Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The 2011 AV Files

(Note: as part of my attempt to break the crippling writer’s block, I decided to not break down the visual and audio list into a numbered Top 10. I decided to find a thread that linked all these disparate programs together. I’m not sure I succeeded in making it work, but at least it helped get me typing.)
In March of this year I joined the 21st century—I purchased an HDTV. I didn’t buy one of those 56” models that cost as much as three months rent. I bought a pretty basic 32” one at Best Buy (the “Insignia” brand that they sell) and waited for Cablevision to send an HD box over. After a couple of missteps (the first box was missing the DVR, the second box died almost immediately) I was finally able to settle into the glorious world of watching programs in widescreen. And the impact was rather quick upon my television watching habits. Any sort of sporting event became a whole new visual world. Baseball fields looked gloriously green; a hockey puck was easier to follow; and I even found myself watching the NBA playoffs because seeing the whole court made that game feel more exciting.

After my initial sports fix, I started getting into the channels beyond your basic cable fare that were in HD— videos and concerts on Palladia; Universal HD with their odd mix of old shows (TJ Hooker at 3:00 a.m. makes William Shatner even more insane) and, most importantly, all nine of the HBO channels showed virtually every program in HD. I found myself drawn to that block up in the 300’s when I wasn’t watching some other show on (and not on) this list. One program that I caught a snippet of during those trips up the channel tree was The Curious Case of Curt Flood. The last 10 minutes about the former St. Louis Cardinal who challenged baseball’s reserve clause was compelling enough for me to search when it was airing again and DVR it. (Have we gotten to the point where DVR can be a verb, like Tivo? I hope so.) The entire film is a very even-handed portrait of a very complex man. Flood was a great player but, at times, not that great a human being. He totally disappeared after he was out of baseball, leaving his wife and kids high and dry. He painted portraits of people, but it was later revealed that he had contracted out many of the paintings. He was, quite simple, a ball of contradictions. And Curious Case captures all of that, as well as the total bungling of the reserve clause case when it was brought to the Supreme Court. HBO’s sports documentaries are almost always excellent—this film is one of the best.

This year HBO became a staple on Friday nights at the Reynolds house with Real Time With Bill Maher. I don’t agree with all of his political leanings—and I think that has no impact on my enjoyment of his program. He (or his booker, I suppose) gets a great mix of guests that chat about the week’s events from every side of the political spectrum. Sometimes I want to stand up and applaud; at others I want to throw my sneakers at the TV. (Thankfully I don’t, because I’m sure I would cry if I lost HDTV at this point.) I’m not sure if Maher had a particularly good season or if I was just more attuned to the craziness of the political world. In either case, I found myself very entertained at the end of every work week.

One of Maher’s guests in the early summer was comedian Marc Maron. I remembered seeing Maron a couple of times when the alt-comedy boom was happening in the mid-90s, catching him a lot on Late Night With Conan O’Brien, as well as listening to him sometimes when he was doing lefty talk radio at Air America earlier this decade. He was always bitter and angry—two emotions I could strongly identify with—and most importantly, very brutally funny. Maher plugged Maron’s podcast that night, so I decided to check it out. I can say that WTF With Marc Maron has changed my life. The second half of the year I rarely listened to music on my commute. I was catching up on all the amazing conversations Maron has had with stand-up comedians, comedic actors and even prop comics. (I totally don’t want to frame Carrot Top for murder now.) In digging through his own emotional baggage, Maron has somehow convinced most of his guests to drop theirs and reveal sides to them we never knew. His talks with Chris Rock, Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston, The Office’s Rainn Wilson and Community creator Dan Harmon (more on that show later) are master classes in how to get people to open up. And his chat with The Onion’s Todd Hanson should be required listening for therapists and anyone that’s had suicidal thoughts. These conversations have caused me to rethink parts of my own life and things I might want to do in the future. I would never say that to Maron if I ever met him. But I’m certain I’m not the only person that’s been impacted by his conversational style.

Maron wasn’t the only culprit to steal my precious music-listening hours this year. The Ronna and Beverly Podcast, which features Jamie Denbo and Jessica Chafin portraying the authors of You’ll Do a Little Better Next Time: A Guide to Marriage & Remarriage for Jewish Singles, has caused me to laugh out loud on the train more than anything else in 16 years of commuting from Brooklyn to midtown Manhattan. (Full disclosure: I am friends with Denbo, as she married my college friend John Ross Bowie.) Denbo’s somewhat clueless Beverly always seems to find the line when talking to people like Andy Richter, Paget Brewster and Martha Plimpton—and then blazes right through it. How Chafin can keep it together and stay in character as Ronna amazes me each and every episode.

