Friday, December 20, 2013

Top TV Episodes of 2013

No matter what we watch, my friends always want to discuss TV shows more in depth than movies. That doesn’t mean that they like these shows more than the movies we watch, but there’s something subject to debate when you break up a story into installments. There’s the theorizing about what happened next and arguing what episode was better. To view a show in segments tricks you to analyze parts of the whole and to watch the show over a course of weeks makes you more invested.

So I love talking with my friends about their thoughts on these excellent shows. Every year I like to ask them to write for my blog and show everyone their perspective. Here are 23 of my friends and myself writing about some of their favorite episodes of the year equipped with their Top 10 list. Due to when I’m posting this, there are few episodes in 2013 that sadly won’t be up for consideration like the Treme series finale, Matt Smith’s final episode of Doctor Who and the Downton Abbey Christmas Special.

At the very end you can read about what episodes were the collected Top 10 with other bits of trivia. But first let’s head over to the CW…

Arrow – “Three Ghosts” 
(Season Two, Episode 9)

By Aaron Wittwer

It’s hard to turn the TV on anymore without becoming mired in the tendrils of some cinema-quality masterwork of a show like Breaking Bad or Homeland or Game of Thrones or Justified or Sons of Anarchy etc… Tightly plotted, intelligent dramas perfectly crafted to challenge our idea of what television can be. Arrow isn’t one of these. Arrow is a show about a second tier, comic book superhero who shoots things with arrows. It’s got a cast of really, really good-looking people. It’s on the CW. All the ingredients are there for it to be yet another piece of under-wrought YA garbage. But it’s not. Instead, it’s one of the most gleefully fun and entertaining shows on television, treating us with a refreshing degree of unapologetic melodrama, consistently well-choreographed action, and a compelling cast of core characters.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Top 20 TV Seasons of 2013

TV may be getting too good. I tried to write a Top 10 and found it to be almost impossible. Luckily I’m in control of my own blog so now I have a Top 20. (Spoiler: I still cheat.) It’s not just that my favorite shows keep getting better, it’s that more channels are making quality entertainment. The Sundance Channel proved to have some of the year’s best programs, Netflix made huge waves with launching entire seasons at once and more and more foreign imports are making its way stateside.

People are trying to say that the Golden Age of Television is fading, but it only seems to be growing stronger. Almost half of my shows on this list are first seasons of new shows. Every week of the year seems to have at least a half dozen great shows on the air. So even with watching so many shows, there are some that I have missed usually because I don’t have the time to catch up with them.

Thus, I apologize (not really) for not being caught up on Call the Midwife, Enlightened, The Good Wife, The Legend of Korra, Parenthood, Scandal, Shameless (both versions), Skins and A Young Doctor’s Notebook. Also I haven’t even started Arrow, Bad Education, Borgen, Dancing on the Edge, Last Tango in Halifax, The Venture Brothers or The White Queen. So many shows and now here are the seasons that were the best of 2013…

20. Treme Season Four (HBO)

“So what is it exactly that you want to do, hmm?”
“I want to get Caldonia’s reopen. Take over Raul’s lease, revitalize Rampart Street, fight the good fight for live music and New Orleans.”
“That’s it?”
“To start.”

In so many ways, Treme became a metaphor for the thing it loved the most. People are loving HBO more and more and yet nobody is watching this charming and emotional show about life in post-Katrina New Orleans. It wasn’t able to have a full season for its finale, but haven seen three of the five episodes, it still seems too soon to go. Unlike other final seasons, this isn’t leading towards a climatic ending. For at the end of these five hours, their lives won’t end. You want them to succeed in their dreams and thus you want New Orleans to prosper and thus you want America to prosper. When certain characters succeed financially, they always want to return to this city because that is where the soul is. And boy did this show have soul. You’ll be missed, Treme.

19. Orphan Black Season One (BBC America)

“Bloody hell. How many of us are there?”

