The Room Where It Happens

There’s an interesting phenomena in Hollywood that I like to refer to as the “Noah’s Ark” effect. Based on the frequency that reboots and sequels are churned out, it probably isn’t too surprising that there is something of a lack of creativity in the entertainment industry. Since there is a lot of money at stake, companies are more likely to take a chance on established intellectual properties that theoretically have a ready-built audience than go out on a limb with something new or unexpected. But studios also don’t want to miss out on what is potentially the next big thing, which is where the “Noah’s Ark” effect comes in. There is a tendency that when one project is being developed, another studio is developing something very similar about the same time. If Disney is contemplating a live-action Jungle Book, then Warner Brothers is going to put out a live-action Jungle Book as well. Olympus Has Fallen is answered with White House Down. The Prestige and The Illusionist both came out in 2006. I’m not 100% convinced that Friends With Benefits and No Strings Attached aren’t the same freaking movie. There’s a weird group-think that seems to believe that if one movie is successful, audiences are going to want another movie with a pretty similar premise. Now sometimes both projects never see the light of day, but the frequency with which this happens is somewhat startling.

While this is most noticeable in films, the “Noah’s Ark” effect extends to television as well. This summer, for example, two new anthology series debuted, both with the same hook that each story focuses on the events in a singular room. In HBO’s Room 104, that singular room is a motel room, while in TBS’ Guest Book the focal point is a rental cabin. While the two series differ in tone, the basic premise is the same – each week, the stories of the new residents of the motel room/cabin are told. On paper, both series are pretty similar, but their differences in execution allow them both to have a place in the crowded TV marketplace. I liked them both, for very different reasons.

HBO’s Room 104 comes from the minds of the Duplass brothers (Mark and Jay) and is the more pure anthology series of the two. From what I’ve seen before, each episode is a stand-alone story, with no connection to the episode before or after it except for the same setting. The episodes also vary in tone; while the two episodes that have aired so far were both unsettling in their own way, the premier was closer to a horror movie while the second episode was something else entirely. While the basic composition of the room stays the same, its appearance also changes week to week, depending on the story being told. Sometimes Room 104 looks dingy, and other times it looks more upscale. Both episodes went in interesting and unexpected directions; Room 104 seems to share some the same DNA as The Twilight Zone or Black Mirror, though it really should be judged on its own merits rather than in comparison to either of those series. While the Duplass brothers oversee the series, they bring in different writers and directors to work on the series.

Guest Book, however, is much more traditional series; it comes from the singular mind of creator Greg Garcia, who was the man behind My Name is Earl and Raising Hope. While the main focus of each episode is on the different inhabitants of Froggy Cottage, there are through lines that connect one episode to another, making it clear that these all take place in the same universe. There are recurring characters that appear in the episodes (some familiar faces for those that have enjoyed Garcia’s other series) and there are side stories that occur over multiple episodes. Tonally, Guest Book is more traditional as well; this is just a straight-up comedy. If you like the first episode, you’ll probably enjoy the second. It’s a less daring series, but it scratches a particular itch.

Both series benefit from the fact that the main characters in each episode are different; because the commitment of the actors is only for one episode, both series are able to get some very well-known actors to come and play in their respective sandboxes. What attracted me to Guest Book wasn’t the premise, but the impressive comedic roster that they were able to assemble: Dani Pudi, Jenna Fischer, Lauren Lapkus, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Stockard Chinning, Michael Rappaport, and Margo Martindale are among the guests that check in. A show that attracts that quality of actor is something that I want to see. With Room 104, I was more attracted to the premise, though the show also boasts some impressive actors as well. It was a pleasant surprise to see James Van Der Beek and Clark Duke turn up in the second episode.

