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.

 

TBS’ Search Party

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Apparently all I want to do now is binge watch. After my marathon Gilmore Girls and Black Mirror watching, I was primed to turn my attention to another show. Now that the weather is turning colder and most series have aired their last original programming before the holidays, I’ve got a lot of time to kill. So I was very excited when I started hearing some buzz about TBS’ new comedy series Search Party. Though the series just started airing on the network, they made the entire series available for streaming on their website; network half-hour comedy shows are the easiest to binge, since without commercials they usually clock in at a lean and mean 23 minutes. Since there are only ten episodes in the first season, I was able to blow through the entire series in a day and a half. I felt so productive!

Of course, it doesn’t matter how quickly you can watch a series if it is terrible; a bad comedy may only run 23 minutes, but it will feel a hell of a lot longer while you are watching it. Thankfully, Search Party was as enjoyable as it was binge-able. Watching the series was a delightful experience and I was thankful that all the episodes were available to consume because as soon as an episode finished I was ready to move on to the next one.

The premise of Search Party is pretty self-explanatory; it’s been referred to as “hipster Nancy Drew” in some of the reviews that I’ve seen online, but I prefer to describe it as millennial Scooby-Doo, minus the dog. The show centers around Dory (Arrested Development’s Alia Shawkat), a twenty-something year old living in Brooklyn who is feeling a little lost. While everyone she knows seems to be making progress in their lives, she’s still working as an assistant for a rich woman (Christine Taylor) and in a relationship with Drew (John Reynolds) which seems to be more about familiarity than romance. When she discovers that Chantal, an acquaintance from college, has gone missing, Dory fixates on trying to solve the disappearance as a way to give her life some purpose. She becomes obsessed with the mystery and drags college friends Elliott (John Early) and Portia (Meredith Hagner) along for the ride.

A lot of the comedy in Search Party derives from how self-absorbed the four main characters are; there was one moment early in the pilot that completely sold me on the show: over brunch (of course), Dory updates everyone on Chantal’s disappearance. The news is met with general apathy, as they barely knew who Chantal was, but Elliott is also tweeting under the table, lamenting his distress over the loss of a “sweet girl.” That moment rang so true to me – not only the idea of making someone else’s misery about yourself, but the general idea that equates social media posting with actual action – that I knew that this show had a definite point of view and knew who these characters were. These people aren’t necessarily likeable, but they aren’t monsters either. And as the series progresses, we get to see different shade of their personality and see them slightly evolve. On most shows, Elliott, the gay philanthropist/writer/entrepreneur/whatever else you go, would be a one-note character that was used solely for comic relief; on Search Party, while John Early’s great performance delivers a lot of laughs, Elliott is more well-rounded and has a little depth. Not a lot of depth, but enough that he isn’t just a caricature.

The problem with a lot of shows that focus on solving a mystery is that that they tend to be more interested in the destination rather than the journey; once the central mystery has been solved, it turns out that there wasn’t much else going on in the show. That’s not the case with Search Party, where while the disappearance of Chantal is the entry point, but not the entire focus of the series. The characters are working on tracking down clues about what may have happened to Chantal, but it spends more time examining who they are and their world; when I got to the final episode, I realized that I didn’t really care if we found out the answer to the mystery. The writers had crafted interesting characters and weaved in dark comedy so that the truth about Chantal almost felt incidental. The mystery may be what initially hooks you into the show, but it’s the actual investigation and the people that they meet along the way that makes this show great. That being said, the ultimate resolution of Chantal’s vanishing was satisfying as well; it may not be why I stuck with the show, but it was a pitch perfect ending to the first season.

All the actors are great on the show. John Early is getting a lot of attention for his performance, but the leads are uniformly great. Alia Shawkat is a great protagonist and her role on Arrested Development has helped her develop perfect deadpan comedic timing. Search Party is a really funny show, but it is a dark comedy that needs a certain type of actor to work well. The show lucked out in that the four lead actors all deliver in spades. You may not like Dory, Elliott, Portia, and Drew all the time, but the performance rang true to me.

Search Party has kind of flown under the radar, but I really hope that people check it out. It’s a smart and funny show and I’d like to see more of it. I don’t know if TBS is planning to order more seasons, but I would really enjoy either spending more time with these characters or seeing what else the creators can come up with. The first season finale does provide closure, but also presents the opportunity to continue the story. I hope that they are given the chance to do so. Search Party was an unexpected end of the year treat that is definitely worth watching.

Search Party is currently streaming on TBS.com. Episodes also air on TBS; check your local listings.  

Heather’s Trailer Park

We’re flipping the script a little this week; poor advance planning and a late night at the Springsteen concert last night (and yes – I still tear up during “Badlands”) means that I still want to tweak this week’s pop culture roundup. There have been so many trailers released recently, especially highlighting the new network shows for the Fall, that I figured that I would swap posts for this week. Hope no one is traumatized by this derivation; I know change is hard.

I have to say, seeing what the networks have planned in way of new programming does not instill a lot of confidence. I know that a trailer is only a small representation of a film or TV show, but it is also supposed to show the program/film in the best possible light. If this is the best possible light for some of these shows, it might have been better to leave them in the dark.

Check out the trailers below and see if there is anything that you want to add to your viewing queue. For those of you that aren’t big on TV, there’s also plenty of movie trailers for you to enjoy. And hopefully the pop culture roundup will be worth waiting an extra day for.

State of Affairs, a new drama on NBC:

 

Constantine, based on the DC comic Hellraiser:

 

Marry Me, starring Casey Wilson and Ken Marino:

 

Bad Judge with Kate Walsh:

 

The Mysteries of Laura starring Debra Messing:

 

A to Z with Ben Feldman and Cristin Milioti

 

How to Get Away with Murder, the newest from Shoda Rhimes over at ABC:

 

Secret and Lies with Ryan Phillippe:

 

Galavant, a comedy/musical/ fairytale:

 

Manhattan Love Story:

 

Forever:

 

The Whispers:

 

American Crime:

 

Fresh off the Boat:

 

Selfie – aka Karen Gillan deserves better:

 

Cristela, from stand-up comic Cristela Alonzo (whom I enjoy):

 

Black-ish:

 

Gotham over at FOX:

 

Mulaney, from stand-up John Mulaney (who I dug at the Oddball Comedy Festival):

 

Gracepoint, the U.S. version of that fantastic British show Broadchurch:

 

Will Forte in Last Man on Earth:

 

Wayward Pines from M. Night Shyamalan:

 

Backstrom, from the creator of Bones:

 

Hieroglyph:

 

Empire with Terrence Howard:

 

Utopia:

 

A first look at the second season of Masters of Sex (which I need to catch up on this summer):

 

A promo for The Maya Rudolph Show:

 

The Librarian on TNT:

 

Proof:

 

Public Morals:

 

Transporter: The Series:

 

Angie Tribeca on TBS (starring Rashida Jones):

 

Buzzy’s:

 

Your Family or Mine?:

 

Switching to the big screen……..

 

A new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles trailer:

 

A red band trailer for Snowpiercer, starring Chris Evans:

 

Good People with James Franco and Kate Hudson:

 

And So It Goes with Michael Douglas and Diane Keaton:

 

An extended trailer for Edge of Tomorrow with Tom Cruise:

 

Steve Carell in Alexander and the Terrivle, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day:

 

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes:

 

Rage with Nic Cage and Danny Glover:

 

Another trailer for Tammy, starring Melissa McCarthy:

 

V/H/S Viral, the third installment in the franchise:

 

And finally, a new red band trailer for A Million Ways to Die in the West: