BETTER THINGS (2016-2022)

(Hulu) While I’m well-aware that I occasionally describe a work as a dramedy, it’s simply meant as shorthand rather than for any love of the term. While I use it, it means: this work isn’t wall-to-wall empty laughs or overwrought heartbreak. Real human drama is often funny ha-ha, and sometimes comedically tragic; I believe that great dramas generously sprinkle in comedy, and great comedies are built on dramatic tension. A spoonful of sugar, etc. — one way or the other — so to say. Yet, I don’t think I’ve seen a show that so perfectly balances the two as Pamela Adlon’s BETTER THINGS.

BETTER THINGS centers around Sam Fox (Pamela Adlon, who has been a very hard-working character/voice actor for years), an L.A.-based middle-aged screen-and-voice-actor and the single mother of three daughters: teenage Max (Mikey Madison from SCREAM (2022) and ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD), pre-teen Frankie (Hannah Riley), and youth Duke (Olivia Edward, who occasionally popped up in CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND). Living next-door to her is her willful, very passive-aggressive British mother named Phyllis, but Sam solely calls her Phil. (You may sense a naming trend here.)

(I need to note: Louis C.K. — who admitted to sexual misconduct, and who did fictionally sexually assault Adlon’s character on LOUIE — was a credited writer, producer and co-creator for the show, but while he is no longer a writer or producer, he is still credited as co-creator. It’s also worth noting that Adlon was the best part of the greatest episodes of LOUIE, as well as his short-lived show LUCKY LOUIE. In other words, they have history and it’s complicated, and she isn’t discussing it. As far as I’ve read, he’s had no input on the show for some time.)

Initially, the show is about Sam navigating her life as she feels her age and feels those around her react to her age, all while she juggles the needs of motherhood. However, with each subsequent season, the show expands, and it becomes far more about maintaining family bonds as your brethren move forward and change.

Additionally, as the show progressed, it became far more experimental, indulging Adlon’s delightfully fanciful filmic flights, often through local trips, or through another character’s POV. It feels like a true exploration of life, of aging, of self-acceptance, self-discovery, self-improvement, and reckoning.

It makes time to luxuriate in life and the little joys: the tranquility of cooking, a brief nap in the park, people-watching, while never turning a blind eye to the harder parts of living, especially when you have to tend to the ever-changing needs of your children and yourself.

No, the show is not a gut-buster; it’s not meant to be. However, it always makes me laugh, and then two minutes later my eyes are welling up.

I’ve seen all but the finale — which airs tonight (April 25th) — but I wanted to boost it now because I’m impatient.

Season 1 Trailer:

Final Season Trailer (for the brave):

DIETLAND (2018)

DIETLAND was a one-season wonder from Marti Noxon (BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, MAD MEN, UNREAL) based on Sarai Walker’s novel. The show was canceled too soon, but was one hell of a ride, something that starts as DEVIL WEARS PRADA that turns into a woman-focused FIGHT CLUB.

DIETLAND is unabashedly about fashion-and-capitalism, faux-feminism and body positivity and faith and, while it’s uniquely about women, it wildly resonates.

I would have loved to have seen a second season, as I’m sure it would have been absolutely bonkers in all the right ways, and certainly take place in the future, but I’m happy that there’s at least one season.

THE AMAZING RACE (2001+)

(Hulu/VOD) I rarely watch reality shows but, somehow, I’ve watched each and every episode of CBS’ THE AMAZING RACE, a show that has been endlessly airing in the shadow of SURVIVOR for thirty-plus seasons over twenty — yes, twenty — years. (I’m unwilling to do the math as to how much time I’ve spent on the show, so I’ll leave it to you.)

