Monday, May 24, 2010

Guilty Pleasures: I Totally Watch(ed) Laguna Beach

Also from the category of Things I Watched During Law School When I Hated My Life:

Before Speidi's Reign of Terror, before any of these way-too-young girlies had ever even HEARD of Botox, before living in Los Angeles was even a twinkle in Ms. Lauren Conrad's eye, there was a docu-soap (emphasis on the soap) depicting the "real life Orange County" that possessed all the trashy fun of The Hills, minus the plastic faces and scary overtones of domestic violence.

There was . . . Laguna Beach.

It started off innocently enough: executive producer Liz Gateley, a former lawer, wanted to make a reality show that was filmed more like one of those crazy-rich-kid dramas on what's now the CW.  You know, pretty people with problems!  Originally the show was to be set in Beverly Hills, but the MTV powers-that-be eventually settled on Laguna Beach, an Orange County suburb by the sea that started off as an artists' community.  Laguna forbade shooting within the high school, but no matter, because who the hell cares about watching kids in class anyway?  If you remember high school like I do, it's all about what happens when you run into your crush in public, when you don't get asked to the dance, and where you stay in Cabo on spring break!  (Okay, maybe not that last one.  For me, spring break was called Easter break because I went to a Catholic high school, and for me "staying in Cabo" translated to "watching TV in my basement, fighting with my little sister and making out with my boyfriend.")

Anyhoozle, season 1 followed a nice girl named Lauren (or LC), as she pined after her childhood buddy Stephen, currenly in the manicured-talon clutches of the "evil" Kristin (famous for her "Stepheeeeen" whine).  Lauren was sweet if a little dim and had a fun group of friends, including shopaholic daddy's girl Lo, master of white guilt Trey, and puffy-faced Dieter.  Also Christina, a televangelist-type minister's daughter with a singing voice like a crow with laryngitis and Mormon Morgan who resembled a tanned chipmunk.  Most of the gang were seniors, though Kristin was a year younger, so season 1 ended with them departing for college.  Season 2 was set to follow Kristin and her clique during their own senior year.


Lauren was nooooot happy in college.  After one semester, she came home to Laguna and commuted to a nearby school.  Stephen stayed in San Francisco, but came home so much I wouldn't be surprised if dude flunked out.  Apparently he wasn't over Kristin, or Lauren for that matter.

Here's the thing about the return of these two: I'm sure Lauren's homecoming had something to do with the fact that she could be on TV if she stayed in Laguna.  However . . . I dunno.  I think if she HAD been truly happy, she would have stayed in San Fran.  I mean, she's not the first to go away to college and find out it's not for her.  Stephen, however, UGH.  I never thought he was a bad guy (especially when compared to one Spencer Pratt), but wannabe famewhore just radiated through this guy's pores like oil on average-looking teens.  In short, Lauren never struck me as particularly calculating (even during all her years on The Hills), but Stephen was gunning for more camera time.

But enough about season 1.  Granted, it was cute, but fairly boring.

Season 2, however, was fucking EPIC.  You had Kristin as your main narrator, and while Lauren was sweet and relatable, Kristin was . . . kind of a bitch.  But in a fun way!  Girl had a stronger sense of self than most high schoolers, and preferred being the player to being the one who got played.  And Kristin's circle of friends were TV gold: her loyal sidekick Alex H., drama queen Alex M., and . . . Jessica.

Here's the thing: Jessica was in love with mumbly "heartthrob" (though I never saw the appeal, he always seemed stoned to me) Jason.  For a while he reciprocated, then fell for the charms of Alex M.  And no one could really blame him, seeing as Jessica was Fatal Attraction-level obsessive psycho.  I'm not talking insecure high school girl who gets screwed over by the bad boy (because that's fairly typical at that age).  I'm talking constant henpecker, no life to speak of, super-duper uber annoying, wouldn't ever shut up about JasonJasonJason.  We've all known this girl.  TV GOLD.

Then, OMG!  Lauren fell for Jason.  And in something so grainily filmed that I'm 99% sure it wasn't set up by producers, HE KISSED JESSICA IN FRONT OF LAUREN.  Another part of the reason I'm sure this wasn't staged is that the event in question took place at a benefit fashion show involving all of the cast, meaning the camera crew was going to be there anyway.  In fact, they'd done a similar benefit in season 1, minus any real drama.  Jason was drunk, Jessica was stupid, and Lauren was quite rightly heartbroken.  The Hills only wishes it were this real.

