Thursday, September 25, 2014

TV Review: Red Band Society: "Sole Searching" two episodes enough to really figure out a show's formula? I'm not sure about that since two points make a line and not a pattern, and since two episodes is no time whatsoever. Chances are the show we're seeing in Red Band Society after two episodes won't even be the same show we see in five weeks time (assuming the show lasts that long). But after two hours with this show, I think I see what they're interested in early on. Last episode centered around the St Crispin's Day Speech from Shakespeare's Henry V. The kids talked about the song in class that day, Leo quoted it in the episodes pivotal scene on the roof, and throughout the hour the show and the characters went through the motion of building the kind of close bond the speech alludes to. This week, in the cleverly titled "Sole Searching," the phrase at the center of the episode isn't from The Bard, it's the seminal classic about learning about someone by walking a mile in their shoes. As such there are a lot of shots of people's shoes, there are a number of lines about shoes, and there's a lot of trying to get to know these characters by way of seeing the world through their perspective.

Framing the story like that isn't so unique, it's actually the same method Revenge uses on a week to week basis with its episodes. And the jury's still out on whether it's the best way for this show to go, but it didn't stop this from being an enjoyable episode. I keep using the word "enjoyable" when I talk or write about Red Band, but it's still the best one I can think of. The show isn't great. This episode suffers from a lot of the standard second episode problems. There's a lot of re-establishing characters through clunky exposition telling us (instead of showing us) who they are. Said exposition is still being delivered by Charlie from his coma. And no one feels fully real just yet. But the enjoyability of this show shines in small, well contained moments that show you just how good its capable of being.

One of the storylines from this week centers around Kara and her two mothers. I could swear there was a man and a woman getting the news about Kara's condition in the last episode, but I could be wrong about that, or maybe the two people in question weren't her parents after all. Either way, giving her two mothers felt a little tacked on this week, but making those two mothers powerful LA lesbians with tangential connections to Ellen and Portia was pretty funny. Making them so singularly focused on the marketing aspect of Kara's condition and showing how that focus affected her was certainly a good idea. Watching the way Kara's birth mother would engage with her while keeping her attention locked on her phone went a long way towards showing us why Kara is the way she is. It made the hug the three of them shared at the end of the episode a lot more cathartic than I expected it to be this early in the show's run.

Also in that mode is the relationship between Leo and Dash, and the general emotional trip that Leo goes on in this episode. After spending the morning blowing off his physical therapy in order to be there for Jodi when he woke up (post surgery and minus a leg), Leo finds out (in what can only be a huge breech of doctor-patient confidentiality) that Jordi's leg wasn't amputated after all. Leo storms out before Dr. McAndrew can explain that the reason why he didn't take Jordi's leg is because the cancer's far worse than they originally thought and amputation wasn't needed just yet. So to Leo, it just looks like the kid he'd bonded with over having the same diagnosis, actually got off a lot luckier than he did when Dr. McAndrew took his leg however long ago. To blow off some steam, he puts on his prosthetic, which he's been railing against all episode, grabs his best friend Dash, and limps across the street to the Frat Party the two of them have been spying on for awhile. Leo just wants to feel like a real boy again, basically, and where better to do that than with a bunch of frat douche bags getting wasted in the middle of the day? spending an hour or two there, fitting in and flirting with the pretty girls, the real world tries to intrude on Leo's escape in the form of his friends and the nurses at the hospital looking for him. Dash tries to get him to leave the party, and in retaliation Leo gets mean and pushes him away. When he takes the pretty girl he's hit it off with to a nearby bedroom and she starts to get undressed and tries to undress him, the horror of her being about to see his fake leg brings the real world crashing into him again and once more he gets mean and she leaves him alone too. It leads to Dash and Nurse Brittany finding him on the floor with this heartbreaking expression on his face.

This works, in my opinion, for two main reasons. 1) It presents a great relationship between Leo and Dash. Unlike the typical TV reaction, Dash doesn't get hurt by Leo's insensitive comments and go off and sulk for awhile, or rush back to the hospital and rat him out. Instead, he finds Brittany, who is clearly way more of a pushover than Nurse Jackson, and quietly returns to help his friend get home safely. There isn't even a scene in which Leo apologizes for his actions. Dash just gets it and accepts it in a way that I found touching and refreshing. 2) It builds on the image of Leo as a generally good guy who is trying his hardest to both make and keep friends and to keep people at a distance. He admits a bit later on (in another scene that tells me this show will not be known for its subtlety) that he was really on interested in waiting for Jordi because he didn't want to feel alone anymore. So when it turned out that he and Jordi weren't sharing the same fate, he got jealous and a bit less interested. It's a very teen-drama thing to do, but it's also very human in a way I appreciated.

