Winner of Medieval Enigma: Travis Fimmel’s Ragnar Lothbrok

Vikings is pretty damn great. And its lead Travis Fimmel plays a big part in that.

Ragnar, the enigmatic protagonist of the History Channel show, has to bridge two worlds: The established viking society on the show, circa 13th century (ish), and the 21st century audience watching it. The role of Ragnar has always had to thematically be a man of his time and a man ahead of his time, because he needs to lead his people appeal to an audience who wouldn’t be so on board with the vikings tendency to plunder.

tumblr_nk288lJoPV1u7q9l2o3_250It’s not an easy idea to broach, but thanks to Fimmel’s acting it’s never been too much of a problem. Fimmel plays Ragnar with a sort of bemused caginess; watchful, playful, and always-dreaming, but never fully betraying his intentions.

What seems clear is that he’s the sort of man who doesn’t want for a lot but doesn’t want to have any roadblocks in his way. And while many leaders have viewed Ragnar’s ambitions as a lust for power (and felt challenged by it) it’s always seemed to be that he only lusts for freedom—and those who impede on it should beware.

But even that is a bit of a leap: What drives Ragnar Lothbrok can really only be answered by Ragnar Lothbrok. While he has made it clear what matters to him—exploration, family, honor—what ultimately drives him is just out of reach.

Vikings‘ Ragnar is largely non-verbal, observing those around him, often smirking in response, but ultimately playing a game we don’t know the answers to. It can make for a thrilling (if a bit of deus ex machina) arc to see a character who is either so blindly confident or that many moves ahead to take the board, such as in season two when King Horik makes moves against him. But the show manages to sell a sense of inside his head without ever fully explaining it, and from there it can take those thoughts and twist them around. With that kind of strategy it’s no wonder Ragnar is such an effective warrior and character to watch.

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Winner of the summer TV season: ‘Bojack Horseman’ Season 2

A couple of years ago I wouldn’t have been able to tell you that one of the most realistic character shows on TV would be a show about an anthropomorphic horse. But then “Bojack Horseman” galloped onto the scene.

“BoJack Horseman” is the latest in a growing number of shows whose cynicism masks a deeper intelligence, both in its humor and its emotion. Season one took a while to find its feet, but season two suffers no such tepid period. Gone are the times when they leaned on jokes that were too easy and ended up with hit-or-miss comedy. This season is straight out of the gate.
From the very beginning of first episode, the sophomore season establishes that it is just as fast with the punchline as it is with the gut-punch. The trick is that it doesn’t favor either side of its balancing act. “BoJack Horseman” is both an irreverent comedy with animals that act like humans and hilarious sight gags, while also being a grounded and biting character study of life as a Hollywoo(d) has-been.

When we left BoJack (Will Arnett) he was at a bit of a crossroad in his life: After what little public persona he had being blown up by Diane’s (Alison Brie) tell-all, he was never more lonely, and never more popular—having landed his dream role of Secretariat. Season two’s opener, “Brand New Couch,” picks up right from mess of emotions as BoJack tries to move on and up with his life and career.

Similar to season one, the description of basic events often seems run-of-the-LA-mill. And admittedly none of the themes of season one or two—fame, relationships, success, and the prices we pay for all of it—are fresh on their own. But the magic of “BoJack Horseman” has always been that it’s grounded those themes intensely with their characters, resulting in comedy and drama that consistently feels smart, even when it’s making a dirty joke.

Season two takes all those characters and raises them to the next level. That means it doesn’t skimp on secondary characters, like Mr. Peanutbutter and Todd, who are given expanded roles carving out a slice of Hollywoo(d)’s notoriety.

"After the Party" plays with storytelling techniques, and wonders why Mr. Peanutbutter keeps going back to the same printer.
“After the Party” plays with storytelling techniques, and wonders why Mr. Peanutbutter keeps going back to the same printer.

Overall, season two starts to feel a bit more like an ensemble; closer to “Mad Men” in tone and character focus. “After the Party,” the fourth episode of the new season, jumps from dynamic to dynamic, volleying between eccentric humor and raw emotion without so much a yellow light.

