‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Is Now Everybody’s Tale

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The incredible thing about living in a an era where our television cups runneth over is that digital networks are forced to up their game. Long gone are the not too distant days where a site like Hulu could get away with showing reruns of network shows and do it for free. Now, everything is a paid subscription and every channel has a signature show worth the price. For Hulu, that show is the mind blowingly good The Handmaid’s Tale and it couldn’t be more timely.

Call it a byproduct of the times or call it human beings wallowing in fatalism but dystopian stories are so hot right now, y’all. In fact, dystopian books like 1984, Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451 aren’t  just being quoted by every pretentious turd you know on Facebook but have all experienced a huge bump in sales since the beginning of the year. So naturally the timing of a big-budget adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel seems perfect. After all, Atwood’s work has always shown a fucked up future where women’s bodies, minds and reproductive rights are devalued. Yeah, that certainly sounds relatable. In fact, it’s hard to divorce yourself from the current headlines while watching this brilliant miniseries, of which I gobbled up the first three currently available episodes this morning. During a scene which showed hanging bodies one of which was that of a gay man, I felt my jaw drop open and chills form on my arm. It’s horrific and made even more so given the current headlines. Atwood’s vision of this future has remained terrifying since it’s publication in 1985 because it doesn’t feel entirely implausible. Clearly, I’m not the only one out there who picked up on this. Even though it was just released last night, The Handmaid’s Tale has already spurned dozens of feminist think pieces and critiques and it’s safe to say we can expect more. Atwood’s work has long been a book club favorite for this very reason and now a new generation is getting exposed to The Handmaid’s Tale and they have a lot of thoughts about it. This is fantastic however I think there’s something we shouldn’t forget as we pull apart and chew on the story’s meaty subtext: it’s just really kick ass television.

Another thing about living in a television era where everything is just so damn good? A show has to nail it in a matter of minutes otherwise they’ll get lost in the digital junk pile. The Handmaid’s Tale does precisely that. Told through the eyes of Offred (played brilliantly here by Elisabeth Moss) the story grabs us by the throat from the first scene and refuses to let go. Written by Atwood and Bruce Miller, the three episodes I watched aren’t just politically thought-provoking, they’re a fast-paced, thrilling viewing experience. The dramatic tension mixed with the sheer “WTF IS GOING ON!?” stress of the storytelling make for a hell of a ride. The writers wisely tease us with plot bits, flashbacks and character histories while moving everything forward at breakneck speed. Plus, they give Offred great inner monologues. In this narration, Offred isn’t just telling us what’s happening but her blunt and often funny thoughts. There’s a well paced “Fuck” in particular that gives us great insight to who Offred is.

Oh but it’s not just the writing. The first three episodes are directed by Reed Morano. Not being familiar with her work, I IMDB stalked her. Her resume as a cinematographer is evident here as each scene looks beautiful, haunting and iconic. For example, there’s a stunning shot of Offred flanked by other handmaids all dressed in red and crammed in a white bus that I won’t soon forget.

Naturally, the acting is equally impressive. Real talk? Elisabeth Moss doesn’t always do it for me as an actor. When the scripts are good (early Mad Men) she sparkles. When the scripts are bad (later Mad Men), I find her grating. But in this role, she’s at once fierce, terrified and funny. She evokes Sigourney Weaver in Alien or Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2 while tapping into some very relatable vulnerability. It’s a home run and solidifies her power as a great television star. But the real knockout performance here, so far for me, is Alexi Bledel! Who knew that little Rory Gilmore had such an intense, heartbreaking and beautiful performance inside of her? As lesbian Ofglen, we get to see a side of Bledel as an actress I frankly didn’t know existed. Again, I’m not the only one who noticed. 

All this being said, The Handmaid’s Tale is a success for another reason too. I’ve always found Margaret Atwood to be underrated and maybe sluffed off to the female sci-fi writer section. This must-see adaptation will hopefully turn on more people to her work. And perhaps the real gift of this television treasure chest we find ourselves in is that old stories worth telling and stories that still resonate can find powerful new lives.

