Kevin Hearn continues to be one of the group’s greatest assets, if not an under-utilized songwriter. “Tired of Fighting with You” features Hearn’s classic surreal lullaby sound and quirkily poetic lyrics. This track doesn’t showcase the more energetic pop-rock tone that dominates the rest of the album, but it’s a good song.

1980s New Wave superstars Duran Duran are still going strong, having released Paper Gods in September. Perhaps only one album will eclipse Paper Gods as the album that featured more heavily into my life during 2015—and no, I’m not referring to Pop Goes the World. (Oh, the suspense!) Creegan has been an incredibly fun part of my music listening over the last year. He is an avid music listener, and he picks out his favorites from every CD he hears and demands that they be replayed over and over again. The first three tracks of Paper Gods—titled “Paper Gods,” “Last Night in the City” and “You Kill Me With Silence,” respectively—were all exceptionally big hits with Creegan, who loved the album in its entirety. But I’m actually going to share the fourth track from the album, “Pressure Off.” Why? Because it’s catchy as hell. What other reason do you need?

One of the best releases in 2015, in my opinion, was Ben Folds’ So There. The album concludes with over 20 minutes of concerto music, spanning three tracks. Preceding that are eight piano-heavy pop tunes, in classic Ben Folds form but with more orchestration than he’s ever done before. My favorite is the opening track, “Capable of Anything,” which I’ll share here:

One musician I continually find myself surprised to enjoy as much as I do is Joe Satriani, guitarist extraordinaire who specializes in instrumental rock. I found his 2015 release, Shockwave Supernova, thoroughly enjoyable. The final track is one of my favorites on the album, the slower, aptly-named “Goodbye Supernova.” I really like the bass in this song. Not that it’s impressive, it just sounds really good to me. I think it reminds me of something else, which might not be what Satriani wants to hear, but regardless, there is a nostalgic quality to this tune that pulls me in and makes me feel like closing my eyes and reflecting. Here it is:

I bought Shockwave Supernova as a birthday present to myself along with a few other albums. I rounded out my Collective Soul collection by nabbing both 2008’s Afterwords, which I had previously neglected, and their new 2015 release, See What You Started by Continuing. Collective Soul is one of those bands that I really enjoyed in the 1990s and then stopped paying much attention to after a couple of their albums were merely so-so. After nearly a decade-and-a-half of pretty much ignoring them, I came by a really cheap copy of their 2009 self-titled album and gave it a listen. I quite liked it. I can understand someone arguing that many of their songs sound quite a bit alike, but such a complaint can be lobbied against many a good band. All I know is, the last few Collective Soul albums have been very enjoyable, and I’m glad to have them back in rotation. Below are the videos for “Hollywood” from Afterwords and “AYTA” from See What You Started by Continuing.

One of my absolute favorite album discoveries of 2015 was one of my birthday CDs, White Hot Peach by Primitive Radio Gods. Choosing one song to showcase from this album is incredibly hard. It’s so damn good. I’m not sure the audio quality is as good in the following video as I wish it were, but the song is awesome. Please enjoy “Fading Out.” After you listen to this, can you honestly say you don’t want to listen to it about 100 more times before doing anything else?

It was late October, or maybe November, when a friend of mine called me up and invited me to go with him to see Shakey Graves in concert. I’d never heard of Shakey Graves, but I went for it and had a very good time. I was amused that, of all the concerts I’ve ever been to, this country-tinged, electrified, singer-songwriter type gave the most rock star performance of any artist I’ve ever seen live. Brassieres thrown onstage? I’d never seen it before, but it happened for Shakey Graves. He had a certain boyish charm and energy about him that kept the crowd enthralled, myself included. He wasn’t shredding up the guitar like you might expect of a heavy metal musician, but man, could he fingerpick the hell out of it. I’ve decided that a video of a live performance is more fitting, since that’s how I experienced Shakey Graves. In this video, he looks very much like he did when I saw him at The Depot in downtown Salt Lake City: black baseball cap, plain white t-shirt, and a thick but short beard. Enjoy this dual performance of “If Not For You” and “The Perfect Parts,” both from the 2014 album And the War Came.

