Category Archives: TV

The SportsAlcohol.com Podcast: The End of Girls

Jesse

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

Lena Dunham’s divisive thinkpiece magnet Girls ended its six-season HBO run on Sunday, to a renewed frenzy of media attention. Several of SportsAlcohol.com’s regular podcasters have watched the entire series as it aired, so Marisa, Sara, Nathaniel, and Jesse got together to watch the finale and discuss the show. Our conversation touches upon issues such as:

  • Friendship
  • Every major character, and why it might be reductive to call any of them “the worst”
  • But seriously, why does Jesse like Marnie so much?
  • The series as a whole and how it ended
  • Storylines we didn’t fall in love with
  • What was realistic… and what wasn’t, especially if you know anything about writing workshops
  • What this TV show did that other shows haven’t really done before
  • Something something problematic

Basically, this episode is a must for any Girls fans still mourning the loss of their favorite show — or, for that matter, for any hatewatchers wishing someone could tell you what the fuss was about.

How To Listen

We are now up to SIX (6) different ways to listen to a SportsAlcohol podcast:

The Top Ten Best Girls Episodes

Jesse

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

The editorial core of SportsAlcohol.com is full of love for Girls, Lena Dunham’s half-hour dramedy series that just last night ended its final season on HBO. We’ll have a podcast up this week discussing the full scope of the show, from its characters to its style to the cultural conversations it inspired, but first I wanted to put together a very personal list of my ten favorite episodes of this show – my favorite show on the air, until last night (because it ceased to be on the air, not because the finale let me down). Let us know what I overlooked in the comments. Actually, I’ll let you know right now that I was sad not to include “Dead Inside” (Season 3), “Goodbye Tour” (Season 6), “Home Birth” (Season 4), “Video Games” (Season 2), and “Vagina Panic” (Season 1), among others.
Continue reading The Top Ten Best Girls Episodes

T2 Trainspotting, Legion, and the Line Between Style and Something Else

Gripes

Marisa

There are contrarians, there are iconoclasts, and then there is SportsAlcohol.com co-founder Marisa. A contraiclast? Her favorite Springsteen album came out this century, so she is basically a controversy machine.

Also, she is totally not a dude!
Gripes

Since the release of T2 Trainspotting, we’ve been exploring the work of Danny Boyle. In our conversations here, as well as elsewhere in other corners of the internet that pay as much attention to the director as we do, the question has come up of just how much of a journeyman director Boyle is. We go more in depth in our Danny Boyle podcast, but it seems like he has a lot of the hallmarks of your typical director-for-hire. He works fast, and often, and in a lot of different genres. But then there’s the question of his style—with lots of flashy, music-video touches—and whether that counts for or against him in the general artistic scheme of things.

To me, Boyle has always been something more than a journeyman. That’s because, for all of his directorial flourishes, he always makes me feel something. T2 is essentially a get-rich-quick-scheme movie, but it really got the feeling of getting older, and the (sometimes misguided) nostalgia of what it’s like to think back on your younger years and the doors you’ve shut behind you as you age—along with the ways that younger people (mostly Veronika) feel so untouched by that kind of regret.

Even the showier parts of the first Trainspotting hit me on some sort of emotional level, even if it’s for a quick laugh (“the worst toilet in Scotland”). I’ve never done heroin, but I got it when I saw Renton sink into the floor to the calm, dulcet tones of Lou Reed.

I know that being able to hit the emotion button might not actually be the line between journeyman and auteur, but I was thinking about Boyle when I was watching another style-rich bit of media: FX’s Legion.  I quite enjoyed Legion.  Like everyone else, I liked the vibe, the sort of future-as-imagined-in-the-mango-and-avocado-colored-1970s look to everything. There were groovy astral planes and out-of-nowhere dance sequences and one beyond-amazing performance by Aubrey Plaza that really went for it.

But, as much as I appreciated it, at the same time it didn’t make me feel anything. The kitchen explodes around David’s head, and, yeah, it looked cool. (They must’ve thought so, too, because they show that moment a million times in a million different ways.) They break out into Bollywood or Bond-ian song or dance, and, yeah, it was neat. But nothing really made me stop dead in my tracks and say, “Oh, damn!” In a show that, in the parlance of Buster, really gets off on being withholding, when the season was over there was no revelation as startling as the big reveal in Danny Boyle’s Sunshine. After the credits roll, I thought, “Oh, this is what people feel when they accuse my favorite directors of being all style with nothing going on underneath.”
Did I feel any differently about David’s character at the end of the season than I did at the beginning? Not really. I understood more what his deal was—after all, every character explained what his deal was to every other character, over and over—but I wish it was more deeply felt. There was one intriguing moment when he looks over at Lenny and says, “Who am I without you?” It could’ve been really powerful, but it was tossed off in favor of more mutant/D3 conflict I didn’t really care about. Even the central romance happened so quickly, I didn’t really believe at first that Syd’s intentions were genuine. I could go for a big, swoony mutant romance, but I just didn’t feel it, and all the pristine, mid-century-modern white rooms in the world couldn’t get me to buy into it 100%.