The trailer for this show didn’t impress me. It kept using plenty of vague buzzwords to try and intrigue you about its conspiracy and clones. Then I watched the pilot where Sarah Manning sees a girl who looks identical to her, kill herself in public. Sarah’s reaction? Steal the girl’s ID so she can empty her bank account. The show continued to expand in wonderfully crazy ways that kept playing to its strengths, which included the insanely good performance of Tatiana Maslany who not only could play several characters perfectly but can also play those characters playing other characters. The goofiness and innovation made this show a whole lot of fun.

Monday, December 9, 2013

The Barest Essentials a Poet Could Need -- Austin's Top 20 Sondheim Songs

I'm very excited for tonight's HBO documentary about the great Stephen Sondheim. He's responsible for some of my favorite shows thanks to his wondrous speed and witty lyrics. I haven't seen all of his shows--Gypsy and Follies are two big omissions--but the ones I have seen are filled with such incredible ambition. So as I continue to have all of these tunes stuck in my head, here are my Top 20 favorite songs written by Mr. Stephen Sondheim.

20. "Everybody's Got the Right" -- Assassins

Creepy, unsettling and it prepares you for the uncomfortable darkness to come.

19. "Invocation and Instructions to the Audience" -- The Frogs

Hilarious commentary on how audiences ought to behave during a live show. Comedy podcast fans should recognize the opening notes...

Monday, September 30, 2013

TV is Fantastic But Television is Frustrating

With the state of television changing, networks are scrambling to figure out how to stay relevant in the age of Netflix, piracy, DVRs, OnDemand and TV on DVD.

Honestly I want to see bolder tactics by networks. Now AMC probably doesn't think it needs the advice considering the Breaking Bad finale had over 10 million viewers (which for all of you playing at home, is nuts.) This final season was incredible and I know it's going to play a whole lot better on DVD.

Imagine if AMC didn't try to force the season into its framework, but vice versa. Looking at the episodes, it would have been an amazing night of television if they made "To'hajiilee" and "Ozymandias" a two-parter. Label them as two separate hours so you can chart two different ratings. Don't worry about drop-off because who the hell would not see what would happen after that cliffhanger.

Then make "Granite State" and "Felina" a two-parter because that tonally fits a lot more than giving them a week apart. In fact, go BBC style and have limited commercials for the final episode and then about 15+ minutes of ads between the two. That gives the audience a nice breather and a chance to go to the bathroom before it all ends. Then the final episode can be as clean as possible. (Yes, I know sponsors want that time in the middle of the episode but at the rate the world's moving, nobody is going to watch shows live within a few years.)

Ultimately this doesn't matter because the show will hold up on its own and people discovering this in a few years won't even know how stupid it was that there was a ridiculous hashtag on-screen the entire time or the ad breaks felt very awkward especially for the first half. People will just see the season as a set on Blu-Ray or Netflix and feel the compulsion to watch it all as soon as possible.

I'm still holding out as liking the time in-between episodes because of the chance to discuss it all week and then it becomes an event that you can gather with friends to watch the new episode (or episodes). Not looking at the quality of the shows, it's always a more fulfilling experience to gather to watch Game of Thrones than Breaking Bad simply because of how the product is presented.

If everybody in the world is going to continue to compare the quality of TV shows as cinematic, when will networks start to act like theatres?

Friday, July 12, 2013

My Interview with the Director/Co-Writer of EMPTY BOTTLES

I met Eric Martindale when we were working on a local independent film. There we became fast friends by avoiding work and talked about LOST. During our years at Ball State, Eric was a major player in the theatre section where he acted in shows like GOD’S EAR and directed one of my favorite productions at Ball State, ART.

Since graduating from Ball State, Eric has moved to Chicago and started up the On Deck Theatre Company. Their first production is a show called EMPTY BOTTLES (co-written by yours truly). It is about a young man named Andy who is starting a new life with a beautiful stranger named Charlotte and Jacob, the brother he never really connected with.

The show opens on July 18th at the Straw Dog Theatre in Chicago for a limited three-night engagement. Last night I chatted with Eric online to ask him about the origins of the show and what his methods are like.

Austin Lugar: We're going to start off with an easy one. What were you up to tonight?

Eric Martindale: Just got out of rehearsal. Listening to "Cannon in D"... not sure why.

