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By In Stuff, Television

The Good Place

Thanks to Alan Sepinwall for screen-capturing this awesome chart from Michael Schur’s new show “The Good Place.” The chart refers to the afterlife points you accumulate (and lose) for doing good and bad things during your your life.

You will notice in the middle the joke dedicated to me, and I love it, but my favorite joke by far is in smaller type. If you have listened to any PosCasts or know anything at all about Michael, you’ll find it right away.*

*Hint, it’s not the Yankees joke, though that too is wonderful.

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By In Television

When you smile …

You might have noticed that I almost never write about television here, and there’s a simple reason for it: I almost never watch television.

Mad Men? Never seen it.

Walking Dead? Never seen it.

Homeland? House of Cards? The Americans? Orange is the New Black? Fargo? Anything CSI? Never seen them. I’ve never even seen The Big Bang Theory, though I’ve seen enough commercials while watching sports to stitch together roughly 239 episodes.

I have seen one and a half episodes of Downtown Abbey. Well, it’s a funny thing. I watched an episode because Margo loves the show, and so I watched the show for her. It was fine, though I didn’t really know what was going on, but it was fine. At one point, the main guy — Lord something or other, I’m sure — got into an uncomfortable argument with a young woman who I guess was not supposed to be invited to the table. That was kind of fun. She was all “oh you snobs!” and he was all like “how impertinent!”

The next one I saw,  well, I didn’t really see it. I was reading in bed and Margo was watching and I looked up and the main guy — Lord something or other, I’m sure — got into an uncomfortable argument with a young woman who I guess was not supposed to be invited to the table.

“Hey, I already saw this one,” I said.

“No,” she said. “This one’s different.”

I do not have anything against any of these shows. Quite the opposite: I am 100% certain that if I STARTED watching any of these shows, including Downton Abbey, I would become obsessed with them and would spend way too much time thinking about them because that’s my personality. I grew up on television. And so I get obsessive. My girls have sort of made me watch “Limitless” this year, and so now I spend way too much time thinking about NZT and stuff. My girls have also sort of made me watch Supergirl, and so now I think way too much about how this world is apparently filled with WAY too many evil aliens and how Callista Flockhart would make a great editor.

 

None of this is healthy, I’m sure. But if I don’t start watching, it’s OK. Then I never really know what I’m missing. I’m sure “The Americans” is amazing. But I probably would stop writing if I started watching.

A few weeks ago, Louis CK sent me a personal email because, you know, we’re super good friends who hang out all the time, or because I’m on his mailing list, one or the other, and here’s what it said:

Hi there.  

Horace and Pete episode one is available for download. $5.  

Go here to watch it.

We hope you like it.  

Regards, 

Louis

That’s it. That was the whole thing. Of course, I clicked on it because I’m a big fan, and it turned out to be a show called “Horace and Pete.” It begins in a bar, and I thought: “Hey, Louis CK is doing ‘Cheers.’ This is going to be hysterically funny!” It turns out Louis CK was not doing Cheers. And “Horace and Pete,” to say the least, is not hysterically funny.

Horace and Pete are brothers who run a Brooklyn bar that has been around for 100-plus years. The bar has been passed down through family lines with the one quirk that all the owners have been named Horace and Pete. Louis CK is the latest Horace, and Steve Buscemi is the latest Pete.

But also in the bar is the previous Pete, played by Alan Alda. The previous Horace is dead as are all the other Horace and Petes through the years (one of the earlier Horaces is played by Burt Young, a point I want to make because I love Burt Young).

There is a lot of pain in the Horace and Pete bloodlines. I don’t want to spoil anything with plot points, but you quickly find out that the Alan Alda Pete is a virulent racist and extraordinary angry man. The Steve Buscemi Pete is schizophrenic and in need of medication. And the Louis CK Horace is a man who has clearly made enormous mistakes he does not believe can ever be remedied.

“Horace and Pete” is both mesmerizing and unrelentingly bleak. You see a whole long list of broken characters — Jessica Lange as the drunken former beauty, Edie Falco as the hard-as-nails sister who will not let herself feel, Aidy Bryant as the daughter trying to make some sense of her relationship with her doomed father — and they’re all trying just to do the best they can. At the bar, there is a Greek chorus speaking cynically about the events of the day. There is one great joke that you might not get if you aren’t on Louis’ mailing list — he wrote a long and funny and intense plea to voters to stop voting for Donald Trump. The next week, the characters at the bar were ripping a comedian for giving us his political views when he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

“Horace and Pete” is a very sad show. The sadness is its brilliance. It is made like a stage play, like something Arthur Miller or David Mamet might do, and it dives into the sadness of these characters without blinking, without turning away. There are long monologues throughout where a character explores the pain, roots around in it, refused to turn away from it. I’m reminded of Louis CK’s brilliant bit about why he hates cell phones.

