Saturday, May 28, 2016


Original caricature by Jeff York of the cast of UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT (copyright 2016)

I don’t often write about television here. This is a movie blog after all. However, when a program stands out to me, like MAD MEN, SHERLOCK, GAME OF THRONES, BREAKING BAD, BATES MOTEL or THE PEOPLE VS. OJ SIMPSON, I feel compelled to share some thoughts. And the latest program that has really moved me in such a way is the Netflix original sitcom UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT. I adored its first season and laughed out loud at it more than any show I’ve watched in eons. Still, it was its second that truly blew me away and compelled me to devote a blog post to it. Why? Because while its latest 13 episodes continued to be hilarious, the main thrust of its story arc this year concerned Kimmy dealing with the fact that she had been raped.

Yep, that’s right. Despite its candy-colored, almost cartoon palate, along with its title character’s Pollyanna-esque naiveté, UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT is a rather dark comedy. And this season, it explored subject material as dark as just about any sitcom on television has ever produced. And it was even more brilliant because it tackled such a subject as sexual abuse.

Much of Kimmy’s story is standard sitcom heroine trajectory. She is a young woman venturing to the big city, trying to make it there, turning the world on with her smile. And just as Mary Richards did when she moved to Minneapolis to work in television news in the legendary 70’s sitcom THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, Kimmy comes to Manhattan with a lot to prove and more than a few people to win over. But from there, the comparisons to Mary, Rhoda, two broke girls, or just about any other female sitcom leads ends. Kimmy’s back story, you see, was that she was held captive in a bunker for 15 years by a crazy religious zealot. And the gravity of such a scenario gives this series its darkness, as well as an umbrella of out-and-out tragedy.

Not to say that the show is a downer in any way. Quite the contrary, it may have more laughs per episode than THE SIMPSONS did in its heyday 15 years ago. Still, this show mines huge comedy out of one of the strangest and most startling starting points ever for a TV series. Kimmy and three other women were kidnapped and held against their will by Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne. He claimed to be protecting them from an apocalypse that laid waste to the world outside their bunker. It was the first of many lies he told them to keep them down and force them to serve as his cult members, companions, servants and yes, sexual slaves. Any similarities to the Ariel Castro kidnappings were purely intentional.

When the women were finally discovered, and escaped their imprisonment, Kimmy decided to make the most of her life. She refused to live as a woman angry and disgruntled by her awful history. Instead, she used her new freedom to launch into an incredible journey of self-discovery. That’s where the Mary Richards part comes in as she started out on an adventure to find her new self. And through thick and thin, Kimmy has shown that indeed, she is unbreakable. Kimmy is nothing if not a walking seminar of positive thinking as she tries to flap her wings while remaining unflappable at whatever is tossed her way.

Still, the history of her incarceration is constantly referenced on the series, usually in flashbacks. A lot of the comedy comes from how Kimmy (the truly Emmy-worthy Ellie Kemper) views the world. Having been kidnapped when she was just 14, Kimmy at 29 is a woman-child whose stunted growth has turned her into a person out of time. She’s unfamiliar with all that the world has been up to due to those years she was underground. Her warped sensibilities, based on such limited perspective, are where the show derives most of its humor from. But despite being so out of sorts, her pluck and positive outlook ended up affecting the downtrodden, modern day New Yorkers she came into contact with that first season. Her roommate Titus Andromedon (Titus Burgess), landlady Lillian Kauschtupper (Carol Kane), and employer Jacqueline White (Jane Krakowski) all became better and more generous people because of what Kimmy had to offer them. Her effect was contagious. 

In season two however, Kimmy discovered that her sunniness could only carry things so far. More and more, as frustrations of life grew exponentially, Kimmy’s past angers and vexation surfaced. Being held underground for the prime of one's young adult life would naturally take such a toll, and the show increased the specter of the shadow it continued to cast on her. 

Kimmy did admit it in the very first episode that there was sexual abuse in her past, telling her new roommate Titus (Titus Burgess) that there was “weird sex stuff in the bunker” but the rest of the original 13 shows that season dealt mostly with her learning to survive in New York. She found a place to live, got a job, and made friends. But her admission left many unanswered questions. Just what kind of weird sex stuff was she talking about? And whom was it with exactly?