I’ll continue watching both series, though if push came to shove I’d choose Room 104 over Guest Book, simply because the oddity of the former is more in my wheelhouse. I appreciate consistency, especially in comedies, but if I’m watching an anthology series, I’m looking for a show that is willing to take chances and play around with the format. I’m sure that there are episodes of Room 104 that I’m not going to dig as much, but I still appreciate a show that is doing something different. Guest Book is more like comfort food, while Room 104 is more like fusion cuisine. With the former, you basically know what you are getting, but while the latter increases the chance of inconsistency, it can give you exciting new combinations that you never considered. Your mileage on both series will depend on your preferences.

Room 104 debuts new episodes on HBO Fridays at 11:30 pm (EST) and Guest Book airs Thursdays at 10:30 pm (EST) on TBS.

 

Pop Culture Odds and Ends – Making Some Progress Edition

I  went to the movies on Monday night. A year ago, this wouldn’t be news to report, but in the last six months or so, I’ve been to the movies only a handful of times. This is partially because of work, but also because there haven’t been a ton of movies that I’ve been dying to see. But the fact that I was able to carve out some time on a weeknight to hit up the cinema is progress that maybe things are improving. We saw The Big Sick, which I still hold out some hope of actually reviewing. That’s more potential progress, since I have a half dozen posts that I’ve started over the last few months and have never finished.

But even if I don’t get around to reviewing anything soon, at least you have the pop culture roundup to get you through these dark days of limited content. Get yourself caught up on everything that you might have missed with this installment of the week in pop.

Television

Movies

Trailers

  • Suburbicon:

 

  • Manhunter:

 

  • It:

 

  • Call Me By Your Name:

 

  • Marjorie Prime:

 

  • Comrade Detective:

 

  • Ingrid Goes West:

 

  • LBJ:

 

  • The Vault:

 

  • Mother!:

 

  • Carpool Karaoke:

 

  • What Happened To Monday:

 

  • The Vault:

 

  • Flatliners:

 

  • Escapes:

 

  • Transparent, season 4:

 

  • Public Enemies: Jay-Z vs Kanye:

 

  • The Problem with Apu:

 

  • First They Killed My Father:

 

Music

Books

Theater

Stand-up

Odds and Ends

Mashups and Supercuts

  • Idris Elba sings lyrics using Google Translate:

 

  • Postmodern Jukebox covers Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated”:

 

  • Face/Off as a spaghetti western:

 

  • Haim covers Shania Twain:

 

  • Every “That’s What She Said” from The Office:

Some Thoughts On The Young Pope

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Well, that was certainly not the show that I thought it was going to be.

To be fair, I didn’t have a lot of preconceived notions about what The Young Pope was going to be like. The idea of Jude Law playing the Pope seemed like an unconventional choice and the title was terrible, but I’ve never let that stop me before (I did, after all, watch the entire run of Cougar Town). I did make the assumption that The Young Pope would be a straight drama about the inner workings of the church under the leadership of a young pontiff. Until I saw the first trailer, I thought that this was going to be a period piece, rather than being set in modern times. Since historical drama are all the rage, that would have seemed like the obvious choice.

There is absolutely nothing about The Young Pope that is an obvious choice.

I was completely unprepared for how bonkers this show would be. The opening scene of the series is a baby crawling over other babies and then Jude Law emerges from said pyramid of babies. I’ll admit that I was only half paying attention the first time I saw this, because who expects a pyramid of babies in the first ten seconds of an HBO drama. I was instantly confused and had to rewind the DVR to make sure that I wasn’t missing anything. I would be confused a few more times in the first episode as it took me some time to figure out what this show was doing – and it’s doing a lot of things. It’s both funny and serious in ways that were unanticipated. It’s gorgeously shot and it covers a lot of territory – faith, some of the ridiculousness of Church traditions, power, narcissism, loneliness. As I tweeted out while watching it, there is a lot more nudity, smoking and kangaroos than you would have anticipated for a show called The Young Pope. The show is weird and chaotic and even a little messy, but once I just let the show teach me how to watch it, I was totally sucked in. The Young Pope is really not like much else that’s on television and I’ll take weirdly original, yet imperfect over traditional and safe any day.

