THREE BUSY DEBRAS (2020-)

(adult swim/HBO MAX/VOD) Three housewives, each named Debra, get together for brunch and occasionally other activities in their vibrant suburban town of Lemoncurd. When together, they’re often passively-aggressively acting out against each other, indulging themselves in hedonistic activities, or partaking of bursts of violence, all while often adorned in white clothing and surrounded by similarly stark interior design.

These are the antics of adult swim‘s- THREE BUSY DEBRAS, aired in a half-hour block featuring two ten minute tales to bewilder and amuse. While THREE BUSY DEBRAS, the vision of Sandy Honig, Mitra Jouhari and Alyssa Stonoha, clearly comes from their improvisational roots, it feels like it has a self-imposed set of absurdist rules that gives the show a more mythic air.

Its reliance on often immature behavior, neediness, and willful oblivion to the wants of the more grounded folks around them reminds me of the extraordinarily silly character comedy STELLA, although unlike STELLA — which was delightfully nihilistic with its messaging — THREE BUSY DEBRAS is often unabashedly feminist, albeit often rendered through a very skewed sense of humor. For example, one episode in the second, current season, details several stories of Lemoncurd women in history, including the advent of ‘smoky eye’ when a woman in ‘one billion BCE’ (Before the Curded Era) garners two black eyes when she trips and falls face-first on a stone-built fire. The second tale in that episode celebrates Susan B. Shoppin’, who ‘bravely’ fought for the right of the women of Lemoncurd to be refused the right to vote.

The second season of THREE BUSY DEBRAS concludes this Sunday (May 22nd) at 10pm EST on adult swim/Cartoon Network, just enough time to catch up from beginning. However, if you’re pressed for time, I suggest jumping into the second season, as it feels sharper and wilder and well-honed. Or you can just watch at your leisure via HBO MAX, whichever suits your needs.

MADE FOR LOVE (2021-)

(HBOMAX) MADE FOR LOVE is not exactly the most enticing premise for a television series, despite the fact that Alissa Nutting’s novel that the show is based on was very well-received. (It is worth noting that Alissa Nutting is credited with writing on the show as well.)

The show is about a smart-ass firecracker, Hazel Green (an amazing fictional name, played by the astoundingly elastic Cristin Milioti) who, while down on her luck, selling false raffle tickets for free smartphones to make ends meet, ends up marrying tech capitalist Byron Gogol* (played by the delightfully creepy Billy Magnussen, who was Marcus in one of my favorite episodes of TV ever: THE LEFTOVER’s ‘Guest’). Byron then moves Hazel into his home: the Hub, a hyper virtual reality workplace campus, a place where she has no agency, where she has to periodically log orgasm ratings in order to play the flight simulator video game she uses to numb herself to her situation.

Hazel finds herself loathing Byron and this technological purgatory, and she finally snaps when she discovers that Byron has been using her — without her consent — to develop ‘Made for Love’: implants that ‘co-mingle’ two beings, tethering two together so one can see and feel and experience what the other is feeling.

Hazel then runs, falling backwards to home, to her sadsack father (a delightful Ray Romano, whose dramatic skills have been vastly underrated) who — after the death of his wife/Hazel’s mom — has adopted a realdoll to replace his romantic and physical urges. Byron, being the controlling megalomaniac that he is, is completely unwilling to let her go, for both personal and capitalist reasons.

What follows is a thrilling and heartfelt and intelligent exploration of human desire, tech and surveillance culture, infatuation & the kept woman, and the masculine, blinkered approach to problem-solving emotional relationships. All of this is bolstered by pitch-perfect sound design, music supervision, cinematography, and production design; the Hub is so expertly handled — a modernist dystopia of tech and interior design; watch for how the show constantly throws visual barriers between Hazel and Byron, and how Byron’s often lathered in an icy blue; there’s one moment in the third episode where Hazel literally smells agency, then acts upon it; and the integration of the Gogol logo to also reflect handcuffs is a stroke of brilliance.

MADE FOR LOVE is a show flexing all of its muscles. It is in complete command of what it wants to convey and how it wants to convey it. I initially thought it was a limited series, but no, it ends on an open note, and the second season airs April 28th.

