This is the way the story goes in the alternate timeline: “Paper Heart” (2009), the arch and quirky romantic comedy written by and starring Charlene Yi, became the next “Juno” (2007) and earned all the money at the box office. Audiences burst in anticipation for “Youth in Revolt” (2009) and swooned over its male lead’s newly revealed depth and maturity. Edgar Wright’s “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” (2010) was a smash hit. It launched a series of sequels while, paradoxically, also inspiring Hollywood to abandon sequels and superhero adaptations. In came a new era where Hollywood took risks on unknown properties and produced scripts that barely even whispered “blockbuster.”
No matter how much I admire the frenetic, original and actually clever “Scott Pilgrim,” the alternate timeline is not better, and it may even prove much worse than the status quo. There was something troubling about “Scott Pilgrim” star Michael Cera, circa 2009. He wasn’t growing as an actor — but he also wasn’t not-growing in the way that most actors not-grow. The weight of past performances makes it harder and harder to get cast in anything that isn’t a repetition of those performances. Audiences love to see their favorite actors play their favorite roles again and again. Everyone eventually becomes a character actor, even movie stars. Sandra Bullock in “The Heat” is Sandra Bullock in “Miss Congeniality.” It’s why the movie is so popular.
Michael Cera, however, was not-growing as an actor in the worst possible way: He was trying and failing. Cera probably had another year to play the lost puppy/stunted youth. I would have happily followed Nick from “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” to Berklee College of Music. But he decided to change and to be more ambitious. Unfortunately, he was only somewhat ambitious: He took on characters that were his logical next steps and natural evolutions. He smirked 20% less. He added more angst. It was neither the radical change he needed nor the stasis we wanted. It was a disappointment, that’s all.
Now Cera’s done what he needed to do before. He’s taking on challenging roles, like the lead in “Crystal Fairy,” and he’s savaging his best-loved ones. Season 4 of “Arrested Development” contorts George Michael Bluth and “This Is the End” aggressively mocks his nice guy image. He’s getting a lot of media attention for this growth and development.
I had the idea to compare Bravo’s “Princesses: Long Island,” the Jewish-tinged reality show about aspiring Real Housewives, to Amy Schumer, the Long Island-born stand-up comic and star of Comedy Central’s “Inside Amy Schumer.” The idea was to talk about how misguided these Princesses were, and about how depressing it is that their goal in life is to marry a banker, lawyer, or doctor — it doesn’t really matter which, so long as he can afford to pay for days and days of shopping at the Americana.
The idea was to cast Amy Schumer as their foil: She was the one who got away. Amy was the one who escaped status anxiety and the need to measure her self-worth by how many men she dated and the shiney presents they give her. I would cast her as somewhere between a refugee and a role model. Look past the surface, young Jewesses and Forward readers! Look past the shock value of her humor. Look past the initial parlor trick of hearing a beautiful, polite-seeming blonde woman tell crude jokes about the most unglamorous parts of sex. Realize that Amy is actually a brilliant, hard-working career woman determined to blaze her own path.
But there are two problems with that review. First, “Princesses: Long Island” is a much sadder, darker show than I thought it ever would be. And second, “Inside Amy Schumer” is the most inventive sketch show on television. It throws all formulas out the window. It keeps sketches going. It allows them to twist and turn into something far richer and deeper. It challenges our impressions of women in comedy and then challenges the challenges to those impressions. It’s also an insightful commentary on dating, technology, and the breakdown of etiquette. (No, really.) “Inside Amy Schumer” is not always funny; sometimes it’s painful. But the effect is always exhilarating.
“Blazing Saddles” is generally regarded as Mel Brooks’s best movie: It was ranked sixth on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest American comedies and it was nominated for three Academy Awards. “Best,” though, is a relative term. Brooks’s Borscht Belt-meets-absurdism style is so unique and so indelible that what we call the “best” is usually the first of his movies we fell in love with.
It’s safer to say that “Blazing Saddles” was Brooks’s most timely movie, even his most serious movie. And it’s as safe to say that there wouldn’t be a Mel Brooks installment of PBS’s “American Masters” (premiering May 20; check local listings) without “Blazing Saddles.”