 

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Betty & Veronica: Queens of ‘Riverdale’

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If I had to, I’d read Archie Comics when I was a kid. I’d rather read Betty and Veronica but I’d do it if that’s all there was at the drugstore.

Look, comic books in the 70’s and 80’s didn’t have this annoying-ass culture that they have now. Everybody read comic books. It wasn’t geek chic or cosplay or anything else. It’s just what we all did. Sure, there was always “that” kid who read them obsessively and rambled off facts about them at the drop of the hat. But I wasn’t him. I was just a kid who liked comic books because it was smooth storytelling with fast results. Ever the addict. Plus, I couldn’t be a full-fledged comic book junkie because what I was attracted to was pretty specific. I didn’t like things that were dark or scary. I didn’t like comic books that had a billion parts and took years to finish a story. And I loved comics with female leads.

As my Wonder Woman obsession is well chronicled on these here pages and my comic book heart belonged to her, first and foremost, there was always room for others. She-Hulk, Batgirl, Supergirl and Betty & Veronica. I was always drawn to female lead characters and heroes. I’d play them in games and dress up like them but there was never the sense that I was in the wrong body or that I shouldn’t be a boy. I just wanted to be a boy who loved Wonder Woman. Dammit. So I’d read Archie Comics if I had to but the whole time I was waiting for Josie and the Pussycats or Sabrina the Teenage Witch or Betty and Veronica to show up. With the new reboot of Archie’s world Riverdale currently airing on the CW, I find myself doing the same thing. But in this case, it’s certainly worth the wait. enhanced-12232-1491342073-1.jpg

Much has been written about Riverdale and it’s obvious (and welcome) nods to Twin Peaks. The show unapologetically takes Lynch’s dark, campy small town and tweaks it for millennial viewers. But the most 2017 thing about the show are Betty and Veronica themselves. After a rocky start, involving Archie naturally, the pair implode the decades long frenemy troupe over a pair of milkshakes: Betty and Veronica decide to never let another boy come between them.

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And just like that, B&V 2.0 is born, bitches. Gone is the life blood of every Betty and Veronica comic ever since 1950. The very thing that made Betty and Veronica tiresome and problematic has now vanished. Instead of bickering over a boy, this new version of our favorite girls is fierce, complex and empowered. The girls, decked out in seriously gorgeous Emmy-worthy costumes from Rebekka Sorensen-Kjelstrup, have a new mission: being there for each other.

Self-involved rich girl Veronica Lodge has changed since I hung out with her in the 1980’s. First of all, girlfriend is no longer rich as her daddy, a Bernie Madoff type, is currently in prison on embezzlement charges. Secondly, she’s now Latina because why the fuck not? Lastly, and most importantly, she’s a girl who’s seen who she was and wants to change. In a great scene in episode 9, Veronica reveals that she was a bully back at her posh school in New York and how she really hurt a classmate of hers’. It taps us into a deeper character than we ever got a glimpse of on the comic book pages.  Yet Veronica, the fierce bitch who always get what she wants, the girl I wanted to be as a kid, is still here too. Just more emotionally in tune and smarter. Think Blair Waldorf after a 12 Step program. In a star making performance, Camilla Mendes creates a reformed bad girl for the ages and who doesn’t love that?

Sweet girl-next-door Betty Cooper, on the other hand, is more twisted than we could have ever imagined and I am here for it. At 10 episodes in, we’ve gotten a glimpse of Dark Betty and let’s just say she’s not just your student council president or favorite babysitter. The show is dancing with a mental illness storyline with dear sweet Betty. As of yet, we don’t know exactly what Betty has but we know her mama Alice (the perfectly campy, unhinged Mädchen E. Amick) isn’t all there either so it promises to get juicy soon. A steadfast friend and believer in the truth, Betty Cooper is still a golden girl but now she’s super interesting because she’s also sort of fucked up.