When the show flashbacked back to the bunker throughout both seasons, they were mostly scenes of her interacting with the three other female hostages. We got to see how the four women existed, sometimes in the most absurd of ways. They made games out of their hair or whatever meager accessories were at their disposal, and Kimmy learned to do without most luxuries that we would take for granted. She stated that she hadn’t had a clock since her Tamagotchi died. These women were surviving as best they could, making the most of what they had, even if such meager means were mined for some of the biggest laughs on the show.

The one character we never saw in those flashbacks was their incarcerator. The reverend was not revealed to the viewers until the last few episodes of that first season, allowing us to build up our image of him in our minds. What did this awful man look like? Did the monster have a Charles Manson quality to him, or David Koresh? Was he some inbred country creep? The mystery was answered when he was finally shown, and quite the contrary, Wayne could almost have been Bruce Wayne. He was played by Jon Hamm and the casting of such a handsome leading man in such a despicable role threw off our expectations. Sure, Hamm may have done seven seasons as Don Draper, the antihero of MAD MEN, but his persona outside of that show is a beloved one. In talk show visits and interviews, he never comes off as less than affable, courteous and delightful, as charming as anyone in Hollywood. And his appearances as host on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE were always utter comic delights.

Yet Hamm was playing a monster here, and his reptilian charms were on display even when Wayne was on trial. He represented himself and nearly convinced the jury to let him get away with all of his unforgivable sins. Still, he was brought to justice and when he was sentenced to a long prison sentence, it appeared that perhaps the show was going to move past that storyline.

And indeed, the first half of season two dealt with Kimmy’s growth beyond those horrors. She attained two new jobs, finding employment working in a Christmas store and as an Uber driver. (Even though she had no formal license, her pretend driving in the bunker helped her naturally navigate the dangerous roads of the Big Apple.) Kimmy also started expanding her portfolio of friends, even desiring a boyfriend. She had become friends in the first season with Dong (Ki Hong Lee), a student she met, and in season two she was ready to explore their relationship by taking it to the next level. And it was the intimacy of sexual relations that triggered the turn into an even darker comedic tone. 

Wayne may have been jailed, but his crimes were not so confined. The residue of what he did to Kimmy came to fruition when she attempted to tryst with Dong in a hotel room. Every time he tried to make a sexual move on her, she clobbered him with the phone from the night stand. Over and over again, her instinctive reaction was to defend herself against a man who was trying to touch her in a sexual way. It was hilarious physical comedy, worthy of Blake Edwards, but it was shattering too as we knew what it meant. Her defensiveness was echoing fighting off Wayne, her rapist, all those years. 

It was an amazing sitcom moment as Kimmy was no longer able to compartmentalize that which she had suffered. The rest of the five remaining episodes of the second season then thrust her into therapy to deal with the tragedy. With the help of a smart therapist (slyly played by Tina Fey), Kimmy learned to reckon with all of her past, including the details and tragedy of what she had merely categorized as “weird sex stuff” early in that first season.  

It was an amazing turn for a show that is always bordering on farce. True, the topic of rape is not a  rare one on television. It can often be found in television dramas, be it daytime serials or nighttime shows like SCANDAL, but rarely is it mined on sitcoms. ALL IN THE FAMILY, that landmark 70’s show, famously dealt with the topic in an episode where a rapist broke into Archie Bunker's house and tried to attack wife Edith. But here, on UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT, the second half of its sophomore season was dealing with the revelations of such an assault on Kimmy. Suddenly, her childlike qualities took on an even darker meaning. Was she like that because it was all she really knew, being snatched by Wayne when she was just starting her teen years? Or was she perhaps clinging to that part of herself that represented who she was before her sexual abuse? Might her squeaky, often pitched delivery even been a reflection of that trait of sexually abused women who often speak in such high tones? 

Rape statistics are horrifying, and while the show doesn’t overplay the topic, the facts inherent with what Kimmy is dealing with are unavoidable. According to the Department of Justice, one in six women in America will experience a rape or an attempted rape in their lifetime. 83% of the victims will be under the age of 25. 54% of them will be under the age of 18. And 22%, under the age of 12. According to the "Rape in America" study done in 1992, a third of rape victims were between 11 and 17. Kimmy may be a fictional character, but her story is speaking to such awful revelations.  

Fey, who along with Robert Carlock, has designed this show to be a laugh machine, but in the latter half of season two, raucous humor was juxtaposed right up against the tragic revelations of Kimmy’s past, creating one of the truly most unique shows ever created. To explore that much of a woman’s character, warts and all, is incredibly rare in any medium. It was a daring display for a show that could have been content with producing more laughs a minute than any show this side of ARCHER. And it truly should net the show a Peabody, as well as Emmys, if there is any justice in the entertainment world.