Legion by FX 1×01 Scene : David Dream / Dance (Serge Gainsbourg) from Chromatic BloodBloodBlood on Vimeo.

And let’s go back to those dance sequences as an example. Legion showrunner Noah Hawley told Vulture that the musical number in the first episode of Legion (above) was supposed to signal how David and Syd are kicking off their big romance. (“What signals falling in love?” he told the website. “Well, it makes you want to sing and dance!”) And yet watching it, I don’t feel swept away. I feel analyzing the depths of David’s mental illness. I feel nothing from Syd. Boyle has a departing-reality-and-falling-in-love musical number, too. It’s in A Life Less Ordinary, one of his worst movies. In our podcast, we talked about how the musical number itself is hampered by the fact that Cameron Diaz can’t sing. And yet, despite all of its flaws, I can feel the love. I’m charmed in some way. It’s a fantasy, but it’s not a fever dream. (Sadly, it is not online, but if I were Diaz, I’d make sure it stayed off Vevo, too. If you’re really curious, fast-forward to the one-hour mark here, but you have to play it at 1.25 speed to get it right. Or just ask Jesse to watch it with you.)

Then again, I’ve always had my problems with Noah Hawley. There’s just something that’s so not fun about him. I was really into the first season of Fargo, but the second season really fell off this cliff into slow-moving ponderousness that sucked all the air out of the series. (But, ugh, I’m back on board for S3, because he’s borrowing Boyle’s ace-in-the-hole Marisa-bait, Ewan McGregor.) If Boyle could squeeze in a silly anti-Catholic karaoke-heist scene into his meditation on middle age, couldn’t Hawley have breathed a little bit more life into his no-touching romance? Get a bit of the old Pushing Daisies spirit in there?

I know that Legion comes with its own backlash insurance, where you can’t really watch an individual episode and think, “Well, that was a lot of nothing,” because it’s all a big slow-burn puzzle, right, and you have to see it through to the end to find out if you liked the previous episodes. Now that I’ve watched it through to the end (and enjoyed quite a bit of it despite my griping), I can say that it did not all build to one amazing ending that made every head-scratching moment worthwhile. (It’s weird that the show can make an ice-cube-man in an astral plane make sense, but it’s not clear why Melanie won’t let David go rescue his sister. I also remember one episode where Jesse was all, “Wait, why are they all camping in a forest?”) So I know not everyone shares my impatience with Hawley, but these types of cul-de-sacs and re-reveals hit my personal pet peeve button of having episodes that always run long, even when there’s not really enough meat in them to justify it. For that matter, when it ended, Jesse was like, “I think I would’ve gotten just as much out of this if it was a two-hour X-Men movie,” and I don’t really disagree.

In that way, Legion has a lot in common with a show I like very much, but don’t love: Mr. Robot. It also indulges in long episodes,  when I think cutting them would make them stronger. It also has a heightened style that distinguishes it from anything else on TV. Both shows have a certain emotional remove. And, most importantly, both shows are both smart, but seem to think that they’re genius.

It’s personally frustrating to me, because if these shows focused less on the smart and more on the heart, I could see them joining my very favorite things ever. Until then, I’m glad I have Danny Boyle movies to remind me that heightened style isn’t always so empty and cold.

The SportsAlcohol.com Podcast: Checking in with Saturday Night Live in the Trump Era

Jesse

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

A few of SportsAlcohol.com’s founding editors are longtime Saturday Night Live viewers and fans, so we like to occasionally get together and check in with how the show is doing. SNL is getting record ratings this season, with special guest stars like Alec Baldwin doing his Donald Trump impression and Melissa McCarthy dropping by to play Sean Spicer. We discuss those sketches and more: what this political engagement means for a larger-than-average core cast, how Weekend Update is faring in the Funny News landscape, how this year’s group of hosts has measured up, and what sketches we feel have been overlooked in all of the political hubbub. This conversation, recorded immediately following the most recent, Baldwin-hosted episode, is a must-listen for any SNL fan.