And just like Don Draper, though “BoJack Horseman” leans on more than its title character doesn’t mean it’s not willing to plumb the depths of his darkness. By the end of the season we’ve seen BoJack reach new levels of shame, and it’s not always easy to watch. Or rather, it wouldn’t be, if this show weren’t so damn engrossing.

But for the world of “BoJack,” the worlds of comedy and drama aren’t separate genres at all. Instead they’re closely related, allowing even wacky humor to float closer to real life than it really deserves to (this season does, sort of, answer the question of “in a world with anthropomorphic animals why do they eat meat?” Just in case you’ve been dying to know). It leaves viewers with the feeling that the show is always one punchline ahead of you. And thanks to the outstanding voice acting, even when the path of the joke feels obvious it feels brilliant.
And for a cast that was already bursting at the seams with comedic talent, season two turns it up to eleven; with Lisa Kudrow, Tatiana Maslany, Aisha Tyler, and more joining the ranks—with some surprise guests sprinkled along the way.

Not all the rough edges have been sanded down. “BoJack” has always taken an Adult Swim-esque humor, where if you’re not in on the joke you can move along. And with the most commitment to a laugh-a-minute in-jokes since at least “Arrested Development,” it’s likely that a lot of that could fly by the casual viewer’s head. It’s unlikely that anyone who didn’t find themselves enamored with BoJack and his band of merry misery by the end of the first season will start appreciating it more with season two. The sophomore season doubles down on the world it’s built, and adds in a healthy helping of high ambitions.

hqdefault-2By the end of the season the nuance and realism have ballooned, in the best way, to a snowball that’s only picking up more and more speed. It’s a bit crowded by the time “BoJack” crosses the finish line, but never completely out of whack, and with a third season officially on its way there’s a whole new dozen episodes to spurt out everything that’s left over.

Intelligent, absurd, and dark, in equal measure, “BoJack Horseman” season two keeps the fun rolling all the way until the knife is at its hilt, and then twists. And then it answers that question you had about whether or not the universe had a separate Emmy category anthropomorphic animal actors.

Stranger to this feelin’

When I was four years old I received worry dolls as a gift. Traditionally made in Guatemala, the folklore says that if the person who has the worry dolls is anxious they can say their worry out loud to the doll, place the doll under the pillow, and the doll will do the worrying for them. I remember Worry_dollsholding them in my hand; turning their small bodies over in my palm.

“But Mom, what if a person has too many worries?”

My mom still tells this story, and how with one simple sentence I broke her heart. On the one hand, I was asking to better inform myself about the mechanics of the worry dolls. But I was also asking after something that, in retrospect, I was afraid I would have to deal with.

See I’ve coped with depression as long as I can remember. It’s not always sad or worry, and it’s never been something I can fully communicate to those without any firsthand knowledge. It’s lurked there before I knew what to call it and will likely continue to do so even on my great days.

Which is why I was shocked when I saw so many headlines asking if “Inside Out” was too much for kids. Granted, I saw it as a much-more-self-aware 22 year old who’s pretty well-versed in mental health issues. But I think back to that four year old, who had no vocabulary for what was happening inside her head, no framework for it being unusual (but still ok!), who didn’t know that someday she’d meet people who could put words to the feeling fountain inside her head.

Pixar’s films have always been ambitious, but they’re always earned. With “Inside Out” Pixar isn’t teaching kids anything they wouldn’t know, but rather providing some corroboration with what’s already there.

InsideOut556500e7ce61d.0Perhaps “Inside Out” isn’t for kids, in a way. But maybe that’s why it’s so important that they see it. It touches on something that effects a disproportionate number of people in our society, and it does it without ever really touching on it at all. It subtly gives kids the framework that emotions are characters that are really more like the lights on your dashboard: their activity doesn’t mean that something’s wrong, but it’s worth checking under the hood.

It lets kids know that sometimes Joy won’t be the main one at the controls. But it’s also lets them know that’s ok. That’s a powerful message, and one that’s worth exposing kids to earlier. Because sometimes you won’t have all the worry dolls you need, but it’s still going to be ok.

