Here is a triptych for you: HBO's Real Sex and Cathouse flanking an image of Sue Johanson, Oxygen's Talk Sex educator, adorned with a halo. These three shows are ostensibly about sex, but I've never found them sexy — which doesn't mean I don't love them, because I do. They celebrate the plain dealing of sex: This couple is hairy and lumpy, and they have found another lumpy, hairy person to join them in their lovemaking; this is Air Force Amy, a prostitute in Nevada who seems ambivalent about her profession; here is a woman in her 70s who is crazy — CRAZY! — about cock rings. You know how Black Panties made Wesley Morris feel? These shows don't make you feel that way.
Unless you are Chris Moukarbel, the director behind Me @ the Zoo and a modernized version of Real Sex titled Sex/Now, debuting on HBO on January 2. Moukarbel told Vulture that besides being educational, Real Sex "was also my porn! It was hot for me as a kid, and the more I talked about it with people, the more I realized that this was a common experience that a lot of people had with the show." Really? This?Real Sex began in the '90s as essentially an effort (produced by a "mostly female team") to destigmatize sex in the wake of the AIDS epidemic, making it goofy and accessible. Interviews with people on the street made it more effective at forcing you, the person embarrassed to be watching it at 11 p.m. at a low volume, to wonder why you were too ashamed to to admit to having sex in an Arby's. On the one hand, the subjects of Real Sex seemed pretty out there — besides being sexually liberated enough to go to swingers camp and discuss their love for RealDolls with a documentary crew, they didn't seem to mind changing underpants in public places without the curtains drawn (!). But they also looked like normal people, not XXX stars, and they all seemed to have good senses of humor.
I have often tried to imagine a female Kenny Powers, although the image sometimes goes no further than Danny McBride in a wig. As it turns out, that's not too far off: The figure that HBO has anointed as the next Kenny is actually portrayed by an Australian man named Chris Lilley, who wears a stick-straight brunette wig, a girls' school uniform, and a slick of glittery lip gloss to portray a monstrous teenage girl named Ja'mie King in the show Ja'mie: Private School Girl. Spoiled teen princess Ja'mie is a mass of contradictions. She is selfish, racist, classist, homophobic, condescending, immature, incredibly vain, and generally clueless. But as portrayed by Lilley, she is somehow compelling despite those traits. Ja'mie takes her own likability for granted, counting on her (implied) good looks and girlishness to get her out of any trouble she might cause. There's a tremendous gap between the way Ja'mie believes she appears to others and how she actually comes across. It's mirrored in the difference between what we are meant to infer Ja'mie looks like based on her beautiful gang of lissome blonde 17-year-old followers and how Ja'mie actually appears to the viewer: like a 39-year-old man in rather unconvincing drag.
Although Lilley looks nothing like a teen queen, he embodies Ja'mie's mannerisms and tics with incredible specificity, creating a more than viable illusion that he is in fact a rich and popular girl finishing her senior year of high school. His portrayal of Ja'mie feels very real because he plays it more or less straight. He never winks at the viewer from underneath the character; there is only Ja'mie. He depicts various aspects of teenage girl cliquedom. There is the compulsive hugging and outpouring of love every time the group has to part, whether for the night, a holiday break, or just the length of a math class. There is the competitive angling for boys considered hot, whose attractiveness must be deemed factual by committee so that they may be deemed (as Ja'mie keeps putting it) "quiche," and the ill-contained rage when somebody else gets them. All of the ugly emotions of being human are on display in Ja'mie, combined with a ladylike front cover that strives to maintain appearances.
Death is all over cable TV. You can find it walking, talking, and generally bleeding into every series, and why not? When it comes to surprising audiences, scaring complacent actors, or merely shaking up the status quo, there's nothing more dependable than death. What television — and, if we're being honest, culture in general — tends to shy away from is dying. Despite what the contents of our DVR might suggest, the majority of us won't be shot with a crossbow bolt at a cousin's wedding or gunned down in a fusillade of neo-Nazi bullets in the New Mexico desert. Instead, we'll probably get old and then things will slowly stop working and then, eventually, we'll stop working too. It's not pretty and it's not nice to think about. So why would we want to watch it?