Austin: You're a classy guy. As we're getting down to the final days, how have the rehearsals been?

Eric: Educational, frantic, stressful, wonderful... it's amazing I'm always one second way from swelling with pride or having a heart attack. There is a whole other element I've never contended with and that's being both the writer and the director. Directing comes easy to me, but when it's my words (and yours) I sometimes forget what it is I'm actually suppose to be doing. I feel more on the line than ever.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

My Dream Ballot for the 2013 Emmys

There is no perfect awards show. Every year it seems the Emmy drive me nuts more than anyone else thanks to their insane voting techniques, networks bias, miniseries mislabeling and their belief that CBS comedies are funny. Anywho, the Emmy nominations are about to come out and just like every year I assume their picks will annoy me to no end.

So for no reason whatsoever, here is my dream Emmy Ballot for this year. Keep in mind that I am still very behind on Rectify, The Good Wife and Parenthood. I would include some acting picks for Broadchurch but that doesn't premiere in the US for another two months. I would include a miniseries category but I haven't seen that many so it would just be filled to the brim with Top of the Lake and Behind the Candelabra nominations.

Leading Male in a Drama
Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad
Hugh Dancy in Hannibal
Jon Hamm in Mad Men
Timothy Olyphant in Justified
Matthew Rhys in The Americans
Ben Whishaw in The Hour

Leading Actress in a Drama
Claire Danes in Homeland
Romola Garai in The Hour
Tatiana Masiany in Orphan Black
Elisabeth Moss in Mad Men
Keri Russell in The Americans
Robin Wright in House of Cards

Supporting Actor in a Drama
Jonathan Banks in Breaking Bad
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in Game of Thrones
Peter Dinklage in Game of Thrones
Noah Emmerich in The Americans
Mads Mikkelsen in Hannibal
John Noble in Fringe

Supporting Actress in a Drama
Anna Gunn in Breaking Bad
Christina Hendricks in Mad Men
Lucia Micarelli in Treme
Margo Martindale in The Americans
Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
Maisie Williams in Game of Thrones

Leading Actor in a Comedy
Alec Baldwin in 30 Rock
Jason Bateman in Arrested Development
Louis C.K. in Louie
Nathan Fielder in Nathan For You
Chris O’Dowd in Family Tree
Matt Smith in Doctor Who

Leading Actress in a Comedy
Lena Dunham in Girls
Tina Fey in 30 Rock
Sutton Foster in Bunheads
Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Veep
Amy Poehler in Parks and Recreation
June Diane Raphael in Burning Love

Supporting Actor in a Comedy
Will Arnett in Arrested Development
Charlie Day in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
Adam Driver in Girls
Jason Gann in Wilfred
Nick Offerman in Parks and Recreation
Timothy Simons in Veep

Supporting Actress in a Comedy
Jenna Coleman in Doctor Who
Elisha Cuthbert in Happy Endings
Jessica Hynes in Twenty Twelve
Karen Gillan in Doctor Who
Alia Shawkat in Arrested Development
Julia Goldani Telles in Bunheads

Best Drama
Breaking Bad
Game of Thrones
The Hour
Mad Men
Spartacus: War of the Damned

Best Comedy
30 Rock
Arrested Development
Bob’s Burgers
Parks and Recreation

Are there major shows that I'm missing? Anything I still need to check out?

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

I Co-Wrote a Play!

Here is an announcement I am so proud to finally be able to talk about publicly. For the past eight months, I have been working on a play with Eric Martindale, something he has been working on for years. Now it is finally coming into fruition.

This July at the Straw Dog Theatre in Chicago you can see the world premiere of EMPTY BOTTLES, an original work written by Eric and myself and directed by Eric. It is being produced by Adam Lord and Cody Nicoletti, as the first work by the On Deck Theatre Company.

It will play on July 18th, 19th, and 20th and I will definitely be letting you know when tickets will be on sale.