I don't know how long Red Band Society will be with us. I tend not to have much faith in Fox to allow shows to stick around. And when those shows are just good instead of great, I think my faith decreases significantly. And if the show wants to get "better" by any possible objective standards, there are a couple things it'll need to do. For starters, and I'm sure I'll sound like a broken record on this point for awhile, they have to figure out the voice over narration issue. Charlie continues to point out things that don't need to be pointed out at all, and that add nothing to the story at hand. Using him to bookend the episodes with a little narration about themes of the week (shoes and empathy here) wouldn't go amiss. But having him chime in on the regular workings of the hospital and makes pointless observations like "The only thing harder than sneaking out of a hospital is sneaking back in," simply isn't working. The sad thing about this is that they've actually got the perfect way to use Charlie in the episode. When Jordi goes under for his surgery, he wakes up in the in between place where Charlie lives. Charlie tries to offer him a game of chess, but Jordi claims to not be feeling his best and he collapses. Charlie rushes to his side and offers words of comfort and then we never see them in that place again. This is a wasted opportunity. Leo made mention of a similar experience when he had his surgery, and placing Charlie as the kind of monitor and the ultimate strength of this in between space would be a solid way to go. Each of these kids move in the world and interact, and they all put on a brave face to the best of their ability. Charlie is the only one incapable of moving around within the world and he's the one who has the most reason to be scared as he may never wake up. But if you make him into the character who sees these other kids at their most vulnerable and he offers them strength and comfort in those times, you could really run with that. But that doesn't seem to be the direction the show wants to go on, and it probably isn't feasible to have a character fall unconscious every week, but for my money I'd take the in between space scenes over the pointless voice over narration every time.

Either way, Red Band Society continues to be something I'll look forward to watching each week. If it can continue to be funny and moving, then I see no reason not to watch. Even if the deeply emotional parts tend to be delivered in baldfaced and slightly ham-fisted fashion, it's worth it. And so I think I'll try my best to chime in each week for however long the show lasts, or until I stop watching, or until I just don't have anything else to say; whichever comes first really.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

So You Think You Can Dance S11E15

So You Think You Can Dance has my all time favorite finale episode of any reality competition show I've ever watched all the way through. Granted, there aren't very many that I've watched all the way through, but of the ones that I have, this one is my favorite. This goes for the performance finale as well as the results episode. This is because these two episodes typify everything I love about this show and everything I think this series tends to do well. The finale, specifically, gets to be two hours of celebrating dance, looking back at how we got to this point, and revealing the winner with as much fanfare and grace as possible.

Epic celebration of dance:

Other than the obvious night full of rehashed performances, the SYTYCD finale always has a number of remarkable new moments and showcasing new talent. The winner of this season's pointless dance crew twitter idiocy got to perform a number. I'd talk about it, but I ran off to the bathroom while it was happening. The real highlights of the night's new numbers have to be the twins' remarkable Hip Hop tag team, that brilliant brilliant group number from Chris and Sonya, and the single most breath taking solo I think this season has seen which came from the Australian winner, Michael Dameski.

Seriously, that solo was strong, powerful, moving, and breathtaking in a crazy way. It left me thinking SYTYCD should organize a world wide competition like the Olympics of dance. Pick a few of the previous winners from each series and have them dance it off over the course of a few episodes and have the entire world vote on who wins the crown of World's Favorite Dancer. Given the current state of the online based voting, it really wouldn't be too difficult. You'd have to figure out when to air the episodes and simulcast them the world over maybe, but other than that, it'd be great. I say all of this to say that if that solo was any indication, I think Michael being on this season of SYTYCD America would have really given Ricky a run for his money.

Not to be outdone by some foreigner, the group number of the night from the wonderful minds of Chris Scott and Sonya Tayeh was just phenomenal. Seeing all of those dancers on the stage at once, dancing with a kind of singularity that can only come from some kind of sci fi mind meld was amazing! And everything about it from the staging, to the music, to the dancing was otherworldly perfect. It also is one of the only group numbers of the last few weeks that doesn't center on Ricky (something the lackluster opening Broadway number can't claim), which is actually an oddly good thing. It made the number fresh and unique and gave it a kind of new breath we haven't seen in awhile.

