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.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Empire: "The Devils are Here"

And so starts the 2015 Fall TV schedule. Empire starts not with a bang so much as a gorilla suited Cookie roaring and thumping around in a cage, and anyone thinking the show might tamper some of it's campier moments down in its sophomore year were shown just how mistaken they were. This first episode alone features the caged gorilla, a large lesbian themed party, a severed head in a box, and guest stars such as Marisa Tomei, Chris Rock, and Al Sharpton. I guess there are benefits for breaking records left and right in your first season. But is the episode any good?

After a long hiatus I've realized that I honestly can't tell just how "good" I think Empire is any longer. It makes me laugh out loud multiple times an episode, but it also makes me roll my eyes a lot. It's headstrong enough to take on the injustice of the American justice system, but we all know it's also fickle enough to not follow through and have anything more to say than it did in this one episode. Even if I decide to engage with the show that Empire is instead of the show I want it to be, I'm still left wondering how well it tells its story and how effective anything it does is in the long run.

And so I end up watching the episodes with a kind of battle raging in my head. "The Devils are Here" opens with a concert being thrown by Empire to raise awareness about Lucious' three month long incarceration. It's good music, Empire artists, and a general fun time, and I enjoy it. And then Cookie and Lucious' brother, who I don't remember ever meeting before, use the platform to drop stats and talk openly about how unjust the American prison industrial complex is. At this point, I'm left to wonder whether or not the fact that Lucious is indeed guilty and therefore right where he should be undercuts the concert's, and by extension the show's, message about unfair incarcerations. But clearly that's thinking about things too much when the point is to be entertained by the music and curious about the hints of sapphic flirtation between Cookie and Marisa Tomei's Mimi.

Meanwhile back in what looks like one of the most minimal security prisons that anyone accused of murder has ever been interred in, everyone's abuzz with the news that Frank Gathers (Chris Rock playing strongly against type) is about to be joining them. Apparently her and Lucious and Cookie all go way back and we're told more than once that he's crazy. Cookie's cousin Jamel, last seen murdering the wrong person on Cookie's orders in a drive by, is worried about Frank's retribution and attempts to appeal to an uninterested Lucious for protection. It's protection he clearly needs as we find him later in the episode having been beaten up and, it's at least suggested, cannibalized by Frank. So I should add "bad guy who eats parts of people right in front of them while trying to get information" to the list of insane things in this episode.

But crazy doesn't mean bad. There's nothing really wrong with the prison scenes in this episode except that they take time and attention away from Empire's greatest strength: the Lyons family. Lucious is in there on his own, and while I don't hate Lucious as a character, I also don't think there's very much to him outside the confines of the rest of the family.

The real meat of the episode takes place back at Empire records. Cookie and everyone who isn't Jamal is busy trying to secure a lot of money from Mimi in order to complete their hostile takeover and remove Lucious as CEO of the company. This seems to require appealing to Mimi's homosexuality with a big girl on girl party and lots of flirting from Cookie and Anika. Anika even sleeps with her (which leads to one of the funniest lines of the night), but it's all to no avail. Mimi has an off screen meeting with Lucious and decides to throw her money and influence behind him and Jamal. In another show, I'd lament the fact that so many of these scenes take place off camera, but the truth is I think it was for the best here. In last season's finale, I mentioned how uninterested in the hostile takeover storyline I was. This is mostly because in that episode they seemed more interested in explaining the legal side of it like I was in business school. But here they put it all in basic and dramatic terms and it works. Andre, Cookie, Hakeem and Anita need a couple hundred million dollars for Mimi and they set out to get it. By the end of the episode, they seem to have it and move in to make their announcement only to find out they've been double crossed. No talk about percentages or major shares or the strategy behind corporate takeovers. They set a reasonable and understandable goal and they go after it and then they succeed and yet still fail. It's basic storytelling, and that's where the show needs to stay.

The important thing about all of this is always the family. Jamal and Hakeem, once so close, are clearly at each other's throats over Jamal being named the heir apparent. Cookie is claiming left and right that she's trying to unseat Lucious not to oust Jamal, but to bring the family together, and through those statements we see just how torn apart it all is. Also, the more Cookie says "I'm doing this for you" the more I see Walter White saying "I'm doing this for my family," and I can't help but to think if the two characters aren't more similar than I ever gave them credit for being before. But either way, the fact that so much of these developments, even Anika's sex session with Mimi, happen off camera allows us to stick with the Lyons family and see the fallout from their schemes and plots.

It all adds up to one of the better episodes of the show. It elevates what Empire is good at, while limiting its flaws. But it's also the first episode in a show that's seen its season order bumped up from 12 to 18. I'm walking into this season not expecting any real serialization, no really deep commentary on the important social issues they continue to bring up but only skate over the surface, and for the show to continue at a breakneck speed that will make your head spin. My expectations, however, are that since I know to expect those things, they won't be so shocking or annoying this season as they were last. Also, in the event that the show decides to surprise me and carry those elements a little better this year, it'll all be for the better. Here's hoping, but not really expecting.