How To Listen

We are now up to SIX (6) different ways to listen to a SportsAlcohol podcast:

And if you love this and want to hear some of our classic archival thoughts on Saturday Night Live, check out these previous episodes:

The Season 40 Opener
That Time Trump Hosted While Running for President
SNL at the Movies

The SportsAlcohol.com Podcast: Representation and Identification in Media

Jesse

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

With this year’s more diverse Oscars trying to make up ground lost by the #OscarsSoWhite debacles of previous years, and issues of representation getting more attention than ever (especially in Trump’s America), your friends at SportsAlcohol.com decided to sit down and have a conversation about representation and identification issues in popular culture. Marisa, Sara, Jon, Jesse, and Nathaniel talk about media that’s spoken to us for those reasons (be it gender, race, or geography), try to differentiate between representation and identification, and talk about all manner of movies and TV shows, past and present, including Hidden Figures, Moana, Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight, and many more. It’s one of our longest and widest-ranging conversations, with tangents on Marvel movies and self-casting and gotcha questions and college-dorm disclaimers, but we think it’s well worth listening to!

How To Listen

We are now up to SIX (6) different ways to listen to a SportsAlcohol podcast:

Best of 2016!

Gripes

Marisa

There are contrarians, there are iconoclasts, and then there is SportsAlcohol.com co-founder Marisa. A contraiclast? Her favorite Springsteen album came out this century, so she is basically a controversy machine.

Also, she is totally not a dude!
Gripes

The year that was 2016 is over, and not a moment too soon. Do better, 2017. Until then, we’ll try to block out the worst moments of last year by reliving the best.

BEST MUSIC

The Top 6 Best Albums of 2016

The SportsAlcohol.com Album of the Year: Lemonade by Beyoncé

The SportsAlcohol.com Podcast: The Best Music of 2016

Track Marks: “Shut Up and Kiss Me” by Angel Olsen, “Berlin Got Blurry” by Parquet Courts, “I Can’t Stand You Anymore” by Sleigh Bells, “A 1,000 Times” by Hamilton Leithauser and Rostam, and “Cranes in the Sky” by Solange

BEST MOVIES

The Top 20 Best Movies of 2016

The SportsAlcohol.com Podcast: The Best Movies of 2016

BEST TELEVISION

The Top 12 Best TV Shows of 2016

The Best TV Shows of 2016

Jesse

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

You guys, there is so much TV. So many channels, so many shows, so many episodes of those shows, and so many ways to experience a medium that has truly come into its own over the course of this young millennium. (Maybe that’s why it took us so long to post this list.) (Just kidding, that was Jesse’s fault!) In order to tame those achievements, this year we attempted to focus on individual episodes when possible – not to disregard full great seasons, but to zero in on the craft that makes these shows so great. 2016 may be weeks gone at this point, but with TV unencumbered by the traditional fall-to-spring season or by the kind of prestige/award positioning that can create such feasts and famines over in the film world, there’s never really a bad time to pick ten or twelve shows for you to check out. Most of these shows are still pretty readily available for your consumption (some are about to begin new seasons or continue old ones!), so who cares that it’s January as I write this? It could be April or December or August or Smarch. These shows would still be a remarkable bunch of achievements.

The Twelve Best TV Shows of 2016

An award of special distinction: The Expanse

SyFy, Season One

I demanded that Jesse let me write this capsule even though I knew The Expanse wasn’t going to show up on anyone else’s list. But it’s not because it’s a bad show — it’s just that no one I know watched this. SyFy aimed this show directly at the Battlestar Galactica fandom, and for the most part, it succeeds creatively — though it somehow failed to find those BSG obsessives and convert them into viewers and evangelists for the show. Except for me, I guess!

This show borrows BSG’s washed-out palette and space politics, but it adds a noirish mystery to the mix: Thomas Jane plays a renegade cop on corrupt and unjust Ceres, a mining colony in space. He becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to a rich daughter who disappeared from Ceres. There are half a dozen other storylines — including a freighter ship destroyed and remaining crew left stranded in space, and an IRA-like terrorist organization making moves for workers’ rights, Shohreh Aghdashloo doing some sort of nasty politics on Earth — but they all coalesce around the missing girl and the secrets she uncovered. It’s complex, exciting TV. If you find time once you’ve finished our top ten, check it out — there’s a second season coming in February 2017. – Maggie