So where will the show go in season three and beyond? We know that the season two cliffhanger had Wayne calling Kimmy from jail to tell her that he’d met and fallen in love with a woman he'd met through correspondence and visitation at the prison. He desired to marry her and that meant that in order to do so, he'd now have to  divorce Kimmy Schmidt. Yep, as if her world of woe wasn't filled with tragedy already, the SOB somehow married her in that bunker. His history of abuse was even more extensive, and it will be fascinating to see just how Kimmy handles all of these new revelations.

In that first season, Kimmy was stuck at the age of 14, stunted by, and frozen in time, by the moment she was snatched by the reverend. Then, by the start of season two, she had matured more, entering what could be characterized as her surly teen/young adult phase. Kimmy was now dealing with her needs as a burgeoning woman approaching adulthood, including sexual intimacy. Perhaps what Fey and Carlock have in mind for each season of the show is to represent a growth spurt in Kimmy's maturity. It would appear that each season is covering about five years in her coming-of-age, and if that is the case, then Kimmy's personality will arrive at 35 years of age after a five-year sitcom run. At that time, she will finally be her true age physically, mentally and emotionally. It truly is one of the most enthralling character arcs in any medium.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016


Original caricature by Jeff York of Freddie Highmore and Vera Farming in BATES MOTEL. (copyright 2013)
If you’ve seen the movie PSYCHO, you know what becomes of Norman Bates. The television series BATES MOTEL, which just wrapped up its season four finale Monday, May 16, is moving closer and closer to that conclusion, now that his mom is out of the picture. But throughout the run of the series so far, Norman has been presented as a very sympathetic character, even a tragic one. Sometimes it seemed as if they were rewriting him into a more self-aware and savvy young man, and therefore more relatable character, even giving viewers hope that he could escape his controlling mother Norma in a reasonable and legal way. That is not to be. The door of such possibilities irrevocably closed this past Monday when it was revealed that Norman successfully offed his mom, and on top of that, he robbed her grave to ensure she stayed by his side in that big Gothic house on the hill. Norman can never be normal now.

Such plotting now sets up season five to essentially pick up where the 1960 classic film started. Norman, free of his mother and any questions of guilt since the authorities think her death was a carbon monoxide accident, is now unaccountable to anyone. The young man is now left to his own devices, and one of them is a convenient coping mechanism that splits his personality in two. One is a functioning, rational human being, while the other is psychotic and capable of rage and homicide that lends the series its horror. And when he’s sexually aroused, the warped side of Norman turns into his cold scold of a mom to thwart any couplings that could ensue. There are momma's boys and then there are momma's boys

Norman’s breakdown was inevitable, as teased at from the start of its narrative on Monday nights four years ago, as he has always been victimized by the cold, cruel world around him. His abusive father beat both son and wife. Norma, in attempts to overcompensate and protect him, turned into a controlling banshee, a woman who always put the mother in smother. And when she moved to the sleepy village of White Pine Bay, Oregon, any chance at finding better role models went dark as quickly as Norman’s frequent blackouts. The town was filled with corruption from its drug trade and cops on the take, and Norman had no one really looking out for him in a proper way. If it takes a village to raise a child, then it took this village to completely ruin one too.

Comparatively, Norman almost seemed moral. At least his serial killer tendencies happened when he wasn’t himself. But from his mother to the town sheriff, no one around him was exactly upstanding. Quite the contrary. Norma (Vera Farmiga) led Norman (Freddie Highmore) by example, always lying, conning, finagling the truth for her own benefit. To protect her image, she started actively ignoring evidence that Norman was a serial killer. Norma was never above bamboozling, flirting or stealing to get her way and assert her rights as a parent, citizen or woman.

And when she married the dirty, on-the-take Sheriff Romano (Nestor Carbonell) out of convenience, it formed a wedge between Norman and the only true relationship he enjoyed in the community. And his jealousy helped seal her homicidal fate. If Norman couldn’t have her, no one could. So he closed all the vents in the house, cranked up the faulty furnace, and let the gas lull her into a permanent sleep. The townsfolk have been so inundated with so much skullduggery, no one thought to make much out of it. Except for Romano, who had always suspected that Norman was capable of murder, and now he feared the wayward son orchestrated his new bride's death. 