Random thoughts:

--Jamal's story this episode, if not this whole season, seems to be about how much he's losing himself in the wake of trying to fill Lucious' shoes. He's more forceful than is at all warranted with his boyfriend, uninterested in throwing his face behind this LGBT cause, and hasn't been able to make time to get into the studio at all while his current album keeps falling from the top spot on the charts. On top of that, his interactions with Hakeem and Cookie are heartbreaking since his relationships with those two were the stronger parts of last season. I'd by lying if I said I wasn't both excited and curious to see where this all led.

--Speaking of Jamal's boyfriend, Michael's back. No word on why or how, or why they seem to have an exclusively Spanish speak butler, but there's that, I guess.

--The exceptionally fast pace that was both the boon and the bane of last season is back as Chris Rock's character is both introduced and killed off in this one episode. I can't tell if I'm more impressed by that or disappointed that they didn't get more out of powerhouse like Rock.

--Conversely, Marisa Tomei's character could stand to stick around. IMDB only has her listed as being on this one episode, but lord knows they've been wrong in the past. Fingers crossed that we get more of her in the weeks to come.

--There's one dream / memory sequence for Andre about what he and Rhonda did to Vernon, but that seems to be about where that storyline ends this week. I'm assuming it'll be one of the serialized elements of this season and I'm already not looking forward to it.

--I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the final scene between Cookie and Jamal! It's really fucking fantastic and Henson and Smollett absolutely kill it. The moment he breaks down after closing the door and the look on her face as he backs her out are just priceless.

--"You can't even dyke right!" has got to be one of the funniest lines in TV history.

--Likewise, every time Porsha is on screen is a treasure.

Short Film Review: Pink Moon

Pink Moon (2014)
Written & Directed by Sal Bardo

I want to try something new: Reviews on short films. I wrote a couple towards the start of this blog, but at some point I just spiraled into only covering TV. Which isn't a bad thing; I love TV and it's more than worthy of attention, and with Empire starting up again this week, you can be sure there's more week to week reviews to come. But I love short form storytelling just as much as I do long form, so why have I been neglecting short films? Well, whatever the reason, hopefully I can be diligent a let that end now.

Pink Moon is a short that I've watched twice now and I can't quite figure out if I think it's brilliant or if I think I'm just a sap. The truth is that it has a strong affect on me either way, so I guess you have to say it's a success. The story takes place in a society where the roles are reversed and homosexuality is the norm while heterosexuals are the persecuted minority. On top of that, abortion is illegal and there seem to be strict rules in place geared towards global population control. It centers around Ben and Emily, two teenagers in love and working to hide their forbidden straight relationship and terminate their unplanned pregnancy. Through this conflict, the film does strong work showing just how important open and ready access to abortions and better health practices are. The horror of shady back alley abortions is something we should all want to avoid at all cost, and the film isn't shy about suggesting such.

One of Pink Moon's greatest strengths can be found in the performances of the two leads, Brandon Tyler Harris and Cole Johnston. In quick and quiet moments, the couple's love for each other is made plain and they come off not as deluded Romeo and Juliette stand ins, but as mature and loving people trying to make the best of a shitty situation. Emily in particular seems to be worried about disappointing her mothers (of whom we only meet one) and upsetting the life they've all had planned for her.

There is one mark against Pink Moon as far as I can tell: Ben's boyfriend Leo. He's here to represent some mark of normalcy for the society in which they live, and obviously Ben only has a boyfriend because it's expected of him much in the same way that gay men have long been marrying women in our real world. But the two scenes with Leo feel oddly ungrounded and unbelievable. Or to be more specific, we don't know enough about Leo to know exactly how to respond to his two scenes. Is he a good guy who's been pushed over the edge by dating someone he's clearly into but who refuses to have sex with him? If so, does that justify him finding a piece of paper with a phone number on it and battling against his boyfriend to call it against his wishes and then getting two of his friends to beat up said boyfriend while shouting slurs of "Breeder!" at him? Or is he just an all around horrible person? If so, why were he and Ben dating in the first place? I think one scene in between the phone call and the straight bashing scene would have been enough to better illuminate Leo's motivations, but without that he's left a little flat.