It is starring three brilliant actors I couldn't be more happy with: Curtis Becht, Maeghan Looney and Keith Lipke. I was up in Chicago this past weekend to sit in during auditions and I was overwhelmed. My point of reference for auditions have been comedy movies where there's a montage of "wacky" auditions and then the main character loudly sighs and then the perfect audition happens at the very end. That was not the case here where every single person who auditioned wowed me in some way or another, highlighting unseen nuances of the characters I thought I completely knew. I'm now "that guy" where I wish there were more parts for the actors we saw this weekend.

The story of EMPTY BOTTLES is about a young man who finally left the house of a psychologically abusive father and is now ready to start a new life with a beautiful stranger and his distant brother. Yet reality never seems to match the future you envision. It's a dramatic work with comedy, romance, uncomfortable tension and even has a very silly brief song parody about Temple Run.

Once again, I am so proud of all of this. It was my first time being asked to work on something dramatic and something this large. This has been Eric's personal project for so many years and I am honored that he allowed me to tinker with it and be a true collaborator.

It has been so amazing to see my friends work this hard and to make something that's so damn impressive. I can't wait for this play to come out and for everyone to see it.

Get very excited.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Why Doctor Who is Still Good and People Need to Calm Down

A year ago this month, I gave three different Doctor Who speeches in three different locales, including at the Pop Culture Association in Boston. To prepare for my presentations, my research expanded my love of the new series to the entire 50 years of cosmic madness. I watched all of the Classic Series running from 1963-1989 (with an awkward one-off in 1996), I started listening to Big Finish audio dramas, I read about the production history, critical analysis and I listened to the full run of popular podcasts like Radio Free Skaro. I know, my life is tough.
That all sounds ridiculous because it is but I am still nowhere near an expert. I’m just a big fish in a small (American) pond. There are those that have every production code memorized, they know the history of every planet and character and have seen every episode dozens of times. I don't know that much about the show. 
So in many ways I feel that I have one foot in Doctor Who fandom and one foot in TV fandom. Right now I adore television. I like writing about it, I like reading about it, I enjoy spouting about how it’s more rewarding than movies and surprise surprise I watch too many shows. A lot of my friends are more in this TV fandom camp where throughout the week we enthusiastically chat and analyze the latest episode of Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Community, Bunheads, Justified, The Americans, Downton Abbey, Breaking Bad, etc.

I discovered the new series of Doctor Who between its second and third season back when I was in high school. During the Russell T. Davies run I happily enjoyed as a fun treat that only my brother and I seemed to know about. With each growing year, I became more enthusiastic and as David Tennant was leaving I started to get more and more friends into the show. (Thank you Netflix!) They weren’t going into the show as fans of science-fiction or British programmes, but simply they enjoyed great TV.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve noticed a number of TV critics like Mo Ryan and Ryan McGee on Twitter, TOR and other bloggers express extreme dissatisfaction with the current season of Doctor Who while I notice the fanbase is eating it all up. 

The best example is the recent episode “Cold War.” It’s an Alien-esque adventure on a submarine where a lone Ice Warrior stalks the crew. The Doctor Who fanbase adored it because it was the return of a Classic Series villain who first appeared in the late 60s and had smaller cameos in the 70s. “Cold War” retained their creepiness but added a new element that fans of the villain adored. Yet some TV critics found it very routine with some jumps in logic. Again, I’m in the middle where I found it to be very fun and spooky but I wished it would have been more vicious and the supporting characters to be better developed.
This is the polar opposite of last year where the Doctor Who fanbase was disappointed with Season Six and the TV fanbase ate it up. I think I understand why this is happening. Let’s look at Steven Moffat’s run as Doctor Who showrunner.

Season Five
The Eleventh Doctor begins with a new companion (Amy Pond), a new TARDIS, a fondness for bowties and a mystery involving cracks in the universe. 

The Emotional Arc: This season it’s on the companions, specifically Amy Pond. The Doctor visited her and abandoned her as a child and this led her to a neurotic upbringing. Her relationship with the kind but plain Rory Williams is tested. The villain’s plot involving the cracks is even centered all around her. By the end, she is the one that saves the universe through her memory.
The Structure: This is modeled off of Russell T. Davies’ way of arcing a season where he teased at a codeword that paid off in the finale. (“Bad Wolf” in Season One, “Torchwood” in Season Two, etc.). The difference is that Moffat did it a whole lot better where instead of just sneaking in the cracks in every episode, he introduced more of their mythology in the middle of the season. Also the finale made sense, which was another step up.