But just as he was about to solve the crime in the season finale, he was arrested by the Feds for being on the take. The twisted love story of Norman and his mother would now be exclusive with no outside interference. The fact that Norma is dead hardly mattered to the fantasy side of Norman's brain. To ensure the relationship continued, he dug up her grave as to keep her in the house for old time's sake. He even pasted her eyes open to keep up appearances. Norma might have appreciated such a thing. She was always about appearances. 

Still, the series has never laughed at this duo despite such satirical leanings. Instead, they’ve let Farmiga and Highmore add tremendous amounts of warmth and nuance to their characters, making this beasts into recognizable human beings despite their ginormous flaws. Every slight that Norma encountered, from not being able to make ends meet with her motel business, to trying to attract a man, made you sympathize with her despite her manipulative tendencies. 

And Highmore has always allowed his Bates to be quite lovable. While no one can ever erase Anthony Perkins’ iconic ownership of the role, Highmore approached it from a calmer and more contemplative state. Audiences so wanted him to have a loving relationship with the smart and sensitive teenage Emma (Olivia Cooke), that it was easy to look past that every moment in their courtship was courting disaster. And when she shifted her affections to Norman’s equally sensitive stepbrother Dylan (Max Thieriot), our hearts broke for Norman. Yes, we still feared for her safety, but Highmore made Norman seem more relatable than a killer should be. The monster is in every man, is what his performance was saying. And it's a brilliant one, certainly worthy of an Emmy this September. 

So now that the storytelling has caught up with the movie, where exactly will Norman go from here? The producers of the show are on the record committed to introducing their version of the Marion Crane character in season five that Janet Leigh played in the original movie. It will be interesting to see how closely they stick to the original source material with her addition. Will she come in for one hour of the season, about the same amount of time that Leigh enjoyed in the big screen version? Or will her story play out over the entire 10-episode season? And what of that infamous shower? Will the show attempt to find a new angle to have Marion cut to ribbons? Will they find a new way for Norman to do away with her without losing our sympathies? We shall see.

Ultimately, it will be fascinating to see where this coming season takes the popular A & E franchise because the show has always played up the tragedy more than the horror or dark comedy inherent in the story. True, its season four finale of BATES MOTEL featured a hilariously macabre scene as Norman struggled in a Blake Edwards sort of way to unload Norma’s corpse from the car. We may have smiled there, or even laughed, but Norman is still our conduit, and if anything, we're pulled in too close to him. We practically want him to get away with it all. And we truly want him to be happy. After all he's endured, that would be a welcome respite.

Never was wanting him to know some joy more evident than in the final scene this year. Norman was so grief stricken about his mother's demise, and in having to go on without her, that he put a revolver into his mouth. But then his coping mechanism of fantasy kicked in and allowed him to put the revolver down. He heard his mother playing the piano downstairs. And when he visited the parlor, his imagination rendered it all decked out for Christmas. Norma was too, looking radiant as she plunked out “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” on the keys. Norman joined her for the tune, along with his imagined pooch Juno, and together the three of them created a picture perfect Hallmark card moment in his mind. 

In Norman’s head at least, he can find happiness. Just how long remains to be seen as the big, ugly environment of White Pine Bay will likely crash his party sooner than later. But for now, Norman has his mom’s corpse, his stuffed dog, and their love and adoration is incredibly real to him. Who needs real family, friends or even motel guests, when one’s head is already so populated?

Saturday, May 7, 2016


Marvel Studios has another huge hit on their hands with the release of CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR May 6. Its Rotten Tomatoes score is currently at a stellar 91%, and its first day box office pulled in close to $76 million. Moreover, it helps cement the studio’s fortunes both with critics and audiences alike, and again gives it an advantage over the movies based on material from DC Comics being made with Warner Bros. Their recent tentpole feature BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE, directed by Zack Snyder, has made over $800 million worldwide, but the critical drubbing it received (just 28% at Rotten Tomatoes) has called into question whether DC can truly compete on the big screen with the continual Marvel juggernaut.

