Saturday, January 23, 2016

Her Story: Season 1 Episodes 1-6

There's honestly no way around it: Her Story is brilliant. It's poignant and impactful, honest and romantic, at turns funny and heartbreaking, and unendingly important. The more I think about it, the more I find myself thinking that "important" is one of the better words to describe a show today, so I don't use it flippantly. Orange is the New Black, with its large cast of women of different ethnicities, sexualities, and gender expression falls in this category as well. And that both of these shows are capable of getting their message across while still being wonderfully entertaining is a triumph.

Her Story is a six-episode, new media, show (webseries?) that's up on YouTube as we speak. It's the first show in history that's about Transwomen and features Transwomen (and men) in every phase of its development, behind and in front of the camera. So it's groundbreaking in that way. But more than that, or to be more specific, in conjunction with that, it's a story about the dating and love lives of a section of the world that simply never gets any focus. It's not hard to find shows or movies about gay men meeting and falling in love. It's a little harder, though still not impossible, to find shows or movies about lesbian women meeting and falling in love. But trans people simply are not being given their due in storytelling. And so here we are, and thank God for that finally.

These first six episodes (none of which is longer than 11 minutes and can easily be consumed in one sitting) follow Violet (played with charm and heart by the lovely Jen Richards) and Paige (the beautiful Angelica Ross) as they embark on two very different relationships. Violet doesn't consider herself to be gay, but when she's approached by Allie (Laura Zak) and asked if she'll contribute to a story Allie is hoping to write for the local gay paper, it's impossible to deny an attraction and an interest is sparked between them. Meanwhile, Paige has a meet cute with James (Christian Ochoa), and the two of them are quickly off on magical dates. On the one hand you've got Violet who has to confront certain ideas she holds about her own sexuality, but who is at least already out as trans to the person she's interested in. On the other, Paige has to seriously consider whether or not to tell James, or more specifically when to tell him. The way these two stories play out is a fun and beautiful study in nuanced storytelling. One of the show's greatest triumphs is it's ability to tell its story in quiet and simple terms without needing to baldly state it's position too often.

At least, it does so with the two main romances. In other places, I think it could be argued that a more deft touch could have been longed for. One of Allie's friends is a lesbian named Lisa (Caroline Whitney Smith), and she's pretty horrible. To be fair, she's openly horrible from the start, and the first scene we see her in features Allie telling her in no uncertain terms that she's a bad person. But as the season goes on, we see that there's no real redeeming quality to her, and something about her always felt flat and caricatured to me. Lisa has a position, and indeed it's a position many people in the world have, but what's lacking in her is a reason for that position. In the show's defense, multiple episodes that barely hit the eight minute mark is hardly enough time to flush out each character as completely as I'm sure the writers would like. But in a story where we get to see so many characters brought to life so vividly, Lisa's flatness stands out all the more. No story can be told without a more utilitarian or functional character, but when some of the more important stories or conversations taking place within the show hinge on her position, this character serving as little more than a mouthpiece for the opposition feels lacking.

But here's the thing, at the end of the day, that's pretty much all of the bad you can find in what is otherwise a brilliant story. So in it's first season, Her Story clearly finds itself in the plus column. The story is a winner, the writing is beautiful and moving, and the performances are truly amazing. In content like this, something not being backed by a major network or studio, the acting would easily be where you'd expect to be let down. But that's not the case here. Everyone is great, but I have to say Angelica Ross was a true standout for me. She portrays a power, inner strength, and resilience that you know was born of a difficult struggle to get to where she is, but there's also a vulnerability there that's all the more affecting because of those things. The scene of her and James' second date and the cheeseburger was beautiful and heartbreaking as much for what wasn't said as for what was. And the show's willingness to touch on the importance of her race and her class is really smart and important. She's an African American, transgendered, woman, who has worked to pull herself up into the upper class, but clearly wasn't always there. These are grand and important distinctions, and somehow Ross gets each of those things across effortlessly with just her looks and her bearings. It's brilliant!

In short, go watch Her Story. It's roughly an hour long, and it can be found on YouTube, or on the show's site. Let's be honest, you could easily spend more than an hour on YouTube just watching videos of cute animals. Why not spend that time watching something interesting, intelligent, and important instead? The animals will still be there when you get done.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Empire: "A High Hope For a Low Heaven"

From my last Empire review: "The episode ends with Hakeem being kidnapped in broad daylight. This might be a little silly, but it's also a great way to go into a brief hiatus. The show will be back after the World Series is over, and when it is, we'll get what looks to be a tense and highly rewarding episode. I honestly can't wait!" Well I waited with everyone else, and I have to say I'm sorry I ever let my expectations get anywhere near that high because this was a shit show of an episode. On the one hand, I want to blame the small hiatus for this episode's massive failure, but the truth is the storylines here simply aren't executed well at all. It's yet another case of Empire's breakneck pacing coming around to bite it and us in the ass.

