Content Sponge #9

Welcome to Content Sponge, my capsulet reviews of things, usually televisual, but occasionally textual. For the foreseeable future, this semi-regular feature will be an imageless affair, as will this blog. Reason being that I am now super-mature and have no need for the frippery of illustrative pictures. Join me in the theatre of the mind, people!

I watched the following recently, all on Netflix or Stan. Through luck, not design, they are all comedies.

LADY DYNAMITE (Season 1)

US stand up Maria Bamford is sometimes described as a comedians’ comedian, which is one way of saying “not mainstream”. For years she has been doing stand up which is quite unlike anyone else’s. Her ability to switch between different character voices has been parlayed into numerous animation gigs. In her act, she is prepared to strip down a character into a series of sounds and partial phrases as if to say, don’t be fooled by the appearance of a coherent narrative, we are all moments away from falling to pieces.

Underpinning her sonic presentation is the topic of mental illness. Bamford’s own struggles means she has plenty to say about our perceptions of mental health and sanity. Her new Netflix show is divided into three times zones related to the Bamford character break down (before, recovery, aftermath). This is roughly autobiographical and has been touched upon in The Maria Bamford Show web series (2009) and her video download comedy special The Special Special Special! (2012).

The producers of the Netflix show are Mitchell Hurwitz (ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT) and Pam Brady (SOUTH PARK)  and they have created a determinedly unformulaic comedy that probably would not be made outside of subscriber television. The meat of the story is Bamford’s fictionalised journey through show business as her manager, Bruce Ben-Bacharach (Fred Melamed) secures her terrible gig after terrible gig. We also see her family relationship and love life. The fourth wall is frequently broken, there are surreal story tangents and characters that may be the product of Maria’s mind.

There is a solid supporting cast that includes Ana Gasteyer, Dean Cain, Mo Collins Mary Kay Place and Ed Begley Junior. The excellent guest-cast of stand ups and comic actors includes Patton Oswalt, Wendie Malick, Missi Pyle, John Mulaney and June Diane Raphael. Maria Bamford fans are likely to enjoy the show. For everyone else, this is a quite different comedy about a comedian. It is nothing like LOUIE (2010-) or GARFUNKEL AND OATES (2014). Watch a couple if these and see what you think.

THE UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT (Season 2)

Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s sitcom returns. Kimmy Schmidt (Ellie Kemper) is a young woman who was an unwilling member of a Doomsday Cult. She was kidnapped and trapped in a bunker with three other women by an evil but charismatic preacher, the Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (Jon Hamm). Season 1 was about Kimmy’s release from the bunker, moving to New York and then confronting the Reverend in a televised court case back home in Durnsville, Indiana.

Season 2 is necessarily less focused on a main narrative thread. Kimmy has gained a new sense of her own identity, lost a boyfriend and is looking for her mother. She is also looking for different work now her former employer and (sort of) friend Jacqueline Voorhees (Jane Krakowski) has left New York. Her roommate Titus (Tituss Burgess) finds a boyfriend and their landlady Lillian (Carol Kane) fights the gentrification of their area. Hipsters beware.

The diffuseness of this new narrative blunted the overall feel of Season 2 for me. The story felt somewhat forced at times and so I enjoyed the series a little less. Having said that, series regulars Kemper, Krakowski, Kane and Burgess are in absolutely cracking form. As with later seasons of Fey’s 30 ROCK (2006-13), the gags are layered, the pace is blistering and the pop cultural referencing is intense.

GRACE AND FRANKIE (Season 2)

The premise for this show is rather high concept. Grace, the retired cosmetics mogul (Jane Fonda) and a hippy artist, Frankie (Lily Tomlin) discover their 40 year marriages to their husbands Robert (Martin Sheen) and Sol (Sam Wasterston) are a sham. The men are partners in a law firm and have been secretly in love with each other for years. Season 1 begins with Robert and Sol divorcing Frankie and Grace. The men move in together and so do the women. This is far from ideal for Frankie and Grace because they can barely tolerate each other.

By the beginning of Season 2, Grace and Frankie have a workable friendship, although it still has rocky patches. As in the first season, this comedy-drama cleverly explores family dynamics, addiction, gender, identity politics, class and ageing. Tomlin and Fonda are consistently great. They had their characters nailed from season one. Waterston and Sheen seem more settled in their roles and are given more drama in their storyline this season. The fact that the four grown-up kids of the two marriages are basically supporting roles, yet have defined story arcs, is a tribute to the depth of the writing and producing talent. The performers, Ethan Embry, Brooklyn Decker and Baron Vaughn are solid, week in and week out. June Diane Raphael plays the daughter who now heads Grace’s cosmetic empire and is frequently the MVP of the offspring quartet. The show has been renewed for a third season.

ANGIE TRIBECA (Season 1)

Rashida Jones (Ann Perkins of PARKS AND RECREATION) stars as hard working veteran LAPD cop Angie Tribeca. The show is the creation of Steve Carrell and Nancy Walls Carrell. It is not a police sitcom like BROOKLYN NINE-NINE (2013-2016), but a parody of police procedurals. It is nothing at all like Paul Scheer’s NTSF: SD: SUV:: (2011-2013) which tackles the action film genre as well as CSI type cop shows (and also starred June Diane Raphael). ANGIE TRIBECA is a parody of older style television police dramas like TJ HOOKER and POLICEWOMAN.

It takes its literalist sight gags and puns from POLICE SQUAD! (1982) and flips the cop partner dynamic from SLEDGE HAMMER! (1986-88). The female cop, Tribeca, is the tough go-getter prepared to break the rules, the male cop (played by Hayes MacArthur) is the sensible, cautious one. His character is named Jay Geils like J.Geils of the J. Geils band. Much of the humor operates at this old-fashioned Mad Magazine level.

Rashida Jones is an unusual choice for the lead. In PARKS and the US version of THE OFFICE she played grounded characters, the comic foil, the feed for the big laugh getters (most often Amy Poehler or Aubrey Plaza). Jones takes a while to find her feet with this new character. The show as a whole begins to click about half way through the season. Or maybe I had tuned into their vibe. Not sure.

I enjoyed this but didn’t find it compelling, precisely because I remember those older parodies. I feel the best audience for ANGIE TRIBECA is anyone who hasn’t seen POLICE SQUAD! Or SLEDGE HAMMER! Season 2 is screening now on STAN.

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