If you aren’t familiar with THE AMAZING RACE — for a show that has been around for twenty years and has received numerous Emmy wins, it’s flown surprisingly under the radar — it’s a family-friendly reality show hosted by New Zealander and avid traveler Phil Keoghan in which a number of teams fly around the world while participating in competitive tasks. There’s some game theory that goes on, as teams have a variety of options they can use to disrupt other teams progress, but usually the winners who make it across the finish line are those who are young and quick on their feet, don’t overthink challenges, and have a lot of luck with flights and taxis.

So, yes, it’s a reality show competition, but really? It’s first and foremost a throwback to the days of travelogue films, exposing audiences to foreign lands and traditions they’d more than likely never experience. If you’re interested in world culture, and don’t mind the occasional ugly American team or somewhat squicky task, the show is endlessly compelling.

Given the nature of the show, obviously COVID-19 completely thew a wrench into production. They were a few legs into the thirty-third season when the pandemic hit, so they sent the contestants home and instead aired a series they had filmed several years ago and shelved for some reason. (It wasn’t a great season, but it certainly wasn’t one of the worst.)

Now Phil and the show is back and, while it will be difficult to watch knowing how events unfurl, and how they adapted to CVOID, and now with the omicron wave, I’ll be more than happy to check it out. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I teared up a bit upon watching the teaser for the new season.

While there -is- a new season, if you haven’t seen the show, I suggest starting with the fifth season, as it has a number of iconic moments and compelling drama.

If you’ve seen a handful of seasons and haven’t seen the first season, it’s a fascinating curio as it is radically different from what the show would become.

ONLY MURDERS IN THE BUILDING (2021+)

What could have been a lazy riff on the self-absorption of modern true crime podcasts became something far more interesting, bolstered by some of the best performances by Steve Martin and Martin Short in years. Also, as someone who constantly extolls the use of silence in visual works, I was gobsmacked by the seventh ep of season one, ‘The Boy from 6B’. Additionally, Selena Gomez is a triumph who constantly overshadows both Martins.

It’s a legitimately thrillingly suspenseful tale that, honestly? Didn’t need to be.

THE TWILIGHT ZONE: COME WANDER WITH ME (S05E34, 1964)

It’s a sad day: Richard Donner has passed away. While he’s rightfully best known for SUPERMAN, he spent -a lot- of time directing television, including an ep of previously recommended ROUTE 66, eps of TALES FROM THE CRYPT, even eps of THE LORETTA YOUNG SHOW, but most memorably, some of the best episodes of THE TWILIGHT ZONE. Consequently, I’m re-posting a slightly tweaked version of my prior recommendation of one of his lesser-known THE TWILIGHT ZONE eps:

(Hulu/Paramount+/VOD) This episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE is rarely included in best of lists, which is fair — even if it’s the last-filmed ep -and- directed by Richard Donner — as its story is a bit strained, even by TWILIGHT ZONE standards. Floyd Burney, known as the “Rock-A-Billy Kid” (Gary Crosby), is on the prowl for a new song in a small, unnamed town. He overhears a woman singing and follows her voice as she repeats the refrain: “Come wander with me love / Come wander with me / Away from this sad world / Come wander with me”

The woman introduces herself as Mary Rachel (Bonnie Beecher) and is reluctant to part with the song, but Floyd is insistent. Matters escalate quickly as the rest of the song is revealed.

While the episode is a bit clunky, it’s the song that makes it memorable. -Come Wander With Me- is a brilliantly haunting ballad and, even though the song was never written or recorded in full, a number of musicians, such as Émilie Satt and British Sea Power, have covered it over the years.

Émilie Satt – Come Wander With Me:

British Sea Power – Come Wander With Me:

Hidden Highways – Come Wander With Me:

Original rendition:

A short clip from the ep:

MELANCHOLIA (2011)

(Hulu/kanopy/VOD)? Every film nerd I’ve known has their favorite seat. I certainly do: I prefer middle aisle as I have long legs and prefer not to be tightly compacted for ~two hours, and I enjoy a slightly more distanced view of the screen, as opposed to having the screen fully fill my vision.