It’s not just Riverdale’s besties who have gotten a makeover for the better. Josie and the Pussycats are back. After a guilty pleasure 2001 big screen abomination, it’s safe to say their legacy is restored. This version of the Pussycats is an all black girl group (because again why the hell not?) who dishes out the fierce diva-ness required for every good teen show. Plus, the musical numbers are fun and filled with old school Archie references.

Elsewhere in Riverdale, it’s a mixed bag. Archie is still a dude-bro douche but at least this time he’s got great abs and the producers wisely have him shirtless in as many scenes as possible. He’s still clueless about women and kind of a disaster of a friend too. He’s hard to root for but as I noted in the top of the post I never really did. Also, the less we say about Luke Perry as his dad, the better. The new edgy homeless angsty Jughead is a great twist and he makes for a decent narrator even though the casting of his father (the one facial expression Skeet Ulrich) is equally unfortunate. By the way, I officallay feel 5,000 years old when people like Skeet Ulrich and Luke Perry who I used to watch play teenagers are now playing parents to teenagers. But at least Molly Ringwald is playing Archie’s mom!

Some of the storytelling gets cheesy and veers into old CW cliches but having established itself in a surreal camp realm at the jump makes me be a bit more forgiving as a viewer. Riverdale, with the openly gay Kevin character and a non-chalant kiss between Betty and Veronica, is queer in a no big deal sort of way that feels modern. After slogging through 2 episodes with bland, adult-heavy storylines, the series redeems itself in the latest two epsiodes. Mainly, becuase they’re filled with meaty, interesting things for Betty and Veronica to do. I’m going to stick Riverdale for the rest for the season because when it reallt goes there to full dark, weird and female positive place, it’s pretty darn wonderful. Besides, I’m positive my 10-year-old self would do the same.

‘Strike a Pose’ Strikes a Chord

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“Look, around. Everywhere you turn is heartache. It’s everywhere that you go.” Madonna,Vogue, 1990

It wasn’t the scene of Madonna simulating oral sex on a bottle. Nor was it the many scenes of her openly discussing her love life. It wasn’t even the scene where she turned “Like a Virgin” into a masturbating with a crucifix blasphemy filled ballad that people were talking about when they talked about 1991’s Truth or Dare. It was the scene where two of her male dancers kissed each other while playing the game in the title of the film. The sight of two men making out on the big screen was so nonexistent in 1991 that jaws dropped around the world when the film was released. Now over 25 years later, the story behind that kiss as well as the all the dirt on the tour, the film and the diva herself can be seen in the new documentary Strike a Pose, now on Netflix.

As a Madonna fan, I’ve been dying to see Strike a Pose since I read about it last year. The main reason being that Truth or Dare was seminal in my life as a gay teen trying to find the courage to come out. What that seemingly simple scene did for me and others like me was show that who we were was okay. Madonna and her dancers were presenting a life where you could be yourself and not give a fuck about what people thought. Sure sounded good to me, the terminally effeminate and unique soul that I was. Yet according to the film, that scene and the glamorous carefree life that came with it also came at a price.

Strike a Pose profiles the lives of six of Madonna’s dancers from the Blonde Ambition tour who were also featured in the “Vogue” music video. Luis, Jose, Salim, Carlton, Kevin and Oliver became instant stars during the tour and their fame exploded when moviegoers met them a year later in Truth or Dare. The movie takes an unflinching look at the past and pulls no punches especially when talking about the AIDS crisis. Two of the dancers, Carlton and Luis, tell heart-wrenching stories about how they were terrified to tell Madonna and other members of the company that they were HIV positive. Carlton found out in Japan while Blonde Ambition was getting ready to take over the world and Salim was diagnosed in 1987 but kept it hidden. Their stories are incredibly sad and ironic given that Madonna was vocal advocate for HIV and AIDS, having just lost her friend artist Keith Haring to the disease. These dancers were very young and I can’t imagine how terrifying that world was back then. Thus the story of Strike a Pose, after it gets done dishing the showbiz details, quickly becomes to a story I can really relate to: a story of survival.