Other than that, I think Pink Moon posits an interesting if not totally revelatory world and then sets out to do it justice. And it's the rare kind of Queer film that doesn't seek to villianize the straight characters. Indeed, how can it given its basic premise? Instead, by the end, you're rooting for the straight couple and hoping they'll be able to craft the kind of life they really want and within which they'll be the most happy. It's a very enjoyable 17 minutes, and well worth your time.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

So You Think You Can Dance S12E12 & 13

We're mere weeks away from the blessed end of this much derided, and probably final, season of So You Think You Can Dance, and I find myself increasingly happy about that. Since that amazing tenth episode, things continued their downward trend for the show; so much so that I honestly had nothing at all to say after last week's episode. It's wasn't overly surprising, and I don't think I'm even capable of being disappointed any longer, it was all just so bland. This week isn't too different, truth be told, so I'm not sure how to go about talking about these last few episodes. If there's one thing I'm kind of surprised over it's just how much the gender dynamics have evened out on this season. There were two guys and two girls on each team this week before Neptune and Derek went home leaving Virgil and Jim as the sole guys in the top six. But that's about all of the surprise I'm capable of mustering. So I think I'm going to do something a little different and talk about the last six contestants left in preparation for what's to come.

Hailee is my favorite dancer left on team Stage. I think she's really pretty, wonderfully talented, with a great personality and a fun spirit. She hasn't really faltered much this season at all, but she also hasn't been challenged much. This is due to the easier choreography and the abundance of Hip Hop and Contemporary (or Jazz) numbers we've seen. I don't think we've really seen Hailee do anything outside of those genres so far in the competition. To her credit, she's done them all well, and I doubt she'd have much trouble with something like Latin Ballroom if she were to ever have to do it, but we also can't know for sure because of how paired down this season has been. Originally, I thought this was due to the Stage vs Street conceit, and I still think that that has a lot to do with it, but after hearing multiple sources saying it was between changing the show or getting cancelled last season, I'm starting to wonder if the elevation of the viewers' favorite styles isn't in an attempt to pull in more eyeballs. Either way, it's to the detriment of the show and the performers.

I was surprised to find her in the bottom this week, but not too much so. We're getting to the point where the people in the bottom and going home might not be about anything they didn't do or don't have in their arsenal but just about the fact that someone has to go. Her dance with FikShun at least was great and worth keeping her around hopefully for another week. She's more than proved what she's capable of doing in Hip Hop over the past few weeks, and watching her keep up with a previous winner was great fun. Much like Virgil, FikShun brings a fun personality and more than enough energy for Hailee to play off of. It's easy to see why she'd deliver such great performances with both of them.

Jaja is my favorite dancer left on team Street, and every week I'm left with the same feeling: She was more than good enough to make it far last season, and while I'm happy to see what all she can do this year, I would have loved to watch her work against the stronger contestants and with the stronger choreography of last season. Her solos are never anything short of strong, hard hitting, and intricate. She's got a control over her body that makes her fun to watch, and she's always so good at choreographing something to each little tick and bass drop in the music.

She's also one of the more versatile dancers on the show, or at least one of the ones who's been put
through her paces a bit more, with Broadway and Bollywood routines thrown at her in just the last two weeks alone. Both of those performances were stellar, and she, like Hailee, was given the task of keeping up with a former winner (last year's Ricky) and she more than holds her own. My default setting is to stare at Ricky when he's on stage, it's an old habit from last year as he just pulls attention so effortlessly, but I couldn't stop my gaze from drifting back to Jaja in this number because she's just so good. I think her personality is every bit as big and impressive as Hailee's, but she's more understated in some ways. She's more than capable of letting her dancing speak for itself and I can't help but to think that no matter what these next few weeks hold for her, she won't have trouble finding work in the years to come.

Megz rounds out my own personal top three at this point. I think she's got a style and a bearing all her own, and there's something refreshing about her uniqueness. I think we've seen a lot of different female contestants over the years, but for the most part they tend to fall closer to the feminine end of the spectrum; at least the ones who make it this far usually do. Megz has a way of flouting that while not having to come across as purely masculine. She's really just herself and that's appealing. I think it has a lot to do with how far she's made it thus far.

Sadly, last night's Paso Doble was the first real test she's had thus far and it came on a night that already saw her in the bottom four. The truth is that she didn't dance it all that well and there aren't really any excuses for that. However, I watched the performance and was left wondering if she'd been able to do a ballroom number or two prior to this point, or had been asked to do it in Vegas maybe, would she have been better prepared for this number? She looked far more out of her depth dancing outside her element this week than contestants tend to look in the top eight performance episode, and I can't help but to wonder if that doesn't have something to do with how coddled she and the rest of the contestants have been with these simple routines all in the same two genres. Sadly, I don't see her making it through next week, but that's got as much to do with the strength of Virgil as it does the weakness of her performance this week.

Virgil's status as the heir apparent to FikShun should be pretty obvious by now. They're both small Hip Hop dancers with big personalities who work their tails off to bring it each week they dance outside their styles. Virgil admits to his stint on (or was it off) Broadway, so we know he's got experience beyond the Street level. It explains a lot of why he's been so solid in the Broadway and Contemporary routines he's been given thus far. He's another contestant who hasn't danced any Ballroom or anything more extreme like Bollywood or Disco. This week's African Jazz was the closest he's really come to being pushed all that hard, and he actually managed to dance that well if not bring the top notch performance we're used to.