Season Six
When hanging out on the beach of Utah, an astronaut rises from the water and kills The Doctor. No regeneration, just dead. Amy, Rory and River discover that was an older version of The Doctor and spend the season trying to figure out how to prevent his death. Also almost all the gaps are filled about who is River Song.

The Emotional Arc: Season Six is very much focused on The Doctor. The whole run of the new series has hinted about the darkness of the character and the violence he has caused while saying he’s always about doing good. At first, the season seems like it’s all about prevention of the death but as the season goes on, it’s clear it’s all about if The Doctor knows the assassination will happen why would he ever choose to die?
The Structure: Due to the complicated serial nature of this season, this resembles more of other TV shows on the air where the plot moves forward every episode. Aside from “The Curse of the Black Spot” and “Night Terrors”, each one is sneakily about the mystery filled with clues, revelations and red herrings to this very timey-wimey season.

Season Seven
The final days of Amy and Rory cover the first half of Season Seven while the mysterious nature of Clara, the impossible girl who keeps appearing in different points in time, is taking over the second half.

The Emotional Arc: Oddly, enough, this time it’s on the adventures themselves. Moffat said he wanted to go away the arc-heavy season so this time it’s all about the “blockbusters”. In fact, every episode has come with its own movie poster. Every week is a different genre. So far we’ve had (in order): horror, adventure, western, family drama, film noir, Christmas, modern thriller, very sci-fi, submarine, and lately a ghost story. Every season has variety, but this one is striving for something new each week.
In fact, I've said in the past that while still about the adventures, Part One of Season Seven is about the show addressing finality of certain characters.
The Structure: This time the obvious influence is the Classic Series. Doctors 1-7 rarely had any sort of arcing story. Usually it was just jump to a new place and embrace the adventure. While we do have the Clara mystery running through this season, it is much lighter in focus than The Doctor’s death. There are more clues about what she isn’t than what she is. In fact, at this moment, Clara doesn't even know there is a mystery going on.
In addition, since this is the 50th anniversary, this season is very heavy with references to Doctor Who as a show. Thankfully nothing has been too overbearing for new fans, but the slight nods have been very fun in every episode. For example in the last episode “Hide”, the use of the Eye of Harmony and the Metebelis III crystal were references to Classic fans and the orange jumpsuit was for fans of the Tennant years.

Ultimately what it comes down to is that Steven Moffat seems to consciously be crafting the show for every fan imaginable. Since the show has been running for 50 years with every era and Doctor having their own distinct voice, there is never just one way to run the show. Personally, Season Six’s format is my favorite but what I like even more than that is how flexible and surprising the show can be. I don’t know what Moffat is planning for Season Eight, but it’ll be awesome if he hires even more new writers because having Neil Cross this season has been very refreshing.
So as I speak from both parties, I strongly want Steven Moffat to stay because although he has his own tropes he falls back on, he’s someone who is determined to make the show stay relevant. What it comes down to is, everybody needs to calm down. When the show is doing everything right, every episode and season should be something new and exciting. Even when an episode feels a bit familiar like "The Bells of St. John", it is structurally filled with elements that have never been on the show before, Classic or New.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Goodbye Pa