  • I know a number of folks label him as an Elon Musk techbro, and yes, I think there’s some of that there, but personally I think his DNA is more Howard Hughes than Musk.

SEARCH PARTY (2016-2021)

(HBO MAX/hoopla) SEARCH PARTY would have been a memorable cult TV show even if it were a one season-and-done and, while I was a bit gobsmacked to see that it was renewed not twice, not three times, but four! — I had no idea how this show could sustain itself for a second season, much less five — it’s always had a very singular dry, but confident and clever, comedic voice.

The first season introduces us to a group of self-centered, off-putting millennials tearing themselves away from their guac-and-toast brunch to solve the mystery of a missing acquaintance they barely know, and matters go amazingly awry.

I can’t quite describe the following seasons without diving into spoilers regarding the end of the first season, but each season tackles a different sort of genre: the second turns into a crime thriller, the third a legal procedural, the fourth centers around a kidnapping, and the fifth jumps into the a cultish future before going full horror.

If you’re having a hard time wrapping your mind as to how all that works without it becoming some sort of Ryan Murphy-ish anthology series, I don’t blame you. On paper, it sounds absolutely bonkers and, in reality, it’s a high-wire balancing act without a net that they manage to walk without barely a wobble.

It’s the rare show that gets to have its cake and eat it too: the actors (including Alia Shawkat as Dory, the propulsive element of the group) imbue the characters with a certain quizzical ennui that is irrestable, so you both love and hate them. You get to see them reckon with their selfish attitudes, but also empathize with them. Add to that some whipsmart dialogue, vibrant cinematography, a haunting electro score, and a litany of fantastic cameos from actors you’d never expect to see on a TBS show* (including Michaela Watkins, Ann Dowd, and one of Louie Anderson’s final performances which, unsurprisingly, is amazing), and you have an idiosyncratic show for the ages (or at least for ages 25-40).

For those brave enough to endure a trailer for the first two seasons (and the second season spoilers are very vague):

  • It’s worth noting that the last two seasons were HBO MAX-exclusives.

THE FLIGHT ATTENDANT (2021)

(HBO MAX) This is the real fucking deal, a vodka-fueled tonic for the litany of sad, isolated wine-women thrillers. It’s a Hitchcockian/De Palma-esque thriller that gives every woman agency and nuance and, while it’s nowhere near subtle, it is far more substantial than you’d think for a story about a woman who drinks far too much and sleeps in too many beds and wakes up to find her fling viciously murdered next to her.

To quote Brian Grubb, “it’s a goddamn blast,” and it wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for lead/executive producer Kaley Cuoco (BIG BANG THEORY) who read this book by a dude and saw her vision for it, and made it happen.

HOW TO WITH JOHN WILSON (2020+)

(HBO/HBO MAX) HOW TO WITH JOHN WILSON just wrapped its second season, but for the purposes of this recommendation, I will stick to the first season, solely because I’m a bit behind on the second season. (That said, the second season enlisted the skills of one of the best writerly documentarian of the current generation, Susan Orlean, so take that as a full-throated recommendation for skipping ahead if you’re impatient.)

John Wilson is an obsessive documentarian. He always has a camera in his hand and he’s always looking out for some oddity, searching for thirty-seconds of visual intrigue in New York City. However, he’s also capable of a meandering weaver of cultural insight.

Each episode of HOW TO WITH JOHN WILSON starts off with an innocuous ideal: “How to Make Small Talk”; “How to Improve Your Memory”; “How to Cover Your Furniture” but each episode is like a strange stream-of-consciousness/exquisite corpse-like tale where he wanders to a larger humanist insight. It’s funny, warm, smart, and occasionally scary. The season one finale, which saw him documenting the spread of COVID-19 via his Greek landlord was so heartwarming, while also being heartbreaking.

My wife asked me: “Is there a name for this sort of genre? Overly-sincere dudes examine the lives they witness around them?” I wished I could lay a name to the genre, but shows like these — NATHAN FOR YOU, JOE PERA TALKS WITH YOU, and HOW TO WITH JOHN WILSON, escape classification. We’re simply used to dude-based TV works as being meditations about cruelty, and I’m happy to see that we’re finally rounding the curve, that we’re seeing works about men questioning their world, reaching out, being empathic. It gives me hope and warms my cynical heart.