10. (tie) Vice Principals

HBO, Season One

It may have been enough to warrant inclusion here if all Vice Principals had going for it was the prospect of seeing Danny McBride and Walton Goggins mix it up together as a couple of blowhard assholes in a Jody Hill show. And the show does satisfy on that level, providing ample opportunities for both actors to lob hilarious insults and behave badly. But it also offers some nice twists on the formula as McBride finds comic notes in his uptight Neal Gamby that make him distinct from, but no less fascinating than, Kenny Powers in Eastbound & Down (also, Gamby’s relationship with the new husband of his ex-wife, played by Shea Whigham, is making me laugh out loud just thinking about it to write this). And you’d be correct to expect Walton Goggins’s Lee Russell to be something of a smooth-talking viper (his line readings are frequently perfect), but he’s such a perfectly observed and specific character, a malevolent dandy who is not as clever or ruthless as he thinks he is, but may be even more amoral. While surely not conceived with a specific political parallel in mind, that the series as a whole tells the story of nasty and unqualified men scheming to take a position of power from an impressive woman marks it as particularly prescient. Maybe it will play a little differently after the conclusion of this year’s bitter election here in the U.S., but the Hill/McBride mix of laughs that verge on horror has never been more of the moment. So while the rest of the season does a good job of exploring the characters and the dynamic between them (and since I’m loath to spoil some of the turns the story takes in the latter half of the season), I’ll single out the second episode, “A Trusty Steed,” in which the two rival vice principals band together to undermine the woman (a charming and formidable Kimberly Herbert Gregory) that has taken the job they feel entitled to and burn her house to the ground. Initially intending just to sneak around looking for anything incriminating, Gamby & Russell embolden each other and the sequence escalates deliriously, ending up equal parts comic and shocking. It’s exhilarating and despicable and, while the show goes on to elicit some empathy for its two antiheroes, it’s an action that defines them. They’re assholes. – Nathaniel

10. (tie)Girls

HBO, Season Five

Five seasons in, Girls has perfected the art of the single episode. Each season so far has featured at least one masterful short story in televisual form; by now there’s suspense in watching the show, waiting for that single-episode wonder to drop in and outclass even the excellent stuff Lena Dunham and company get up to the rest of the year. For 2016, that episode was “The Panic in Central Park,” a long-awaited-by-me episode that focused entirely on Marnie, the most basic, beautiful, disappointed, and, for plenty of viewers, insufferable of the four girls at the show’s center. The dreamlike episode follows Marnie as she reconnects with her ex-boyfriend Charlie, who looks, sounds, and acts like a completely different person from the guy who dumped her offscreen a few seasons ago. They enter a kind of ex-lover overnight reverie, as the usually uptight Marnie goes with the flow of Charlie’s erratic, sometimes troubling, eventually upsetting life: crashing a fancy party, pretending to be a prostitute, stealing boats in Central Park, sex in a squalid apartment. The actors on Girls have often been conflated with their characters in the press, something that seems both unfair and understandable, never moreso (on both counts) than with Williams, who it’s easy to suspect understands Marnie’s entitlement and control issues all too well. But as she often does, Williams makes Marnie a fascinating, empathetic figure in this episode, as her impromptu date with Charlie pushes her to make a decision about Desi, her beyond-insufferable new husband. All of the fifth season was strong, but “Panic in Central Park” is funny, strange, disturbing, and bittersweet, deepening the show’s most reviled character. It’s a big reason why Girls is the only show I watch that remotely fills that Mad Men void for me, and while I’ll watch every episode of Season Six as soon as possible. Especially if they give Shosh one of these. – – Jesse

9. You’re the Worst

FXX, Season Three

Like Girls, You’re the Worst is also setting up an expectation that it deliver a single, semi-stand-alone masterpiece of episodic television once per season. But while “Twenty-Two,” the Edgar-centric, PTSD-exploring episode from Season Three certainly fits the bill there, I’d like to discuss a different one (with the acknowledgment that “Twenty-Two” was fucking terrific). In “The Inherent, Unsullied Qualitative Value of Anything,” wretched souls Jimmy (Chris Geere) and Gretchen (Aya Cash) attend a wedding reception, just as they did in the pilot – only this time, they’re maybe on the outs, rather than starting to circle each other warily. Jimmy, who considers himself newly fixed by the death of his father, has written a list of pros and cons about things in his life, including Gretchen; Gretchen, in therapy for her bouts with depression, is desperate to get her hands on it and read it. The episode is assembled through a series of long, unbroken steadicam shots, snaking through rooms of the reception and capturing bits of other subplots of the show. In other words, it doesn’t stand alone the same way as last season’s “LCD Soundsystem,” as it swivels through many of the season’s developing plots (while “LCD” burrowed deep into one in particular, from a vantage point that made it strangely easy to drop into without the proper context). But the episode’s style, courtesy of director Wendy Stanzler, unifies it all into a single package that could feel like a stunt, but instead comes across as an absolutely organic (and yet still absolutely virtuosic) way to tell this particular chapter of Jimmy and Gretchen’s story. You’re the Worst is a beautifully written show, but it’s especially gratifying to see something with such memorable, funny characters and dialogue stretch itself with these kind of technical gambits. It’s smart and charming enough to survive without them, but too ambitious and audacious to let them go. This episode, and this whole season, pretty much earned my loyalty for however long this show runs. – Jesse

8. Atlanta

FX, Season One

Watching Donald Glover’s phenomenal Atlanta, you get a strong sense of what’s interesting to Glover: people and what’s in their hearts, music, the shifts in tone and stance when different communities bump up against each other, specifics of place, how to create a life for yourself without compromising your identity. And don’t get me wrong, the show is FUNNY. The show observe fine-grain detail of people’s quirks, from the spacey and consistently hilarious Darius to Earn’s deadpan reactions to a world that sees him a certain way.