How do you deal with the fall outs of instant fame? If we are to believe Strike a Pose, the answer is, not very well. These kids thrust into the spotlight were given all the drugs, booze and VIP access that they could handle and they rightfully took advantage of it. Naturally, things got ugly pretty quickly. Jose and Luis, who became minor club sensations with a record of their own, both got hooked on heroin and parted ways with Madonna after their addictions got out of control. For Carlton and Salim, the battle to stay well in a society where everyone with your condition is dying is a very real one, not helped by collective shaming and ignorance. In one of the films, more devastating segments, we’re introduced to Gabriel, the dancer featured, along with Salim, in that famous kiss. Gabriel died from complications of AIDS in 1995 at the age of 26. According to his mother, Gabriel wanted Madonna to cut the kiss from the film and after she told him to “Get over it”, he  went on to sue her for forcing him to come out. It’s an unsavory moment but not the only one. Kevin and Oliver also sued Madonna for compensation from the film. Yet the movie goes surprisingly lite on the Madonna bashing which is surprising given that her reputation as a difficult  boss and coworker is legendary.

It’s because of this however that Strike a Pose is effective and moving. By avoiding being a victim, bitchfest, Strike Pose turns into a portrait of growth. It isn’t about Madonna anymore. It’s about the six dancers and what happened since their worlds were turned upside down. Against the odds, these men have somehow stayed well, gotten sober and survived. Salim’s story, for me, is the center of the films’ heart and message of resilience. Still dancing and living in New York, Salim speaks  publicly for the first time about being positive and the result is a raw, tear-jerking emotional moment.

As a fan of Madonna and Truth or Dare, the movie delivers on the serving the desired nostalgia of the time. With clips of the film and access to the songs, the movie gives a fan what they want. But as somebody sober with HIV, the movie goes a lot deeper and soon becomes relatable and courageous. Gay men like myself have always been attracted to women who survive. Cher, Elizabeth Taylor and Tina Turner all had been through the ringer and counted out but somehow came back. It’s a glamour and toughness that we as gay men latch onto and find aspirational. Yet what Strike a Pose does beautifully is finally give gay men the fierce, empowered, truthful comeback story of their own.

Au revoir, Louis. Au revoir, Chappelle

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“There is nothing to apologize for. I made a joke, that’s what I do, “- Joan Rivers

Last year, my act of pop culture rebellion was I wasn’t going to pay to see any more Hollywood remakes or reboots of old films. This was brought on by that Ghostbusters. And no, it’s not because it was an all-female cast. What kind of misogynistic a-hole do you think I am? It was because it looked like a poorly written mess. Like I get it they bust ghosts. What else about that universe do we need to know about? Plus as a storyteller and film lover, supporting rehashes over fresh new stories felt hypocritical. I’m pleased to report, my little rebellion went very well. Nary a remake in my 2016 movie repertoire to be found. After just watching the Netflix comedy specials of Dave Chappelle and Louis CK, my 2017 pop culture rebellious act became crystal clear: I’m done with straight, male comedians.

There’s a two-minute joke at the beginning of The Age of Spin, one of two new comedy specials by Dave Chappelle on Netflix, where he looks like he’s going to go there. By “there” I mean the giant pink elephant in room of his widely chronicled bizarre behavior. He starts this hour-long special by addressing a TMZ story wherein he was booed off stage for being drunk. He wisely corrects the story with a great punchline: he wasn’t drunk. He was high. And he wasn’t booed offstage. Sure, people booed but he stayed on stage. It’s a great joke and hints at a self-aware special that promised to address all of the stories and do it in a way only great comedians can, by making fun of himself. Sadly, that hint is all we get. We instead get rape jokes, gay jokes and trans jokes.

