Another Love Letter to The United States of Tara S03 E04

22 April 2011

This clip comes from Monday night’s episode of The United States of Tara, which I did not manage to watch until this morning. This show is worth the wait, and I sincerely hope that this clip falls under fair use guidelines because I think it’s indicative of the construction and the style of the entire series.

This is the first time I’ve been moved to pull an actual clip from a recent television program, and there are several reasons why I think The United States of Tara should be watched and discussed the same way we approach a show like Mad Men or Breaking Bad.

If you watch the clip, you’ll notice that the titular role is an incredibly demanding one. Toni Collette doesn’t play one character; she plays seven: this includes Tara, Buck, Alice, T, and Shoshana at the table, and Gimme and Chicken below it. Watch their individual mannerisms and idiosyncratic behavior in this scene. Every character is distinctly different, and each has a complicated and personal history. They’re not simply two-dimensional fragments of the real Tara Gregson, rather they are independent, fully realized characters.

The United States of Tara is characterized by a riveting intensity in its depiction of multiple characters that happen to reside in a single body. The engaging quality of this deep examination can be attributed to two factors. Toni Collette’s acting is unparalleled by any other actor currently working in television. She embodies separate identities for some very disparate characters, while still maintaining connections between them. And she does it all in an American accent, a notable feat since I’ve often heard other actors discuss the difficulty of swearing convincingly in a foreign accent or language.

The second factor that determines the impressive depth of character we’ve come to expect from The United States of Tara is the strength of Diablo Cody’s writing. I know Cody is often accused of writing dialogue that sounds exactly the same for each character, but this attitude is completely wrong. Maybe some people don’t like that ALL of Cody’s characters can articulate themselves in funny, memorable, or clever ways, but they can suck it (Sorry Mom!). This isn’t reality, it’s television. We watch television, and most other forms of entertainment, to see a better, more interesting version of our own lives. Don’t believe me? Ask the ancient Greeks what they think about the relationship between art and life. It’s not a fact, but it’s pretty well-accepted that this is the way we like things: weird, but not too weird. Unfamiliar, but not so distant that we can’t relate.

I had mixed feelings about Cody’s first film (Juno, 2007) mostly because I felt the characters weren’t deep enough. If you’re going to indulge in some sassy, rapid-fire dialogue, then it still needs to be true to the needs and the desires of your characters. With Juno, I felt as though the hypercurrent dialogue wasn’t specifically tailored to the particular tendencies of each character. The dialogue was flawed and unspecific because the characters were not clearly defined. Now that Cody has matured considerably as a writer, her characters are the story. As a result, their banter appears charming and natural, instead of overly quirky and forced.

When Tara accosts the alters in a boardroom meeting, we accept her announcement, “I am dissolving the United States of Tara and proclaiming myself king,” because she is the kind of person who would say this to her husband, her children, or her sister, even if only in jest. The line is perfect because it expresses exactly how Tara feels in a language that only the assertive, exasperated Tara would use. Stay tuned!


Reviving The Office S07 E20

15 April 2011

Current Dunder Mifflin manager Michael Scott and his replacement, DeAngelo Vickers

How does a dying television show, especially one whose real star power is leaving after seven seasons, recapture the zany momentum of its early episodes? Last night, as the cast and crew of The Office prepare for the imminent departure of Steve Carell, viewers were introduced to tentative new manager DeAngelo Vickers, played by a mostly straight-laced Will Ferrell.

It’s still unknown whether DeAngelo will remain a pivotal character in Season 8, but the introduction of this character and Ferrell’s interpretation of him point to some of the apparent strategies that are being used to keep The Office afloat (and presumably solvent):

  1. When in doubt, cast a star: Ferrell has been a household name since his stint on Saturday Night Live. He’s written and starred in a few modest hits (Anchorman, Talladega Nights, assorted phallocentric comedy that does boffo box office among the 18-34 demo). Loyal fans of The Office will undoubtedly tune in for Ferrell’s performance, but inconsistent viewers may also be swayed by the promise of some classic Ferrell humor. It’s unlikely that Ferrell’s four episode appearance will draw any new viewers, but at this point, surely The Office is more concerned with retention of an existing audience than the creation of a new one.
  2. Give him a silly name and some quirky hobbies: Here’s a snapshot of the Google image search page for the name “DeAngelo”:

HA HA. See it’s funny because “DeAngelo” is a black man’s name and Will Ferrell is white. So very, awkwardly white. Oh man, LOL guys, this is humor.

