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‘Ted Lasso’ wrote a love letter to romantic comedies. We break down ‘rom-communism’

Brendan Hunt, left, and Jason Sudeikis in "Ted Lasso."
(Apple)

Welcome to Screen Gab, the newsletter for everyone who’s been getting extra mileage out of that poop emoji since watching “The White Lotus” finale.

The timing of this inaugural edition is actually sort of perfect: The end of HBO’s wicked satire of privilegethough not without its shortcomings — means the “Lotus"-eaters are casting around for what to watch next, and our weekly love letter to home viewing is full of recommendations, information, conversation and much more.

Written by The Times’ film and TV teams and delivered to your inbox every Friday, Screen Gab covers the TV and streaming movies everyone’s talking about — or should be. And we’ll have something for just about every taste from “Marvel’s M.O.D.O.K.” and “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” to “Ted Lasso” and “Annette.” (Seriously, that’s all from the Week 1 lineup. We’re a wild bunch.)

So settle into that you-shaped depression on the couch and fire up the smart TV: At Screen Gab, there’s always something on.

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Turn On

Five toy dolls hold up a bank
Dolls break bad in “Ultra City Smiths” on AMC+.
(Elephant Pictures/Stoopid Buddies Stoodios/AMC)

What should you watch this weekend? Our experts recommend the stop-motion genre weirdness of “Ultra City Smiths” and “Marvel’s M.O.D.O.K.” and the surprise premiere of “Grace and Frankie’s” final season.

The work of patient human hands — building models, creating action frame by slightly altered frame — puppet animation is a fundamentally marvelous, fundamentally creepy thing: Toys come to life. (You know how those stories end.) Two funny-strange, funny-ha-ha series add an extra layer of discomfort, and some graphic mayhem, to the inherent weirdness.

“Ultra City Smiths” (AMC+) comes from Steve Conrad, who created the brilliant 2017 (live-action) series “Patriot,” an unexpected intersection between spy movies and sadcore music. It proceeds from the idea that it would be interesting to take some baby dolls, fit them out with wigs and facial hair, dress them as adults and make them characters in a downbeat, hard-boiled, neo-noir detective story. (With heart: It’s Conrad’s hallmark.) Voices include Kristen Bell, Julian Barratt, Tim Heidecker, Bebe Neuwirth, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Luis Guzman, Jason Mantzoukas, Tim Meadows, Alia Shawkat, Melissa Villaseñor and Debra Winger, with Tom Waits — Tom Waits! — narrating: the kind of cast you’d ordinarily need Robert Altman to assemble. It’s also a musical.

The hapless brainiac supervillain at the center of “Marvel’s M.O.D.O.K.” (Hulu), created by Patton Oswalt and Jordan Blum, is nearly all head, a big cylinder supported in a hovering exoskeleton. (MODOK stands for Mental Organism Designed Only for Killing.) Superheroes and villains go down best when their essential ridiculousness is brought into the light, and Oswalt is spectacularly peevish in the title role, warring with the tech bro whose company has absorbed his own bankrupt evil organization; trying to keep his family together; and getting his son (Ben Schwartz) through his bar mitzvah. Against all odds, there’s pathos here. —Robert Lloyd

“Grace and Frankie” (Netflix). Sure, a certain bowel movement in “The White Lotus” ignited the chatter over the weekend, but if you’re in the mood for a show that encourages toilet use — and revolves around the kind of friendship in which a BFF will come lift you off the commode when you’re 80 — the first four episodes of “Grace and Frankie’s” seventh and final season dropped last Friday without warning. It’s been a whole 19 months since we last saw our gals, played by Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, and they’re trying to figure out what to do with the hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash that Grace’s husband Nick (Peter Gallagher), who was arrested by the FBI for securities fraud and tax evasion, had stashed in a couch cushion. Let’s just say they’re breaking bad with the help of everyone’s other favorite golden girl, Joan Margaret (Millicent Martin). Grace and Frankie also find themselves rooming with their exes, Robert (Martin Sheen) and Sol (Sam Waterston), after the women’s Rise Up toilet invention floods the men’s house. The final 12 episodes are slated for release in 2022. —Yvonne Villarreal

Critics Picks: “Reservation Dogs” (FX on Hulu) | “CODA” (Apple TV+) | “The Green Knight” (VOD rental)

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Catch Up

A woman in a black-and-white dress and hat standing next to  a woman in a maroon dress
Kyle Richards, left, and Erika Girardi in “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.”
(Nicole Weingart / Bravo)

3,991 words.

