TV Picks: ‘Community,’ HBO Sunday series, ‘Brothers Hypnotic’
“Community” (NBC, Thursdays). Ratings have been reported historically low, but that this show, which now bears almost no relation to anything we have heretofore recognized as a sitcom, is surviving at all on a broadcast network seems miraculous to me. (And not a miracle I expect to be infinitely extensible, but one for which I am grateful.) With temporarily ousted creator Dan Harmon back in charge, “Community,” which is set at a highly metaphorical, relentlessly postmodern community college, is now often being directed and shot as if it were a drama. (When it is not being animated, as it was last week, as if it were an episode of the 1980s cartoon series “G.I. Joe,” complete with ads, but on the subject of aging and death.) In part, this is because parodying other forms of television is in its charter, but it’s also because its characters are, to the last man and woman, pretty messed up, even for an ensemble situation comedy. (The addition of “Breaking Bad’s” Jonathan Banks accentuates the darkness.) If Harmon sees something funny in this -- the show is still a comedy, and I’d say a great one, though one that is not begging you to laugh -- he does not mock the wounded or parade the freaks, as bad TV comedy often does. Where last year’s non-Harmon year could trend sentimental -- he has moved on from referring to it as the “gas leak year” -- the new shows feel authentically deep. There is a strange, sad tenderness in Harmon’s gazing upon his creation -- and some hopefulness: They have one another, characters and characters, characters and creator, each as real and unreal as the other, for as long as it lasts.
“Silicon Valley,” “Veep,” “Game of Thrones” (HBO, Sunday). HBO, that tumbledown backwater of a premium cable television channel, is having a big Sunday this week with the premiere of Mike Judge’s “Silicon Valley” and the return of two of its big performers, Armando Iannucci’s Washington farce “Veep,” with Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a serially frustrated vice president of the United States, and “Game of Thrones,” based on George R.R. Martin’s tales of warring families in an Old World Somewhere Else.
Time, of which there is evidently only so much to go around, kept me woefully behind on “Veep” Season 2, but I have been there for it in the past and will in the future. The brilliance of Louis-Dreyfus is set within a compatibly artful cast of many (figurative) colors; her Selina Meyer is an unstable element, all fission and fizz, fussiness asnd fuzziness. And Iannucci has been a favorite of this department since the days I spent memorizing tapes of the original radio version of “Knowing Me, Knowing You With Alan Partridge.” (And now there’s a movie!)
If you sit me down in front of “Game of Thrones,” which you may know as “GoT,” or #GoT, I will watch an episode straight through, happily, and another if you have one handy. But my emotional investment in the series -- handsomely made and well-acted and all -- pretty much begins and ends with Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister, a modern man among the medieval hordes, heroic to practical limits and actually kind of nice. Still, it’s good. Also: Peter Dinklage.
With “Silicon Valley,” Mike Judge, who brought you “Beavis & Butt-head,” then brought you “King of the Hill,” then brought you “Office Space,” and then brought you “Idiocracy,” with some other things in between and before and after, brings you his first live-action TV series. (In the bargain he has brought you the gift of Martin Starr and Kumail Nanjiani -- together!) As in projects past, it goes to Judge’s interest in the (sometimes empowered) powerless and the systems and structures that have evolved to keep them that way, and operates at an autumn-leaves level of dryness. It takes a lot to rouse a Judge hero, though normally quiet “Silicon Valley” central figure Thomas Middleditch, as a coder who has created a killer algorithm -- “lossless compression, something something something” -- does have a tendency toward panic attacks.
Middleditch’s Richard is the Candide figure in this self-declared best of all possible worlds, a place of tech-cults and manicured campuses where “making the world a better place” is the slogan tacked on to anything that might also make its inventor some money. He’s an innocent who mistakes his roommates for comrades, but in making that mistake may make them comrades. Its structure is solid, traditional even -- I detect notes of old westerns, Frank Capra films and military comedies, and (going back to Candide) it’s very much in the vein of movies like “The Big Picture,” with the software world substituted for the film industry, in which an idealistic hero navigates the sharks and shoals of a cutthroat, compromising big business.
I have a full review here.
“Brothers Hypnotic” (PBS, Monday). For his first feature-length documentary, filmmaker Reuben Atlas follows Chicago’s Hypnotic Brass Band, made up of eight brothers from three different mothers. (A more or less polygamous relationship, by the looks of it, that seems to have worked for a while.) All are the children (among others) of trumpeter Phil Cohran, who played with Jay McShann and Sun Ra and “mentored” Earth, Wind & Fire, and after a “spiritual awakening” became an apostle of African culture -- a thing that set them apart on Chicago’s South Side. The film is more sketch than argument, life being what it is, and if it’s not always clear whose voice it is in the voice-over, it doesn’t much matter, given that this is a story about how people and sound blend into one. The film begins with the band playing a cluster of long notes: “You fill your chest full of air, and you breathe into your horn, you play this one note as steady as possible, and you breathe all of the air out of your body into the instrument -- it’s meditation, and it connects you to the universe.”
Atlas trails them from Chicago to New York and on to London and the Continent, and home again, as they’re courted by record companies, labeled by newspapers, travel to New York, hang and jam with Mos Def, with Damon Albarn (they appear on the Gorillaz album “Plastic Beach” and the Albarn-Flea-Tony Allen collaboration “Rocket Juice & the Moon”), and back Prince at an Irish castle. The film runs on two tracks, twisted around each other like a double helix, one following the progress of the band in the business, the other the father and the family, with a great strain of music running down the middle. A film about being true to your roots and cutting the strings, and values passed on and values transformed, beautiful to behold and exciting to hear. Presented as part of the series “Independent Lens.”
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