Which would be fine. Let me be clear. Comedy doesn’t offend me. It never has. I grew up in the 1980’s where HBO and Comedy Central were flooded 24 hours a day with comedians many of them telling jokes that made your jaw drop. I like hearing comedy that tells the truth and sometimes the truth has to be dirty, raw and unpretty. That quote at the top of the post was made by the queen of offending people Joan Rivers who made a zinger about the women kidnapped in Ohio back in 2014. Rivers’ joke was a funny one but she was also able to roast herself first and foremost. This is the missing ingredient from The Age of Spin. Chappelle mentions he hadn’t performed in Los Angeles, where the special was taped, in over ten years. He also casually talks about a comeback. The subversive, hot topic jokes feel desperate. When he gives us a look into Dave Chappelle, the troubled and beaten down entertainer whose over a decade away from his groundbreaking show, he lights up. He provides belly laughs. He feels relevant again. Yet it’s fleeting. Part of what made him so good back in the day was his ability to tell it like it is. See his amazing SNL opening monologue for proof.

But without the self-reflection, the rape jokes, the gay jokes and the trans jokes fall flat. Instead of an hour of watching a comedy great return to the top of his form, we’re trapped watching a desperate and at times criminally unfunny attempt to claw his way back. Had he been able to take legendary public bellyflops with mental illness into a funny, confessional hour, it’d be something to actually talk about.

Yet Dave Chappelle alone doesn’t shoulder the responsibility of me swearing off straight dudes telling jokes. Louis CK’s dully titled special, Louis CK 2017 isn’t exactly something to write home about either. Also on Netflix, CK’s issue is similar. When reflecting on society as a whole and taking himself out of the equation, it feels like we’re watching an overpaid Vegas headliner doing their greatest hits. But his material absolutely soars when he talks about his family, his personal fears and his children. CK also goes there with trans and gay jokes and why these are even part of the straight man’s cannon is completely baffling. Like aren’t straight men horrible and fucked up enough to draw plenty of jokes from. Keep our names out yo’ mouth! While not as ill-conceived and tasteless as Chappelle’s, they are a cheap laugh and at least CK incorporates himself into them. His Magic Mike joke which finds him obsessing about the movie and questioning his own sexuality. It’s the best joke of the set which leads to a hilarious penis/microphone bit. As a fan of the sitcom CK walked away from, this mildly entertaining special doesn’t feel like a return to form as much as it does a people pleasing exercise meant to elicit hoots and hollers from other straight dudes.

Me being done with funny, straight guys is unlikely to make a difference and I know this. It’s the dominating source of things mainstream funny. One glance at the primetime sitcoms of the moment and we know that straight men still rule the playground. And to be honest, my latest act of rebellion has less to do with their straight-dudeness and more to do with my exhaustion with the genre. Much like the busting of ghosts, I know what to expect. I’ve heard it all before. I get it–women are hard to get along with, being a dad sucks, blah blah blah. Mainly, I don’t identify with their “struggle.” I resisted the urge to throw my computer out the window recently when reading about Tim Allen complaining how hard it is to be a straight white conservative in Hollywood and comparing it to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, for fucksakes. Boo fucking hoo, Tool Time. I don’t care which is fundamentally my issue. At my core, I just don’t give a crap anymore about the narratives of Kevin James, Tim Allen, Seth Meyer, Jimmy Fallon, Dave Chappell or Louis CK. So I’m giving up straight guy comedy for 2017. I will let you know how this experiment goes.

However, John Oliver gets to stay. Primarily, because he only talks about the news, he’s brutally funny, unapologetic and I might be the only gay man who knows who he is.