There's room for both empires, obviously, but it would behoove DC to copy a few pages from the Marvel playbook to ensure that their feature efforts succeed as thoroughly. Interestingly, DC seems to have no problem on the small screen with its terrific series likes SUPERGIRL on CBS and THE FLASH on the CW. Perhaps the longer form helps them tell their tales. No matter, to compete better on the big screen, DC needs to do things a lot better. Here are eight pages from the Marvel playbook that would behoove them to copy:

This lesson may be too late to learn, as DC is producing their JUSTICE LEAGUE movie without setting up half the roster of superhero characters through the benefit of starring in their own movie first. Marvel did, and their Avengers have succeeded so spectacularly because we know the characters going in. DC will have their work cut out for them trying to tell a big ensemble story while still tasked with introducing Aquaman, Cyborg and the big screen version of Flash. Still, they're already behind Marvel on number of franchises, including their ensembles, so it would be best for DC to slow down and make good movies instead of rushing mediocre ones into the marketplace

Both BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE and CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR have plots that deal with registering superheroes whose powers have gone unchecked, with plenty of collateral damage and death to prove it. Still, the former treats the issue as if it's September 11th, whereas the latter treats it seriously, but no too much to the point of forgetting it's a fantasy movie. The DC effort seemed as dour as “War and Peace” at times. Who wants that in a comic book movie? Marvel always remembers to keep it fun and fairly light, even with their characters like Captain America who tend to veer more toward the serious side. 

Speaking of light, most of the action in Marvel movies takes place during daylight hours. That way, it never gets too noir or glum. Granted, Batman is a creature of the night, but why did Snyder trap Superman in the nighttime constantly, especially when it's his sequel? Couldn't the Man of Steel have drawn Batman out in broad daylight to make him fight on his terms? It certainly would've been more in character, as well as added levity to the setting.

Sure, the Dark Knight is going to be morose. He's avenging his parents, after all, and that’s not exactly the most upbeat of motivations, but why did Snyder turn the sunny Superman into such a constipated clown raining on everyone’s parade? Henry Cavill is an able actor, but he was directed to be so introspective and moody, he might as well have been playing Batman. Gal Gadot made Wonder Woman very likable, with only a handful of scenes, and seemed to understand the material is popcorn. Marvel always does the same, investing even pissy characters like Nick Fury with a gruff fun. When Amy Adams comes off as a down-at-the-mouth Lois Lane for DC and WB, you know they're doing something very, very wrong. 

Marvel does an extraordinary job of ensuring character drives the action. When the two sides of superheroes battle in the middle of CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR, their fighting styles are less about pugilism and more about personalities. Hawkeye and Black Widow pull their punches with each other because they’re friends. Ant-Man sneaks into Iron Man’s suit and creates comedic havoc by pulling out Stark’s wiring. And Captain America fights defensively, only to slow the others down, not kill them. Superman could kill Batman easily with one punch so why would he fight at all? It’s the central anomaly that ruined that film. Each character's battles should reflect their personality, and that includes every punch thrown.

Where does Marvel get most of the material for their movies? Why, directly from specific comic book stories that have been told on the pages first, that’s where. DC, on the other hand, has let its directors and screenwriters make stories up whole cloth for the most part, with only nodding tributes to previous material. That has has hurt their efforts because such filmmakers don’t know the universe nearly as well as those who’ve created it for years, even decades. Almost every Marvel movie can be attributed back to a comic book that told the same story first. DC should start making that a hard rule in their approach.

Who was the bad guy in BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE? Lex Luthor. Again. Granted, he’s Superman’s biggest rival, but he’s now been the bad guy in five out of six DC Superman movies. There are so many other villains that Supes could fight so why not bring in Brainiac, Mr. Mxysptlk, Bizarro, or the host of others at their disposal? SUPER GIRL did it. THE FLASH does it. The villain in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR is a new one by the name of Baron Zemo, and he came directly from the Captain America comic books. DC needs to stop revisiting Luthor, or the Joker, for that matter. They actually have a better roster of villains so why not start exploiting such an advantage? 

Why did DC invest so much in Snyder, giving him two Superman movies and the Justice League films to direct? Based on his track record, the only film he helmed that truly rang the bell at the box office and with critics was 300. WATCHMEN wasn’t a success, so DC’s faith in him seems misplaced, especially when his vision seems merely to maintain the darkness established by the Christopher Nolan Batman features. DC could benefit from the takes of others. A lot of others. 

Perhaps WONDER WOMAN will be exemplary. Maybe SUICIDE SQUAD will be nasty fun. And it’s possible that the JUSTICE LEAGUE may make up for lost time against Marvel’s Avengers. But with re-shoots being ordered for SUICIDE SQUAD months before its release, the worry is that DC is headed down a number of wrong paths. They’re a legendary comic book empire with incredible characters and their fans and critics alike want them to succeed. By paying more attention to what their top rivals are doing will help DC and WB make better films and franchises. If they borrow some pages from their playbook, we tool will marvel at their big screen efforts once again.