“You don’t always realize you’re in the middle of history until it’s over.”

Halloween 2021 Programming: CLASSIC

As previously noted, my wife and I have a tradition where I draft up a selection of horror films for Halloween viewing, and she picks one from each group: Contemporary, Classic, and Cult, and I thought I’d share my suggestions this year. Today features classic horror films, and mostly features the exact text I sent her.

This time I will apologize not for leaning on prior works, but for posting about films I have yet to watch, but they all have stellar reputations, and at least one of them will be viewed tonight!

DOCTOR X (1932, Criterion/VOD)

While I purchased a copy of the newly restored DOCTOR X — it was one of the rare early horror films shot on a very distinct, very early two-color Technicolor process (see also: THE MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933)) I have yet to watch it. It’s directed by Michael Curtiz, during his infamous horror run at Warner Bros, and stars Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray.

Excerpt:

SISTERS (1973, Criterion/HBO MAX/VOD)

Also previously suggested. Classic Brian De Palma film about two sisters, two sides of the same coin.

DIABOLIQUE (1955, Criterion/HBO MAX/Plex/Roku)

Also previously suggested. “More of a thriller than a horror film, but it’s a seminal piece of film history for both. I haven’t seen it in over twenty years, and I’m eager to revisit it.”

THE VANISHING (1988, Criterion/VOD)

This has been on my watchlist for years. I think I had a copy on the DVR via TCM, but it may have been auto-deleted due to space.

THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971, DVD/YouTube)

It’s campy, but very intelligent and darkly comic. Also, Vincent Price AND Joseph Cotten! (There’s a sequel I’ve been meaning to watch, but haven’t gotten around to.)

(Shh)

THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1927, epix/kanopy/Paramount+/VOD

I haven’t seen this yet but, similar to THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932) — which we watched a few years ago — it’s an ensemble film along the lines of Christie’s AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (although this film predates both works). It’s directed by Paul Leni, who directed THE MAN WHO LAUGHS, notable for Conrad Veidt’s (THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI) performance that was blatantly ripped off for the look of the Joker.

Excerpt:

TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME (1992)

Predictably, I’m a big TWIN PEAKS fan, and have seen the entirety of the series and FIRE WALK WITH ME several times over, although I was a relative late-comer to the series. (I’m old enough that, when I was first watching them, it was via renting them through two-episode VHS tapes from the Hollywood Video two blocks away from my first Chicago apartment.)

The prior times I’ve seen the film, I’ve found it to be profoundly unpleasant, cruel and mostly unnecessary from a story perspective, but did believe it to be an artistic, auteur marvel. (There will be no specific spoilers in this piece regarding the series or the film, apart from Laura Palmer’s death and the fact that she was heavily traumatized so, if you haven’t seen any of it, don’t worry.)

If you haven’t seen it, FIRE WALK WITH ME scrutinizes the intense week prior to Laura Palmer’s death, the launchpad for the TV series. It doesn’t include much more than that — if you’ve seen the initial season and half of the second — there’s little you don’t already know, but director David Lynch leans into a hard-R rating intensity that is tonally brutal and bleak when compared to the original show.

When I saw it in early September 2021 — the fourth or maybe fifth time I’d seen it, but the first time I saw a projected 35mm print of it and, wow oh wow, the colors and contrast really popped and to be slightly overwhelming — I finally found it to be necessary. It’s still profoundly unpleasant — even more than I remember — but I realized it’s Lynch feeling like he did Laura wrong with the TV show, his show which reinvigorated the ‘Dead Girl’ genre. (See Alice Bolin’s essay regarding TWIN PEAKS here and Bolin’s subsequent, insightful book on the subject, DEAD GIRLS: ESSAYS ON SURVIVING AN AMERICAN OBSESSION.)

As Bolin notes regarding Twin Peaks and the ‘Dead Girl’ genre in general: “[the] Dead Girl is not a ‘character’ in the show, but rather, the memory of her is.” While the show itself actively tried to demystify and complicate the idyllic memory that the residents of Twin Peaks had of Laura Palmer, it never quite succeeded in that regard, thanks to some languid plotting and how most of the details of her life prior to her murder were kept from the general townspeoples’ eyes. FIRE WALK WITH ME corrects that.