Getting On, which debuted last Sunday night on HBO, doesn't ask that question so much as it sticks our noses in the answer. Set in the elder-care wing of a failing California hospital, the series chronicles the daily struggles and myriad indignities of the patients nearing the end of their lives and the harried health-care providers barely hanging on to their own. If this sounds like a tough sell, even in TV's bold, risk-taking present, you have no idea. Adapted by married Big Love creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer from a British series of the same name, Getting On shatters nearly every one of TV's unwritten rules about who gets to star in things, what they look like, and what sort of stories deserve to be told. The leads, Alex Borstein, Laurie Metcalf, and Niecy Nash, are all actresses on the far side of 40; the women they care for are often twice that age. The pilot introduced itself with a nearly 10-minute jag about a turd on a chair ("fecal matter," as Borstein's Nurse Dawn would say). Last night concerned a profane, racist stroke victim (played by Alexander Payne stalwart June Squibb) repeatedly vomiting on Nash's quietly kind nurse Didi. Getting On's color palette is dry bordering on drab and, as directed by squirm-core vet Miguel Arteta (Chuck & Buck, Cedar Rapids), the tone is far from palliative. Breakdowns are had, asses are wiped, stool is collected. There is precious little dignity to be found here. The show is built around people too stubborn to give up the search.
Stanley Kubrick once spent a long while crafting a script about Napoleon Bonaparte, a project he was never able to film. Then Steven Spielberg swooped in as a producer this year, and apparently HBO took interest shortly thereafter. Now, according to Deadline, Baz Luhrmann is in talks to direct the miniseries. "Deals are a long way from being made, but I’m told the plan is for Luhrmann to take on what becomes the highest-profile miniseries at that payweb. When Spielberg first revealed the project in an interview with Canal Plus on French TV, he said that this was the project Kubrick had dreamed of making, only to drop it when Hollywood studios refused to fund it, even after Kubrick promised in a letter to studio executives in 1971 that it would be the best movie ever made."
In this dawn or mid-morning of Bill Murray's Late Career, the man's been happy to dabble. He played FDR, he did a Wes Anderson movie about stop-motion animal figurines, he cameoed in John Goodman's Amazon pilot. So there's no reason not to give an HBO miniseries a whirl, especially when it's Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge, the 2009 Pulitzer winner for fiction. The novel-in-stories features small-town Mainers crossing paths across several decades; it's meditative, lyrical, and maybe even a little Lost in Translation–y.
FX has ordered 13 episodes of Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan's book trilogy The Strain, with Carlton Cuse (Lost, A&E's Bates Motel) set to act as showrunner. Funny thing is, del Toro went the book route only after he couldn't get The Strain made as a TV show. FX is looking at July 2014 to premiere the series, which will star Corey Stoll (Midnight in Paris, House of Cards) as Dr. Ephraim Goodweather (fancy!) investigating a viral, soon-to-be-vampiral outbreak in New York.
When we first met Kenny Powers, four years and 28 chapters ago, he appeared more caricature than character: a couple catchphrases, a mullet, and two proudly erect middle fingers. As with many of the projects to vaporize out of the heads of Danny McBride and his frequent collaborators, there was a distinct eau de dorm room about the whole thing. McBride hated sports and had no idea how to throw a baseball, he just liked the idea of an unreconstructed dummy getting by on velocity and bullshit. Peacocking around in Kenny's cleats seemed like a promising way to get him and his buddies paid for giggling about their favorite things: Southern suburban malaise, herculean drug use, and cursing in front of children.