That's not to say there isn't good to be found here. The opening moments picking up where the last episode left off are rightfully tense, and in true Empire fashion they aren't without a level of humor. This episode tells us that Becky's dating, or at least sleeping with, one of the rappers on the Gutter Life label, and he's sexy as hell, so good for her. And the story about Jamal looking to take over his own marketing and branding instead of allowing Empire to brand him as a gay artist is both valid and interesting. Though to be fair  it's also baseless as we haven't seen Empire's efforts to brand or market Jamal at all, and I strongly doubt that the Staples Center would turn him down for a show there because he's gay, or for the "you're too current" reason they give him. So that's all ridiculous and speaks towards a different problem I'll try to touch on later. But the idea of Jamal wanting to steer his career in a particular direction is interesting enough.

There's also a moment at the end of the episode when Lucious is talking to Freda about he feels closer to her than he does his own sons that could work if the show gives it it's due. I think I mentioned last season that some part of what Empire could stand to do is talk more about how Hakeem and Jamal don't get to claim any level of street-cred since they both grow up in a time after Lucious has already made it out of the ghetto. So what would be the core of Hakeem's fanbase is always going to be a bit alienated from him because they can't relate and if he tries to rap about something real to them, it'll come off as fake. Enter Freda who does live that life and who has the ability to be the kind of protege that Lucious can see himself in and that his kids honestly couldn't ever be. It makes sense that he'd feel a connection to her as an artist that he doesn't feel to his boys. In order to make that reading work properly, you have to forget his promise her father that he was going to have sex with her, but willful ignorance should be second nature to all Empire fans by now.

To cap off the good from this episode is the scene of the brother's banding together once more to help pull Hakeem back from his PTSD fueled edge. It carries every bit as much weight, and probably even more, as the elevator scene from last season. That's because 1) Hakeem's downward spiral is one we've watched happening over the course of the episode, making this scene feel more organic and inevitable, and 2) the Lyons brothers continue to be the strongest aspect of the show. At one point, the boys point out to Hakeem that he's stronger than most because he made it out of being Cookie and Lucious' son and he's still alive. That's a feat to be reckoned with, and I can't help but to agree with that outlook. Very often, I wonder what this show might look like if the battle lines were drawn with all of the Lyons kids on one side and Cookie and Lucious on the other. You'd have to do away with some of Cookie and Lucious' sniping at each other, which has of course been a fun cornerstone of the show since the beginning, but that makeup would at least give us one team to root for, which is what the show is drastically missing at the moment.

Sadly, that's where the good ends for this hour. The biggest offender in this episode is the Hakeem storyline. This should be the thing that makes this episode great, and for a moment it feels like it will. But then Lucious pays the ransom, a ransom asked for and acquired off screen I might add, and the kidnappers let Hakeem go. Simple as that. No one's delusional enough to think that Hakeem will actually die in this episode, so the stakes were always going to be relatively low, but had they at least allowed the story to transpire over the course of the whole episode, they could have built a little suspense and given the characters enough time to realistically deal with their feelings about the youngest Lyon being taken. As is, he's taken, released, falls into PTSD, and then is pulled out of it and returned to some kind of status quo in the course of one episode.

Allow me to digress for a minute here and talk about another primetime soap show. Last season on Scandal, Olivia Pope was kidnapped in order to put pressure on the president to go to war in order to get her back. It was silly and soapy as these things tend to be, and since there's honestly no show without Olivia, the stakes weren't too high in that storyline either. But the entire ordeal lasted for multiple episodes, saw Olivia having to do things she never thought she'd have to in order to survive, and left her with lasting mental scars the likes of which she's honestly still dealing with well into this season. If Scandal can take a kidnapping story and have it last for five episodes, is it really too much to ask for Empire to allow its story to play out over one full episode?

I'm dead tired of telling Empire it needs to slow down. It does, but I don't want to say it anymore. Instead I'll say that the show needs to choose stories it can rush through without viewers feeling as though they've been short changed. It's done a passable job of that in the past, so I know they're capable. But what I don't know is whether or not that's a viable model for a full season of TV. I don't think it could be much worse than what we're faced with now, so I say give it a try and let's see.

Random thoughts:

--Was anyone actually surprised by the reveal that Cookie's new boy toy is somehow in league with the guys who kidnapped Hakeem? Show of hands...anyone?

--It might not be fair because Empire has actually done a good job of presenting gay characters as unique and varied, but William Fichtner's performance in this episode was the most simplistic and stereotypical portrayal of a gay man that I've seen in quite sometime. It didn't cross over into full on camp, which might actually have been for the better, but it felt like a very conscious affectation. It was highly off putting.

--I found it pretty funny and very telling that Cookie's first thought upon seeing her youngest son all tied up like that was that Lucious was behind it all.

--I'd really like to get behind the Lucious and Freda storyline, but I can't help but to think the show is going to find a way to fuck this up pretty soon.

