Overused Phrases to Abandon in 2011

2011 January 1
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by Greg Leitman
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The Mad Men Finale I Wish We’d Seen

2010 October 19
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by Greg Leitman

When I write about entertainment here, I try to focus on the positive, and find things to praise, rather than simply being another critic relentlessly tearing things down all the time. But, in the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that I’m not a huge fan of the TV show Mad Men. I’ve kept up with it, and I do find things about it to admire, but, on the whole, it strikes me as a very unsubtle show about rich, dull creeps. (For me, the absolute lowpoint of the show’s tendency to beat us over the head with its themes and meanings was the end of the Season 3 episode in which Don is finally forced to reveal his past to Betty: they take their children trick-or-treating, and an adult neighbor pointedly but illogically asks Don “And who are you supposed to be?”)

I did think that this past season was the show’s strongest yet. It deepened many of the characters, and the relationships between them, while probing the difficulties of work and personal lives, without couching all problems safely in a bygone era. (The show has sometimes taken a superior, modern-day attitude to the time period it represents, allowing  viewers to smugly shake their heads and be thankful that times have changed, rather than feel truly challenged by how the past both leads to and informs the present.)

I looked forward to the season finale, an opportunity to conclude the show’s best season on a high note, and to set up whatever intrigues might follow in Season 5. But I can’t help feeling that the show botched what could’ve been a bold, game-changing conclusion to the current season, and a terrific set-up for more to come.

As ridiculous as Don Draper’s hasty engagement to his secretary Megan might have seemed to viewers while watching the episode, it did, ultimately, make sense. My problem was with how inevitable and predictable the entire California courtship was. As soon as Megan was asked to go on the trip as the children’s babysitter, it was obvious that she and Don would hook up romantically again. And as soon as Anna Draper’s engagement ring was bequeathed to Don, it was obvious that he would wind up using it. The only interesting moment in the entire California trip was the “Who’s Dick?” exchange between Don and his daughter Sally, while visiting Anna Draper’s old home.

So, here’s where I think the show blew it: why show us any of those terminally dull California scenes at all? A far better finale would’ve had Don go off on his trip with his children and Megan in tow, and simply vanish from the episode until returning to New York. In the meantime, we could get more insight into how the business was managing to stay afloat in the wake of the Lucky Strikes disaster, as well as some glimpses into the personal lives of the other key characters (Pete’s new fatherhood, for example).

Most importantly, time wasted on Don & Megan in California could’ve instead been devoted to Betty. Her character had been pushed to the margins all season. Apart from a precious few moments in which we could glimpse her humanity, viewers were really only treated to brief time with Betty at her absolute worst. Consequently, as the season wore on, she increasingly came across as a one-dimensional villain. With her children away, and her husband increasingly fed up with her, why not show us some of Betty’s sad, lonely life, and remind us of the person suffering behind her prim and proper facade?

Then, when Don returns to surprise his co-workers with news of his engagement, viewers would be equally taken aback, left to ponder what the news might mean for next season, and to try to puzzle out just what kind of a person Megan might really be. And the scene of Betty lying in wait for Don, only to discover he’s now engaged, would be so much more devastating.

We already knew that Don and Megan were attracted to each other, that Faye but not Megan knew of Don’s past, and that Megan was better at dealing with children than Betty or Faye. The California trip showed us nothing new. More time spent with Betty, however, would’ve reminded us that, despite her many flaws, Betty is still a human being, suffering and in pain.

This was a real missed opportunity.

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Past Work: “Friends” Spinoffs

2010 June 14
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by Greg Leitman

I was a big fan of the TV show Friends. I’d like to think that this piece manages to cleverly spoof the show, while still exhibiting great affection for it. But you can judge for yourself…

Click on the first image to see slideshow:






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I Once Watched Lost, And Now Am Found: Redemption, Forgiveness, & Enlightenment in a Series Finale

2010 May 25

Through the years, I’d always watched Lost as a casual observer, not a diehard fan. The show seemed consistently capable of creating striking imagery and stunning plot twists, yet all too often chose instead to deliberately stall for time and avoid forward momentum. The science fiction and comic book elements of the show could sometimes be thrilling, but frequently struck me as nonsense, tossed in whenever the writers needed a new distraction to keep the audience occupied.