In fact, if there's a question still to be answered about Virgil it's whether or not he can convincibly
perform against type. He's so cute and fun and energetic and bubbly that when he's given a character that's more sinister and stoic, like he was this week, he has to try a lot harder to convey those things. He didn't do as good a job with this one as I think he could have, but he danced it well. So whereas Hailee and Jaja have proven themselves capable of tackling anything that's thrown at them, Virgil seems able to dance whatever they give him, but only tends to be given these same kinds of characters week after week with us unable to tell if he's got a wider range than that. If it's a complaint or a criticism, it's a small one, and one I'd feel better leveling at the choreographers than at Virgil himself. These kinds should have been tested a lot harder than this so far and that failing isn't their own. With that being said, Virgil hasn't found himself in danger once this entire competition, and while I'm not sure if he's got what it takes to win like FikShun did, I do think he's a shoe in for the finale.

Gaby has gone from a contestant I never remembered being on the show until I was watching her dance to someone that I think is another shoe in for the finale. In fact, I think Gaby might have what it takes to win the whole thing. She's crazy talented, and while her personality doesn't stick out as much as Hailee and Jaja's does, she's had a really strong dark horse quality about her these last few weeks which have seen her really vault to the top of the competition. The weakest part of her performances in the last two weeks have been her solos. They haven't been bad, but they've been stock Tap fare that we've seen a lot of in the last couple years. There were two Tappers on the show last year, so I think the bar has been raised on what we expect from a Tap solo, and I don't think Gaby's done anything to make me impressed on that level. She's got a strong rhythm and musicality that you expect from a Tapper, but there's yet to be that wow factor that I think we're used to.

Instead, she seems to save that aspect for her paired dances which have been great. The Hip Hop
number she did with Joshua last week was really strong and at the time I thought it might have been good enough to see it again on the finale, but then I watched her performance with Robert this week and I think that that's actually the number we'll be seeing again in a couple weeks. It wasn't only the best performance of the night, it's one of the better performances of the season. I think the first line of credit goes to Mandy Moore who returns after a too long absence and brings a level of creativity that has been sorely lacking this year. It's another of those dancers embodying abstract ideas kind of numbers that I love so much. And watching Gaby as a person struggling with strong social anxiety was just brilliant. It's also a number where I think Mandy's explanation of what the number was about enhanced the performance and clearly found itself embodied in the movement and both performances. On top of that, it's the sort of number that Robert's been excelling at since his time on the show, so it was great to see him as the all star for it. The judges have been a bit liberal with the standing ovations lately, but this was one performance where it was more than deserved. If Gaby does go on to win, I think we'll be looking back at this night as the one where she put it away.

Jim rounds out the top six and he's got the unenviable position of a dancer with all the technical ability in the world and not nearly enough performance ability or personality. Where Gaby fades into the background in her solos, Jim shines and effortlessly justifies his continued presence on the show. But then the partnered numbers come around and you're left feeling flat. I assumed this would be a problem from him way back when he had to share an interesting fact about himself and the best he could come up with was that he likes baths. Now we see him lacking in any kind of passion or connection to his partners and it's just sad. The All Stars usually serve to elevate the show and the performers to new heights, bringing something out of them that their fellow contestants often can't seem to reach, but in the case of Jim the opposite is true: he was better off dancing with his contemporaries because at least then his technical abilities were able to outshine the competition and justify keeping him around.

In the last two weeks we've seen him dance with Jessica and Comfort, both of whom are just as technically strong in what they do, and it leaves him being overshadowed either in technique (as is the case with Comfort in the Hip Hop number this week) or in performance (as with Jessica last week). Given the results, I'm guessing America saw something in his number with Jessica worth picking up the phone for. I fully expected him to be in the bottom this week with Derek going home, but for some reason he was safe and Hailee was in danger. To his credit, he danced the number as well as he could, but I still think he just looked like a Ballet boy playing at Hip Hop, and gone is all the undeserved praise Nigel heaped on him after his Hip Hop number with Jaja earlier this season.

The voting this week left me feeling unsure about what's coming next week. Either Megz and Hailee's fanbase isn't strong enough to rally and keep them in the competition, or it was just a momentary lapse and Hailee, at least, finds herself beating out Jim for a spot in the finale. I don't think Megz is strong enough to beat out Jaja and Virgil for a spot at the top of team Street, so I have to assume she's going home next week. But if Hailee goes with her, then we'll end up with a Jim, Gaby, Jaja, and Virgil top four which will see the early gender imbalance of the season rectified and give us an even split. I'd be lying if I said I was excited or curious about what was to come, but the fact of the matter is that this season has been so weak that the most interesting storyline to follow thus far has been the shifts in the numbers along gender lines. It's a sign of just how far SYTYCD has fallen that as we gear up for the finale I'm more interested in talking about how many boys and girls there are on the show than I am about the actual dancing.