The different communities explored in the series aren’t just black and white — that would be a much broader and simpler and probably inaccurate and unfunny show. There are endless subtleties within groups, carefully observed in episodes like “Juneteenth” and “B.A.N.” and “Nobody Beats the Biebs.” But my personal pick (not my favorite; they’re all my faves) is one in which Earn barely appears: “Value,” which follows Earn’s baby mama Van on a night out with an old friend. The old friend dates the rich and famous; Van feels judged and uncomfortable until the two of them connect over some weed. Then we see Van at work: as a teacher, on a day of random drug testing. Van is stressed and resourceful and funny, and the fact that the series can hand over an episode to her without a second thought proves how generous and wide-ranging this show can be. – Maggie

7. Better Call Saul

AMC, Season Two

The second season of Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul slowly pushes our “hero” Jimmy ever closer to his ultimate transformation into the Saul Goodman we know from the previous series, and the sad loner we see in the show’s very rare post-Bad flashes forward. Even though we know where the show is going, it consistently surprises on the way there. This is a show about brothers and cons, and about how the past is never really past, and echoes continually into the present and future. Over the course of the second season, we learned more about Chuck and Jimmy’s pasts as Jimmy tries to establish himself knowing that he will never have the respect of his older brother. Jimmy embraces his rascally side, playing con man with Kim, shooting the cheesy TV commercials of his dreams, and forging documents to embarrass Chuck. But in Jimmy’s mind, it’s a fair-play type of con, justified because he’s doing it out of love for Kim. Chuck sees it differently.

Chuck and Jimmy are more alike than Chuck thinks. In “Klick,” the last episode of the season, it’s revealed that Chuck has conned the con man, who is only con-able because he truly cares about his brother. Chuck, on the other hand, hates Jimmy. He hates Jimmy’s tackiness, his bonhomie, his suits, the way he talks. He hates that his parents loved Jimmy and forgave him. He hates that Jimmy has taken care of him and has seen him at his weakest, and he hates that Jimmy might just be as smart as him. Jimmy’s a bad seed whose questionable actions spring out of love. Chuck is the good son who holds unfathomable hate in his heart. The show, as always, is mesmerizing. – Maggie

6. The Americans

FX, Season Four

It can be difficult for any show to feel fresh several years in. But it’s particularly tough for a prestige drama as ruthlessly engineered as The Americans; once an audience has a handle on its plotting the twists can start to feel creaky rather than revelatory. A slow burner, albeit one that made room for scenes of tooth extraction and suitcase corpse stuffing, by this point the series also had what felt like an untenable amount of balls in the air. Plotlines could be dropped for entire seasons then return without warning, a faith in viewers’ attention spans that could also be frustrating. Seamless illusions are part of the series’ thematic D.N.A., but could it surprise anymore? “The Magic Of David Copperfield V: The Statue Of Liberty Disappears,” the eighth episode and pivot point of the fourth season, proved that The Americans still had many tricks up its sleeve, and that even with an endpoint in sight (the final two seasons were announced while this one was still running) nobody should get too comfortable, least of all the Jennings.

In many ways the episode feels like a culmination of every season that came before it. The show had made a habit of dispatching characters efficiently, and often without warning. Martha, who was introduced back in season one as a love interest, and eventual spouse, for one of Philip Jennings’ aliases, always seemed to operate with an ax over her head. But when her farewell came in “Magic” it wasn’t violent, though the potential lingered. Instead it was deeply tragic, the ultimate illustration of the human tolls the Cold War maneuverings of the Jennings’ take, and would often rather ignore. Martha, lonely and mournful before meeting “Clark,” wanted only to be loved. Now she’s being shuttled off to Russia to avoid being sentenced for treason, and potentially revealing her husband’s secrets to the U.S. It’s a destabilizing moment, for both the characters and the series itself whose action by episode’s end has leapt several months forward to a world that looks different in subtle but critical ways. It’s a flourish as masterfully carried off as the episode’s titular magic act, and bodes well for the show as a whole to stick its future landing. – Sara

5. Search Party

TBS, Season One

When it comes to television, there are many, many satisfying ways to do the not-quite-legit P.I. There’s Veronica Mars.There’s our beloved Terriers. There’s even Andy Barker, P.I.. They’re all intensely likable.

The reason TV is able to support so many of these types of shows is that, while the mechanics of solving a mystery are usually similar, it’s the dark forces that our protagonists are up against that set them apart from each other. In Veronica Mars, it was Veronica vs. the 1 percent. In Terriers, Hank had to conquer his own past (and, you know, the 1 percent again). In Search Party, the good ol’ Millennial quarter-life crisis is recast in noir, with the main character, Dory (played by the delightful Alia Shawkat), searching for herself as she supposedly looks for a missing college classmate. That sounds like it can be insufferable, and at times the characters are, but Search Party is the best possible marriage between Girls and mumblecore-mysteries like Wild Canaries or Cold Weather.