However, sometimes — especially with film fests — you aren’t going to score your favorite spot. Sometimes you’ll get the worst seat in the house. My wife and I certainly did when we nabbed stand-by tickets for a screening of MELANCHOLIA during the 2011 Chicago International Film Festival.

If you aren’t familiar with MELANCHOLIA, it’s Lars Von Trier’s meditation on depression and, while I run hot-and-cold on von Trier (especially regarding his on-set approach to filmmaking), MELANCHOLIA is certainly one of his more palatable films and features fantastic performances all around, but especially from Kirsten Dunst. It’s also arguably one of the most visually jaw-dropping films from von Trier; there’s a scale and scope and painterly look to MELANCHOLIA that’s absent from the majority of his other works. (One exception might be the psychodrama horror of ANTI-CHRIST.) While it’s absolutely gorgeous, this is a film that was not meant to be viewed in an offset front row seat which, surprise, was what our stand-by tickets garnered us.

You’re left without any distance from the mind-numbing depression and cosmic confrontation. It hammers itself into your head; you have nowhere to run. I’m sure von Trier would smirk if he read this, but it turns the film into something absolutely appropriately overwhelming and suffocating, but a perspective on the film that I would not recommend. Keep with the middle row or watch it at home and keep your distance, or it will mess with you even more than it’s intended to.

BARB AND STAR GO TO VISTA DEL RAY (2021)

(Hulu/VOD) I’ll preface this by saying: I followed this rather blindly on others’ recommendations. I’d heard good things, but had no idea what it was about — I assumed it was akin to an older ROMY & MICHELE’S HIGH SCHOOL REUNION — so I suggested it for evening viewing with Caroline and, well, ten minutes in she glowered at me and requested that we watch something else. (We ended up re-watching WHEN HARRY MET SALLY, which mostly holds up!)

My wife hated it because, while BARB & STAR is gloriously stupid, it is — as Jesse Hassenger put it in his review — basically two middle-aged women acting like BEAVIS & BUTTHEAD thrust into an AUSTIN POWERS situation, complete with astounding color design. In other words, it is -extremely- grating unless you’ve very into the goods they’re selling.

Thankfully, I was, and I love it, and I miss this sort of comedy, the kind of comedy that doesn’t call attention to its jokes, the kind that’s sharply written and doesn’t meander or rely on extended improvised riffs. It’s tightly wound silliness with a ton of great talent, and a very game Jamie Dornan, who takes part in a transcendently dumb musical number.

“It was a real tit-flapper!”

HANNIBAL (2013-2015)

(Hulu/VOD) LAST MINUTE STREAMING alert! Apparently HANNIBAL leaves Netflix on June 5th and, while it’s also currently available via Hulu, it’s questionable whether they’ll stay there. Who knows, maybe it’ll become a peacock exclusive.

Either way, you have less than a month to watch all three seasons of this gloriously elegant, monstrous adaptation of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter novels.

It seems like Netflix has made the show far more popular than it was when I was one of five people watching the show weekly, so this recommendation may not be necessary but I’ll go ahead and give a description anyways: Bryan Fuller, best known for darkly comic works like PUSHING DAISIES (2007-2009, ABC) had long been infatuated with Harris’ novels about serial killers and the detectives that pursue them, and he convinced NBC to allow him to turn it into a very queer giallo TV series.

The end result was an adroitly pictured, psychosexual cat-and-mouse game between criminal profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) and Hannibal Lecter (perfectly portrayed by Mads Mikkelsen), and it featured some of the most vivid, most memorable and horribly beautiful imagery ever to be approved by NBC standards-and-practices. With each season Fuller, along with director David Slade (30 DAYS OF NIGHT, HARD CANDY), ramped up the visuals and minimized the dialogue until the last season consisted mostly of a visually sumptuous mélange of abstracted blood and gore.