With FIRE WALK WITH ME, we live with Laura Palmer for the entirety of the film, and we are seated front-and-center to see the amount of abuse and trauma she’s had to endure, to witness her terrible and numbing coping mechanisms, and to well-up at her wilted attempts to reach out to those close to her. While Lynch unrelentingly puts Laura through the wringer, it’s to finally give Laura a voice, a scream, for her to be more than just a dead girl, to be more than a prop that sets off a number of soapy narrative devices. It’s the character profile she deserved, while also being an examination of how men take and take, and how folks often avert their eyes to exploitation and abuse.

I’ll confess that, due to watching a fully sold-out screening of FIRE WALK WITH ME while fretting about contracting a case of breakthrough COVID-19, I wondered why the hell I was attending a screening of a film that’s so focused on trauma and abuse, followed up by a Q&A with Sheryl Lee, Laura Palmer herself. The film made me feel dirty enough that the prospect of a post-film Q&A with the actor who clearly had to endure and inhabit an extraordinarily difficult performance felt cruel. However, one of the first things Lee asked of the audience was:

“How many of you out there just saw this for the first time?”

From my estimate, ~15% of the audience raised their hands, and I knew one of the people seated behind me definitely had never seen it, because 1) they said so and 2) declared that it was way darker than they expected and 3) did not want to leave because 4) they spent a lot on their tickets and 5) wanted to hear what Lee had to say, despite the dude clearly wanting to further their initial date by getting a bite to eat afterwards and 6) who asks someone out to FIRE WALK WITH ME as an initial date?!

Lee then said: “I wish I could give you all a hug!” and I realized she knew what she was getting into, and is well-versed with managing it. A lot of the Q&A circled back to simply being an actor and rolling with Lynch and his scripts. In other words: you show up and you do the work and trust the director and live with what’s on the screen.

Lastly, this screening reminded me that I picked up a copy of Courtenay Stallings’s LAURA’S GHOST: WOMEN SPEAK ABOUT TWIN PEAKS from media writer Matt Zoller Seitz’s bookstore and while I have yet to read it — it’s top in my queue — given Seitz’s quality taste, I feel secure in recommending it.

MY DINNER WITH ANDRE (1981)

Context note: I previously posted all of the entries in this blog, mostly daily, via social media to my friends (apart from the handful of folks who signed up for the tandem Substack) to weather the pandemic. What follows is what I wrote for that day. (Spoiler alert: matters did not go back to normal.)

Programming note: it’s been a year to the day since I started doing these daily recommendations — albeit with a few breaks — and, with everything re-opening and with people returning to some sort of normalcy, I figure this is as a good time as any to go on sabbatical, so to speak. I’m sure I’ll want to post about a bunch of horror films during October, or start it back up during the freezing homestuck hellscapes that are Chicago winters, but who knows. It has meant a lot to me that many of you have read and engaged with these weird self-imposed posts, and I wanted to say thank you.

(HBO MAX/VOD) I’m ashamed to admit that, while I’ve been aware of MY DINNER WITH ANDRE for years and years — yes, I laughed at that old SIMPSONS joke about the MY DINNER WITH ANDRE arcade game just like everyone else — I had never sat down to watch it start-to-finish until I thought to quip about it regarding LOKI S01E03 and told myself: “You should really watch it before you make a lazy, common reference.”

Reader, I watched it.

It’s a work focused on emotional unburdening over dinner, and (to me) how masculine emotions and insecurities are meant to be suppressed, but doing so will only cause more issues later on down the line. While in the early 80s it was — I imagine; I’m old but I’m not that old — construed as a character study of an oversharing, over-emotional man, but it seems intensely relevant in a pre-post-pandemic time.

If somehow you aren’t familiar with MY DINNER WITH ANDRE: it’s about two weathered theater creatives who haven’t connected in years — one of whom doesn’t even really care for the other — dining together. It mostly consists of Andre Gregory (Andre Gregory) monologuing about certain steps and changes in his life and how he feels about it to Wallace Shawn (Wallace Shawn), who occasionally peppers him with questions. That’s it. That’s the film. It feels like an adaptation of a stage play but, no, it was an original screenplay from both Gregory and Shawn.