Take, for instance, the episode titled “The Night of One Hundred Candles.” Our heroes borrow a car and head up to Chappaqua (what up, Westchester) to attend a vigil for Chantal, the missing classmate. The episode is everything at once. There’s a cringing laugh when Chantal’s college a cappella group performs “Since U Been Gone” in her honor. There’s a different kind of cringing laugh one one of Dory’s friends tags along in hopes of getting back money he lent from a classmate he hadn’t seen since graduation. There are a couple of genuine moments of suspense when suspects present themselves and Dory does a little snooping. It all comes to a climax that reminds the audience that, yes, Dory is doing some really weird, not-cool soul-searching by poking around a bereaved family’s house—but you kind of want her to continue. – Marisa

4. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

The CW, Seasons One and Two

Never judge anything by its title. When ads for this series started showing up in the subway last summer, I was one of the people who passed by and scoffed. Nobody in television could be self-aware enough to do anything interesting or subversive with a phrase so clearly sexist as that, especially on a network like the CW. Plus it was apparently a musical? No way that could be sustainable. I dismissed Crazy Ex-Girlfriend on the spot and went on my merry way, even after the accolades and awards for it began pouring in. But, as seems to happen to me a lot in these days of peak TV, when the first season showed up on Netflix I gave it a chance. And once the theme song dropped in the pilot I never looked back, bingeing all eighteen episodes in a weekend.

The “crazy” is both literal and empathetic, the show more a portrait of loneliness and compulsion than the candy-colored romance the posters teased (though it has that too). Co-creator and star Rachel Bloom is careful never to let Rebecca Bunch off the hook for her often-unhinged behavior, but she also never lets viewers forget that this is a woman in great, self-inflicted pain. If that wasn’t clear before season one highlight “That Text Was Not Meant For Josh!” (which originally aired February 8th, 2016), the central musical performance drives it all home in ways even those who haven’t struggled with mental illness will recognize. Many of the earlier musical numbers were great providers of both comedy and character work; “You Stupid Bitch” has those things while also being uncompromisingly dark, a three-minute manifestation of the nasty, self-loathing voices that live in Rebecca’s head, performed on a Divas Live-esque backdrop that only buoys the agony of the lyrics, Rebecca urging the unseen audience to sing along and confirm every bad thing she believes about herself. The love triangle between Rebecca, her (very brief) high school sweetheart Josh, and his best friend Greg would continue to be the driving engine of the plot for the rest of the season but the show’s true heart was never more beautifully and agonizingly realized. – Sara

3. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Netflix, Season Two

Returning to Netflix after its dazzling first season, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt quickly proved it was more than a match for any sophomore season jitters, picking up dangling threads from the season one finale, planting seeds for even more ambitious storytelling, and treating us to Lillian’s bizarre romance with probably-murderer Robert Durst (a brilliantly cast Fred Armisen). Supported at all times by Ellie Kemper’s trickier-than-it-looks performance (equal parts killer comic timing, emotional grounding, and superhuman charisma), the show proceeded to spend its second year giving us the same volume of terrific rapid-fire jokes and crackerjack performances, but it also dug even deeper into the emotional lives of the characters. The episode “Kimmy Goes To Her Happy Place!” is basically the series in microcosm (though it’s missing an appearance by Jane Krakowski, who continues to prove her mastery of the Fey/Carlock one-liner). The “happy place” of the episode’s title is a charming, brightly colored wonderland that Kimmy retreats to when she’s angry or scared, a fantasy where she is an animated princess cavorting with animals that bear striking resemblances to people she knows. And just as in the series as a whole, this bright, funny facade proves to harbor a darker undercurrent founded in the trauma Kimmy experienced back in Durnsville. But it’s the way that the show somehow mines that trauma for more and more jokes without undermining the emotional journey Kimmy is going through that marks the show as really special. There is an actual weight to Kimmy’s realization that she resents her mother for the role her neglect played in her abduction, despite (or perhaps because of?) the fact that it comes about because a drunken Tina Fey hectors her to interpret the incredibly gory violence that swept across her animated fantasy. And all of this happens in the same episode where Titus accompanies his new boyfriend, Mikey, to a family dinner where Mikey intends to come out of the closet to his conservative family, one of whom is an actual puppet. That’s right, the episode’s B-story is a genuinely sweet one for both Mikey and Titus that also features (among the cascade of hilarious jokes at the family dinner) an old Italian grandmother portrayed by a literal puppet.
Titus: “Is that a person?”
Mikey: “If it is, this could kill her.”
– Nathaniel

2. The People vs. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story

FX, Season One

I admit that I started watching The People vs. OJ Simpson as a byproduct of ’90s nostalgia, wanting to see my own past reflected back at me with shiny stars and funny wigs filling in the gaps of my memory. In the actual ’90s, I was aware of the OJ Simpson trial—you couldn’t be alive at the time and not be aware of the OJ Simpson trial—but only through its most pop-cultural of elements: the Bronco chase, the late-night jokes (those Dancing Itos!), the transformation of Johnnie Cochran into Jackie Chiles. It was dramatic and exciting; who wouldn’t want to revisit such a romp?

