Critic’s Pick: TV Picks: ‘Los Jets,’ TV podcasts, mini-sitcoms, ‘Wizard Wars’
“Los Jets” (NUVOtv). This six-part documentary about an all-Latino North Carolina high school soccer team is also a tale of the changing face of the South and asks again that elastic and inexhaustible question, What Does It Mean To Be an American? Created and directed by Mark Landsman (“Thunder Soul,” “Peace of Mind”), it takes off from a 2007 book by head coach Paul Cuadros, “A Home on the Field: How One Championship Team Inspires Hope for the Revival of Small Town America.” (This isn’t mentioned in the series itself.) Cuadros, who also teaches journalism at the University of North Carolina, came to Jordan-Matthewes High School, in tiny Siler City, N.C., in 1999, at a time when the state was riven by anti-immigration rallies; seeing kids playing football in the street inspired him to propose that the school field a real team, a hard sell at the time in a town where soccer was identified with otherness. (Bringing home a championship title helped change that.) Thirteen seasons later, Jordan-Matthewes is two-thirds Latino and more students than ever sign up to play soccer. But there are still challenges, from Cuadros’ insistence on playing elegant ball in a state where things normally get rough, and from the race-based abuse the team can still encounter on away games. “Take those feelings of anger,” Cuadros tells them, “and score more goals.”
It’s a political story, a sports story and a personal story. The kids have that sleepy sweetness of teenagers photographed up close, and lovingly, in their natural habitats. Some are citizens, others are American in every respect but birthplace and papers, facing a path laid out along a knife’s edge; the film is clearly on their side. Director of photography Guy Mossman (“Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work”) gives every element its due; the clamor, the quiet, the details of décor and decoration, the richness of the landscape, the look of air under floodlights. Scenes of postgame contemplation, on the night ride home, are as vital as the action that precedes them. Occasionally one suspects a producer’s hand, as when members of the school’s first soccer team pay a visit to its current one. But it is not a heavy hand. The last of the series’ six episodes has just premiered; some are available to stream via the NUVOtv website, and from Hulu and, as of this writing, all are showing up here and there on the broadcast schedule. (Set your DVRs.) The complete series will air in a marathon Sept. 17 as part of Hispanic Heritage Month.
“Children of Tendu” and “Harmontown” (online). Two TV-related podcasts from well-known creator-writer types. I was going to describe them as “successful” creator-writer types, because each does make a living in the business called show -- it is not a hobby they support with day jobs at the car wash or coffee shop -- but they have all had their ups and downs, their ins, their outs. Which is the point, in different ways, of these very different series.
In “Children of Tendu,” “producer-level television writers” and fellow Puerto Ricans Javier “Javi” Grillo-Marxuach (creator of “The Middleman,” veteran of “Charmed” and “Lost,” currently working on “Helix”) and Jose Molina (“Castle,” “Grimm,” “Vampire Diaries,” “Sleepy Hollow”) offer a “makeshift film school” intended to “spread some of the meager knowledge that we’ve acquired over the years.” With lessons learned from their failures as well as from their successes, it’s very much made for the the aspiring flatscreen-writer; but anyone interested in the nuts and bolts, the gears of cogs of TV production should find these 13 episodes worthwhile. (A “season” has been completed; more episodes are bruited.) There is also, not incidental to either the entertainment or educational value, a lot of digressive hanging out. Part practical advice, part history lesson, part double act and very much a shared reminiscence -- Grillo-Marxuach and Molina are old friends who owe their relationship to a chance meeting between the former’s aunt and the latter’s mother in a Puerto Rico supermarket, discovering each had kin in Hollywood -- “Tendu” is not devoid of shall-remain-nameless tales of the industry’s dark side. But its spirit is sensible and humane, its prime directive to know yourself -- but also to know your place. (“There’s no pouting when you’re a staff writer,” says Javi, who further suggests that “knowing what your show runner’s issues are and being a little bit of a therapist or a good listener to your show runner is going to be crucial.”) Above all, they assert, making it in Hollywood is a matter of “assembling a community of people you like and who like you back.” The title comes from a misheard song lyric filtered through a sci-fi fan’s assumptions. The series is available here; a related Tumblr is here. See also, Grillo-Marxuach’s much-circulated analytical essay, “Finding the Next Lost: What Is an “Operational Theme” and Why Don’t I Have One?,” here.