I’ve inferred in the past that these recommendations aren’t just recommendations, aren’t just an exercise to improve my critical writing skills, but are also meant to impart small facets of my oddball life to friends new and old. While these recommendations go out to some strangers who I do not know — thanks for reading and feel free to reach out! — I cross-post these to other social media outlets, and some recipients only know me as a ‘tech guy’ or ‘quiet spouse of their friend’. I’m not necessarily sure that I’m doing myself a lot of favors with these posts, but it’s a bit of earnestness and honestness that I couldn’t help but embrace while feeling isolated from humanity, while thinking others were feeling similarly.

All of this navel-gazing doesn’t do justice to the text of MY DINNER WITH ANDRE. It’s about so much more. There’s a self-reflexivity to it that I adore; it’s reflecting on audiences and writerly goals, and then it goes almost completely, but intentionally, off the rails before pulling into the station and goes on to examine self-performative works as a human. It’s an extraordinarily controlled piece.

I thought I could watch it while working, given that it’s mostly (about) dialogue, but Andre Gregory’s intensity demanded my attention time and time again. For a film that’s just two men talking, it’s extremely visually compelling, and director Louis Malle and cinematographer Jeri Sopanen do a terrific job; it’s tautly edited, features extremely smart production design and camerawork — the use of mirrors to capture both characters’ faces is fantastic — and Gregory and Shawn are absolutely incredible. They knew what they wanted and Malle made it happen, although, allegedly, not without a few fights!

It is a fine film to wrap up this daily endeavor. A few weeks ago, I went out to safely dine at a restaurant with a friend for the first time in too long and — in retrospect — I was certainly being the oversharing, overly talky Andre. My cadence was too rushed and I was too frank and I said a few things out loud that I wouldn’t have said about myself two years ago but, still, it felt good. It felt earnest and honest and welcomed. I know this sort of acceptance of male emotional unburdening and free expression will be less acceptable as COVID (hopefully) dissipates, and I find it disheartening but inevitable. Back to normal, for better or for worse.

WHAT THEY HAD (2018)

(HBO MAX/kanopy/VOD) I appreciate a tight, succinct opening, and WHAT THEY HAD has it in spades.

The opening consists of: an older woman wearing a nightgown with a tight pedicure and freshly-painted toenails. She then pulls on gray knee socks, obscuring the nails. She draws on lipstick, crosses through a hallway with a Mucha painting, pulls on a gray wool coat, and marches erratically into a winterly urban alleyway toting a navy bag, then dissipates into the background; she fades away.

It’s a bit of a feint, as the woman — Ruth (the ever-industrious Blythe Danner) does return home. She has Alzheimers, but her husband Burt (an amazing Robert Forster) refuses to put her in a nursing home, even as his son Nick (BUG’s Michael Shannon) tries to talk him and daughter Bridget (Hilary Swank) into rehoming her. The end result is an emotional drama written and directed by playwright Elizabeth Chomko.

“What are you, dead inside?” “Almost.”

THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT (2012)

(HBO MAX/VOD) Tom (Jason Segel) is an up-and-coming chef in San Francisco, and he’s been happily involved with his academic girlfriend Violet (Emily Blunt) for some time. He awkwardly proposes to her, she says yes, and they start to plan their wedding. However, she gets a job in Michigan, which sidelines the wedding, then his career falters, but pratfalls ensue and matters escalate.

As someone married to an academic, it was a surprising gut-punch of a watch. As it’s another film from Nicholas Stoller and Jason Segal — they wrote/directed FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL — I thought it’d be a standard Apatow-ish shaggy comedy about an emotionally stunted adult man and, while there is some of that, it was surprisingly thoughtful and measured. The perspective balance isn’t exactly what I’d like it to be — it definitely skews towards Tom — but their career conflicts are better handled than most romantic dramas.

(My thanks to Damon for recommending it to me — I would have missed it otherwise!)

“This is why we do not delay weddings!”