That’s how long “The legal titan and the ‘Real Housewife’: The rise and fall of Tom Girardi and Erika Jayne” was. The story, written by two of The Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporters and published in December 2020, detailed how the famed L.A. lawyer had allegedly stolen millions from his orphaned and widowed clients. The piece also raised questions about how much his then-wife, Erika — who filed for divorce from Tom about a month before the article ran — knew about the origins of the money she so lavishly spent.

So what does the length of the article have to do with anything? Well, as it turns out, cameras were rolling on “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” when The Times ran the investigation into Tom and Erika last winter. And Erika has been one of the stars of “RHOBH” since 2015, showing off her $40,000-a-month glam squad, $189,000 panther Cartier ring and $200,000+ Lamborghini Huracán.

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The ladies of Beverly Hills were vacationing at Kyle Richards’ home in La Quinta when the article came out. And while they were shocked by the headline, they seemed equally horrified by the prospect of actually having to read the entire story themselves.

“It’s bad. It’s not good,” Lisa Rinna told Kyle, scrolling through the story on her phone.

“How bad?” asked Kyle, who still had under-eye patches affixed to her face.

“It’s just too long,” Lisa replied. “I can’t, like — it’s gonna take a minute.”

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Fortunately, Sutton Stracke soon emerged from her bedroom to tell her friends that she had, in fact, read the entire story. Kyle instantly begged her friend to TL;DR the “in-depth exposé,” which she deemed “so friggin’ long.” She later went on to consult her friend Faye Resnick‘s husband — lawyer Everett Jack Jr. — to “break down” the story, noting she “did not actually read the whole L.A. Times article” because, again, “it was too long.”

How much time would it have taken Kyle to get through the piece? Well, the average reader can digest 200 to 250 words a minute. Let’s go with the under in this case. That means Kyle would have needed to devote just under 20 minutes of her time to reading the article. Which you think she might have found a worthy effort, considering it so monumentally shifted the Housewives’ beliefs about Girardi that they have already been discussing the story for two episodes.

At least there was Sutton, who said she not only read the story in La Quinta but numerous times afterward “ad nauseum.” She even took notes on the piece so that she could grill Erika about its most salacious details at Kyle’s Christmas dinner a few nights after publication. Among her inquiries: Was Erika really “blindsided” by the story? “I don’t have access to the lawsuits before they hit press,” Erika replied, which is technically untrue, since the lawsuits mentioned in the piece were public record. Sutton continued: Why did the paper say that Tom put $20 million into Erika’s LLC? “I was kept away from the books,” Erika insisted. “I found out we had $50 to $80 million that was gone. We did? That was in the L.A. Times article that you so thoroughly read,” Erika snapped back. “Well,” Sutton replied, “I’m sorry I read that.”

Oh, but we viewers — and L.A. Times journalists — are not, Sutton. And neither is Kyle. —Amy Kaufman

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Guest Spot

A woman in a red dress reclining
Marion Cotillard in “Annette.”
(Amazon Studios)

Streaming now on Amazon Prime Video, “Annette” features what may be the year’s most unexpected collaboration. Directed by Leos Carax, a longtime arthouse fave known for rhapsodic films such as “The Lovers on the Bridge” and “Holy Motors,” the film is a musical starring Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard and Simon Helberg in a story involving love, betrayal, opera, death, experimental stand-up comedy and an emotionally convincing puppet of a little girl. The original story and music is by Ron and Russell Mael, better known as the band Sparks and subject of the recent documentary “The Sparks Brothers,” with lyrics by the Maels and Carax.

The three of them recently sat for an interview together in Los Angeles, the first time they had seen each other since the Maels accepted Carax’s best director award at the Cannes Film Festival on his behalf. —Mark Olsen

What have you all been watching during COVID times? Leos, do you watch many movies or much television?

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Leos Carax: I don’t watch television and I don’t watch movies. I saw many, many, many movies from 16 years old to 26. And then slowly less and less and now I hardly see any at all.

Ron, Russell, do the two of you still watch a lot of movies? What have you been watching while stuck at home during COVID?

Russell Mael: I started getting into Korean dramas. There’s something appealing about those. I wasn’t a fan before and then just had a lot of time on my hands. So I just started watching them and they’ve got kind of a form that most of them fit. The problem is they’re all a minimum 16 episodes and they’re all like a feature-length film. It’s like an hour and a half. So you’ve got to have a lot of time on your hands to do it.

Have you been watching anything, Ron?

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Ron Mael: Well, I’m a fan of the ‘70s Japanese pink films, where they’re not pornographic, where they kind of figure out where to put a bottle to hide everything. And so they’re really skillfully done. That whole style of film where they were actually really good directors making films that maybe were a little beneath them, but doing them in really clever ways. They were sensual, but always have like a glass held up in the proper places and hiding the naughty bits.