After season 2, Laguna Beach died a slow death.  Season 3 had an all-new cast of characters, but good-girl Tessa was not the compelling narrator Lauren or Kristin had been.  No charisma whatsoever.  Also, "nemesis" character was clearly just angling for her 15 minutes and was never particularly likable or interesting.  And that's the thing about Kristin: she wasn't always likable, but she was always interesting. (Think Don Draper with highlights and a bikini.)  The next year, Gateley and co-creator Adam Divello moved the party to Newport Harbor, but it never really caught on.

Even in its heyday, Laguna Beach never had the ratings and subsequent paparazzi obsession of The Hills.  Its following was "cult" at best, mostly teenyboppers and the errant adults who just wanted some shallow escapism with a chaser of pretty scenery.  But as I'm now covering The Hills for TVGasm, I must say that I kind of miss the old days of LB.  No Spencer Pratt or dead-eyed Audrina: that goes without saying.  However, with Laguna Beach, I really did get a more "slice of life, only prettier" feel that's always been missing from The Hills, even in its pre-Pratt days.  Because even with its most producer-prompted conversations (and sometimes relationships), LB WAS like high school.  I mean, my own high school was as different from Laguna Beach High as wormy week-old apples are to pristine hormone-injected peaches.  Yet I do remember the drama.  The love triangles.  The feeling that every move you made or boy you loved was totally FOREVER and was going to affect the rest of your life.  I'll paraphrase the last episode of Dawson's Creek here: "I'm not saying this is exactly how it happened.  But this is how it felt."

And because of that, I bought season 2 secondhand at my funky neighborhood record store and didn't give a rip that the hipster clerk was obviously judging me.

Like totally.

Here's MAD TV's brilliant season 2 parody.  That show was highly underrated, yo.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Unprofessional Critic Becomes the Analytical Fangirl

He made me laugh.

That's been it all along.

I know what y'all are thinking: oh crap, ANOTHER love letter to Joel McHale.  Another obsessive missive from an almost-thirty-year-old who should know better.  Hell, I'm halfway thinking it myself.  And as a result, in the hours before I finally saw my snarky hero live, I finally asked the question: what is it about the dude I dig so very much?

I know, I know, I've already devoted a blog post to this (two if you count last week's rundown of the awesomeness of Community).  And true, the guy's easy on the eyes, funny as hell, displays a Midwestern-esque work ethic (not surprising, considering his dad's a native Chicagoan), and by all accounts (though of course we can't know everything that goes on behind closed doors) appears to be a devoted husband and dad.  All admirable, sexy even, but not necessarily the source of fandom with a capital F.

Also, I realize how annoying and hipster-ish it is, but I usually make it a point not to follow the crowd, i.e. crush on the very man that gazillions of women are lusting after.  I mean, for years I chose Rainn Wilson over John Krasinski, for chrissake.  (Still a toss-up in my mind.)  So what makes Joel McHale so different and special?

It all boils down to four words:

Dude made me laugh.

In 2004, I was in my second year of law school and Joel was starting on The Soup.  I was hidden away in a rural dorm room and he was on a Friday-night clip show, yet to be appreciated by the masses.  I don't know about Joel's personality, but I do know that I was far from the easiest person to deal with at that time.  In fact, I downright antagonized nearly everyone I met: classmates, family, even friends.  I'm still surprised that ANYONE who knew me in those days chooses to continue speaking to me.

During my three years of law school, I hardly smiled.  I was angry a lot.  It was just the way things were.

I thought it was part of growing up.  Adjusting to a world I only knew as "real."  In reality, I was forcing myself to continue in a hell of my own making, trying to convince myself that it was all for the best and failing miserably.

And then, one night in my dorm room, on my shitty boxy heavy mini-TV, I caught a spiky-haired gentleman in a skinny tie sassing to the camera about The Real World.  I remembered Talk Soup and how much I'd loved John Henson, but at the same time reluctantly appreciated how this dude wasn't trying to be him.  I studied this newcomer, now rolling his eyes at a dumb Fox sitcom and goofing around in front of a bad green screen of Los Angeles.