While the show improves with each season, my favorite moments are from the first season. To prevent giving anything away, I’ll simply allude to them: 1) the cello and 2) a hand-drawn clock. Upon seeing those moments, I knew this show was something special.

Sadly, rights and ratings kept Fuller from fully realizing his dream — no Clarice, no proper serialized SILENCE OF THE LAMBS — but the three seasons we have are some of the most audacious network TV yet.

SPONTANEOUS (2020)

(epix/Hulu/Paramount+/VOD) Yep, this is a repeat recommendation! (Here’s the original recommendation.) I often read the source material of a film afterwards, but that’s usually concerning dusty films from the 40s; rarely do I seek out source material for a modern film because many modern literary-to-film adaptations simply aren’t that interesting. (The last great book/film pair I can recall is probably GONE GIRL which was checks notes seven years ago?!)

However, I just finished reading the source material — Aaron Starmer’s novel of the same name — and I -love- both versions. To summarize both real quick, just in case: the senior year students in a traditional American high school start spontaneously combusting, BLEAK HOUSE-style. (Sorry, spoilers for a 150-year-old novel.)

The novel is denser and woolier than the film, but the film has a cavalier, high-energy attitude that the book lacks, and it doesn’t get so bogged down with the details. The film feels like a very concise reinterpretation of the novel — vast sections of the last third of the book are dropped or merely given lip-service in the film — the focus here is more on Mara and her end-of-youth relationship with Dylan — who is has far less back-story in the film — but that’s okay because the film is about Mara’s agency and her graduating to adulthood. Yes, writer/director Brian Duffield (writer of the previously recommended UNDERWATER) bumps up Mara’s quirkiness, but in a way that feels organic for Katherine Langford (KNIVES OUT), while still preserving her fuck-up demeanor (although it does significantly ramp down her drug use for some reason).

Sadly, Mara’s best friend Tess (RIVERDALE’s Hayley Law) is significantly dumbed down in the film, which is perhaps the only misstep the film makes, but otherwise it’s an extremely smart, visually inventive and refreshing take on a coming-of-age tale. I’m hoping it’ll find an audience post-COVID, because it has all of the hallmarks of a great cult film. And, if you like the film, pick up a copy of the book.*

  • I’d like to note that I picked up a used copy of the book, and the previous owner of the book took the effort to use typewriter whiteout tape — not actual whiteout — to obscure not only every swear in the novel (Mara swears approximately every other page, and it’s a 355 page novel) but also any physical sexual moment, including full paragraphs about self-stimulation. I can’t wrap my head around it — Mara’s utterances and the sex is the least disturbing part of the novel — but at least the presumed kid that asked to read the book got to read it?

THE TWILIGHT ZONE: COME WANDER WITH ME (1964)

(Hulu/Paramount+, S05E34) This episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE is rarely included in best of lists, which is fair — even if it’s the last-filmed ep and directed by Richard Donner — as its story is a bit strained, even by TWILIGHT ZONE standards. Floyd Burney, known as the “Rock-A-Billy Kid” (Gary Crosby), is on the prowl for a new song in a small, unnamed town. He overhears a woman singing and follows her voice as she repeats the refrain: “Come wander with me love / Come wander with me / Away from this sad world / Come wander with me”

The woman introduces herself as Mary Rachel (Bonnie Beecher) and is reluctant to part with the song, but Floyd is insistent. Matters escalate quickly as the rest of the song is revealed.

While the episode is a bit clunky, it’s the song that makes it memorable. -Come Wander With Me- is a brilliantly haunting ballad and, even though the song was never written or recorded in full, a number of musicians, such as Émilie Satt and British Sea Power, have covered it over the years.

Émilie Satt – Come Wander With Me:

British Sea Power – Come Wander With Me:

Hidden Highways – Come Wander With Me:

Original:

It’s worth noting that, for some inexplicable reason, the episode is titled ‘Come Wander With Us’ on Netflix.