Saturday, February 11, 2017

2016 in Review: Television

Let’s talk TV.

Polygamy was a major interest of mine when it came to what I watched on the small screen during 2016. Melanie and I discovered three new—and, in the case of two of them, already cancelled—cable series about the polygamous lifestyle. First up was My Five Wives, a kind of post-religious, secular cousin of TLC’s Sister Wives. My Five Wives features a family who is no longer religious but whose polygamous beginnings were rooted in religious conviction. I mentioned this family when I wrote about my adventures at the Sunstone Symposium back in the summer. Like Sister Wives, this show focused on the day-to-day practicalities of living polygamy: the husband’s efforts to balance time between the wives, tensions that arise among the wives themselves, etc. The post-religious component of the show gave it a unique bent, one that resonated with me as a person who has gone through a significant faith transition. Unfortunately, the show was canceled after just one season.

Next up is Escaping Polygamy. This quickly became my favorite “reality TV” polygamy show, even though it is far more sensationalized than the others. It can be a bit over the top in that regard, but at the heart of the show is something genuinely fascinating. The series follows the efforts of three women, all of whom defected from polygamy as teenagers, as they help others to do the same. The most beguiling aspect of the show is that it strikes so close to home, both literally and figuratively. Though I wasn’t raised in polygamy, I spent nearly 40 years in the LDS Church from which these polygamist sects sprang. There are often surprising similarities between the polygamist groups and the LDS Church, culturally speaking, which mesmerizes me as an ex-Mormon. Additionally, so much of what takes place in the show happens in or very near Salt Lake City. It’s amazing the wild things that are secretly going on all around me, masked by a fa├žade of pleasant valley suburban America. Of the three polygamy shows I discuss in this blog post, Escaping Polygamy is the only one that has not been discontinued.

The final polygamy show we watched was Polygamy, USA. It was featured on the National Geographic Channel, which means the tone was vastly different from the other polygamy shows I’ve mentioned. It was more of a legitimate documentary. I am a fan of documentaries, but this one sometimes felt like the educational videos I remember watching in school as a kid—very dry and very subdued. I was bored during some of the earlier episodes. However, I was sufficiently engrossed by the end of the season (which also marked the end of the series). Unlike any other reality TV series, Polygamy, USA focuses on those living loyally the fundamentalist Mormon polygamist lifestyle. The polygamists of Centennial Park broke away from the FLDS Church, the latter of which is what many Americans imagine when they hear the word “polygamy”—women in prairie dresses, strict obedience to church leaders, a strong sense of patriarchy, private communities, child brides, etc. Centennial Park is a slightly liberal version thereof, forbidding marriage to underage girls, placing the responsibility of choosing a spouse on the women rather than the men, and (clearly) allowing cameras into their otherwise isolated community. Want to see what it’s like for newlyweds to engage in awkward conversations where they are trying to learn some of the most basic facts about each other? This is a good show for you.

Most of the TV shows I discovered in 2016 had nothing to do with polygamy, of course. Let’s take a look at what I found.

WINNERS

Ash vs. Evil Dead
I was stoked when I learned that Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy would receive a sequel in the form of a television series. Ash vs. Evil Dead, which is as ridiculously hyperviolent as you’d expect, does not disappoint.

Making a Murderer
I know, I know. Making a Murderer is so 2015. Well, Melanie and I were late for the party. So what? We can see why the show was so compelling, and we’ll definitely be on board when Season 2 finally makes its premiere—whenever that will be.

Mr. Robot
I have mixed feelings about this show. I quite liked it whenever I watched an episode, but I rarely felt eager to watch it. Even now, Season 2 remains completely unwatched despite being on our DVR for months. Although it qualifies as a thriller, there is something very slow-moving about it. I think this is a case of the show being slightly better than it is enjoyable, if that makes sense.

Stranger Things
See, we’re not always late to the party. Like everyone else, we loved it. Melanie and I watched the series once on our own, and then again with our boys. They liked it, too. Win-win.

United States of Tara
We had to reach way back into the 2009 vault to watch this one. I don’t know what mental health experts or those with dissociative identity disorder would say about this dramedy, starring Toni Collette as a woman balancing DID with the typical challenges of suburbia. There’s always a risk of treating these topics poorly. Admittedly, there were outlandish aspects to the plot, especially near the end, but overall I quite enjoyed the series’ fairly brief three-season stint. That being said, it is the weakest of shows I am putting into the “Winner” category.

RUNNERS-UP: Flaked; Love; Master of None; Red Oaks.


ON THE FENCE

Casual
This is probably the least enjoyable show that I haven’t completely given up on. None of the main characters are likeable. I’ve watched this one only when I’ve somehow managed to catch up on others and don’t yet want to start something new.

Fuller House
Okay, let me explain. I wouldn’t say I like this show. But I’ve seen several episodes, and that’s just me being a forthright and honest guy. We tried it one night as a family, wondering if our kids would enjoy it. They kind of do, so we’ve had it on a few times. In all fairness, we haven’t even watched the full first season. We watched two episodes in July, and another three in November. Clearly, we’re not chomping at the bit.

The Man in the High Castle
This is a critically acclaimed show, and Melanie and I watched the first several episodes. We then lost touch with it. It’s another one of those shows that is pretty good, but just so slow and tranquil that it often puts me to sleep. Hence, I’ve never been super motivated to watch it.

Speechless
Speechless received positive press for putting a special-needs teenager—one who can’t speak, hence the name of the show—at the forefront. Unfortunately, the family around which the show revolves is not particularly likeable. The mother, played by Minnie Driver, is particularly obnoxious. Furthermore, the family as a whole hasn’t gelled in terms of who they are. Sometimes they come off as trailer trash, and sometimes they come off as domineering elitists. I honestly don’t know if we’re supposed to consider them good guys or bad guys. Sometimes such ambiguity is the strength of a show. Here, it just seems sloppy and ill-formed.