--Jamal mentions that he's still upset about Michael, but that's where the Michael talk ends. I'll be happy when we can put all of this behind us and move on to a better story and love interest for Jamal.

--I don't think it's possible for me to care less about a story than I do about Andre's running the Gutter Life label story.

--The other thing that this show gets wrong is in deciding whether or not it takes place in the real world or something totally fabricated. On the one hand there is a lot of homophobia in the Hip-Hop community, but on the other hand they have an openly gay man who was named CEO of a Hip-Hop company and an openly gay woman who is a majority share holder. So if the world is a fabricated fantasy world, then why say the Staples Center wouldn't let Jamal play there? Why not invent a stadium, or at least come up with a better reason?

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Short Film Review: Eden

Eden (2014)
Written by Jason Rostovsky
Directed by Sean Willis

Trigger warning: Suicide and depression.

In a perfect world, I'd only write here about films and shows that I really liked. Indeed, the shows I cover are shows I enjoy watching, or else why would I keep giving them my attention. But I cover even the episodes I don't really much care for. Such is also the case for short films. Eden is not the worst thing I've ever watched, but it is painfully heavy handed and full of cliches.

Set in the year 2042, Eden is the story of Adam and Everett (yes those are their actual names), two young gay men interred at the Eden facility. From what I can tell, the Eden facility is a prison / hospital where gay men can be "cured" of their homosexuality. Or more specifically where white gay men can be cured since I don't think I saw a single brown face in the entire movie. There's no word on how Adam and Everett ended up there, but it doesn't seem like the treatment is voluntary. But the point is that Adam and Everett are in love, or well Everett at least seems to be in love with Adam while Adam doesn't know how he feels about anything. And it is through their respective love and ambivalence that they decide to break out. They're aided, for no discernible reason whatsoever, by one of the facilities nurses.

Eden is a bit of a mess from top to bottom. The characterization is spotty at best, the world lacks enough detail to be believable, and they force out cliche scenes as if they're brilliantly reinventing the wheel. I swear if I never see another scene of someone punching a mirror again it'll be too soon. Devon Graye (whom you may recognize from his stints on Dexter and, more recently, The Flash) and Derek Stusynski do passable work as Adam and Everett respectively. But any deeper grasp of their characters is ultimately undermined by the weak dialogue and the waffling storyline they're given.

The extended scene the two of them share in the church is the biggest offender. They talk a lot but I can't be sure that they actually say much of anything. Everett wants to get out, but Adam isn't so sure. Everett declares his love, but Adam can't even return the favor. And yet in the meantime, Everett seems to have been relying on Adam to be the one to come up with the plan to get them out in the first place. Is it because Everett is too weak to come up with a plan on his own, or did Adam lie to him and say he had a plan when he wasn't even really considering actually leaving to begin with? If it's the latter, then why are they together at all? Is it really love that binds them, or is Everett the only person Adam's found willing to blow him in a church and worth keeping around for just that reason?

The weak love story could maybe be forgiven if the world were better conceived and executed, but sadly there are more questions than answers on that front. If the Eden facility is involuntary, and the idea behind it all is to cure these people of their affliction, then why do the patients get to decide when or if they get the cure? The big red button in each of the patients' rooms seems counterintuitive to the core concept of the world they created. If gay men are bring rounded up and locked away, and there's a functioning cure for homosexuality, then why wouldn't that cure just be forced onto the men crossing the Eden threshold?

The saddest part about all of this for me is that the problems with Eden aren't problems that would require a feature length runtime to fix. Sometimes a short story only needs to be flushed out and longer to be improved, but in this case, the story they're trying to tell in Eden is perfectly suitable for the short format. But that doesn't change the fact that it needed an extra edit or two, and maybe for the people behind the camera to be more aware of the world they're working in. I mean did we really need another scene of someone getting hurt while running away and tearily telling their love to run off and save himself? I think not.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Empire: "Be True"

By now, it should be clear that Empire doesn't have a slower pace than the sprint we've seen them operating at since the first episode. But hours like "Be True" suggest that the show doesn't need to slow down so much as make sure that the storylines they're running through are consistently interesting. And perhaps when they aren't as interesting the fast pace works in the show's favor because they don't last too long. Either way, "Be True" is the best episode of Empire's sophomore season to date and it doesn't even have a standout line like the first episode's "You can't even dyke right!" I think some part of this is due to the importance of each character's storyline.