Looking Back:

Our finalists get to choose their own favorite performances from the year. Ricky and Valerie look back to the beginning and choose to perform their first numbers from back in the Top 20 episode. Zack and Jessica look a little bit closer to home choosing recent numbers danced with All Stars. Seeing as how Jessica is a part of Ricky's choice, and Zack is a part of Valerie's, it's not like they could have chosen the same numbers as their favorites, but it's still interesting decisions since Jessica and Zack are two contestants who've really blossomed into understandable finalist as of the last few weeks. Don't get me wrong, I've pegged Zack for a finalist since the beginning, but prior to the All Stars, I think we all believed that Rudy would be in his place. But as Zack elevated himself to All Star level, he really put any doubts about his place here to rest. Jessica's storyline this year about dancing up and down to her partner predictably elevated her when she was dancing with All Stars each week. So it's only fitting the two of them would choose the performances they did.

Conversely, Ricky and Valerie are two contestants who've owned the season since the word go. In spite of not being one of the stronger female dancers this season, Valerie hasn't found herself in the bottom three even once. What I realized last night is that the constant conversation surrounding this show about dance talent vs personality really should have been being applied to Ricky and Valerie all along. It wasn't because the girls were overshadowed at every stage by the boys, and also because the judges were so busy pimping out Rudy all season long as the only person on stage with an ounce of personality. But here we are at the end and Rudy's been gone for weeks and Valerie's been holding steady. So it also makes sense the these two would go back to the beginning and choose the performances that basically started their season long stint at the top.

The judges choose the predictable numbers to be redone. There's really nothing to be said about these developments. I wasn't at all surprised that Nigel's the first of the judges to ask to see Rudy again, but I was kind of surprised that it was Dirty Diana that he choose to rewatch as opposed to one of Rudy's numbers with Tanisha. I don't want to take anything away from Rudy's work on Dirty Diana, but there's really no way to suggest he's on par with Allison here. The Jazz number he and Tanisha do revisit later on in the episode is the better pick in my opinion.

The one surprising thing from the look back element of the episode is the utter lack of Ballroom numbers. I was expecting Mary to choose one, and yet she went with Jessica and Casey's Like Real People from Travis Wall. Which is a great choice in spite of Casey stumbling a bit on the first lift after the kiss. But after a season in which the producers clearly were placing all of the eggs in the Ballroom basket, the absence of a single Ballroom number is as conspicuous as the absence of a single Ballroom competitor at this stage in the season. Last year, there was a lot of talk about the lack of Ballroom performers on the season as a whole, and now we might be seeing why. The fact is that historically, Ballroom dancers don't do as well on this show as performers from other backgrounds. As such, I for one would really like for this to be the last season to see 6 Ballroom dancers make it to the top 20.

The Results:

The reveal of the results is an odd thing. On the one hand, the reveal that Ricky is the winner of the season comes as no surprise to anyone, but the news that Zack came in 4th place really was shocking, or at least it was to me. And ousting Zack with the first results reveal added an interesting dimension to the rest of the results. After being so sure that this was going to be about Zack and Ricky, and that they'd be the last two contestants on that stage awaiting the results, the reveal that that wasn't to be the case led me to think that it might have been possible that I was also wrong about Ricky's ultimate dominance. At the very least, I would have expected one of the girls to find themselves in 4th making the top 3 two guys and one girl. Alas, it's the other way around.

The rest of the results go, more or less, according to plan and Ricky is indeed eventually named America's favorite dancer. The raw emotion on his face is worth every minute of the season. His story does a great job of capping off a decade of this show. He's wanted this since he was 8 years old, and the depth of how happy and honored he is to be given this honor it palpable. I think every winner has acknowledged that winning is a dream come true, but this might be the first time we've honestly been able to see how accurate that is.

And so there we have it. The culmination of a long and brilliant season of our favorite summer reality show. I'd love to say thank you to anyone and everyone who checked in with me week after week here. It's been a lot of fun getting to put my thoughts on each episode down in cyberspace. Actually it's been so much fun that I'm thinking of doing it again during this upcoming TV season, so I'd love suggestions for which show I should at least try to review weekly. Any thoughts?

Stray Observations:

--Big time congrats to Ricky. Even though we've all been expecting it for weeks, there was something wonderfully validating about seeing it happen. Some part of it has to be that beautiful and moving face of his.


--That moment with Jesse Tyler Ferguson on stage going back and forth with Travis Wall was freaking perfect! I would give anything for him to be long term fixture at the judge's table.

--It was interesting seeing Rudy back for 2 performances because it really reminded me of why he couldn't have been here with the others. In the dearth of amazing dancing on the night, his numbers just aren't as good. They aren't horrible either, but I find it hard to believe he could have kept up with Ricky and Zack and the All Stars.

--The final tally of the night's performances from each of the finalists is actually a lot closer than I expected. Including the two group numbers, everyone dances 5 times except Ricky who dances 6 times.