I never knew my Pa like so many others knew him. He served our country, he lived overseas in places like Germany and the Philippines and he was a dentist specializing in the gums.  All of that happened before I was born. As long as I’ve known Pa, he has been retired and never in the best health. I don’t think I ever saw him prepare his own meal and watch much else on the TV besides sports, Dr. Oz and the assortment of judge shows.
Over the past year, Pa’s health has spiraled considerably. His memory has become unfortunate and he became weaker every day to the point where standing up could take an hour. In November my mom and I traveled down to Austin, Texas to care for Pa and my Memaw who is also in unfortunate health. Aside from a two-week break in early December, I have been down here caring for them every day through emotional and physical trials.
In this condition, I learned about my Pa in a different way; the truest forms of himself arose to the surface. He was a man who cared deeply for his family. Several times a day he would ask what everybody in the house was up to and wanted to know what the rest of his grandsons and granddaughters were up to wherever they were in the world. Coming to sit at lunch and dinner was a valued part of his day. Even though he couldn’t understand the conversations, he wanted to be around those closest to him.
He had a simple sense of humor that on paper was not very funny, but was always entertaining to see the sparkle in his eye of being proud that he’s telling a joke. He laughed at almost everything and he had the most wonderful grin. When I told him that he would blush and then smile again because he knew I liked it. His modesty was a way to protect everyone. Even on his final days he would always say, “I’m fine.”
Spending a lot of time with him the last two months, we went through the worst together. There were a lot of difficult and frustrating times that were very sad and embarrassing. However I never regretted being down here. We sat and laughed every day as I told him stories and we talked about the silly acts of Live With Kelly and Michael.
Pa never fully understood what was happening to him but he was able to focus on the greater things. No matter what happened he always knew that he was loved. He left behind two daughters, a son, four grandsons, a granddaughter and a diva Shih Tzu who cared for him deeply and were always there for him. It broke my heart how much pain he was in so I am overjoyed he is now in peace. His presence contributed to the joy of this Austin home. Goodbye Pa. I shall miss you.

The last photo of Pa. Even though I don't even think he was hungry, he asked for some bananas so he could have a meal with everyone. He was able to eat them on his own, but Memaw still wanted to feed him.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Top 35 Films of 2012

2012 was an incredible year for films. Every year has had a handful of really great films that inspire and awe, but this year was something special. Usually I post my Top 10 with a bunch of honorable mentions, but I loved so many movies this year I’m posting a Top 35. For most that is a really high number, but sadly that still only counts as my top fraction. For I’ve now seen 169 films from 2012 thanks to being a film critic for The Film Yap, working at the Heartland Film Festival and having way too much downtime while I’m in Texas.
I’ll be posting a few more lists throughout the week including Best Underseen Films, Best Performers and Best Scenes. Before I start, I do want to clarify that I have seen a lot but I haven’t seen everything. Some of the big ones that I’ll catch up with one day are Rush and Bone, In the Family, I Wish, Headhunters, The Woman in the Fifth, 2 Days in New York, The Gatekeepers, No, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, The Central Park Five, Room 237, Bill W., The Ambassador, The Forgiveness of Blood, Red Hook Summer, Detachment, Crazy Horse and Dark Horse. Also maybe one day I’ll see The Amazing Spider-Man but I still can’t bring myself to do it.
Anywho, HERE WE GO!

#35 – Compliance

Years ago I heard the story about the brutal scams being performed in fast food restaurants but they always seemed too fantastical to be real. Why would someone commit a strip search of a fellow employee just because a voice on the phone told them to do so? Compliance takes you through the hours of such a crime and the context is surprising. Logic is questioned and the more suspense is raised, the more you grow concerned for humanity. It’s a difficult movie to forget.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

A Look at the 2013 Oscar Documentary Shortlist

Every year I like to write about the Oscar’s shortlist for the Best Feature Documentary category. To lead up to the official nomination list, the Academy Awards like to narrow it down in a few fields and every year their list for the documentaries throw me for a loop. Usually they ignore the most popular and critically acclaimed picks and find some really random choices.
There are 15 on the shortlist that will be narrowed down to 5. At this point I have only seen 9, but three more will be available to me in the next few weeks so I’ll be sure to catch up with those soon.
Now let’s breakdown the 15 and I’ll even be nice and tell you how you can find them…

 --Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. This is one of my favorites of the year. I’m ashamed that I have never heard of Ai Weiwei before. He is a Chinese artist and activist who uses social media to inform the world about the unjust Chinese government. Powerful, inspiring and has one hell of a third act. Now available on DVD and Netflix Instant.
--Bully. This got plenty of headlines for combating his R-rating because the MPAA were trying to protect children from the language children use. That topic is better argued than this expose on bullying that was never able to capture what it wanted to capture and focused more on parents than the kids. There will one day be a better documentary on this topic.