Jamal's in the studio with guest star Ne-Yo recording more great music and talking about touring together. Ne-Yo's another big get in the long line of big name guest stars the show's been able to pull in, but more than that he's a breath of fresh air for the show. He disagrees with almost everything Lucious says and isn't shy about standing up to him and speaking his mind, and more importantly he talks to Jamal like he's a person and a real artist, not like he's just some gay rich kid riding his dad's coattails. My friends and I have spent a lot of time lately talking about Nashville and their continued failings with the Will Lexington storyline. I've brought up the similarities between these storylines before, but it seems just as important now since Will just recently came out of the closet on that show. It's taken them three whole seasons to do what Jamal did in one, but more importantly since Will came out he's been dropped from his label, fallen into a bit of a depression, and hounded by members of the gay community for not doing enough to use his star status to push forward issues of visibility and equality. In short, he's been punished for being gay and the show doesn't seem to think there's anything wrong with that.

Conversely, Jamal works in Hip-Hop and R&B, an industry that's every bit as homophobic as the Country music industry. Yet in the wake of him coming out, he's been named the CEO of his father's company, had a hit album, is creating what should be another hit album, and has real life people from the industry telling him at every turn that his sexual orientation doesn't matter. There are scenes here where Ne-Yo talks to Jamal about the choice to bring Michael on the road with him like they're discussing something as simple as the weather. He compares Jamal's decision to his own experience of bringing girls on the road with him. Never once does he stop to sure up his position as a straight man or point out that there's any difference between him and Jamal. I know it's scripted, and who knows maybe in real life Ne-Yo feels differently on the subject (though I strongly doubt it), but that doesn't change the fact that it's important. At multiple times throughout the show's run, Empire has made it clear that it does not agree with Lucious' position on the subject of Jamal's sexuality. The more Nashville allows people to be horrible to Will without facing any kind of retribution for their actions or without bringing in powerful people to offer their unwavering support of him, the more I think that the show and it's writers are the ones that are homophobic. But that's a rather long tangent to go on for me to basically say that I really enjoyed Ne-Yo and his role in this episode and would greatly like it for him to come back at some point.

While Jamal battles with whether or not to take Michael on the road with him, Michael seems to be battling with his jealousy or whatever the fuck has been his problem towards Jamal. They spend more time with Adam Busch's character this episode and listen to him make common complaints about monogamy and same-sex marriage. They're arguments that shouldn't be new to anyone who's had an honest conversation with a gay person lately, but it's still interesting to hear them laid out on a popular primetime show. It culminates in him trying to blow Jamal in a hallway at Leviticus, being turned down, and then successfully blowing Michael out on Jamal's balcony. I've made no secret of the fact that I've hated Michael since his return this season, and in truth if this how we can finally be rid of him, I'm all for it. The problem with this storyline is I don't know that Michael's motivations for anything he does have been explained or sussed out well enough for him to be compelling or anything other than the full out villain in this situation. I'm guessing we'll finally get to hear his side of things later, but I also wouldn't be surprised if he's just unceremoniously gone from the show like he was last season.

While Jamal's stories in "Be True" are my favorite, it's Andre's decision to get baptized that hold the hour together. It leads to a nice scene between him and Rhonda where we're strongly led to believe that she isn't pregnant at all, something I've suspected since she first said she was. There's also a solid scene where he tells Lucious about his botched suicide attempt, but that doesn't really go as far as it should. And there's the best scene between the three brothers that we've seen since the elevator scene last year. Andre tells them that he set up Jamal's robbery, not Hakeem, and they both forgive him. It's a scene of strong performances all around, and I really really liked Hakeem's indignation over the fact that Jamal could have been hurt in all that instead of being mad that he'd been lied about. The Jamal--Hakeem relationship is still one of my favorite aspects of the show, and when they do little things like this to sure that up, it makes me hopeful about the show's future.

For his part, Andre seems genuine about wanting to do all he can to be a good big brother and to heal this family. Outside of the horrible influences of Cookie and Lucious, it's impossible not to root for him. The three of them together have a strong chemistry, and there seems to be a lot more unconditional love between them than there is between the kids and either of the parents. It all brings me back around to my main point that Empire the company would be much better served with the Lyons boys having equal control over it. If that's not the direction the series is heading in, it's all going to seem like a significant waste.

In 1100 words I still haven't mentioned Cookie's new promoter/bodyguard/love interest, the new threat to Lyon Dynasty, or Hakeem's continued struggle to set up his girl group and his obvious new love interest. And that's not because those stories are uninteresting, but simply because there's so much here. Empire at its worst crams a lot in to an episode and feels like it goes nowhere. But at it's best, it seems to crack through storylines at a breakneck speed without losing momentum or feeling like a waste. I don't think this kind of thing is at all possible to sustain for long periods of time, but Empire doesn't seem interested in marathons so much as wind sprints. It's an odd choice for a TV show (the ultimate in long form storytelling), but it's a choice that seems to be working more than not working for Empire, so I guess we should wish them well and just get out of their way.

Random Thoughts:

--Porsha's back! And thank God, because I love her. And the way she walks back in with a "I know you're busy, but can I have my job back?" kind of attitude is so indicative of who she is as character.