 

 

Television Was Your Therapist in 2016

the-crown-netflix_opt.jpgIn a year that was sort of terrible for nearly everything else, television was never better. The future of American storytelling is alive and well–especially if you have Netflix, Amazon and HBO.  It’s mind-boggling how many great scripted television shows there are right now which means coming up with a list of just ten of my favorites was really fucking difficult. Especially, when you consider that tv shows were more than just average tv shows in 2016. They became sources of inspiration and light as well as entertainment. At least in my world they did. Like after a tragedy like Orlando, I was thrilled immerse myself in the spooky, 80’s soaked world of Stranger Things.  The latest season of Netflix’s Grace and Frankie saved my life during the crazy week after my grandmother died. To keep from jumping out of a window after the election, I was more than happy to spend 10 episodes in Buckingham palace with Queen Elizabeth in The Crown. Sure, I’ve always used television and pop culture of all kinds as a way to escape and also deal with reality but these shows were all really fantastic. I think great art of any kind transcends its medium and becomes something more important, like a service or a contribution and television felt like it did just that this year.

Naturally, this list is missing some titles that I really loved like One Mississippi, Eat the World with Emeril Lagasse, Orange is the New Black (renewed, fierce and shocking), Lady Dynamite, Love, both 2016 incarnations of RuPaul’s Drag Race and The Great British Baking Show. Also, there are brilliant shows like Fx’s Atlanta and TBS’ Search Party that I didn’t finish watching that didn’t make the list but they are certainly worth checking out.

So without further ado, here’s my list of the best shows of 2016 (in no particular order) that not just entertained me but made a difficult year a little bit easier.

The Crown: I can’t be positive but when I look back on 2016 I will always remember this show. Not just stunning to look at and incredibly well-acted, The Crown had profound things to say about the marginalizing of women in power, the isolation of celebrity and complicated family dynamics that all felt very 2016, even though it took place in the 1950’s.

Catastrophe: As we’ve discussed, I love this damn show. Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan are gifts to the world of entertainment and this seemingly simple, underrated sitcom rolled up its sleeves and got messy this year with hilarious results. Plus it has my favorite season finale of anything I watched all year.

Transparent:  Like Catastrophe, I have written about this show before and if it continues to be this damn good I will write about it again. I have a theory about how many shows (Sex & the City, Six Feet Under, Parks and Rec, Top Chef) really find their stride and get better in their third season and this gorgeous, moving and very funny season of Transparent goes a long way in reinforcing my theory. Plus, no moment on any show this year was as amazing as Judith Light singing an Alanis Morissette cover.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: More is more when it comes to the jokes on this show and Tina Fey and company sling out the one liners at dizzying pace. Minute for minute, it’s the funniest show currently on tv and this season even had some unexpected heart and empowerment.

Silicon Valley: Another one that I find to be highly underrated, the super satisfying season three(theory proven once again, people!) of Silicon Valley finally delivered on long simmering plot points, trimmed the fat on dead-end jokes and storylines and really found its footing as the funniest, albeit most untraditional, workplace comedy of 2016.

Game of Thrones: I’ll pretty much tell anyone who will listen how much I hated the rambling, misogynistic piece of garbage that was season five of this show so color me delighted when GOT returned more badass, fast-moving and fun to watch than ever.

BoJack Horseman : Another show I’ve rambled about here before but it’s worth the ramble if gets one more person to watch this incredible show. Cynical, beautiful, crass and downright hysterical, who would have suspected that an animated show about a half horse half man would be the most human and biting show of 2016?

Chef’s Table: Unapologetically artsy and pretentious, Chef’s Table’s second season provided visual delights for days. You don’t have to be a foodie to revel in the beauty and artistry of chef’s around the world and their individual struggles to stay inspired.

Stranger Things: I’ll fight anyone who says this show is just capitalizing on 80’s nostalgia. It had great storytelling, creativity for days and in my mind, the best cast on television.

Westworld: Look, I’m sorry if it bored you in the first 5 episodes and it didn’t move fast enough for you. But I honestly, thought Westworlds’s slow-brew storytelling was a huge part of the appeal. It didn’t deliver the goods right away and it made us wait but when it did it was all worth it. And I’m on the edge of my seat to see where they take it next.

Now, it’s your turn tell me what you watched and loved in 2016 in the comments. Happy New Year!