Random Thoughts:

--One of the good things the show is doing is the video packages at the end as we say good bye to the contestants. The other contestants offering their thoughts and what they'll miss about their fallen friends is very touching, though I have to wonder how they went about getting the segments. Were they specifically asked "Hey, what are you going to miss about Derek when he leaves this week?" or is it something more misleading? If they're being told before hand who's going and who's staying, then I'm not sure what to think anymore.

--On the other hand, the judges comments this week made it so obvious who'd be in trouble and who was safe that they should be ashamed. They need to do a better job of that and tone down the "Your career going forward will be so bright if you just..." talk.

--I enjoyed the idea of the dancers doing their solos to songs from Empire last week. It was a nice piece of cross promotion, though it was obvious who was more comfortable picking a song and who wasn't. Derek's audio-only Drip Drop told me he wasn't sold on it at all. They all picked their own music this week and he went with a about two men in love. I'm happy Derek's been able to wear his sexuality on his sleeve this entire time, so many other performers in the past weren't able to. But I would have liked him to pick a better song last week. There are gay people on Empire too, Derek!

--Same-Sex Speculation Space: One of my very very favorite performances in the history of SYTYCD was done by Mia Michaels (surprise surprise) and it was danced by Billy Bell, Alex Wong, and Ade. Instead of suggesting my own story for a Same-Sex dance this week, I'm just going to refer back to this one and ask for more stuff like that. In fact, now that I think about it, it's odd just how good the show used to be at Same-Sex numbers even when they didn't have to have them like they did this year. Billy Bell and Ade also had another of my all time favorite numbers. And who could forget this Lacey and Sabra number? What the fuck happened, guys?

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

So You Think You Can Dance S12E11

I thought, after last week's stellar episode, that maybe I had judged this season too harshly and we were finally getting back into what made this show great. The talent's been culled sufficiently enough that we can believe only the best are left, and we're gearing up for the top 10 which is always an exciting time. And then this episode happened and it became painfully clear that Burim and Asaf weren't season 12's problem; the Street v. Stage conceit and the choreographers are. It's enough to make you see that this show at its best is a well oiled machine of wonderfully working parts. The talented dancers work in tandem with the genius choreographers to bring their vision to life, and then the judges work to bring it all down to earth and give us solid critiques to help us make some level of sense of what we've just seen. At different points of the season, one or more of those cogs weren't spinning properly, and this week I think it's the choreographers.

Though to be fair, when they get it right, they get it very very right. Jim and Yorelis open the night with a number welcoming back a very busy Sonya Tayeh back to the SYTYCD stable of choreographers. And everything about the piece is perfect. It's danced wonderfully, and everything from the concept to the costuming is just pitch perfect. I watched it with my jaw on the ground and my eye bulging and I thought the hot streak of the season would continue. Sadly, it was a bumpy ride from that point on, but we at least started on a serious high note.

Jaja and Edson turn out a good but not great (by any means) performance that left me thinking more about Jaja's skill level at giving a great performance than it did anything else. It was enough to make me think, and not for the first time I might add, that she would have been a welcome addition to the program last year if she'd made it. The girls from  last year were never very strong and none of them really stood out at any given time. Jaja would have been the one to really carry the girls through the performances, and she would have been quite a character amongst those other contestants. I don't think she could have challenged Ricky for the win, but it would have been nice to watch anyway. I will say that watching the judges disagree at the end of the performance was a lot of fun. Maybe they do all have real opinions after all.

Virgil and Hailee are paired together again for a Tyce routine. Tyce is one of my least favorite choreographers, or at least I find him to be one of the more hit or miss choreographers in the bunch.
You never know one week to the next what you're going to get from him, though recently I think we've seen a lot more bad than good. This number isn't one of his worst, but I did think it was oddly choreographed. It was a story about a possessive woman who refuses to let her man leave her, and the guy who is trying to do just that. And yet there were multiple moments in the piece where Virgil seemed to go towards Hailee and pick her up off the ground instead of taking his shot and just leaving. I've had this problem with Tyce before where I think his idea is solid but then I watch the performance and can't help but to think that I can't see it being translated into the specific movement. At the very least, Virgil and Hailee danced it well and presented yet another strong performance from the pair of them, this time more in Hailee's comfort zone than Virgil's. If they'd been paired together this whole time, they'd be a force to be reckoned with heading into the top 10. And collectively they've got personality for days.