--There's another flashback to Lucious' time with his mom in this episode. This time to explain his seeming PTSD about Andre's being baptized. These scenes continue to be interesting to watch and continue giving us more about Lucious' past, so I don't want to come down too hard on them, but I do think they're starting to feel a bit one note. It all boils down to one thing: everything Lucious hates in the world is because his mom was bipolar. They're going to need to do more with these scenes or else find a new angle.

--Speaking of who Lucious is, it turns out he's an Atheist. This is actually something that I think the show could stand to explore more of. I'm interested in how a black Atheist would come to success in the black community. And I'm also interested in seeing more of the basis for his extreme homophobia. There's usually a correlation between high levels of religious fervor within a community and high levels of homophobia, but if Lucious lacks one, then why hold on to the other?

--I'm going to break character a bit and actually go to bat for Michael on one point. I refuse to believe that Michael, the active member of the gay community that he is, and constantly trying to get Jamal to get behind this or that great gay cause, doesn't know what the term "heteronormativity" means.

--Lucious: "This family is my business." In the ongoing conversation about what "family" might mean to this show, I guess we have to add Family as a business transaction to the list.

--The episode ends with Hakeem being kidnapped in broad daylight. This might be a little silly, but it's also a great way to go into a brief hiatus. The show will be back after the World Series is over, and when it is, we'll get what looks to be a tense and highly rewarding episode. I honestly can't wait!

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Empire: "Poor Yorick"

When was the last time you went into the woods, stood in a small clearing no more than 15 feet in
diameter, and saw that you were surrounded by a group of identical trees? Never mind surrounded, when was the last time you saw as few as two trees that looked exactly the same with the same unique identifying characteristics and were right next to each other? I ask because I'm a born and raised city kid, and even living in a beautiful state like Florida, I make it a point not to spend anymore time than needed outside. But I'm honestly curious about whether or not this is a common phenomenon that I've just never heard of or witnessed before. And I ask because such a question is what was rattling around in my mind during one of the important scenes in this week's Empire episode. The problem with this is that while main characters are trying to dig up dead bodies on a TV show, I shouldn't be stuck thinking, "But that's not how trees work."

The willing suspension of disbelief is a two-way street. I'm willing to meet a storyteller halfway most of the time. I'm willing to do my part and turn a blind eye to silly and nonsensical things in an effort to best enjoy the story, but you have to give me a story worth enjoying first. There's actually a great example of the show doing just that in the previous episode. The Lyons sit down to dinner in the wake of Lucious' release. Never mind how ridiculous it is that all these characters who hate each other and have split up, gotten back together, and split up once again would agree to just head over to Lucious' house to sit down to a meal. I'm willing to overlook the ridiculousness that is the origin of this dinner party in favor of the fun and drama of seeing these stupid characters all in the same place at the same time. In other words, I'm willing to suspend my disbelief in favor of the juicy soapy story that I find far more interesting than I do the continued woes of Andre and Rhonda and the Clue case of finding Uncle Vernon dead in the living room by candle stick. So if you can't make the story interesting, at the very least you have to make it make sense, and the two of them forgetting where they buried Vernon because all the trees in this one small space are 100% identical does not make sense, so the entire scene crumbles as a result.

Which is a shame because I was rather enjoying most of the episode before that. "Poor Yorick" is an odd tale of two halves. The first half feels like some of the better aspects of Empire that we've seen this season. The second half kind of falls apart. The entire episode is written and directed by Danny Strong, so I don't understand the reason behind the loss of logic past the midpoint, but there it is. One minute everything flows consistently and the drama feels organic, and the next minute Cookie's got weird PTSD flashes leading to stupid behavior and Hakeem is stabbing a painting that shouldn't be there in the first place.

But I feel like I've spent so much time talking about the bad of this season that I want to focus a bit more on the good. Starting with the opening FBI raid of Empire and the song it's set to. The music of this season hasn't felt as stand out and impressive as the music from last season. Don't get me wrong, I didn't think the music last year was setting any new standards or heights for contemporary Hip Hop, but a lot of it was at least catchy and memorable. They'd spent so long teasing "No Apologies" that it was impossible not to recognize the beat and the hook by the time we finally got to hear it in an episode. While I don't think "Battle Cry" is quite on that same level, it's easily my favorite song so far this season, and I thought setting it against the FBI raid was both really on the nose (as tends to be the case with Empire songs) and really entertaining. The opening scene offers good music, the chance for a bit of levity from Becky (which is always appreciated), and an opportunity to push some aspects of the story forward. It's a lot of heavy lifting for one Empire scene, and I'd commend them for it.