DUDS

12 Monkeys
The movie 12 Monkeys was great. I had high hopes for the TV show. I got through one episode and just didn’t want to continue with it. It wasn’t terrible. It just didn’t click with me.

Documentary Now!
Fred Armisen and Bill Hader in a mockumentary television series? Sounds like heaven! And that’s what I thought, until I watched the incredibly boring and unfunny first episode. I will probably give it another go sometime, but the humor in that first episode was just way, way, way too understated for my tastes.


The end.

Monday, January 30, 2017

2016 in Review: Movies

In recent years, I have dedicated the majority of January blog posts to a review of the previous year. I have typically broken up the previous year into a variety of subjects, only one of which was addressed per blog post: books, music, etc. I will continue this trend as I review 2016, but compared to years past, these reviews will be much more condensed. I simply don’t have time to go into great detail.

I will start my review of 2016 with movies. In 2016, I saw 102 movies that I had never before seen. Rating them on a standard four-star scale, with zero stars being an absolutely crappy film and four stars being an undeniably excellent film, I gave an average score of **½. That keeps in tradition with years past, I believe.

My personal favorite film of 2016 (which isn’t necessarily the absolute best film of 2016) is Sing Street. This independent charmer is about a group of boys who start a band in 1980s Ireland. It is an ode to everything I love: music, the 1980s, twitterpation, and dreaming. I probably shouldn’t admit how much the mental life of the teenage protagonist mirrors my own. Full disclosure: if I’ve interacted with you more than a few times in real life, chances are you’ve been part of an ultra-cheesy dance sequence in my head.

Other personal favorites that were actually released in 2016 include: Zootopia; Hell or High Water; Kubo and the Two Strings; Deadpool; Swiss Army Man; Moana; and The Nice Guys. Favorites that predate 2016 but weren’t seen by me until 2016 include: The Big Short; The Revenant; Inside Out; The Lobster; Spotlight; Star Wars: The Force Awakens; and Hello, My Name is Doris. Honorable mentions seen in 2016 (but released whenever) include: Bridge of Spies; Brooklyn; Sicario; The Hateful Eight; Straight Outta Compton; and La La Land.

The very worst film I saw in 2016 (and also from 2016) is a no-brainer, in more one ways than one: Kevin Smith’s Yoga Hosers. Other films I saw last year that fall squarely into the crap camp include: Nine Lives; The Night Before; Once I Was a Beehive; The Brothers Grimsby; and Sisters.

It’s a shame I don’t have time to go into further detail about movies. I actually kept slightly better notes on movies in 2016, and I tracked how my critiques compared to the aggregate scores found on Metacritic and IMDb. In theory, then, I have much more that I could say. Even so, I’ll keep my final comments brief.

The most overrated film I saw in 2016 was the 2012 documentary Room 237. I thought the film was rather bad, but it has a Metacritic score of 80, meaning the average movie critic rated it the equivalent of 80 out of 100 points. According to the critics, then, it’s essentially a ***½ movie. Wrong. The documentary showcases what are basically conspiracy theories surrounding Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic masterpiece The Shining. Unfortunately, the interpretations offered by those within the film are not compelling enough to make their lunacy entertaining.

Deadpool was the most underrated movie I saw in 2016, according to my own scores, but since I’ve mentioned that film already, I’ll instead mention the 2015 thriller No Escape. No Escape stars Owen Wilson, which may explain the film’s rather poor Metascore of 38—essentially *½. Wilson isn’t the type of actor you’d expect to see in a high-intensity thriller, much less as the lead character: a man whose vacationing family finds themselves in the midst of a violent overseas rebellion in which Americans quickly become targets. I myself was quite leery, but found the film sufficiently gripping. I thought it was good. Not great, but definitely good.

The end.

Friday, January 27, 2017

BOO!

It’s me! I’m still here! It’s not over yet, folks!

That’s what I’d say to the readers of this blog, if I had any. As it is, I suppose I’m just talking to myself. That’s fine.

I’m coming up on the one-year anniversary of getting my first real job since leaving grad school. I guess I needed a one-year sabbatical, because lately I’ve been itching to reclaim many aspects of my life that I feel like I lost when I got a job. I just looked back on my 2016 blog entries, which are few, and apparently I never wrote about these feelings publicly. I did write about them in my private journal, however. While many great things came from my being employed, I also felt like a big part of me was lost. So many things that had defined me, aspects of my life and personality that I felt were being richly developed, things that were exhilarating and meaningful to me, quickly fell to the wayside. I just didn’t have time for them, and because I was so busy and preoccupied with other things, I hardly cared that those major parts of my life and personality had seemingly vanished. The one exception was music, which I made a greater priority in 2016 than it had been in years, possibly decades. I started taking guitar lessons again, and it has been a wonderfully fruitful endeavor. I’m loving it. But other things were lost, some more gradually than others, and I am only now starting to yearn for them again. Case in point, I read one book in 2016. One. A single book! I used to read between 40 and 50 books per year, and in 2016 I read one. Insanity! Well, now I really want to read again. I’m actually craving it, and I’m actually halfway through a book already. (Hugely impressive, isn’t it?) I also feel a strong desire to rekindle my spiritual life, which has been severely lacking over the last several months. And yes, I have a renewed interest in writing. Hence, this blog post.

It’s always temping after a long break in writing to try to sum up everything that’s happened between the previous entry and today. That ain’t going to happen. I’m stopping here. But there will be more to come. I truly believe this. We’ll see if I’m right.