The opening scene is terrific and justifiably famous. We see a mix of Chinese and black workers pounding hammers under the desert sun. Their vicious and idiotic white overseers demand they sing spirituals like they did when they were slaves. The workers huddle, break apart, and slowly we hear a sweet, beautiful voice: “I get no kick from champagne.” Almost before we can process the joke, Brooks lays a second one atop the first: the black workers join in, harmonizing with the lead singer. This isn’t one person singing Cole Porter; this is a full, sophisticated a cappella routine. Brooks continues to add inversion after inversion, but the jokes work because the first few bars of that unexpected, anachronistic song say so much about racial ignorance.
Sometimes it seems as if only Daniel Mendelsohn and the New York Review of Books can criticize AMC’s “Mad Men.” Only someone like Mendelsohn, whose work is devoted to mythic themes and to the eternal, can look past the crisp elegance of Don Draper’s pocket square and the show’s captivating visual style. Only someone like Mendelsohn can see its aesthetics as fantasy, a dream of living in a time when drinking and smoking were encouraged, when people would cheer you on for sleeping with your secretary, (when offices had secretaries), when men wore hats, and uniformed elevator men led you gracefully to your floor. And it could only run in a journal like the New York Review, a journal that started during the New York printers’ strike of 1962-1963, an event that would have transpired sometime during “Mad Men’s” third season. Only a publication designed to be academic and comprehensive, someplace that wouldn’t even review “Mad Men” until the end of Season Four, can look past the immediate joys of watching the show.
Then, at other times, it feels as if some sort of cultural window opens and everyone (myself included) gets their two months to criticize “Mad Men.” The joys of watching disappear. Its slowness becomes tediousness. Its oblique approach to historical events feels ridiculous against the backdrop of radicalism, of escalating war, and of rioting and mass protests.
Yet directly engaging with historical events is even worse. The aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King dominated this season’s fourth episode. Characters were scared; characters were hopeless. Everyone was glued to the TV because that was the only thing they knew they could do. They debated whether to go to the office the next day and what to do at the office. Were they really supposed to work?
It’s a perfectly rational discussion for two characters — even two real people — to have. But the conversation also highlighted what was until then the bland ok-ness of Season Six. For weeks, nothing happened. Themes were sketched; elements of eventual movements were gathered; breakpoints between the characters flashed up. Accounts came, accounts went; you could tell that something would happen, but nothing had.
1. “It’s a terrible set, not a terrible room.”
There’s something strange about Joan River’s Internet talk show, “In Bed with Joan.” Maybe it’s strange that the show exists, or maybe it’s strange how seriously Joan takes the web series — that she earnestly seems to believe it will lead to a new period of fame and critical acceptance. As if we aren’t already living in that new period, and that “In Bed with Joan” is only possible because she’s back on top as a comic legend, even a national treasure. Or maybe it’s just the wallpaper and duvet.
“In Bed with Joan” is filmed in a basement bedroom of Melissa Rivers’s house in Malibu. The laundry room doubles as a green room. Joan introduces her guests by asking them to come out of her closet, then invites them to lie down next to her on her full-size bed.
But they also lie under a reddish-orange sign that reads “In Bed with Joan,” next to french doors with a nighttime “view” of the New York skyline. In the second episode, Nick Kroll asked if the view is of the South Street Seaport, which would place the “studio” somewhere in the New York harbor.
On the first episode, Sarah Silverman repeatedly insulted the set, saying how depressing it was to be there and to discover that hosting an Internet talk show in your daughter’s basement was “making it.” You can’t quite decide if Silverman is joking, maybe because Silverman can’t decide if Joan is joking, if the aesthetics of the show — the weird incongruity between the actual bed, the massive sign, the fake New York skyline, and the audience of three-to-four people perched on the steps — are all one big joke. As Melissa Rivers put it, “It’s a terrible set, not a terrible room.”
Everything that’s strange about “In Bed with Joan,” starts with that room. Joan Rivers has decided to make a low-budget online talk show, but Joan Rivers cannot make a low-budget online talk show. She cannot admit that the show is filmed in a Malibu basement; she has to pretend that it’s produced in glamorous New York City. She isn’t content to film conversations with friends or comics, like Jerry Seinfeld does on his web series “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” Joan Rivers needs to have a team of writers help her compose jokes and formal interview questions. Joan Rivers needs “In Bed with Joan” to be something larger than it really is. Joan Rivers needs “In Bed with Joan” to be a full-size Talk Show, maybe to continue making up for a creative failure that she’s long since made-up for, one that few people remember. Maybe she does it because few people remember.
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