So I suppose I was far less invested in the island’s mysteries and the many questions that other fans were desperately seeking to have answered. I just wanted the show’s conclusion to be fairly interesting and entertaining. There were plenty of things I disliked or had mixed feelings about in this finale, plenty of impossible silliness (such as the bright light and the phallic stone that functioned as a cork plugging a hole), and the whole thing probably would’ve been stronger at half the length, but I was surprised to discover just how much there was to admire. Most importantly, I firmly believe that the final fifteen minutes are as extraordinary as anything in the history of scripted television.

Going in to the finale, there seemed to be a groundswell of criticism of both the character of Kate and the actress who played her, but I don’t see how anyone can hold onto that animosity after watching the lovely exchange between Kate and Jack after the concert. “I’ve missed you so much,” she tells him. Evangeline Lilly powerfully conveys a wealth of information and emotion here. We as viewers don’t yet realize it, but Kate knows that they’re both dead now, knows their shared history and bond, knows how the rest of her life played out with Jack no longer in it. She may have lived another 50 years, thanks to his sacrifice, and now she’s finally been reunited with him. Really a wonderful and deeply human scene.

And though I’d never had a strong investment in the relationship between Sawyer and Juliet, their own reunion – over something as mundane as a candy bar, as they stood next to a drab hospital vending machine, no less – proved tremendously moving as well. Many of the enlightenment scenes in the flash-sideways universe wound up being quite stirring, and even more so in retrospect, now knowing what it all meant for the characters to come to these realizations about their own lives and their connections to other people.

It’s important to acknowledge that, for all its flaws and shortcomings, Lost was a tremendously ambitious program, that aired on network television, and attracted an enormous, mainstream following. In this day and age, audiences are fracturing, devolving into more and more specialized niches. (In politics, a devolution into various special interest groups continues to take place, and politicians seek to overcome that and build coalitions by oversimplifying issues every chance they get.) And yet, throughout its run, Lost was able to remain, by and large, a collective viewing experience, despite regularly exploring deep religious, spiritual, and philosophical issues.

The entire “flash-sideways” plotline of this final season appeared to be building towards some sort of crossover with the island timeline, but the purgatory revelation proved to be much richer, much more surprising, and, I think, ultimately much more satisfying. Despite a penchant for improbable resurrections in seasons past, this time around, the dead stay dead. As Jack tells Desmond on the island, “There are no short cuts, no do-overs. What happened, happened. All of this matters.” The attempt to alter history with the bomb at the end of the previous season didn’t work. You can’t change the past, or your own actions in it – you can only strive to be a better person as you move forward in life.

One thing I find remarkable about the purgatory ending, and the ways that it’s intrinsically tied to the characters’ real lives, on and off the island, is that, while encompassing aspects of various religions, the true emphasis is on the here and now – our real lives, here on this mortal coil. My problem with fundamentalists of any religious persuasion is their absolute certainty about things that are, inherently, unknowable to all us mere mortals. All too often, harm is done, and lives are damaged or destroyed, in the name of theories and possibilities, rather than reality. Lost ultimately embraced a reckoning based on how people lived their lives, and how they treated other people, yet it was a vision generous enough to embrace people’s eventual redemption, and to offer them forgiveness for their sins.

My own enthusiasm for this finale, compared to many other people’s disappointment, confusion, or disgust, seems to mirror reactions, a few years ago, to the Season One finale of another sci-fi and comic book influenced TV show, Heroes. Most fans of Heroes seemed to be bracing themselves for an epic battle between the forces of Good and Evil, waged using all manner of superpowers. But that sort of juvenile fantasy was not what the show was really all about. In the end, it was about young people fending off disillusionment at the harsh realities of the adult world, and choosing instead to have faith in the inherent goodness of human beings. The world wound up being saved when a young man’s belief in and love for his own older brother (his own personal hero) was reciprocated.

At its core, Lost was always about a bunch of troubled loners (lost souls, if you will) finding a way to work towards their individual and collective survival. Discovering that they still had the capacity to change, and to grow as human beings. Seeking redemption. Earning forgiveness. Granting forgiveness.

In the end, of all the show’s literary and religious reference points, the most fitting one proved to be a hymn. We all know the beginning by heart:

“Amazing grace! How sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost but now am found. Was blind, but now I see.”