And now for the absolute biggest album of 2015, as far as my family is concerned: Blurryface by Twenty One Pilots. We got this album from the library, and even more so than with Duran Duran’s Paper Gods, my kids could not get enough of it. They knew a couple of songs from the radio—“Tear in My Heart” and “Stressed Out”—but they quickly fell in love with pretty much every track on the CD. I tell you, watching Creegan cock an attitude and sing along with “Stressed Out” is pretty darn entertaining, but even I found myself enjoying the crap out of this album from a purely musical standpoint. For all the many hours of continuous airplay that it received in our car, I never got sick of it. I still don’t feel sick of it, even though it still gets regular airplay. (Santa was wise enough to give us our own official copy for Christmas.) Twenty One Pilots are sometimes classified as an “alternative hip hop” duo. If you know me, you know hip hop is pretty far from my style, but I guess the “alternative” part is doing enough work to keep my ears perked up and happy. Yes, there’s a fair amount of rapping, but there is also plenty of melodic singing and even some edgy screaming now and again. Musically and lyrically, these guys are hella talented. Spoiler alert for when I review 2016, but I’ve since listened to another couple of albums by Twenty One Pilots and they are relentlessly amazing. Each of the three albums I’ve listened to had me instantaneously hooked. Twenty One Pilots are one of the best discoveries I’ve made in the last few years, without question.

I’ll be sharing a few videos to orient you to Twenty One Pilots. The first video is the official video for “Stressed Out,” which is on the radio almost constantly, it seems. On the off chance you haven’t heard it, now you can. The next video is one of Creegan listening to “Stressed Out” while in the car. I discreetly filmed him with my cell phone so he wouldn’t know what I was doing and stop behaving however he was. Sadly, despite seriously belting his heart out numerous times up to this point, it seems my filming had the cosmic effect of cramping his style. In the video, he starts off singing in a silly, non-serious way (not as he had been up to that point), makes an observation about the lyrics, mimics a drumbeat, and eventually just lip-syncs and dances a bit. It’s still cute, and you still get a feel for how he sometimes acts when he’s singing along, but it’s not what I hoped it would be. To make matters worse, the picture goes blurry for most of the video. But it’s the best I can offer. The third and final video below is merely the audio track of my favorite song on the album, “Hometown.” It’s amazing.

The end!

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Everything Has Changed … A Little Bit More

Last time, I wrote about moving into a new place, starting a new job, and being ordained (along with Melanie) to the priesthood in Community of Christ. I shared some photos of all but the new job. Almost three weeks have passed since then, and now I have some new photos that show how things have progressed in respect both to our home and to our new church responsibilities. If you haven’t seen my previous post, you won’t get the full effect … and the effect will BLOW YOUR MIND! Well, not really. But it adds a little bit to the experience.

Let’s begin with the new home. About a month into living here, Melanie and I love it. I really love it. I don’t know what to say about it that I haven’t said before, but I’m incredibly happy here. It feels good. In my previous post, I shared a photo of Melanie sitting in a sparsely filled living room. But then we got our federal tax return—an incredibly nice one—and went on a shopping spree, which included a new couch, a rug, a new TV, and a TV stand. Yes, we’re playing grown up, and it’s mighty fun. Here’s how our living room looks now (which still isn’t finished, for the record):

Since being ordained, Melanie and I have had the opportunity to administer communion to our congregation. This is something I’ve looked forward to since we received our calls to the priesthood. We got to the church early on March 7th, prepared the bread and grape juice, and during the worship service, blessed them and served them to those in attendance. Melanie went first, blessing the water. I got teary-eyed during her prayer. After we had served the congregation bread, I blessed the grape juice. I tell you, as a former Mormon, it’s a lot more stressful to serve communion at Community of Christ. For one thing, you don’t just hand the tray to the person sitting on the edge of the pew and let everybody pass it down the row. In Community of Christ, the priesthood serves communion to each and every member of the congregation who partakes of it. That means that, this most recent Sunday, I was holding the tray the entire time I served. That makes it more stressful in and of itself, but add to that the fact that you’ve got a tray full of little cups of grape juice—dark purple grape juice that could stain anything it touches—and the stress of working up and down the rows escalates. It was a neat experience, but a much weightier one, no doubt. I wish I had been able to pay more attention to what Melanie was doing, because that would’ve been neat. I didn’t really see her serve anyone because I was too busy tending to my own serving. I especially wish I could’ve seen her serve it to our kids, which she said was a really neat experience for her. Shucks. Anyway, a good friend snapped a photo with her cell phone while Melanie and I were serving grape juice to each other. It’s from a distance, but I appreciate that we have a photo of our first time serving communion together, and the first time in Community of Christ. Here it is:

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Everything Has Changed

I’m not the same man I was the last time I posted on my blog. Or, at least, there are many things about me that have changed. I’ve started a job, I’ve moved, and I’ve been ordained to the priesthood at church. It’s a busy and exciting time, with an emphasis on “busy.” It’s so busy, in fact, that I’m hardly going to say anything about all of these wonderful and exciting developments. But I’ll say a little bit about each. That’ll have to do.