Also in the good column was seeing Adam Busch guest staring as the artist photographer brought in to come up with a cover for Jamal's Rolling Stone appearance. Seeing another Buffy alum show up in an episode written and directed by Danny Strong was really quite great. And I have to say I like his weird sloppy artistic energy. And I like the way he was flirting with Jamal throughout their scenes together. What I don't like are the shots of Jamal's useless and annoying boyfriend looking all pained over it, but I've said more than enough about how I feel about Michael at this point. Suffice it to say, if Adam Busch can manage to stick around, I'm going to start hoping for him to replace Rafael de la Fuente as Jamal's love interest. It's nothing against Fuente himself, who I think is easy on the eyes and talented enough to stick around. It's just that Michael was ruined for me last season and they don't seem at all interested in doing any character rehab on him this season, nor have they justified his continued presence on the show, so I'm ready for him leave. Couple that with the fact that I think Busch's character has a kind of vision and an energy that I'd really like to see paired with Jamal. I don't know that they'd make each other better, but I do think these two characters could stand to make each other more interesting which is a lot more than I can say about Jamal's current relationship.

There was one more small moment in this episode that I really enjoyed, but it was so insignificant that I almost don't want to mention it. The shot of Hakeem at that bar prepared to send Jamal an apology through text only to delete it and change his mind. It's not that he's not sorry, it's that he can't bring himself to say it just yet, and there's a lot going on in Bryshere Gray's face in that quick scene. I think all three of the Lyons' boys have had impressive moments this season and this was Hakeem's. Never mind that it doesn't seem like the kind of bar that Hakeem would ever be caught dead in; the whole thing simply hints at an aspect of this story I'd like to see them explore deeper: the effect this rift is having on Jamal and Hakeem specifically. They had the strongest relationship of last season, and seeing them put through their paces this year has been painful and sad. It only makes sense that they'd feel dubious about the actions they're having to take for one reason or another, and I'd like to see more of those little cracks in the facade.

The rest of the episode is stock Empire fare by this time. The good thing about this episode is that there are at least small tidbits of good that weren't really a part of the previous few installments. So it seems they haven't fully forgotten how to tell good stories, but I don't think this is some kind of turning point for things. Something has to jolt this show into gear before it starts to feel like we're all just wasting our time here. Here's hoping finding a dead body in a passenger seat is that thing.

Random Thoughts:

--Cookie and Lucious have a funny scene where they shoot barbs at each other the likes of which only two people with their history would really be able to pull off.

--I think this show has to figure out what they want to do with Anika. All this back and forth bouncing between Cookie and Lucious isn't working. And while it seems like they've got her making moves to benefit Lyon Dynasty, all of them have been off screen and therefore might as well not happen at all. I've never seen a worse case of a character spinning their wheels.

--The music video scene was sadly predictable. I knew Jamal would throw the first punch, and I knew the bat would come into play. It's too bad because the more I see those boys together the more I remember that that's the best state for them. Talk about two people capable of making one another better.

--I haven't mentioned it yet, but I do think Andre Royo has been a joy as Lucious' lawyer.

--“If I die in police custody, I did not commit suicide.” It’s funny coming out of Cookie’s mouth, but the sad reality behind it and the necessity of it is tragic. Still better than seeing her in that gorilla suit though.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Empire: "Fires of Heaven"

I can, and do, put up with a lot from Empire, but one thing I can't really abide is when the show is boring. I complained about the same thing with the last episode, but that one at least posed some interesting questions about the show's position on "family" and what that means to the Lyons' and had a couple killer scenes under its belt. This week's installment can't claim either. Family is still a word thrown around like grenades throughout the hour, but the same questions from last week are still floating around instead of being answered. And nothing of note happens. Which is surprising for Lucious' first episode back from the country club that pretended to be a prison.

So what is there really to talk about after the third hour of this new season of the show? The only thing that's really stuck with me so far are the scenes about Lucious' relationship with his mother. Before I gush about this too strongly, allow me to say that they seem to being pouring it on a bit thick with the characterization of Leah Walker's (being played by Kelly Rowland) illness. In much the same way that I thought they could have been a little more subtle and worked on their pacing a bit more with Andre last year, all we seem to be seeing of Leah are the extremes, and I don't think that that serves to really put a real face on this illness. However, the reason why I think this works a lot more than Andre's devolution is because these scenes take place solely in Lucious' memory and of course he'd be more fixated on the extreme highs and lows of his mother's condition.

So after the deft hand they employed last week, we're treated to a couple flashbacks that make Leah's condition explicit. She buys a bunch of "gifts" for a young Lucious even though it's well past his birthday, and she exuberantly helps him to open them. And then, seemingly in no time at all, she's plunged into a depression so deep she's nearly catatonic. The mention of needing to return the gifts in order to be able to eat suggests that not much time has passed between the two scenes. So either she cycles really quickly, or Lucious simply remembers these things in one go and they all get jumbled up in his mind. The latter explanation works much better than the former, and that's what I'm going to choose to believe in spite of not having enough faith in the writers to really buy that they'd have the kind of foresight to pull that off. But willful ignorance and blindness are still necessary to really get a lot out of this show.