Well, The People vs. OJ Simpson really opened my eyes to what a romp it was not. The OJ trial sat at an amazing nexus of racism, sexism, criminal justice reform, and reality celebrity, all at the dawn of the Court TV era. And The People vs. OJ Simpson is savvy in that it chose to take these issues one at a time within a mostly-chronological framework, rather than try to stuff everything into every episode as it ticked along a regular timeline. Regular readers of SportsAlcohol.com know how much of a sucker I am for episodes that feel like episodes, and boy howdy does OJ run with it, to use a not-very-apt football metaphor.

If you’re going to praise one episode of OJ, it’s natural to zero in on the Marcia Clark episode. It is a fantastic hour of television. It is an apology to Ms. Clark from the media, offering a slim corrective for the way it portrayed her at the time, and Sarah Paulson, to use phrase that definitely wasn’t common in the ‘90s, slays. But it would be sad to overlook the episode that focuses on the jury. That is a microcosm of a microcosm, like the little copy of Goodnight Moon that’s slipped into one of the illustrations in Goodnight Moon. In a series about the effects of racism, manipulation of the court, and reality-celebrity, the jurors—sequestered for nearly a year—are a tiny society unto themselves, dealing with internal racism (the African American jurors complain about getting shabbier treatment than the white jurors), manipulation of the court (the cat-and-mouse game prosecution and defense played by dismissing jurors sympathetic to the other side), and reality celebrity (so many of them wrote books). And, in the end, it all came down to the jury.

The jurors are also the most fascinating talking heads in OJ: Made in America, the eight-hour documentary on the trial that was also released this year. What they said made my jaw drop. Sadly, the documentary did not make the SportsAlcohol.com list (though I did vote for it). It’s hard to consider one without the other. Both shine a light on how the OJ trial is a stand-in for these much larger issues. The documentary takes the macro view: It starts way before the Bronco chase, with a look at race relations in Los Angeles at the start of OJ’s football career. It goes in mostly chronological order. It is just as engrossing. The People vs. OJ Simpson and OJ: Made in America showed me that, sometimes, you can take two different approaches to the same story, and have them both be right. – Marisa

1. Stranger Things

Netflix, Season One

There have been complaints that Mike, Will, Dustin, and Lucas are not all that distinct in Stranger Things but, to the extent that divisions appear, Dustin is the pragmatic one. He knows, for example, why he isn’t Mike’s best friend. He didn’t transfer to Hawkins until later. He missed out on years of shared history. He understands that takes him out of the running for the title, because logic tells him you can’t have more than one best friend. “Well, I call bull on your logic,” Mike replies, “because you’re my best friend too.” Part of the much-commented-upon appeal of Stranger Things is the nostalgia factor, since it recalls what you wore and what you watched and what your neighborhood was like in the ’80s. But, if you’re a certain age, it can also make you think back to who you were at the time, back when a couple of schools years felt like your whole life, when you knew who your closest alliances were (and how they ranked in terms of importance, even if it meant a three-way tie for Number 1), and how logic can seem at both unassailable and totally not relevant to your day-to-day life. – Marisa

As a ’90s kid born the same year that Stranger Things takes place, I don’t have a lot of firsthand nostalgia for the period it depicts. Sure, I adore its aesthetic similarity to the Amblin, Carpenter, and King stories I grew up with, and Marisa nails something about the way the kids’ relationships are approached with both warmth and wisdom. But it’s possible the biggest nostalgic button the show pushed for me was actually in the way it popped up out of nowhere, with a cool poster and an intriguing trailer, and conquered the summer. For all of the influences it synthesizes, the show proved to be a fount of iconic moments on its own. Joyce & the Christmas lights. Eleven and her Eggos. The Demogorgon and the Upside Down. Barb. Stranger Things had such an impact in pop culture that it has already proved itself more than just the sum of its influences. And it ends so perfectly that I’m equally excited for and wary of a sequel season. – Nathaniel

The SportsAlcohol.com Podcast: Pop Culture Disappointments

Jesse

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

We’ve talked about our pop culture tears and fears, but what about that weird combination of the two, where you fear something will let you down so much you feel like crying? Either you’re listening to a Tears for Fears album, or you’re experiencing the universal feeling of pop-culture disappointment. For this episode, Marisa, Sara, Nathaniel, and Jesse talk about stuff that’s let us down over the years, from childhood to our teenage years to our wizened old age. We talk about singing food products, great directors who swung and missed, Broadway musicals, bands we grew out of, and more! After an extremely disappointing election and 2016 in general, maybe talking about some less harmful letdowns will be helpful.