When I received and accepted a job offer, Melanie and I made finding a new home a priority. Living with Melanie’s parents for a year and a half was a necessity, and it had a lot of perks. But nothing compares to having your own space. And so, we began some serious house hunting. We had kept our eyes peeled for rental homes before I received the job offer, but once we knew I had a guaranteed income, we were empowered to act on any promising homes we found. When it came down to it, we were strongly considering two different rental properties: a townhome and a duplex. Originally, we had avoided looking into townhomes and duplexes because we didn’t want to have neighbors that were technically living in the same physical building. But there are some significant perks to these types of rental properties that weren’t typically available when renting a house, such as having your landlord take care of landscaping responsibilities and certain utilities, or having a much smaller security deposit. The townhome we fancied was in a pretty good location, not too far from where we had been living. The townhome community itself was built in 2007 and so was quite new, meaning it looked and felt rather fancy inside. It had some nice amenities, such as a clubhouse and swimming pool, and the guy who showed us the property seemed ready and willing to rent it to us. It was very tempting. But we were also considering a very large duplex, a duplex so large that the term “duplex” seems misleading. The duplex seems like a townhome of its own, with three levels, four bedrooms, an attached two-car garage, and approximately 2,000 square feet of living space. It’s an older property—built in 1970—but it’s been updated inside. And did I mention the space? The rooms are huge. It was also about $200 less per month than the townhome and even closer to Melanie’s and my works. And so, after giving it much thought, we decided to apply for the duplex. And we got it. And we’re living here now. And it’s absolutely wonderful. I love the location, I love the space. I’m ecstatic about these things. Here’s the first photo taken in our new home, with things still looking rather sparse:

When it comes to my new job, I started on Tuesday. The first day was new hire orientation, which included being taken out to a very nice lunch. That was cool. I then spent the next two days getting the impression they weren’t 100% sure what to do with me just yet. I think there weren’t any new projects for them to start me on, so they were kind of killing time. I was told to do things like investigate the company website and learn more about it, to set up a LinkedIn account, and other activities that probably aren’t the most pressing things one could do when on the clock. But by late Thursday afternoon, I was actually doing some real work, and I’m feeling incredibly optimistic. I already was optimistic, but I just think I’ve fallen into something really great here. The team is terrific, the scheduling and dress code are both very relaxed, the pay is good—I don’t know that I could realistically be happier working a “real” job.

And then there was today. Melanie and I have been preparing for ordination into the priesthood of Community of Christ for months now. Today, we were both officially ordained. It was a beautiful service with lots of love and support from friends and family. Melanie’s brother Brent even came down from Seattle to share the moment with us, which was pretty awesome. I was the first to be ordained during the worship service, being ordained to the office of elder. It was cool because the second I was done being ordained, I was able to hop up and assist in Melanie’s ordination to the office of priest. Serendipitously—or perhaps it was divine intervention—Melanie and I were extremely color-coordinated not only with each other, but with Jenn, one of the people ordaining us. None of this was planned or known about ahead of time. Melanie and I were both dressed before we saw that we matched. Here are some photos a friend of ours took of the ordinations. You’ll see what I mean.

Monday, February 08, 2016

We Interrupt This Program…

I’ve yet to finish my review of 2015, as if anybody notices or cares. Life has been so hectic lately, I just haven’t found the time to write. About anything. And a lot has been going on. Most of it is very good news, so I’m going to jump in and share some of the basics.

The biggest news is that I am starting a new job on February 16th. I am going to be an “email specialist,” which is something I’d never heard of but which, so far as I understand it, involves being on the more technical side of creating emails. In my particular case, it is my HTML skills—which are minimal—that will be put to use. Getting this job is a big deal for many reasons. One reason is that I haven’t worked in almost 10 years. Okay, that’s not quite true. I worked aplenty as a graduate student, and not just as a student but as an instructor of college-level courses and as a TA. I got paid for that, so it was all legitimate work. But it wasn’t traditional work. I also had a brief stint as a tour guide in Nauvoo during the summer, but that didn’t feel so much like getting a job as participating in some neat opportunity that happened to include an income. My email specialist job will be the first “normal” type of job I’ve had since I was a customer service representative in the summer of 2006. And I’m stoked, believe it or not. I’ve applied and been interviewed for a few positions over the last couple of months, and this job has been the most appealing by far. The rapport I felt with the people who interviewed me was off the charts compared to any of the other interviews I’ve had. The job sounds the most intriguing of any job I’ve applied for. The pay is better than any other job I’ve applied for. As an added bonus, I have a couple of good friends who work at the same company (in other departments). It’s all shaping up to be a very positive experience. I really believe that. I’m hopeful, and even expectant, that this could be a company I’ll be happy to be with for an indefinite period of time, and maybe for decades. Crazy, right?