Break Down

A bearded man smiles wryly
Brett Goldstein as Roy Kent in “Ted Lasso.”
(Apple)

Has “Ted Lasso” gone too soft in its second season? Lorraine Ali, who’s written about the series’ shortcomings, and Ashley Lee, who took readers behind the scenes of last week’s super-sweet Christmas episode, take up the debate, using Friday’s romantic comedy-inspired “Rainbow” as a jumping-off point.

Ali: “Ted Lasso,” Apple’s comedy about an optimistic American football coach running a British soccer team, is nearing the halfway mark of its second season, and we both just watched Friday’s “rom-communism” episode. I swear they tailored the theme for you, Ashley. But before you launch, I’d like to suggest that the show be renamed “Roy Kent,” because at this point, he’s about the only interesting character to me. Call me Trent Crimm, but all the aw-shucks kindness has made for little tension and conflict in Season 2. Except for Roy. He’s still caustic and cynical. Goodwill is nothing without darkness as contrast!

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Lee: This episode, written by Bill Wrubel, really did feel like it was for me. The Jennifer Lopez/Renee Zellweger/“three Kates” roll call in the locker room; Ted reciting lines from my favorite movies; Roy running from the studio to the field the way rom-com heroes always do. I did not expect such a tribute from a show about a bunch of male athletes, but it’s just the latest way “Ted Lasso” has made me feel silly for putting it in any kind of box.

Ali: Funny, because I feel boxed in by this season. The humor works half the time, but relies so much on his goofy banter and Ted-isms that it already feels stale. And where’s the conflict? In Season 1, even the scheming Rebecca contended with her own bad guy, ex-husband Rupert.

Lee: You’re right — there’s no ongoing “villain” this time around the way Rebecca, Higgins and co. once were Instead, everyone’s on the same team. I have a feeling that we may soon see a “baddie”-like force from outside their circle, possibly tied to Sam’s protest of the club’s top sponsor. In the meantime, I’m enjoying the dependable niceness of this show; it’s at least a break from our real-life horrors!

Ali: True. I think that’s what really made folks love season one. People were desperate for something — anything — that was comforting, and “Lovecraft Country,” which came out around the same time, was not fitting that bill. What else are you liking about this season?

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Lee: I’m enjoying how much this season isn’t about Ted at all. Isaac! Sam! Nate! If the show ends up doing a Trojan Horse as “Orange Is the New Black” did with Taylor Schilling, I’m on board. Are you?

Ali: Totally. In fact, I’d welcome it. Perhaps I mentioned this earlier ... bring on “The Roy Kent Show”!

Lee: Looking ahead, I’m going to try to adopt Ted’s “rom-communism” approach: “Believe me, it will all work out exactly as it’s supposed to,” he says. “Our job is to have zero expectations and just let go.”

What’s Next

Here are some other movies and TV shows coming to a sofa near you before another Screen Gab lands in your inbox, with links to Times coverage.

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Fri., August 20

“The Chair” (Netflix). Sandra Oh attempts to manage a college English department, family and Jay Duplass in an academia-set comedy of issues.

“Truth Be Told” (Apple TV+). Octavia Spencer as reporter-turned-podcaster, looking into crime. Kate Hudson is around for this, its second season.

“Reminiscence” (HBO Max). Near-ish-future VR neo-noir, written and directed by TV’s “Westworld” co-creator Lisa Joy. Hugh Jackman in need of a shave.

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Sun., Aug. 22

“Chapelwaite” (Epix). Stephen King in a period mode. Dark doings in 19th century Maine. Adrien Brody, Emily Hampshire.

“Work in Progress” (Showtime). Creator-star Abby McEnany survives Season 1 thoughts of suicide only to find the pandemic waiting in Season 2.

Wed., Aug. 25

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“American Horror Story: Double Feature” (FX). The Horror Story gang returns with another bag of recycled tropes and two separate stories to tell. Make your own intermission.

“Archer” (FX). The mercurial spy cartoon reaches Season 12. Jessica Walter’s final work.

Thurs., Aug. 26

“The Other Two” (HBO Max). Adult siblings with pop star younger brother. Moving from Comedy Central.

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Mail Bag

Want to know more about one of the filmmakers we’ve interviewed? Need a new show to binge now that your fave is done for the season? If you have a question about TV or streaming movies for the pop culture obsessives at The Times, send it to us at screengab@latimes.com and you may find the answer in next week’s edition.


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