The third podcast that has kept me company while the F train was delayed for who knows what crisis is The Poscast With Joe Posnanski and Michael Schur. Posnanski is one of the finest sportswriters working today. His blog entries and Sports Illustrated columns are some of the most creative, humorous and heartfelt takes on sports and their meaning in our lives that I’ve ever read. And those traits come through best on his podcast when he talks to Schur, the co-creator and executive producer of NBC’s Parks and Recreation. Schur ran a great sports blog called Fire Joe Morgan that dissected the blowhard tendencies of sports columnists around the country. (Alas, the blog ended when Parks and Recreation got picked up.) These two guys know their sports and truly enjoy speaking with each other— and they know how to bring intelligent humor into talking about sports. Its 180 degrees away from any sports talk you’ll hear in the Northeast. And I’m sure that any of the hosts on WFAN here in New York wouldn’t hold a fantasy draft at the end of their show where they pick best baseball books, balls and sports heartbreaks. I found these podcasts so entertaining that I decided I needed to try out Schur’s Parks and Recreation again. And sure enough, his wittiness and intelligence comes through in every episode. Amy Poelher’s Leslie Knope is one of the most fully-formed characters on TV and her romance with Adam Scott’s Ben has provided some of the funniest and most touching scenes on TV this year. And for goodness sake Emmy folk, this year please nominate Nick Offerman for his work as Ron Swanson.

Parks and Recreation shares Thursday nights on NBC with the best comedy on TV, Community. Alas, as I write this, that arrangement will only last one more week. NBC, America’s fourth place network, has decided to put the show on hiatus. In its timeslot will be going the new season of 30 Rock, which I have no problem with. What I do have a problem with is the shit show of Whitney (one of the worst sitcoms in recent memory—and that impression stuck with me only after making it through 10 minutes of its pilot) staying on the air and being paired up with Are You There Chelsea, a sitcom based upon the life of one of America’s least funniest comedians, Chelsea Handler. (Hold on, I need to slap my forehead a few times because of this injustice. Ow. Ow.) I realize TV is a business and Community’s ratings aren’t setting the world on fire. But it’s not like anything on NBC is doing much better. Their corporate cousin USA beats them some nights with NCIS reruns. Why not pitch yourself as the quality network? You have a critic’s darling on the bench, that’s plain idiotic. (Alright, I’m getting all worked up at those morons again. I better stop or my blood pressure will go up.) I will give NBC one compliment—they kept Chuck on for five seasons, and gave the producers fair warning that this fifth season would be its last. I’ve written about my love for the show over the past four lists, so I probably don’t need to waste any more ink talking about it to you.

When Comcast’s purchase of NBC Universal this year was finalized, that meant they not only got a bunch of cable networks but they also secured themselves Universal Pictures. That film studio released my favorite movie of the year, Bridesmaids. Judd Apatow finally put some of his producing muscle behind a comedy not led by goofy men, but extremely funny women. Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy were outstanding and, in my opinion, are deserving of Oscar nods for their performances. Let’s hope the success of Bridesmaids this leads to more funny and talented women having lead roles in big movies.

One of Judd Apotow’s best discoveries has been Jason Segel. His work on Apatow’s Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared was great mix of physical comedy and willing to go the extra mile to sell a joke—or a strong emotional moment. Segel has done even more of that during the past six seasons of How I Met Your Mother, giving him the perfect training to co-write The Muppets. The mixture of humor and pulling of emotional heartstrings in the film was impressive. And Segel and co-writer Nicholas Stoller really evoked the spirit of the show I loved as a kid without making it feel just like a nostalgia trip. And major props go out to Brett McKenzie for the original songs he penned for the film. The former co-star of Flight of the Conchords should be nominated for an Oscar for either the Kermit sung “Pictures in My Head” or the duet between Segel and the new Muppet, Walter, on “Man or Muppet.”  Oh heck, let’s give Chris Cooper another Oscar nomination just for playing a villainous rapper! I can’t wait to see The Muppets again in the comfort of my own home on that lovely HDTV. At least during that viewing I won’t have a crying child sitting in the aisle across from me.

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