If the first three performances of the night ranged from great to good, the Jazz number between Alexia and Ariana started the overall doom of the episode. It's interesting that the two worst numbers came from same-sex pairings. I've been clamoring for more of these kinds of pairs for the duration of time that I've been watching the show, but what I really wanted were good same-sex dances. I should have been clearer. Instead, the two same-sex numbers of the night have the girls portraying burlesque dancers and pinup models.  Don't get me wrong, there's nothing at all wrong with being a burlesque dancer or a pinup model, but it does expose just how limited the choreographers are when it comes to thinking up stories for female dancers. Any all girl performance thus far this season has either been sexy for sexiness' sake, or some bland blanket level "girl power" concept. The judges aren't shy about ripping the girls in both of these dances (Alexia and Ariana in this one, and then JJ and Kate a bit later on) a new one for their performance, but no one thinks to acknowledge the fact that they never should have been asked to do this in the first place? Remember a few seasons back when two of the guys performed some weird Russian jumping dance and Nigel was quick to point out that it wasn't them it was the style, and we've never seen that style on the show again? Where was that same level of concern for these girls? Instead the judges say things like they clearly didn't commit to doing what they were told, and they should just fake it till they make it when put in a position to perform something they don't believe in or that makes them uncomfortable. The extent of how problematic all of this is would break my brain if I tried to parse it all out. Suffice it to say I'm way more disappointed in the choreographers of these pieces than I am the dancers.

The other two performances of the night aren't much better. Megz and Derek's hip hop number is painful to watch. Megz is at least OK and seems to do just about all she can with a significantly inferior dancer in Derek. He's back from missing last week and clearly needs to knock his performance out of the park since his lack of performing automatically put him in the bottom three this week. And yet at no point does he show even a hint of an ability to dance Hip Hop. He dances too high, in his shoulders, and with too much control to hit his pops at all hard enough. It was bad enough to show that had he been asked to dance outside of his style during Vegas week, he probably wouldn't even have made it to the top 20. Unless my notes deceive me, or I missed something, it's his first time dancing a hip hop number, and it comes right before the formation of the top 10. Pathetic. Neptune and Gaby's dancing isn't horrible, but it's a routine in which Stacey Tookey has decided to tackle racism. And of course it looks and feels like just about every conversation I've ever heard about racism from the point of view of a white person. In short, she's not the person to tackle this subject, and she clearly should have left well enough alone.

The group numbers at least brought a high level of skill and concept to the close of the show. Sonya
having two numbers on the night was exactly the right way to go as her number for Team Stage about the immediate moment when you get heartbreakingly bad news is really perfect. And the weird carnival sideshow number for Team Street was a lot of fun too. At this point, it feels like Team Street's group numbers have been been more about team work and pulling together than Stage's have. This one sees all the members of the circus together, dancing, and celebrating their differences. It's both very straight forward and very rewarding all at once.

In the end, the judges can't save anyone, it's fully up to America's twitter voting to decide which one dancer from each team's bottom three will go on to join the top 10. Therefore, it should come as no surprise to anyone that Neptune and Derek (the only two guys in the bottom at all) get saved. Derek's rewarded for his horrid Hip Hop number by being allowed to stick around for awhile, and Neptune stays in spite of Yorelis' significantly superior performance on the night. It's not that Neptune doesn't deserve it. To me, he shouldn't have been in the bottom in the first place. It's just that if this is the week he ended up in the bottom and we were basing who to save on the performances of the episode, Yorelis is a the keeper for sure. But it's just another lackluster result from this lackluster season, so what more can we even expect?

Random Thoughts:

--Shout out to Megz’s Celebrity Man Crush question to Derek during their video package. Acknowledging our guys sexuality is important and something this show has always shied away from in the past.

--One of the things I noticed in this episode was just how undiverse the dance forms all were. In the episode to decide the top 10, every sing performance was either Jazz, Contemporary, or Hip-Hop. No ballroom, broadway, disco, or Bollywood in the entire hour? What the fuck is up with that?

--Same-Sex Speculation Space: In spite of the show's obvious lack of interest in presenting any good same-sex stories, I've decided to keep this going. This week, the guys. Imagine a routine about two guys who are best friends. One of them has a kid, the other doesn't, and the guy with a kid has recently found out that his wife has died and he's going to be left to raise their baby on his own. His friend comes over to offer his support in the matter, but the guy in a pure macho man fashion refuses to show his weakness to his buddy. In my head, I'm seeing something where one of the contestants puts on a bravado and brave face each time the two of them are facing each other, but every time his friend's back is turned, he breaks down and his true pain, fear, and despair shines through. Until the end when he clearly asks for help and allows his friend to see just how vulnerable he is. 

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

So You Think You Can Dance S12E10

Last year around this time, SYTYCD was shaping its Top 10 in an episode that I had nothing but glowing praise for. This year, the show isn't as good, the talent isn't as strong, and we're still one week away from finalizing the Top 10, but this was just as strong of an hour of dance as that one was. I didn't think I'd find myself in a position to say it again but this is why I watch this show. This episode served as a reminder about all the good this series has to offer the world, and if they'd been bringing it at this level for the entire season, I think I'd be lamenting the show's probable cancellation a lot more than I have been. But on the other hand, if each episode had featured such a group of stunning performances by now, maybe the effect would have warn off and this episode would have paled in comparison. I don't want to recommend mediocrity as a course of action, but I do think that the fact of the matter is that this episode sores as high as it does in some small part because of just how bad and boring the episodes before it were. The routines were also original, challenging, and well thought out in a way that they haven't been this season, and they were danced with a fire and passion we haven't seen so far, but I still think the low bar set by the earlier episodes made it easier for this episode to be so rejoiced.