These all-too-human characters learned how to live together. And they didn’t die alone. That was a beautiful ending. May we all be so blessed…

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List-Making and False Labels

2010 April 20
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A ridiculous recent New York Times article profiles a man who undertook the task of “ranking” almost 10,000 English-language, live-action, fiction feature films made since the advent of synchronized sound. The piece is ridiculous primarily for two reasons:

1) It blindly accepts the man’s claim that he’s not ranking based on his personal preferences or his own perceptions of the quality of each movie, but based on some set of objective criteria. No such objective system can possibly exist – we all perceive, evaluate, and value movies (and music, literature, art, etc.) based on a number of factors, and everyone’s tastes and opinions are different, no matter how much seeming consensus may form around certain works.

2) It only bothers to mention in passing, near the end, that this man has chosen to ignore, amongst other categories: foreign-language films, documentaries, silent movies, and animation. This is the equivalent of profiling a guy who’s undertaken an extensive examination of all the colors of the rainbow, while barely noting that he couldn’t be bothered to write anything at all about orange, yellow, indigo, or violet.

All too often, list-making and rankings are presented (and hyped) as if they’re the definitive ruling on a particular subject. And those who dare to venture beyond the narrowly defined boundaries of conventional wisdom are scorned, and frequently labeled as elitists, snobs, contrarians, or other derogatory terms.

I can’t stomach the notion that I’m supposed to like something simply because it’s popular with other people, or has made a lot of money, or has been deemed “important.” Call me crazy, but I like things because I think they are good, and worthy – regardless of all those external factors. I can only think for myself, and offer my own opinion, backed by relevant evidence and explanations of my particular sensibilities.

Independent thought seems awfully undervalued in our society, in every arena from popular entertainment to politics. People usually label so they can easily dismiss. But intelligent discussion and debate shouldn’t be so scarce. Epithets such as “elitist” or “snob” get hurled by those who want to stifle thought – go ahead and look up those two words in the dictionary, then tell me if they don’t fit, say, Sarah Palin a whole lot better than anyone she’s used them against in an attempt to smear and discredit.

I may, at some point, post lists covering some of my own favorite movies, music, and TV shows (and perhaps even some broader survey results) – not to announce any of these choices as definitively “the best” or “the greatest,” but merely to provide a nudge for people to seek out work they may have accidentally overlooked, or assumed was not worth their time, or perhaps had never even heard of until now. All of this is intended to provoke further thought and discussion, not to close it off. I’ll forever be a tireless advocate of thinking for oneself, keeping an open mind, and seeking knowledge. (And I’m more than a little skeptical of anyone who isn’t.)

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The Risks and Rewards of Conceptual Comedy

2010 April 12
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I recently experimented at a show I performed on, attempting a concept piece that required the audience to either get on board with what I was doing early, or not at all. And I don’t think anybody got on board. I’m hardly the world’s most seasoned or skilled performer, and my piece had shortcomings quite apart from the inherent risks of the material, but it provides a good excuse to post some clips of conceptual comedy routines that I really like, and to point out why I enjoy them so much (and why they’re so risky to perform).

I like the unity of an entire performance piece centered around some sort of premise, rather than the scattershot, hit-or-miss approach of most standup routines. There’s rarely any forward momentum to a standup routine, and there’s frequently a lot of meandering, and awkward pauses, and failed punchlines. Conceptual comedy tends to feed off of the inherent awkwardness of a lone performer attempting to amuse and entertain an entire gathered audience. I like when an audience is forced to become actively engaged with the material being presented. I like when expectations are upended. And I don’t mind feeling uncomfortable as an audience member, or wondering if something is being done intentionally or not, so long as the end result is a performance that challenges me.

Andy Kaufman spent the bulk of his career pushing people’s buttons and testing the boundaries of acceptable behavior. Albert Brooks spent the early part of his career deconstructing familiar and beloved forms of entertainment, as well as the narcissism that often motivates performers to enter show business in the first place. Here are a couple of clips of each of them in action. (The only context really needed is for the Kaufman clip that I’m unable to embed and have to link out to – he had a popular recurring bit involving lip-syncing while a record played.) Consider yourself warned that these are not for all tastes, and some of them have a slow build.

I’m unable to embed this second Kaufman clip, but it’s well worth following the link over to YouTube to check it out:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IL3Dp6Oh3Fw

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Modern Updates to Clash of the Titans

2010 April 2
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Erykah Badu’s Controversial New Music Video

2010 March 30
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Politics in the Wake of Health Care Reform

2010 March 24
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Past Work: The Mitchell Report on Steroids in Baseball

2009 November 20
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by Greg Leitman

read more…

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