“Harmontown,” though expressive of some of the same concerns, has a different flavor. It is inevitably, but not specifically, about television, being the online journal and megaphone of sometimes conspicuously embattled Dan Harmon, the creator of “Community” -- from which he was famously fired and then re-hired, and which itself has been, in a kind of parallel motion, canceled by NBC and picked up by Yahoo! Screen. Harmon, who is not-oddly reminiscent of the chemically deranged mad-scientist uncle on his Adult Swim cartoon series, “Rick and Morty,” does project a sense of being embattled, if sometimes only against himself, and without being exactly sure even in that case whose side he’s on. (The show’s own website describes him as “self-destructive.”) Nevertheless, he has a quick mind and makes interesting sense, mostly, even when he declares himself to be drunk and/or stoned. He does surround himself with relatively more grounded compatriots, including most regularly co-host and “comptroller” Jim Davis; comedian fiancee Erin McGathy, who has a pocast of her own, “This Feels Terrible”; and the half-ubiquitous Kumail Najiani. Episodes are taped before a live audience, usually in the back room at Hollywood’s Meltdown Comics, but also on the road -- it travels sometimes, like the evil twin of a public-radio show. Diaristic ramblings predominate, but there also are games played, including an ongoing “Dungeons & Dragons” adventure, and Harmon will also reflect upon the business he’s mostly in. In a lively session last year, during his return season of “Community,” he told “Arrested Development” creator Mitch Hurtwitz, “I have been left to my own devices and I have truly found that I was always the problem.” The solution as well, some would say.
“90s Sleepover” and "#Funterruptions” (Above Average/YouTube). However short an episode, a series is a series is a series, and these two offerings from “Above Average,” the YouTube extension of Lorne Michaels’ Broadway Video -- we have traveled there before, readers -- make themselves quickly felt: For all their brevity, both feel solid, not ephemeral -- the power, perhaps, of a well-honed theme, but also of the performances, which get up to speed in the blink of an eye.
“90s Sleepover” is a serial series, covering a single night spent together by three kids on the cusp of 7th grade, played by Amos Vernon, Mike Lane and Nunzio Randazzo. (Collectively known as the comedy troupe Boat, they have ties to the New York chapter of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, where their “Boat: Even More Another Comedic Sketches” is running.) Though some details are particular to the titular 1990s -- a video-game Cheat Code fantasia, most specifically -- the rituals will be familiar across the generations. And the humor, as in other Boat sketches available online, proceeds from normal premises to surreal ends -- as when a practice in hand-kissing leads to hand-sex, conception, birth, life and death -- in a way that transcends any surface specificity. Also, they seem like nice, grounded guys.
In what might or might not be titled “#Funterruptions” -- that could just be a hashtag, just as the whole business might be seen as a series of ads for the cracker shown on a card after each episode -- the lively, divine Abby Elliott turns brief periods of downtime into interludes of Mittyesque daydreams and childlike play. (In an earlier Above Average series, “The Assistant,” she played the dual role of boss and PA.) Waiting for a parking space, as a woman fills her trunk with “rubber shoes,” Elliott muses “I could check my email and play a game … or [brightening], I could build a dossier on suspicious activity,” and then goes full undercover. In another, a lull in a business meeting makes way for a sing-along: “What can I do in a minute and a half?” she asks, stating the premise outright. And a suddenly materializing singing group answers, “You could put all your stuff in alphabetical order/Or crawl under the table and take a quick nap/Grab those tiny teacups and have a tiny tea party/Or practice your splits, girl, you’re almost there.”
“Wizard Wars” (Syfy, Tuesdays). Magic is all around this summer (“The Carbonaro Effect” on TruTV, “Penn & Teller: Fool Us” and “Masters of Illusion” on the CW). In this exciting competition series, previously unacquainted teams of aspiring illusionists are pitted two-by-two against each other and then against the show’s resident heavyweights; as in “Top Chef” and “Project Runway” and a thousand other series in which talented contestants must spin gold from hay, pronto, the challenge here is to create in short order a magic act using assigned “ordinary ingredients” (e.g., a pair of glasses, a mannequin and a fencing foil, or a deck of cards, a Super Soaker and Spam). The speed of the accomplishment adds astonishment to astonishment. As in the Penn and Teller series -- the two are among the judges here -- one gets a hint of the workmanship and structure behind the illusions without any secrets actually being revealed; and as with “Chef,” “Runway,” et al., one delights directly in the displays of excellence, and vicariously in the benediction of amazed experts.
Robert Lloyd Tweets with nothing up his sleeve at @LATimesTVLloyd
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