This, I think, rings truer for the first paired performance of the night, Jaja and Hailee in a jazz routine. I loved it when I watched it taking place. Hailee and Jaja are easily my two favorite performers on the show so far (with Megz rounding out my own personal top three), and I've been hoping for more same-sex dancing on this season as the gulf between the girls and guys gets wider and wider. The general "Girl Power" theme of the number is so played out on the show that I wanted to gouge my eyes out when I heard it, but Hailee and Jaja bring a fun and playfulness, but also a strength and fire to it that it made the routine worth my momentary cringe. So the point is that I enjoyed the number very much and I thought it was a great way to kick off the episode, and then as things went on I totally forgot it had even existed in the face of the better routines that followed it. This isn't meant to be a mark against these two, but I wonder if they won't find themselves in the bottom next week based simply on how forgettable the number was in the grand scheme of the rest of the episode. I wouldn't be surprised if their fanbase was strong enough to vote them through, but I also wouldn't be surprised if they found themselves in danger (though still pushed through to the top 10) next week.

Part of this is because the Alexia and Neptune number that follows them is just so much fun and so great to watch. I don't know that Alexia brought out the very best Hip Hop performance we've ever seen from a Contemporary girl (in fact I know she hasn't since this routine from Lauren and tWitch still exists), but I do know that there was something phenomenal about this number. First off, Neptune brings yet another high level of chemistry to a "romantic" performance. Last week he was vibeing with Kate on a level I didn't think possible for a mismatched pair who hadn't ever danced together, and this week it's Alexia. Both performances were real and believable, but this one was also fun and intriguing. I think we've seen all kinds of relationships on this show over the years, but this has to be the first time we've seen one between two mental patients. It was genius, and cute, and so much fun, and wonderfully danced, and everything you hope a performance on this show will be. Alexia's face went through a range of expressions and emotions throughout it that I think really sold the character, and both of them just preformed it wonderfully.

After two stellar performances and news of Derek's injury, I was expecting a less than impressive Ballroom number from JJ, and then I was wrong. It would be easy to attribute the skill and effectiveness of this number on the presence of the choreographer dancing with JJ. If anyone's going to know how to dance the number, it's the person that created it. But the fact of the matter is that JJ was honestly the star in this pairing; I couldn't take my eyes off of her. I don't want to down play the amount of that which is due to his partnering in the first place. One of the things I find fascinating about a lot of ballroom numbers is the fact that the male partner is often there to simply present and be there for the female partner. He often has more to do than just lift and pose, but in a lot of these kinds of numbers the guy is meant to be an afterthought really. And that's what happened here. Who knows if the number would have been as remarkable had Derek been well enough to perform it with her. Given that his injury came while practicing the lifts, it seems like he's lacking the upper body and core strength needed to pull this routine off. But whatever the case could have been had he been in there, we know what it was without him, and it was great. If I have one complaint, it's that the sexiness of the routine seemed to come from the costuming and the choreography more so than from any actual connection between the two dancers, but that's to be expected in some ways.

Everything up until this point in the night was good, but the number of the evening was Jim and Ariana's Contemporary piece about a man's struggle with depression. I'll admit my bias here; I love the performances on this show that have a dancer embodying more of an abstract concept than an actual person. Mia Michaels' Addiction piece will forever be a standout for doing just that. So as soon as Cheeseman said the word depression I was hooked. But then Jim (towards whom I'm decidedly indifferent) and Ariana (whom I actually like but haven't committed to memory until now) danced it and it was even more brilliant than I originally expected. Nigel mentioned that Hailee and Virgil's performance from last week would be remembered from here on out, but I think this will be the number that comes out of this season and lives on in SYTYCD history as maybe one of the top three or five best things to ever come out of the show. There was a strange indifference and detachment to Ariana's performance that I loved. While Kupono's stint as Addiction was more malevolent, Ariana's Depression just kind of was. There was a matter of fact quality to it that I thought worked wonders because depression isn't malevolent, it isn't malicious, it just kind of is. And Jim's struggle to get out of it was believable. I thought at the time that he could have shown a bit more sadness in his face, but now I think it's possible that his character was maybe past any sadness and had moved on to just a sheer force of will to break out. And if that's the case, I think it worked. Either way, I loved this from start to finish and I'll be shocked if either of them find themselves in the bottom next week.