DeAngelo Vickers is also a huge fan of the American Southwest. I mean, that’s cool and all, but people don’t usually go around talking about their favorite regions as a get-to-know-you device. It’s funny because people don’t do this, but conceivably they could, and this character does. It’s like the ol’ girl farting gag–women don’t usually fart, but maybe they could in theory! So if we actually show a woman farting on television, it’s hilarious! Yet another excellent example of humor.

3. Add some physical humor: Begin with some standard slapstick from the ever eager to please Andy Bernard, and seal the deal with a strange back hug between Michael Scott and DeAngelo Vickers. Men laughing at other men? Too funny. But men hugging other men? This is the holy grail of sitcom humor. Any physical contact between two presumably straight men is always the second-most comedic thing on television.

The first is obviously when a dude gets slammed in the balls on America’s Funniest Home Videos. Duh.

Stay tuned!

Writers on Writing: Dan Harmon at The Writers Guild Foundation

7 April 2011


Dan Harmon, creator of "Community"


Yesterday I heard Dan Harmon speak at The Writers Guild Foundation, the non-profit component of the Writers Guild of America. I have a page full of teeny-tiny, smudged pencil scribblings to prove it, and I hope to distill a few of Harmon’s main points, as well as my subsequent thoughts.

Despite his reputation as the brains behind the incredibly popular television show Community, Harmon works hard to maintain an everyman schtick  in which he attributes his success to good timing and a fair amount of luck. Harmon discusses the necessity of fair and inclusive hiring processes in both casting and the writers’ room, but his often erudite diction and complex, but coherent, strains of thought belie his calculated persona of averageness. Sure, Dan Harmon got lucky, but his assertion that anyone can write decent television is perhaps too forgiving. Harmon’s evident intelligence and fluidity with language are not innate in all television writers.

Harmon is an engaging speaker, but he revels in presenting the writer as a desperate figure who agonizes over scripts in his pajamas, rarely leaves the house to buy groceries, and consequently wipes his ass with t-shirts when an aired pilot episode isn’t well-received. I find this characterization frustrating for several reasons: Perhaps this is indeed how Dan Harmon behaves as a writer, but when he strives to present himself as a relatable guy who just happened upon success, his representation of the writer comes to depict all writers. If Dan Harmon describes himself as a writer who has similar skills and ambitions as all the writers in the audience, then his “…pursuit of minimal work for maximum reward” (and I’m quoting from the event program) becomes our archetype for success.

I know this may sound pedantic, but when a writer like Harmon addresses an audience that mostly consists of aspiring writers, he shouldn’t be afraid to confront the framework of his success. Don’t tell us we can all be president one day; tell us that it was hard as hell, but that you worked your ass off to get your show made. You can still be a man of the people while being honest about your efforts in writing. When you make it seem like anyone can take a great idea and turn it into a great show, you trivialize the work of other writers, and most importantly, you trivialize your own work.

Aside from this excessive grievance, I really enjoyed Harmon’s talk. I feel like there should be a Part 2 to this post so that I can discuss Harmon’s thoughts on good writing emerging from “structure and chaos” and the hilarious house/basement metaphor that he used to great comedic effect.

But I’m still on East Coast time here, and my bedtime has definitely come and gone. In closing, and in the unlikely event that Harmon peruses this entry, I would just like to congratulate him on the success of Community, and offer my support for its repeated renewal. I believe Harmon said that he would like to do six seasons, and I sincerely hope he gets his wish. Television needs more dedicated and skilled writers, even if they like to pretend they’re not. Stay tuned!

Eyyyyyyyyyyy! Grey’s Anatomy S07 E18

1 April 2011

Yeah, I don’t think I can talk about this week’s episode of Grey’s Anatomy. ‘Scuse me while I go barf up some major organs.