One of the biggest perks of getting this job is that Melanie and I can finally afford to move out of her parents’ house. I’m sure her parents will appreciate it as much as we will. I’ve actually been amazed at how positive an experience it’s been to live here. Overall, I haven’t minded it that much at all. But it will certainly be good to re-embrace adulthood and live independently. Melanie and I have spent the last several days doing quite a bit of house hunting. It’s already exhausting. And heartbreaking. We’ve found a few really promising homes in fantastic locations, only to learn they are already taken by the time we call on them. You can get a lot of bang for your buck if you’re willing to move clear to the other side of the valley and live in what feels like the middle of nowhere. We’ve driven to see some of the homes out that way, but we only get about halfway to them before our faces take on sour expressions and our hearts start telling us there’s no way we can really imagine ourselves living that far away from what feels like our world. I don’t want to settle for something that is merely tolerable, just to move out. I believe if we’re patient we will get something we are extremely pleased with. But it’s hard when you’re chomping at the bit. Perhaps it will cloud our judgment. I don’t know. I’ve got a couple of decent leads that we’ll be acting on, but we’ll see.

I also have good news when it comes to my health. After two months of near-constant illness, I am feeling pretty darn close to normal. To recap, I had strep during the second week of December, was bitten by a mystery bug the following week, came down with bronchitis the next week, and then spent all of January bouncing up and down with colds, sore throats, and even the stomach flu. Even when I felt relatively decent, my breathing was never okay during this time. Often when I’d breathe out, it would sound like coffee percolating. I had a wheeze and shortness of breath. I felt very asthmatic, or how I assumed most asthmatics must feel. I’d never been diagnosed with asthma, so I wasn’t sure. On top of all of this, a white cyst had appeared on my left tonsil and had remained for weeks. That was peculiar. And so, I finally returned to a doctor (at an urgent care facility) over this most recent weekend. They tested my breathing, gave me a breathing treatment they usually give to asthmatics, then re-tested my breathing and found that I had nearly doubled my lung capacity. (I think I just didn’t do the first breathing test very well because I didn’t know exactly what I was doing. But anyway.) They x-rayed my lungs to check for pneumonia, which came back negative. But, due to all of my symptoms, they gave me prescriptions for an inhaler, an antibiotic, and a steroid. Within hours of taking my first antibiotic and steroid, I felt immensely better. My breathing feels normal, and I haven’t wheezed or percolated since. However, the urgent care doctor said he couldn’t really say anything about the cyst on my tonsil. He told me to go to an ear, throat, and nose specialist. I did that this morning. Apparently, all signs point to it being no big deal. I’m just supposed to ignore it, unless something crazy happens like it starts growing or hurting. The doctor said it will likely fall off at some point, but that it’s likely benign. And that gives me peace of mind. I wasn’t too worried about it, but with a new job on the horizon, I didn’t want to find out I need to have my tonsils removed or start chemotherapy or something crazy. So, I’m pretty thrilled.

So, that’s where life is at today. We’re on the cusp of significant changes, and it’s mostly exhilarating, so I’m in pretty good spirits.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

2015 in Review: Television

This is the fourth in a series looking back on 2015. Other entries will include booksmovies, food, music, and more.

As I headed into 2015, I naively thought it unlikely that I would be exposed to very many new television shows over the course of the year.  I had my reasons.  One, like many people nowadays, I don’t watch any TV at its regularly scheduled time.  I stream everything, or binge watch on DVD.  Thus, it is incredibly easy for me to pick and choose what I watch.  Two, I thought I already knew of enough shows to keep me busy and entertained throughout the year without adding to the list.  But despite all of this, I ended up trying no less than 16 new (to me) TV shows during 2015, several of which I plan to continue watching with regularity—which probably means binge watching a new season every year or so.