 

When it comes to spirituality, nothing is ‘Transparent’

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I need to pour myself another cup of coffee and take a deep breath before I even begin to talk about season 3 of Amazon’s comedy (which in this day and age actually means half-hour drama) Transparent because to say there’s a lot to unpack with the show is the television understatement of 2016. From white privilege and sexual politics to mental health and of course all sides of the trans discussion, the show is like a Vegas buffet for hot button contemporary issues. Thankfully, that’s not all it is. So beautifully shot, masterfully acted and well-written, we often forget we’re ingesting a show that asks a lot of heavy questions. Among the most brazen are the ones Transparent asks about spirituality and religion.

Since premiering on Amazon on Friday, I’ve already sucked down 7 out of the 10 episodes of season 3. Yeah, I know. I have a problem. (Hi. My name is Sean and I’m a tv-oholic.) Season 2 was a not easy to love journey into the family’s Jewish history while giving Maura (always so touchingly played by Jeffery Tambor) a real life. Season 3 asks the question, “So now what?” and it asks that question of each member of the Pfucked Up Pfefferman’s lives and circling back around to spirituality makes a lot of sense. The finding religion or meditation or prayer in times of personal distress is a tale as old as time but oddly one not often told on television. During a break between episodes, Michael and I had tons to talk about– which is another thing to cherish about this show. How often does TV actually do that? And we started talking about how unapologetically Jewish the Pfefferman’s are. The idea of a TV family and one of a sitcom no less being open about their religion still feels pretty revolutionary. After all, we never knew what kind of church George and Weezie on The Jeffersons went to. Ditto with the Stone family of The Donna Reed Show. Outside of safely assuming that Darren and Samantha Stevens of Bewitched were probably your happy, neighborhood pagans, the spiritual lives of sitcoms families have been kept under-wraps until recent years. Not content with lightly dipping its toes in the waters of a subject, Transparent really goes there as it uncovers a modern Jewish family who struggle to keep their faith while wanting desperately to believe in something,anything.

In a benchmark episode entitled “Oh Holy Night”, the family attends “Hineni” a spiritual event organized by the family’s most lost lamb, Sarah(played with wild-eyed inappropriateness by Amy Landecker) and led by Rabbi Raquel (Katherine Hahn), who despite being kind and optimistic continually winds up being Pfefferman family roadkill. It’s Silver Lake Jewishness for millennials. Pretty quickly we see that things aren’t going to run smoothly. In a classic, very LA joke, the tacos for this hipster Shabbat have been replaced by pupusas. And a highly charged conversation about Palestine nearly turns into a fist fight at the aqua fresca station which hilariously crescendos later with Cherry Jones’ character winding face up in a ditch. But it’s during the event’s candlelight prayer led by Rabbi Raquel that the show’s power,beauty and central message become illuminated. “What if the miracle was you? What if you had to be your own messiah?” the Rabbi asks. The candle is passed around for attendees to share their blessing. From the arrival of monarch butterflies to praying for the LA’s homeless, the thoughts are powerful. Naturally, when a woman says, “Guys, I’m seven months sober” I got teary eyed. Of course, even this moment gets high jacked by the Pfeffermans as Maura changes the entire tone to acknowledge the death of one of the show’s more controversial characters. The word “hineni” in Hebrew means “here I am” and in essence this episode and the season at large is about a seeking, an arrival and a wanting to expand spiritually.

As we’ve talked about before, I’m not a formerly religious person. I belong to the Church of Suck Less and Be Nice to People (All are welcome! Enjoy the donuts!) It works for me. I’m more of a believer in magic and nature then I am in some dude with a white beard flocked by angels. But I tend not to get trippeded up about other people’s religions either. I was told early on if I wanted chance of changing and staying sober I should probably have an open mind and I try to do that. Plus, I think the seeking we all have, religious or not, is universal and this is what Transparent taps into so beautifully. There’s no easy answers when it comes to spirituality and the show knws this. Yes, this family is screwed up and yes they’ve got more issues than Life magazine. But it isn’t just the shows lead character Maura who is transforming. Her journey from male to female is just the tip of iceberg. The road to self. The road to enlightenment. The road to transformations are all messy and filled with detours. These are journeys all of the Pfeffermans are on and ones I, as a viewer, can’t wait to see where they end up.