And I laughed.

During my last two years of law school, I watched only two shows faithfully: Arrested Development (as it bounced from time slot to time slot, damn you Fox) and The Soup.  Joel McHale had no idea who I was, but as I shivered under my cheapo comforter in a cinder-blocked room, law books weighing me down into a life I knew I didn't want but was too afraid to admit, he made me giggle.  Because as much as I hated the person I was becoming, The Soup's aptly narrated reality clips showed I wasn't the biggest dumbass out there.  I could count on a comedian with one camera and a Chihuahua named Lou to prove that to me.

And he never let me down.

After law school, things got better.  I don't mean they got easier: I stumbled quite a bit before I found my footing.  I had bad jobs, low pay, boy trouble, you name it.  But through it all, I had my friends.  I had Bob, my roommate at the time.  I had a family who didn't always understand me but never stopped supporting me. At this point, Joel was better known but not always recognizable.  He wasn't working much outside The Soup.  But to hear his interviews, he had a great family.  He had his wife Sarah, who'd stuck by him since their early twenties.  When you're struggling financially and personally, a strong support system means everything.  I haven't forgotten that.  To hear his stand-up, neither has Joel.

Eventually, I landed a job I liked, and a year later got a promotion.  About the same time, Joel got The Informant!: not only the third lead in a Steven Soderbergh film, but a completely non-comic role.  In the summer of 2008, we both got promoted.  I was really proud of him.  And of me.

These days, I still have that job, which rocks, especially considering the economy.  I also have a blog and several freelance writing gigs.  Joel has a kickass sitcom and a promising film career, and routinely sells out venues doing stand-up comedy.  Yet he still auditions like crazy, as the film industry doesn't really recognize the TV industry.  In the meantime, I polish my latest manuscript, in the hopes an agent somewhere out there will like it.  These days, we've got some good stuff going on, but are still trying to be better.

This is someone I'll most likely never meet--unless Bob gets really famous and they become buddies--yet I feel a kind of kinship with Joel McHale.  We've gotten ahead not on notoriety or stupidity, but hard work and a little bit of luck.  We're both insanely fortunate to have loved ones along for the ride.  And we both are grateful, but don't want to stop now.

These days, people rail against celebrity culture.  In many ways, people are right: I mean, there's a reality show devoted to a girl who robbed actors' houses, which is wrong in ways I can't begin to describe (judging from his genuinely disgusted look when he describes the show, Joel agrees with me).  And when you place someone on a pedestal, as civilians tend to do with celebs, disappointment reigns supreme if and when they display simple human faults or egregious human errors.

However, there's a different side to celeb worship too.  The ones we admire--for whatever reason--can inspire us to work harder, do better, be more than we thought we could be.  By just doing their job, they can comfort us, a gentle and nonjudgmental presence that is at once completely unknown and strangely intimate.

More specifically, the right celeb can take a depressed, angry law student silently screaming, and for half an hour each week, make her laugh and years later when she's happy, make her a little verklempt when she sees him in person while surrounded by the friends who stuck by her, and make her laugh once again.

Joel?  You rock, dude.

Thanks for the giggles,

P.S.  Your Chicago show was the ultimate in pee-your-pants, fall-out-of-your chair hilar, and I will heartily recommend your stand-up tour to anyone who asks, and some people who don't.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Love the One(s) You're With: Community

At a certain point in your life, you realize that nothing's turned out like you thought it would.

You're not working in the field you studied in school.  You're single or married, when you always predicted you'd be the opposite.  The age you thought you'd have figured everything out?  You're still fumbling and confused as ever, maybe even more so. 

There's also the people you surround yourself with.  At a certain age it becomes a motley crew: those you grew up with, maybe even dated at some point; pals from high school, college and work; and then the ones who are way more random.  The person you agreed to give a ride to one time, from rehearsal of a show you almost dropped out of, that ten years later is like family.

It's meeting these random people, and letting them into your life, however reluctantly at first, that helps you to realize: not having the exact future you wanted or predicted can be a very liberating thing.