“Underneath everything in your life, there’s that thing, that empty, forever empty … that knowledge that it’s all for nothing, and you’re alone. It’s down there. And sometimes when things clear away, you’re in your car, and you start going ‘Oh no, here it comes, that I’m alone.’ You know, just this sadness. Life is tremendously sad just by being in it. And so you’re driving and, you go, “Awww,” and that’s why we text and drive. I look around, pretty much 100% of people driving are texting, and they’re killing, everybody’s murdering each other with their cars. But people are willing to risk taking a life and ruining their own ’cause they don’t want to be alone for a second.”

He then told how he heard Bruce Springsteen’s “Jungleland” on the radio, and he felt sad and alone and reached for his phone to start texting friends. But then he stopped himself and just allowed himself to feel sad. And he found there was a beauty in feeling sad.

I think that, in the end, is what “Horace and Pete” is about. It’s about allowing yourself just to feel sad, no diversions, no distractions, no backing away from the sheer sadness that is such a part of life. And it’s like that for the first nine shows. There are some funny parts, sure, but even those are usually pessimistic and jaundiced. The point, I think, is to let the sadness of these characters wash over you. The point, I think, is to take even the smallest pieces of joy and laughter and goodness and hold on to them for dear life because it’s a hard world, and some mistakes are never fixed, and some memories are never overcome, and some prejudices blind us all … and it’s all so temporary. It’s so hard to leave an imprint on the world.

All of which takes me to the final show and the whole reason for this post: There is a scene in the final “Horace and Pete,” which is so beautiful that I will never forget it. I don’t think it’s a scene that will carry much power if you have not seen every episode. I don’t think it’s a scene that I will be able to explain well enough.

Louis CK told my e-migo Alan Sepinwall that the scene wasn’t supposed to be all that important. It comes at the very end when Louis CK’s Horace is trying to decide what to do with his life. He’s at his lowest point. The last show is particularly grueling and sad. And there’s this near-throwaway scene starring Amy Sedaris, where she comes in and applies for a bartender job.

Only, Sedaris turns it into this extraordinary thing. She is just tenaciously positive and happy and hopeful. She talks about her weird and funny and chaotic life. There are hints of a few bits of sadness — in relationships, with family — but she simply refuses to let any of that throw her. Life, she seems to realize, is here to be enjoyed, to be celebrated, to be explored. Why else live?

And — this was the amazing part — she overpowers Horace. She hits him so much energy and force of happiness and craziness that finally, against every impulse in him, he smiles.

“Look at that smile!” she shouts. “You use every muscle in your face when you smile!”

This is not the ending of the show. But it is the moment of transcendence for me. Sedaris apparently ad-libbed the entire scene. And Louis CK says he wasn’t acting during that scene. That smile was real.

“Sadness is poetic,” Louis says in that phone bit. “We’re lucky to live sad moments. And then I had happy feelings because of it. When you let yourself feel sad, your body has, like, antibodies and happiness come rushing in to meet the sadness. So I was grateful to feel sad. Then I met it with true, profound happiness.”

That was “Horace and Pete” for me. I won’t lie; there were times when watching the show I thought, “I don’t want all this sadness. I don’t want it, don’t need it, I would rather feel something else. Give me a joke. Give me a pause. Turn the camera away.’ But I stayed with it, explored the sadness, because it was all so well done, the acting was so brilliant, and I felt something was coming. Then that Amy Sedaris scene exploded on me and made me feel so gloriously happy. That’s a pretty good payoff.

 

 

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By In RIP, Television

Goodbye Parks

 

2013_0808_Parks_and_Rec_Show_KeyArt_1920x1080_0Three or four years ago, we went to California as a family and one of the cool things we got to do was go to the Parks and Recreation set. We got to do this, of course, because the executive producer of the show is my friend and permanent PosCast guest Michael Schur.*

*If someone is a permanent guest to a show, does that actually make him actually a “co-host.” Probably so. Yes. Probably so.

In any case, while on the set we ran into Nick Offerman, the actor who plays one of the really great comedy characters ever on television, the steak-loving, government-hating, wood-working, hug-loathing, Tammy-marrying Ron Swanson. He looked at my daughters and said, in the perfect Ron Swanson voice and rhythm, “OK children, you may go into my office. However, you may not touch anything on my desk. Make no mistake: I will know if you touch anything.”

The girls, of course, still talk about this brush with Ron Swanson, and I think about it a lot too because tonight is the final episode of Parks & Recreation and while I admire so many things about the show, there’s something I think about most of all: It is a show about people who like each other.There’s absolutely no reason for them to like each other. They have wildly different philosophies about life, love, music, food, coolness, politics, sports, Star Wars (“Is that the one with the little Wizard boy?” Ron Swanson asks).