These scenes do more work examining Lucious' motivation than anything we've seen thus far. We've seen glimpses of why he views Andre the way he does, some of his earliest connections to music, and assuming they take this story in the direction I expect they'll take it (which is about as bold of an assumption as I can offer), we'll probably see the basis for his commitment issues. It's hard to miss the fact that Lucious' father isn't in the picture, and I assume living with an unmedicated bipolar mother would have led to a lot of abandonment and trust issues. So what we've been seeing through these short scenes are explanations of who Lucious is.

The smart thing I think the show is doing is that they aren't allowing these explanations to serve as excuses for his horrible actions. Lucious is still a dick, and by no means do I think we're intended to sympathize with him currently, but the ability to know the difference between a reason and an excuse is something more advanced than I ever would have given this show credit for in the past. So the only thing left is to see where this all goes and how it continues to impact his present situation. Obviously he's going to continue to be a dick to Andre, but will this history and his potential guilt over Andre's condition drive him to be colder than expected towards his future grandchild? And I assume with this being introduced this season that there's no real way the truth won't come out by season's end. How, if at all, does that shake things up and change the other character's perception of Lucious?

We'll have to wait and see if we get answers to these questions, but in the mean time these flashbacks continue to present the sole bright point in otherwise dreary and boring episodes. The problem for Empire is that these scenes, compared to everything else, are too few and far between to save the quality of the rest of the show. So the assignment for the writers going forward is to find a way to either tap back into the fun level of crazy from last season, or to find a way to draw the pathos of these flashbacks through the rest of the episode.

Random Thoughts:

--In case anyone wasn't sure about Jamal's story about becoming more and more like Lucious, the two of them have a choreographed simultaneous removal of their sunglasses towards the beginning of the episode. It was pretty pathetic.

--Also pathetic was that Empire! salute from Lucious and the fans at his press conference. Give me a break.

--What the ever-loving fuck was Cookie wearing during Lucious' party?

--Am I the only one who finds it a bit ironic that they've brought Kelly Rowland in to guest star in a season where they seem to be doing a kind of Destiny's Child storyline with Hakeem's girl group?

--Speaking of Kelly Rowland, while I think it's probably easier to convey the extreme highs and lows of someone with this illness, I still think it's worth noting that she's been strong in her appearances.

--And speaking of guest appearances, can we not find a better rapper than Pitbull to guest on the show? And after a full season of being the musical producer for the show, Timbaland makes what I think is his first appearance in front of the camera this week.

--What a blessing to not have to deal with Jamal's annoying boyfriend this episode.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Empire: "Without a Country"

What does the word "family" mean to you? I'm an old school lover of language, so the idea that words with such a clear and obvious denotation can have such varied connotation is something that will always amaze me. To some people, family is a source of strength, support, and unwavering, unconditional love. To other people it's a curse; a source of unending horror and a repository of painful memories. To the Lyons, family is a weapon, or at times maybe a shield, but seemingly never anything stronger or more transcendent than that. Over the course of a season and two episodes, we've seen the characters on this show cry, spit, and throw claims of family at one another to justify some of the most vile and horrible actions. But have we ever seen the other side of that coin? Do the writers behind this show have any positive notions about familial relations? And if they don't, is that a problem?

Empire's second episode of its sophomore season is nowhere near as engaging as its first. This is always a problem with Empire since the cracks in this show are always more visible and less defendable when the episode in question isn't as good. If there aren't as many laugh out loud Cookie lines, or soapy drama so juicy you can't help but to leave your jaw on the ground for the entire commercial break, then you're left seeing nothing but the man behind the curtain. But what continues to amaze me about this show is the presence of small moments that are nothing short of astounding.

Towards the end of this episode, Andre goes to visit Lucious in jail and beg his forgiveness and to be let back into Empire. As anyone could have predicted, Lucious says no, but then Andre pleads his case with a kind of quite furry that's more compelling than if he'd just stood up and yelled his indignation to the rafters. Lucious has shunned Jamal his whole life for being gay, but now he gives Jamal Empire. Hakeem sleeps with Lucious' fiancé and helps in the hostile takeover, but still Lucious wants him back at the company. Andre makes one mistake, and then apologizes for it in a manner that no one else is interested in, and yet Lucious says no. When Andre asks why it is that his father hates him so much, we're treated to a flashback of a young Lucious in his mother's arms as she sings him a lullaby. In the midst of it, she seems to zone out a bit and the assumption we're left to make here is that she suffered from a mental illness same as Andre does; Lucious doesn't hate Andre, he hates the way he reminds him of his own mother who probably hurt him due to her own struggles.

As an explanation for his actions, this ranks right up there with the hint from last season that he was simply jealous of Jamal's talent instead of hating him because he's gay. Granted, the show hinted at that and never took it any deeper than that surface level last year, so there's no reason to expect a deeper treatment of this subject matter either. However, the scene plays brilliantly, and the flashback of Lucious and his mother is just subtle enough that it's open to interpretation. It's all done with such a deft hand that you're left wondering how could this be the same show that had Cookie dressed as a gorilla in a cage to beat home a message last week? If each Empire episode was full of nothing but those kinds of moments, can you even begin to imagine how much better of a show it would be?