BoJack Horseman: 2016’s Spirit Animal

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The urge to wade around in the pool of collective disenchantment of the times is certainly a strong one. “We’re all going to hell and everything sucks” is the underlying tone of nearly every social media post, newspaper article and talk radio monologue. The validity and truthfulness of this sentiment could be debated until our heads explode but one thing is clear it takes real humor, honesty and creativity to tackle the malaise of our times head on. Netflix’s BoJack Horseman does just that. Season three of “the animals living as humans acting like humans” in Hollywood sitcom premiered last week and cemented the show as one of the best on television.

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The show, if you’re unfamiliar, centers around a washed up 90’s sitcom star, BoJack Horseman(voiced with the ninja-like jerkiness by Will Arnett we’ve come to expect from the actor who should really win an award simply for playing an asshole better than anyone else on the planet), who is literally a horse and a man. BoJack for the first two seasons teeter tottered back and forth between comeback kid and full-blown train wreck. In season three, he gets to be both. Like many of us real humans, BoJack has a hard time with reality. He’d rather drink than be a good friend. He’d rather have one night stands than real relationships. He’d rather flee uncomfortable situations than face them head on. Needless to say, for this alcoholic in recovery who is not a horse but certainly a human in progress, I can identify. And that is the magic of this little sitcom. Even though it’s a Hollywood populated with animals, we see ourselves in these characters. we’ve all been a couch crasher like Todd or an optimist on the verge of delusion like Mister Peanutbutter or a workaholic who feels empty inside like Princess Caroline.  Season three ups the emotional ante not just for BoJack, who is busy working the awards seasons for his film Secretariat, but everyone around him. The people( and animal people) who populate BoJack’s universe are all disenchanted yet hopeful on some level and they’re all really, really funny.This all because of great writing and some terrific casting. From series regulars like Aaron Paul, Amy Sedaris and Alison Brie to brilliant guest stars like Angela Bassett, Maria Bamford, JK Simmons and Candice Bergen each performance in this funny/sad universe is pitch perfect.  screen-shot-2015-02-27-at-2-20-15-am.png

Yet what really makes season three a knockout is the boldness. The show has found its footing and knows who it is. Therefore it can say and do whatever it wants. And it’s a glorious thing. For example, an honest and jaw-dropping episode about Diane, BoJack’s cynical yet loveable writer friend, getting an abortion is the television conversation we’ve always wanted on this topic but somehow could never figure out. The aforementioned Bergen stars in the sublimely ridiculous yet profound episode “Stop The Presses” wherein BoJack tries to cancel his newspaper subscription but winds up getting a free therapy session. Oh and how can we not mention what the internet is calling the “underwater episode.” Episode 4, “Fish Out of Water” is so darn creative and good that every site from Vulture to AV Club and beyond has already sung its praises. Done with nearly no dialogue while invoking Lost in Translation and Charlie Chaplin films, the episode deserves every inch of blog real estate that it currently occupies. 21-bojack-04.w750.h560.2x.jpg

BoJack Horseman might be a brightly colored animated world where the line between humans and animals gets gleefully blurred (the show has a really good time playing with animal sensibilities in human environments like a car filled with sardines in business suits) but the emotional terrain is meaty enough to keep you captivated. Great sitcoms (like the Mary Tyler Moore Show or Seinfeld or Golden Girls) have always had an ensemble facing the challenges of their personalities while trying to make the most of whatever life throws at them. BoJack Horseman does that for sure but it also is a truthful mirror of our times. The universal feelings of “less than” and “fuck it” are widespread right now and it helps BoJack resonate even louder. Will its addicted, dysfunctional characters stand on their own in a less cynical, post-Trumpism era? It’s hard to say. But for the time being, there isn’t a better group of people, or animal-people to hang out and commiserate with.