Not every TV show I tried was a success.  Melanie and I watched one episode of Difficult People, a Hulu original series starring Julie Klausner and Billy Eichner as two cynical comedians struggling to hit the big time in New York City.  I was originally drawn to the show because I enjoyed Eichner in his relatively brief stint on Parks & Recreation and because so many top-notch comedians were slated to make guest appearances, from Fred Armisen to Kate McKinnon to Seth Meyers.  And maybe the show is good if you stick with it for a while.  I wouldn’t know.  I watched one episode and was so annoyed that I’ve tried to avoid so much as thinking about it ever since.  I just don’t find myself entertained by characters who are total jerks and absolutely full of themselves, which is basically what the plot of Difficult People is.  No thank you.

I also wasn’t wooed by the rather popular (and well-reviewed) Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.  I guess CCGC (as I’ll call it) doesn’t rightfully belong on this list, since it technically isn’t a TV show.  It’s a “web series.”  Still, in our day and age, what difference does it make?  The setup of CCGC is rather simple.  Jerry Seinfeld spends the first few minutes of each episode showing off a classic car, then he goes in that car to pick up a famous comedian and go get some coffee.  The comedians toss around some witty banter and observations, and that’s that.  And really, that should be enough, if the comedians are likeable enough.  But from what I’ve seen, comedians who aren’t performing aren’t often that likeable.  It’s clear from the select handful of episodes I’ve seen that Jerry and his caffeine-imbibing companions greatly enjoy each other’s company, but playing voyeur to their outings isn’t as amazing as it sounds.  There is a certain degree of pretentiousness that permeates every episode, and I just don’t care for it.  I’ve found the show surprisingly boring, even when the guest comedian is someone I’m quite fond of.

There have been some wins throughout the year, however.   Netflix has hit a home run with Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.  Co-created by Tina Fey, UKS stars Ellie Kemper as Kimmy, a woman who has recently joined the real world after living for 15 years in a type of underground bomb shelter as part of a polygamous-like cult.  As you can imagine, hilarity ensues.  Kemper is perfect in the title role, a painfully naïve but resolutely chipper gal who finds herself living in New York City of all places.  If that doesn’t sound gripping enough, UKS’s über-catchy theme song is bound to leave you hooked.  Singing chirpily: dammit!

If drama’s your preferred genre of entertainment, another excellent show can be found via Netflix competitor Amazon: TransparentTransparent stars Jeffrey Tambor as Morton / Maura Pfefferman, a sixty-something (seventy-something?) retired college professor who finally reveals to her family that she is transgender.  This sends Maura’s three adult children—each of whom already struggles with a fair amount of dysfunction—reeling, some more than others.  As a viewer, I’m happy to see Tambor in a role that commands some respect.  I was quite a fan of Arrested Development, but Tambor was always my least favorite component of that show.  I didn’t like his character—not that you were supposed to—and I rarely found him funny.  Despite Transparent’s serious themes and very adult nature, I have found Tambor to be more likeable and funny here than in his previous show.

AMC’s Better Call Saul is another winner.  Bob Odenkirk and the character of Saul Goodman gave me every reason to believe Better Call Saul would be a success, but spin-offs don’t have the highest track record and Better Call Saul’s parent show (Breaking Bad) is so iconic—I would call it the best show in all of television history—that screwing it up might seem the only genuine possibility.  Fortunately, show creator Vince Gilligan (along with co-creator Peter Gould) has given this prequel enough chronological distance from Breaking Bad that viewers will find themselves genuinely intrigued as to how the two shows ultimately intertwine.  You see, when Better Call Saul begins, Saul Goodman doesn’t yet exist.  Instead, he is Jimmy McGill, a reformed con-man working as a lawyer and, it would seem, sincerely trying to do his best.  Fans of Breaking Bad know McGill’s shady nature will re-emerge as McGill transforms into Saul, but how?  And when?  And why?  I can’t wait to find out.

The Affair is a drama/mystery that airs on Showtime.  To say the show is about a love affair between married writer Noah Solloway (Dominic West) and Montauk waitress Alison Lockhart (Ruth Wilson) is to grossly oversimplify.  It would spoil things if I said too much, but I will point out that one fascinating feature of the show is that each episode is divided into two parts, with each part representing a different person’s point of view.  The subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) differences in perspective draw the viewer more fully into the mysteries that unfold.  It’s a worthwhile show.