The Young Pope is the brainchild of Oscar winning director Paolo Sorrentino, who wrote and directed the entire ten episode season. When The Young Pope begins, 47-year old Lenny Belardo (Jude Law) has been just elected Pope Pius XIII. His selection in the conclave was orchestrated by Cardinal Angelo Voiello (Silvio Orlando) who believed that Belardo wound be a puppet for him. Belardo, however, has different ideas about that and soon a power struggle emerges between the two men. Belardo is aided by Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), who raised him in an orphanage and is appointed as his personal secretary. Belardo is not what the Vatican was expecting – he smokes, rejects publicity and the liberal philosophy of his predecessor, and is more than ready to play the game of Papal politics. Pope Pius XIII is old school and Old Testament; he’s charismatic and cruel. He may or may not actually believe in God, but he sure thinks that he’s the Almighty’s spokesperson. There’s a lot of dichotomies floating around in this show and yet somehow they make it all work. Though this show was conceived and written a few years ago, there are definitely parallels that can be made to the current political climate here in the U.S. and abroad. You have to respect a show that makes the decision to portray the Pope as kind of a dick. Law’s hat game, though, is flawless:

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Jude Law is really the perfect person to play Lenny/Pope Pius XIII. I really can’t imagine anyone else pulling off this role so well, given that Lenny is so many things rolled into one. Law can bring fire and brimstone down in one scene and then be exceptionally funny in the next. That’s a skill set that not a lot of actors have, and his good looks can’t help but draw you in even when he’s plotting his next move or being unnecessarily condescending. He’s the pretty package in which a lot of ugly ideas are presented and even though I don’t know that Pope Pius XIII is likeable, you are drawn to him. There are also a lot of layers to his back story that I look forward to them unpacking in subsequent episodes. Law perfectly dances the line of contempt and comedy, campy and cruel. It helps that you can’t look at Law without kind of assuming he’s a smug jerk; that’s not entirely fair to Law, who I’ve seen be nothing but pleasant on many occasions, but for this role his inherent latent jerkiness is an asset.

Through two episodes, the rest of the cast is strong as well. Diane Keaton is great in her role as confidant and co-conspirator. She seems to be having a good time with the role, which also require some deft maneuvering as Sister Mary vacillates between the role of mother and subordinate. There’s a fascinating dynamic unfolding between Sister Mary’s relationship with Lenny and her relationship with Cardinal Andrew Dussolier (Scott Shepherd), another orphan that was raised alongside Lenny. Keaton is almost always great and she’s given a lot to do in The Young Pope.

It’s worth repeating again – this is a weird show. While the intrigue and plotting behind the scenes at the Vatican is kind of reminiscent of power struggles on traditional HBO dramas like The Sopranos or The Wire, The Young Pope zigs when you think it will zag. There are odd little moments sprinkled throughout the first two episodes that constantly make you feel a little off balance. The whole thing with the kangaroo is a good example, as is random scenes of the nuns killing it playing soccer. But I don’t think anything made me laugh as much as Keaton’s Sister Mary answering the door of her Vatican apartment in this:

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That’s hilarious on a bazillion levels.

The Young Pope may not be everyone’s cup of tea and you do need to stick with the show to get used to the tonal shifts and absurdity of some of what’s going on. But underneath some of the more bizarre choices, there is a really interesting story unfolding about power and narcissism, about tradition and change. I personally think that some of the odder choices contribute to this storytelling, but mileage may vary. If you do watch the show, it’s important to know that you are supposed to laugh at some of it; these were conscious decisions, not poorly executed drama. I’m all in – after binge watching the first two episodes, I’m legitimately bummed that I have to wait a week for this story to continue. The Young Pope could kind of go in any direction, which is exciting. I’m not a religious person, but I’m down on spending an hour a week at the Vatican.