I started watching Community for two reasons.  One, a friend in the industry recounted a little exchange from the pilot script that cracked me up (similar to the way I was sold on 30 Rock because of one line: "If you're a gay guy looking for a beard, I don't do that anymore").  And two, well, Joel McHale.  In the days before my obsessive fandom kicked in, I read an interview where he said that he was offered several sitcoms and Community was far and away the best.  No matter what you think of The Soup, the guy has made some good career decisions (witness: The Informant!).  I was intrigued.  Besides, it was on after The Office.

Never have I seen a pilot that touched on moral relativism, Asperger's syndrome, and The Breakfast Club in twenty-two minutes.  With Trudy from Mad Men, the sex addict from Reno 911!, and Chevy MoFo-in Chase.  As in Fletch, Gerald Ford, Clark Griswold: any way you slice it, the guy's a comedy legend. 

McHale's character, Jeff Winger, is a cocky former lawyer disbarred when it's discovered his undergraduate degree is fake.  (Yes, I know it's a slim premise, but think of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 and sing along with me: "Just repeat to yourself, 'it's just a show.  I should really just relax.'")  He enrolls at Greendale Community College and immediately starts hitting on his cute Spanish 101 classmate Britta (Gillian Jacobs).  Britta, however, is not having it, and when Jeff invites her to form a one-on-one study group, she brings along a whole crew: sitcom aficionado Abed (Danny Pudi, Chicagoans represent!), fallen football player Troy (Donald Glover), rehabbed type A Annie (Alison Brie, almost completely unrecognizable from Mad Men and just as awesome), and Christian mom Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown).  Oh, and corporate magnate-turned-dirty old man Pierce (Chase) also wanders in.  Quite possibly the most diverse group on network TV, the gang experiences weekly dalliances and misadventures, with recurring characters such as the overenthusiastic Dean Pelton (Jim Rash) and surly Professor Chang (Ken Jeong) along for the ride.

A group of wildly different people finding out they have a lot in common, and learning a little bit about themselves along the way?  We've all heard that premise before, but Community makes it fresh while at the same time reminding us that it's the simple stuff that good shows are made of.  The cast is fiercely witty, the writing even more so.  Creator Dan Harmon based the series on his own experiences in a community college study group, and it shows: not only is there a real tenderness in even the silliest joke, but the characters both play into and play with the very stereotypes they're dealt.  Jeff isn't the show's moral center, nor are most of his actions particularly commendable--but he's learning, even as he stumbles along the way, that he's capable of poking fun at himself and doing nice things for others.  Though Britta is smart and confident, she can be awkward in dealing with sensitive social matters (she's sort of a walking Stuff White People Like).  Even Pierce, with his heinously backwards worldviews, is at heart a lonely dude: and though his younger counterparts don't always love what he says, they embrace him for the old fart he is.

I freaking heart the group dynamic of the core cast: they're the kind of characters that are so fun to watch even when they're not doing anything particularly interesting (which according to one of my favorite bloggers, is one of the marks of a kick-ass protagonist).  I love Mad Men, but I wouldn't really want to be friends with any of the characters (except maybe Peggy and Joan).  However, I'd hang with Community's Spanish 101 crew any day of the week.  And the characters form relationships, they stumble, they screw up, they learn from one another.  They may have been thrown together by random acts of course catalog, but now they're thick as thieves (and they protect each other to the end!).

Yes, there have been some eps that aren't so great: just like with Modern FamilyCommunity can falter when it lets itself slide into wacky-antics territory.  At its strongest, however, Community (again, like Modern Family) works real magic combining absurd with emotional, satirical with genuine, and motormouthed with simple.  Think Avenue Q without the puppets.  And at its heart, it's a show about being okay with your place in life, no matter how imperfect that may be.

Did I mention that McHale is naked on one episode?  From a feminist perspective, it's interesting how the show objectifies the hell out of the guy.  Not that I'm complaining.  I just find it intriguing: men usually aren't blatantly objectified on a show that's NOT specifically geared toward women.  Not just the naked ep: he's in tight jeans and T-shirts quite a lot.  That's normally reserved for female characters.

Community airs Thursdays at 7 on NBC.  The most recent episode, along with a host of really funny clips, can be found on Hulu.  Also, there's a hilarious website for the fictional Greendale Community College.

Here's a video of the cast finding out that they were renewed for a second season.  They're so genuinely surprised and happy (and unaware they're being filmed), it's adorable.