Let me be clear: I would have had no trouble with Eastbound & Down had its lone storytelling goal been to make stoners laugh until they sneezed Cheeto dust. Plenty of sitcoms aspire to much less. But the hunger for greatness burning inside Kenny Powers began as more than mere munchies in the minds of his creators. Jody Hill and fellow director pal David Gordon Green had visions of cinematic grandeur, treating each half-hour installment as a mini-movie, replete with the beats and bumps of a '70s blockbuster. And with the goateed, hyper-verbal K.P., McBride created the perfect avatar for his louche precision. (Nobody delivers gassy nonsense with the delicacy and rigor of McBride. He's like a Swiss whoopee cushion.) Thanks to their efforts, Eastbound crossed over from making fun of its hyper-specific milieu to having fun with it. That first season, in which a humbled Kenny, exiled from baseball, returns home to work as a substitute teacher and wrestle with the twin shackles of failure and humiliation, managed to be that rarest of flowers: something that celebrates the very thing it's satirizing. In McBride and Hill's hands, a lonely Jet Ski ride was imbued with pathos, not pity. It was funny because it was sad, sure, but that's the easy part. It was also sad because it was so terrifically funny.
Yesterday it was announced that John Oliver is declaring his independence from The Daily Show and taking his talents to HBO, where he will star in a weekly "topical news" comedy series to air on Sunday nights. For fans of Oliver, this was great news. For fans of "topical news" comedies, this was great news. In fact, this was pretty much great news all around! To illustrate, let's break down the winners and the other winners of the Oliver/HBO deal.
WINNER: John Oliver
Obviously. But still: What a year for the bespectacled Brit! When I had Oliver on my podcast this summer, just before he began his guest-hosting gig on The Daily Show, he seemed primarily concerned about not wrecking anything. Three months later, the only thing drastically transformed was Oliver's own reputation. Oliver did much more than keep Jon Stewart's seat warm while he was off directing a movie in the Middle East. Oliver was wildly, laceratingly funny, bringing a completely new perspective to a show that was doing just fine.
After being ordered in September, HBO's The Brink has found two of its three leads. The pilot, from Jay Roach and Weeds executive producer Roberto Benabib, is being called an "epic dark comedy" about a geopolitical crisis that could lead to World War III. (More Game of Thrones than Veep so far, yeah?) The guys fighting/blundering for peace are Tim Robbins's Secretary of State character, "a man of big appetites and little patience for the warmongers in the Situation Room," Jack Black's "lowly Foreign Service officer reluctantly caught on the ground in the middle of it all," and a Navy fighter pilot called Zeke Callahan. That last role will presumably go to a handsome young buck, even if John Stamos just popped into my head for whatever reason. Black and Robbins are already an unpredictable team (although there's history: Robbins once directed Black, then cameoed in the Tenacious D movie), so imaginative casting is presumably encouraged. Maybe Jeremy Renner in silly mode?
Call it ironic or inevitable, but Los Angeles nearly always miscasts itself. In back-patting fiction from Entourage to Ray Donovan, writers often think they're winking at L.A. stereotypes — vapid actors! Foul-mouthed agents! Traffic! — but they're really just celebrating them, bravely exposing the city's soft, perfectly toned belly for only the lightest scrape of satire. In reality, the multiethnic, multitiered Los Angeles is a character actor, not a lead. L.A. actually is fascinating, just not in the way many of its better-paid denizens tend to think it is. The thing about Los Angeles that successful people in Los Angeles don't want to admit is that, contrary to what the "Welcome to the Jungle" video taught us, it's not a place where dreams are made. Those dreams are made elsewhere, before hopping on a bus and paying $1,150 a month for a poorly lit room on the outskirts of Echo Park. Los Angeles is much more compelling when it's being honest: It's where dreams, once made, go to die.
As you may or may not have noticed, the past few weeks have brought a significant uptick in the "Is the Entourage movie happening?" reportage department. Why? Even the most ardent supporter of those feckless hedonists of HBO would have to admit that, after eight full seasons of content, no one's quite clamoring for this thing to happen. I don't mean this as yet another tossed-off slagging of the show. I mean, I honestly think if you were to find the world's biggest Entourage fan and ask, "Bro, how bad do you want to see this movie?!," he or she might pass their eyes over their pristinely maintained DVD box set, their Lloyd Lee figurine, and their Jeremy Piven–signed Rush Hour 2 scene-still, then look back at you and say, "Medium? Medium badly?"