But if it was full of those moments, those moments wouldn't be as special as they are here. The scene between Lucious and Andre is a diamond in the rough that is the rest of the episode. An episode that features Hakeem being an idiot and trying to force their new label to fly before it can even crawl, Lucious making a radio ready track from a prison supply cabinet, and a horribly uninspired performance from guest star Ludacris.

That's not to say that "Without a Country" is a total waste of an episode. There's some important place-setting in this hour, and if the first episode served to wrap up storylines left over from last season, this hour has a lot more to do with setting up some of the stories we'll be dealing with over the course of this season. Place-setting will always be a thankless job in TV, and with the full season order having been bumped up from 12 to 18 episodes, a few slow filler episodes are unavoidable, but there had to be a better more interesting way to handle this.

One thing that seems interesting about this season is the juxtaposition of Cookie and Lucious. Cookie was the far more sympathetic party last season. It was hard not to be when the show started with her strutting out of prison in that fur coat and immediately making her way to see her kids. While Lucious started the season out pitting his sons against one another, Cookie started out trying to just bring them together and start recapturing all that she missed out on. Now Cookie's the one setting them against each other in service of getting what she wants and while Lucious hasn't become the good guy by any means, he still feels like the wronged party.

This episode sees her make the plan to start her own label, struggle to keep Hakeem in line enough to do the work that needs to be done so he can actually put an album out, continue to fight with Anika, tell Jamal they're starting their own company with as much of a threatening glower as she can, and then lose Andre as an ally in spite of her attempts to hold on to him. It's another remarkable scene as she follows him down the hallway repeating his name only to have him beg her to let him go, but it's also a scene that sets Cookie up as just as big a failure on the family front as Lucious ever was. I've questioned the purity of her motivations in the past, and this episode made me question them more. Clearly she's owed something for taking the fall for Lucious all those years ago, but does her recompense have to come at the expense of her kids? And if she doesn't care whether it does or doesn't, can she ever claim the moral high ground over Lucious again?

I ask that because the heart of the show clearly always has been and maybe always will be the battle between Cookie and Lucious with their kids as both collateral and collateral damage. It's family as a war zone. And if that's what the show wants to be, then that's fine. If the writers have nothing positive to say about the family dynamic, then they're more than entitled to their opinion. But I said last season that my preferred outcome for the show is one where the brothers band together to run Empire as a unit. I've noted multiple times how my favorite parts of the show continue to be these little moments where there's some kind of love and devotion shining through, or at least the deeper bonds and scars (which can be simultaneously painful and beautiful) that family creates. So while I have to acknowledge that my preferred version of the show isn't the only possibility, and might not even be the "best" possibility, I can't help but to wonder whether or not a show that was about the strengths of family and about the Lyons banding together to take on the world wouldn't be a show that resonated more deeply with a wider audience? Then again, if the ratings are any indication, Empire is reaching a wide enough audience doing what it's been doing this whole time. Maybe it's not broken, and if that's the case, then it can't be fixed.

Random thoughts:

--I've mentioned him before, but Hakeem's gender fluid bestie is one of my favorite side characters on this show. I want to know more about them. How do they identify, how do they know Hakeem, and what's the overall plan for them on the show?

--I'm ready for Cookie and Anika to stop the overt fighting. I think if the show took them in more of a frenemies direction with constant backhanded compliments and little barbs being flung but no more overt hostility, that'd be for the better. They don't have to like each other, but maybe just work together for the greater good.

--Still trying to figure out what the point of Michael is. I was very happy when he wasn't on the show anymore. No matter how adorable Rafael de la Fuente is.

--Tiana is back in this episode but no reference to her sexuality or her previous relationship to Hakeem. Which isn't a problem, per se, just a disappointment.

--Andre's never been my favorite character, but he certainly owned it this week. I understand the drama capable of being created from his more manic moments, but these moments of just quiet despair always resonate so much deeper for me. I don't think Trai Byers is a bad actor, but I do think he's maybe a bit better at this things than he is the louder, crazier moments.

--Who should we be rooting for at this point? Who are you rooting for? Is the point to just make all of these characters equally hatable? I still love Jamal, but the more he devolves into Lucious, and the more scenes of him yelling and looking around with that stank face, the more I jump off that bandwagon.

--Part of the reason I wanted to write reviews for Empire is because I tended to disagree with the reviews posted on my number one TV review site, AV Club. Joshua Alston, whom I generally love in his other coverage, and I simply have different takes on the show. However, his review on this episode is really good and one I agree with fully in spite of us having different opinions on what stands to make this show "good." Either way, you can check out his review here if you're interested to see where our opinions differ and where they converge.