I could go number by number like this, but the fact is that the rest of the episode ran apace of what came before. Virgil and Gaby had a really fun and cute broadway number that had me grinning and laughing out loud for a lot of it. And Marissa and Yorelis' hip hop number was good, though not great. The lowest point of the night came from Asaf and Kate's number, but that was no surprise. To his credit, Asaf was better than he was in that horrendous waste of time last week, but he still showed why he shouldn't have been kept around. The best moment was during the video package when Kate confirmed what I said last week: his being her partner made her fearful of her own safety. It's an eye opening moment of honesty. She cries because on the one hand she wants to help him get better and carry him through the performance, but on the other hand she can't really relax into any of the lifts because she's constantly scared he'll drop her. These contestants put their bodies, careers, and lives in one another's hands each week, and to keep someone around who isn't up to the task of taking care of his partner is negligent. And the judges' thin and pathetic justifications for keeping him felt like a slap in the face of everything this show has stood for over the last 12 seasons. This wasn't a case of America simply failing to see the greatness within a dancer (like Billy Bell for example) and constantly letting him fall into the bottom for the judges to save him and try to impress upon everyone how great he really is. It was simply about them pushing their own agenda in hopes of getting the best story. But it's over now, America put him in the bottom again and the judges did what they should have done last week and sent him home.

But instead of ending on that sour note, I think it's worth mentioning the other standout performance of the night. I was hard on the judges for keeping Edson instead of Moises last week, but given his performance with Megz this week, I think it's clear that they made the right choice. I don't think Moises had the strength to pull of that number as well as Edson did, so this was a situation of a more optimal pairing. Plus this new choreographer, Talia, is really quite wonderful. It's another number where a dancer embodies something abstract instead of a character, this time with Edson performing as Temptation and Megz as the tempted party, and it's just brilliant. The stuff with the shirts, and the hiding, and the lifts, and the eventual acceptance at the end, it was all wonderful. A great end to the best string of performances the season has seen.

The group numbers were fun too, but I'm starting to think they've run their course. Marissa goes home from team stage which will at least stop the bleeding of male contestants for awhile. During the team stage group number, I had a moment of shock when I thought Edson and Jim were the last two guys on the team altogether before I remembered that Derek was just hurt for the week. The girls are clearly better, I've said it a number of times by now, and I can't help but to wonder if we aren't in for an all female top six or five. After all, the street team is officially down to just Virgil and Neptune for the guys. But whatever the ultimate gender breakdown of the show when we reach the end, if they keep having episodes like this one, I can at least say it'll be worth the ride to find out.


--Same-Sex Speculation Space: given the continued shift towards an all girl group by the last few weeks of the show, and also given my continued urging for the show to embrace same-sex pairings for their dances, I've decided to create a space where I can posit stories for same-sex numbers in the future which have nothing to do with romance since I think the show tends to shy away from these pairings because they don't want the romantic implications. Let's start with the girls: imagine a number, maybe a Broadway or a Jazz number, about an older dancer who's time is running out and a young girl who reminds her a lot of herself at that age. The young girl is all sex appeal and easy talent which makes her not want to put in the hard work to be as great as she could be, and instead of being jealous and catty about it, the older woman tries to take the young girl under her wing and inspire her to be the great dancer she's meant to be. Nothing romantic about it, and not the typical "women fighting and being jealous" storyline we're used to seeing. But also not the general "girl power" rubber stamp the choreographers tend to roll out in these situations. You're welcome, SYTYCD, I'll let you have that one for free.

--My mention of Virgil and Gaby's performance was brief, but I really have to say that I was laughing for a couple minutes when they pulled out those glasses. Those two have personality for days and it's so worth it.

--I complained last week about how the lack of pairs stops us from having the "learn more about this dancer" segments that the show usually has, and then they rolled out the "one thing America doesn't know about me" segment this week. Kudoes to Kate (almost kidnapped? wtf?!), Virgil (awesome Jazz band), and Derek (cute adoption story) for actually picking interesting and worthwhile facts. Everyone else either bored me to tears or at least were pretty simple and straight forward as if they hadn't put any real thought into it.

--I think one part of why this episode's performances were so much better was that the choreographers finally took off the kid gloves and started putting the contestants through their paces with these routines. It looked like there were a few lifts in the video package for Asaf and Kate that were edited out of the final number, but that doesn't seem like it's for lack of trying on Cheeseman's part to get them in there in the first place.

--I really liked Nigel's Nigel’s point about Yorelis looking like she hasn’t been choreographed but just feels the music and lets it move through her. She's not my favorite, but she's certainly got that particular quality, and I never could have found the words for it without Nigel pointing it out.

--What're the chances Burim could have danced with Kate in that number better than Asaf did? I know it's not a strict one-to-one trade off since the pairs aren't set. If Burim had stayed, he could have just as easily been with Gaby instead of Kate this week. but since he was gotten rid of instead of Asaf, I just felt the need to compare the two, and I can't help but to think he would have turned out a better performance to show why he deserved to be kept around than Asaf did.

--Is it just me or is Derulo actually getting more helpful and more palatable as the show goes on?