So, again: Why? Well, because it's there. Prompted or otherwise, the Entourage dudes keep sharing insider information. Also, because reporting on hellishly belabored productions and epically tortured infighting is what Hollywood trades do, and do damn well, and because we all know that tales of behind-the-scenes backstabbing can, here and there, eclipse even the greatest onscreen product. But I can't help but feel that what's happening here, beneath and betwixt all that, is that America's entertainment news industry is looking us in the eye and not blinking and thinking to itself, Wouldn't it be hilarious if we freaked out over the Entourage movie like it was goddamn Citizen Kane?
The twisted tale of the belabored Entourage movie has now reached its inevitable, quite necessary juncture: At least according to The Hollywood Reporter, the reason this thing is delayed is because of Jeremy Piven. Of course it is.
Earlier this week, a self-incriminating Instagram post had the world's fingers pointed at Adrian Grenier. As he wrote, "The spirit of Entourage is about sharing the opportunities given to us and I will sign any deal that gives ALL the boys an opportunity to share in the upside of success EQUALLY. I assure you, despite the perception, there is no greed in my heart. Remember, it will all work out in the end. It always does. ------ I will try to answer questions with hashtag #entourageboysshare"
If you like your male antiheroes trapped in suburban normalcy with demons they can't escape no matter where they go, why shed a tear over the end of Breaking Bad when you can pop open a few cans of beer and celebrate the return of Eastbound & Down? Season 4 of the Kenny Powers saga debuted last night, and it worked as a chill-out chaser for the Breaking Bad finale, but was also a fun house mirror version of the story of Walter White. Instead of a good man gone bad, Kenny is now a bad man turned good. He has muted his id for the sake of his family, and he has learned to accept a regular life with a low-status job and a home with a yard. In place of the Jet Ski is a riding mower, and Kenny has traded in late nights in the bar back room with Clegg for yuppie dinner parties with friends at the home he shares with April.
But something stirs deep in the heart of Kenny Powers, an inescapable evil he can only resist for so long, an awesome selfishness that is the core of his true being. "Chapter 22," as the first episode of the fourth season, plays out kind of like a horror movie. How long can Kenny keep pretending to be the Kenny that April wants him to be before he slips up and shows his real colors? Can a born alpha male like Kenny really reinvent himself as a beta milquetoast, or is he doomed to fail? There's a perverse satisfaction for viewers watching somebody dismantle their life. If anyone has ever been poised to go the full Falling Down, it's Kenny Powers. Without spoiling things too much, Kenny's undoing will remind you that you should really not be rooting for this guy. Even still, you will find yourself encouraging him to make all the wrong choices, just to see what happens.
While putting together my piece on the end of Eastbound & Down, I had phone and e-mail exchanges with a bunch of smart, funny people. Most of the stuff ended up in the piece. Here's some of it that didn't.
David Gordon Green
Before David Gordon Green was a pensive indie auteur turned studio comedy technician turned "guy who does whatever the hell he wants" (next up: a movie with Nicolas Cage!), he was living on the same dorm floor as Danny McBride and Jody Hill. According to Hill, back at the North Carolina School of the Arts, "David Green, he could quote release dates of movies from like 1980 on. It freaked me out a little bit."
This Sunday night on CBS, the 65th-annual Emmy Awards will celebrate the year in television excellence. Like most meth-addled Americans, I won't be watching — at least not live. Instead, I'll be tuning in to AMC to watch some truly excellent television in real time, a.k.a. the penultimate episode of Breaking Bad.
Still, many, many people will watch an Emmy ceremony that is likely to be among the most unpredictable in recent memory. (And by "many, many people" I primarily mean those of you with ready access to multiple screens, those with a lack of interest in the endgame of certain New Mexican science teachers, and/or those with an unquenchable fondness for Neil Patrick Harris production numbers). And so please consider the following as a guide to the moments to watch for — six potential upsets, shockers, and game-changers, a.k.a. the times you definitely don't want to be getting up for more guacamole. Save that for Best Actress in a Drama — unless you've forgotten the names of Claire Danes's publicist, manager, and husband over the past year. And save some guacamole for me.