How To Listen

We are now up to SIX (6) different ways to listen to a SportsAlcohol podcast:

The Best 30 Rock Episodes: A Chronological Journey, Part Two

Sara

Sara

Sara is big into reading and writing fiction like it's her job, because it is. That doesn't mean she isn't real as it gets. She loves real stuff like polka dots, indie rock, and underground fight clubs. I may have made some of that up. I don't know her that well. You can tell she didn't just write this in the third person because if she had written it there would have been less suspect sentence construction.
Sara

Hold on! Before reading this, make sure you’ve caught up with yesterday’s kickoff. Now, wave like a human being!

Liz Waves
Season 4, Episode 7: “Dealbreakers Talk Show #0001”
30 Rock’s ensemble cast began to sprawl out as the show went on, serving some characters better than others. In the first few seasons Jenna Maroney played an integral role as Liz’s best friend and working nightmare, the grotesquely narcissistic star of TGS who still made time to give her friend terrible life advice. But as Liz and Jack’s corporate relationship grew more personal, Jenna was often shunted into B and C stories; as her craziness became more outsized her position as Liz’s friend became more precarious. This is not to suggest Jane Krakowski doesn’t give everything she gets her all. But it does seem a bit of a shame in retrospect, especially when her presence can lift an entire episode into greatness, as it does with “Dealbreakers.” The early portion of season four introduced a new arc for Liz as she publishes a bestseller based on a catchphrase of one of Jenna’s TGS characters, but in another example of 30 Rock mocking the expectations of serialized stories (or, less charitably, losing interest in them), Liz’s shot at starring in a show based on the book is short-lived. After a disastrously hilarious shoot during which Liz turns into a bizarre marionette-approximation of a human (“Remember waving?” Pete yells helplessly) she locks herself in her dressing room and refuses to come out, just as Jenna often does, leading Jack to seek her counsel. This whole episode is about the fluidity of character traits; in Liz’s absence from the writer’s room, Frank, another supporting cast member I’ve yet to mention, steps into her role as den mother, scolding his colleagues and dressing in frumpy sweaters. It wouldn’t work if we didn’t know all these characters so well by now; by episode’s end the reset button has been hit but it’s still a jolt to a series that was starting to show its limits.
Continue reading The Best 30 Rock Episodes: A Chronological Journey, Part Two

The Best 30 Rock Episodes: A Chronological Journey, Part One

Sara

Sara

Sara is big into reading and writing fiction like it's her job, because it is. That doesn't mean she isn't real as it gets. She loves real stuff like polka dots, indie rock, and underground fight clubs. I may have made some of that up. I don't know her that well. You can tell she didn't just write this in the third person because if she had written it there would have been less suspect sentence construction.
Sara

Ten years ago this month a much-hyped new series premiered on NBC. Marketed as a rollicking satire of a very recognizable late-night sketch comedy show it boasted a starry cast and a strong TV auteur behind the scenes. It was Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and it tanked, hard. Its earnest investment in the trivial backstage drama of its characters, along with a tenuous grasp of what makes for good, or at least believable, comedy, doomed it to the cancellation bin after one season.

It’s odd now in hindsight to remember just how much of an underdog 30 Rock was when it debuted on the same network and in the same month as Studio 60. The brainchild of Tina Fey and based on her tenure as head writer of Saturday Night Live, the pedigree was more untested and it shows in the first several episodes. But voice and vision are paramount in a comedy and, at a time when NBC was struggling to find itself post Must-See-TV-Thursday, Fey and company stood out: the jokes were quick to the point of weaponization, often literally coming a second at a time, with a commitment to character beats as strong as to the outright bizarre set-piece. It also benefitted from a dynamite central pairing with Fey as the biographical-to-a-point Liz Lemon and Alec Baldwin as Jack Donaghy, her right-wing blowhard of a boss and singular comic creation. Even in the sloppily paced pilot their scenes have a spark that carried over seven seasons and remained reliable whenever the storytelling faltered over the 138 episodes that eventually ran. Ten years on, in the midst of so much “peak TV,” no currently airing comedy quite comes close to its alchemical mix of breakneck zaniness and reluctant heart, though Fey’s own Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt does its gosh-darndest. For a show that often worked deliberately against the serialization trend, 30 Rock amply rewards re-visiting and here are the fifteen best episodes to get you started, whether it’s your first time through or your thirtieth.
Continue reading The Best 30 Rock Episodes: A Chronological Journey, Part One