But they like each other. They deeply like each other. And, even more absurdly, we like them all.

Ron Swanson is an in-the-woods loner who believes government is evil and should be shut down. Leslie Knope is a pop-culture loving liberal who makes thick policy binders in a whir and believes there is nothing that government cannot solve. Jerry/Gary/Terry Gengrich is a helpless shlemiel who spills coffee on everything and loses his keys constantly and has an awe-inspiringly beautiful wife and supermodel daughters. Tom Haverford is a me-first hipster who believes the most important stuff in the world is stuff. Andy Dwyer is a lovable dunce, April Ludgate is a slacker who either hates everything or pretends to, Ben Wyatt is a number-crunching nerd who likes inventing fantasy games. Ann Perkins is a nurse who can’t quite find her way in life, Donna Meagle is a fashion-loving diva with a famous past no one can quite grasp, Chris Traeger is a fitness fanatic who calls people by their first and last names.

And they all like each other. More to the point: They all find something admirable in each other.

This is something Michael and I have talked about a lot, actually: There seems so little middle ground left. As a nation, we always have disagreed with each other on things — politics, religion, race, the economy, foreign affairs, women’s rights, guns, death penalty, abortion, state rights, Peanut or Regular M&Ms — but it did seem like we could still like each other.

“You read stories of what the Senate was like 30 years ago, for example,” Michael says, “and there was a mutual respect and sense of discourse that kept the body politic woven together. They would debate, fiercely, about the issues of the day, and then they would go have dinner at each other’s houses and remain collegial. That does not appear to exist, anywhere, now.”

Michael says that this concept — a place “where people can disagree and fight and butt heads, but also drink good Scotch and remain friends, and find areas of agreement and solve problems through a dialectic” — became the whole point of the show.

And it worked. It wasn’t the first show to build around the idea. Cheers was, in the end, a comedy about people who liked each other. So was Seinfeld. In the end, that was true of The Office too.

But I don’t think any other show gave us such divergent characters who liked each other … a show without a villain. And we liked them too. Sometimes, for fun, I ask my daughters to name their favorite characters. They have named every single one of main characters at some point (along with their favorite minor character Perd Hapley, the genial television personality who says things like, “For a female perspective we turn to … a woman”). What do my daughters have in common with Ron Swanson or Tom Haverford? Nothing. But they see the humanity in every one of them, they see that even though people may say ridiculous things or offer opinions counter to your own, those words come from a human place.

“I think most people would rather be nice than cruel,” Michael says. ” Now, power corrupts, and the higher you climb on the political ladder the more power you have, and thus the more you are risking by acting in a reasonable, dignified manner. If Mitch McConnell had said even one respectful or nice thing about President Obama — literally, even one — in the last election, he would’ve lost in a primary challenge.

“That is sad, to me, because I think if you could give Mitch McConnell truth serum he would say that President Obama is a smart person who has some good ideas (and vice-versa).  The show was an attempt to describe a different path. … I think it’s possible to disagree and remain respectful, and even to love and admire the people with whom you disagree. This is not pollyanna pie-in-the-sky naivete. It’s a basic human reality.”

Good sitcoms tend to follow a path. They usually have rough early days when characters are being developed, often painfully. The focus of the show shifts. Then, something clicks, something else clicks, something else … and the show has a wonderful ride where every episode is fantastic. The comic possibilities seem endless. The characters mold into people as familiar as family.

And then — slowly you hope — the edges begin to crinkle, and bits start to sound the same, and certain people become too famous and cliche. Then people begin applauding when Fonzie or Latka or Kramer enters the room, and other characters leave, and themes start losing any spark, and sometimes producers feel the need to insert a major new theme just to liven up the show, a new baby, a new boss and new location.

Parks and Recreation went through all those phases. No, it was never a hit. It was never a ratings winner. But it started sluggish, and found its speed, and was great. Then, perhaps, it faded a bit. But unlike The Office or Cheers or M*A*S*H or Seinfeld or most of the other good shows I’ve loved through the years, it found one more burst of energy at the end. Michael and the writers and everyone always knew this would be the last year and so they decided to go out blazing. They put it three years in the future, and they created all sorts of frantic plot twists, and they made every show something of a finale.

That’s been a wonderful way to send off, but it also makes tonight a bit sad. There seems more to do. I want to know what happens to them all. I want to hear from Leslie, laugh at Jerry, have breakfast food with Ron Swanson every now and again. I guess that’s what happens when you make a good television show filled with people you like. The only good ending has you miss them.

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