Showtime is also responsible for Penn & Teller: Bullshit!, a series that originally ran from 2003–2010.  I saw my first couple of episodes of this show in December, but I have since watched nearly the first two seasons via Amazon.  As Penn & Teller—well, Penn, since he’s the only one who ever talks—explain in the first episode, Bullshit! is the famous magicians’ attempt to follow in the footsteps of Harry Houdini, who devoted much of his later life to exposing frauds whom he saw as preying on the vulnerability of others—psychics, mediums, clairvoyants, and the like.   While Penn & Teller definitely address things like ESP, talking to the dead, and Ouija boards, they also come down hard on things like bottled water, the funeral industry, and health nuts.  While the show is unabashedly biased, the evidence seems fairly and reasonably articulated, such that I have been swayed on more than one issue.  Case in point: I’m not so sure I can support recycling anymore.  (What!?  Yup!  Go watch that episode and then get back to me!)  Bullshit! is laced with profanity, but it’s often as hilarious as it is informative.  I wish more people would watch shows like this.

Network TV was not without its charms in 2015.  I quite enjoyed the first season of Fox’s The Last Man on Earth.  Will Forte stars as Phil Miller, a man who finds himself all alone after a deadly virus wipes out all the rest of humanity.  Or almost all the rest.  By the end of episode one, after years of searching and leaving notes spray painted on highway billboards, Phil discovers he is not alone.  The show is a kind of post-apocalyptic Gilligan’s Island, and with Forte in the lead and Kirsten Schaal soon at his side, it’s no surprise it’s one of the better sitcoms to hit the network airwaves over the last few years.  That being said, the second season wasn’t nearly as funny as the first and it’s hard to see how the show will keep its momentum for very long.  I’m keeping my fingers crossed they can somehow make it work, but I’d be lying if I said I was entirely optimistic.

More recently, Fox gave us The Grinder, a sitcom starring Rob Lowe and Fred Savage as brothers turned partners-in-law.  Sort of.  Lowe plays Dean Sanderson, Jr., a famous actor who played an attorney in a wildly popular and long-running TV series (also called The Grinder) which has recently come to an end.  Savage plays Stewart Sanderson, an actual attorney.  Naturally, once Dean finds himself out of work, he believes his television credentials make him a perfect asset for brother Stewart’s law firm and, as much as Stewart resists it, continually imposes himself on the cases Stewart is handling.  It’s a pretty funny premise, and there’s something perfect in the pairing of Lowe and Savage.  Each plays his character well—Lowe as the blissfully naïve and outlandishly overconfident superstar, Savage as the disgruntled and serious family man who is ever stuck in his older brother’s shadow.  The pilot episode showed great promise, but sadly, the show has quickly become formulaic and I’m not sure it has what it takes to last.  It’s kind of a one-joke show.  It’s a good joke, mind you, but … yeah.

I’m on the fence about Superstore, a 2015 latecomer from NBC.  It’s about a group of employees who work at a Walmart-type store.  It doesn’t sound like much.  It’s a kind of ensemble comedy.  I don’t even know what to say about it.  Something right is happening with it—it has some pretty good laughs—but there is a pervasive sense of mediocrity that somehow underlies the whole thing.  It feels destined to be incredibly short-lived and remembered by no one.  I know I’m speaking vaguely, but I find it hard to articulate my impressions of this one.  There’s a spark in there somewhere, something I wish could survive and be refined.  But I don’t think it will.

I guess I should mention Inside Amy Schumer.  Amy Schumer has become something of a hot commodity in the world of comedy lately.  I hear a lot of people sing her praises, but I’m not completely sold on her.  She can be very funny, but she also finds herself too funny, and that’s unappealing in a comedian.  Her sense of humor is also a bit too juvenile for me a lot of the time.  I should clarify what I mean, because otherwise those who know me well will take me as a hypocrite.  For me, something is juvenile not just because it is sexually or scatologically explicit.  I can be as raunchy and boundary-pushing in my humor as anyone, though not everyone gets to know that side of me.  But I find it offensive and annoying when people act like something is funny merely because it is profane, or sexualized, or scatological.  And, in my opinion, Amy Schumer falls too often into that latter camp.  It just seems cheap and lame.  Anyway, if you’re wondering what Inside Amy Schumer itself is, it’s sketch comedy.  It’s not the kind filmed in front of a live audience—think Portlandia rather than Saturday Night Live—but each episode also contains snippets of Schumer doing standup and moments where she interviews real people on the street (usually about sex).  If you’re not afraid of hard-R comedy, you will likely laugh aplenty while watching the show.  But even I find myself offended—on behalf of good comedy, if nothing else—at least some of the time.