 

In Shondaland, come for the diversity stay for the pulp

Say what you will about any of the Shondaland productions, but they’re changing the face of television for millions of people.

The studio, run by Shonda Rhimes, produces “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal,” and “How to Get Away With Murder.” Look familiar? Yes, that’s ABC’s entire Thursday night schedule. I can’t recall of a time when any one show runner was responsible for an entire 3-hour block of TV, and certainly not when said runner was a woman of color.

And the characters she’s responsible for navigate waters that, sure, swirl with all the turmoil of a soap opera, but they are an unarguably complex and diverse cast of people she’s elevating. The face of her #TGIT (Thank Got It’s Thursday, the hashtag for her ratings Titan) is neither the usual white nor man. In fact, Rhimes is responsible for only three women of color to win a SAG award for Best Female Actor in a Drama: Sandra Oh, Chandra Wilson, and Viola Davis.

Screen Shot 2015-02-02 at 4.17.00 PMHer shows are commonly referred to as pulpy, addictive dramas that are only looking for the next gasp, and if you’re looking for a critic to refute that those adjectives (at least, often) apply keep looking. But to ignore the change of face or her ability to charge into heated political discussions without looking back (for reference check out almost any episode of “Scandal” for one of their feminist speech moments). Rhimes demonstrates an ability to not only want change but to demand it–and make it more than successful.

36_Shonda_Rhimes_Cover_EmbedIn her speeches she tells the story of a woman who knows she’s got the skill and the luck to keep going, but she’s not afraid to remember that there are others who fought for her to get this far, and still more who will continue fighting. Her characters are a natural reflection of a woman who’s aware of the intersectionality she comes from and stands at, and who manages to translate that to the page to create flawed, strong, and whole characters. They might be living in pulp fiction, but they’re a better representation of the facts than we’d ever seen.

 

 

Winner of 2014: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

For a long time journalists and media peripherals have been discussing the changing nature of journalism. Not just because of the sudden inundation of e-devices and connectibility, but because we’re not even sure  how to write it anymore.

We look back on the days of tabloid, yellow journalism and shudder, but clearly we’re past the notion that pure objective journalism is feasible in this world of ours. Hell, it might not even be the hero we deserve or need. Members of the media are struggling to present their information in a way that’s unbiased, but still has an angle, but still presents both sides, without catering to either.

Often times in these debates there’s a focus on television news, which in turn bleeds over to the news comedy that’s ever prevalent these days. Some people shake their heads at statistics about college kids who get their news from “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report,” but others (or, more of the same, conversely) argue that–clear bias aside–it’s some of the best reporting out there.

So perhaps it’s fitting that one of the best news programs out there got its start on “The Daily Show.” John Oliver who, amongst other things, rose to prominence on Comedy Central’s late night news circuit got his own show on HBO that is the true winner of 2014.

Like “The Daily Show,” LWT takes a satirical approach to current events, offering a clear vantage point and sprinkling in a few off-color jokes here and there. In fact, if you’re looking at it purely from a perspective of painting big corporations and politicians with a stick then they’re identical. But with all the fluidity of a David Sedaris essay, Oliver and his team take topics and tear them down, completely. What starts as a simple poke at a humorous topic gradually descends into a fascinating expose that most investigative journalists only dream of. This team does it every week.

Oliver has a sharper tone than either of Comedy Central’s titans (except perhaps when Jon Stewart is very mad, because he is a sight to behold) and he has far more wiggle-room than most anyone before him. Thanks to HBO’s no-ads policy, Oliver and his team don’t have to worry about offending sponsors or selling airtime. They’ve moved on from punting at Fox News or giving you the Republican-gaffe of the day, and are now tackling bigger topics, wrecking whole ideas, in just half an hour.

In its 24 episodes LWT has boasted quite a roaster of topics, and an impressive number of eloquent journalism pieces. Oliver has stated that he doesn’t want the show to be a parody news show, and so far he’s delivered and then some. Now if only other news programs would.

For now, sit back and kill some time with the LWT Youtube channel: