Rachel Unraveled: Dream Big…Bigger…BIGGER

Don’t let reality get in the way of your dreams.

Rachel Unraveled is a new comedy series from Rachel Ravel and Austin Spero. It stars Ravel as the titular Rachel, an aspiring actress who’s sort of convinced she lives in a musical and who’s grasp is constantly outside her reach. Rachel over-prepares for auditions, treats every other actor as a rival, and is wholly incapable of responsibility.

Rachel Unraveled is short. It’s a fast 13 minutes. But it’s funny and very high-quality. The production value is high; the show looks and sounds phenomenal. As far as web series go, Rachel Unraveled feels the most ready to slide right onto television if it wanted to. It would look right at home next to something like CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend or Search Party on TBS.

In fact, it boasts a real polish that elevates it to a level above other web-based series. From the way it introduces new characters, sets up its setting, and establishes Rachel’s relationships and conflicts, it’s apparent that it’s been written with an eye to mimic the beats of a typical single-camera sitcom. It’s almost a shame that it’s so short because it plays like the first act of a 22-minute comedy before the first commercial break. It just feels like real TV.

Rachel Unraveled begins with an irreverent music number, revealed to be Rachel’s inner monologue while she’s actually in the middle of an audition for a very non-musical PSA gig. The show hard cuts to Rachel finishing her song to the confused astonishment of the casting directors. She’s prepared an elaborate production for this audition in her head, and disregarded the trivial matter of actually doing her homework. That she can’t possibly imagine why it’s not her ticket to the big time is the show’s central theme.

It’s this cheery delusion that shields Rachel from any sense of responsibility or reality. She creates nothing emergencies, rushing her best friend (played by The Bachelor‘s Olivia Caridi) to her apartment to staple head shots together. (They use hammers because she broke the stapler playing Scarface with her dog.) She doesn’t work. Instead she mooches off her father who grows increasingly impatient with her frivolous Broadway-related purchases. Rachel’s an actor, so therefore everyone else in the world must be too.

Rachel’s a suck and would be unlikable on paper if it wasn’t for the charisma and serious talent of star Ravel. And that’s the show’s ace in the hole. Rachel is the stuck-out nail who’s never heard of being hammered back into place. That she dominates her friends and kinda puts down the homeless doesn’t matter because dammit, there are big dreams on the line!

Revel plays her with a mix of idealistic earnestness and aggressive expectancy. Why shouldn’t everyone know it’s “break a leg” and not “good luck”? How come putting in your all isn’t received with adoration and an automatic starring role in Hamilton?

Ravel plays off-beat very well, previously appearing as nun-in-training Sister Dotty in Tuff Boys, a cousin musical series from Rachel Unraveled directors Ryan Harrington and Isaac Himmelman. While Unraveled is clearly a fictionalized semi-autobiographical vehicle, Ravel is well-suited and a natural talent.

Additionally, Rachel Unraveled boasts a decidedly not amateur cast for an ostensibly internet-dwelling show, which contributes to its sense of quality and what one can only assume are prime-time aspirations. Jon Rua, known for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s productions Hamilton and In the Heights, plays Rachel’s confidant and un-credited music partner, a homeless guitar player who lives on her stoop. The cast is rounded out by William Youmans and Marie-Christina Oliveras, both with lengthy film, television, and Broadway credits. Rachel Unraveled was a successful Kickstarter campaign, but it’ll be interesting to see what subsequent episodes will look like in terms of production and returning cast.

All in all, a really excellent first stab. Rachel Unraveled is a high-quality, funny, likable comedy and a promising calling card for Ravel and company.

Theme music “Rainbow Street” and “Infrastructure” by Scott Holmes.

Twitter: The Nerd Dash // Billy Donahoe

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. // Easy, Breezy, Beautiful, Firefly

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. pretty much begs for the Firefly comparison. The cast is similar; the set is similar. It is, in plain sight, a spiritual successor to Joss Whedon’s short-lived masterpiece. But it’s weaker. Like, a lot weaker.

The big problem is how Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has formatted itself. It’s a monster-of-the-week semi-serial where the characters are given an assignment, which they do in a neat 42 minutes. And while it and Firefly share many similarities, one worked and the other (so far) hasn’t really.

What made Firefly‘s narrative so effective was that its drama was primarily within the ship Serenity itself. Mal had a problem with Simon’s handling of his volatile sister, so he went and warned him about consequences while showing compassion. When Wash and Zoe encountered friction in their marriage, they hashed it out on the bridge or at the dinner table. The main dramas played out within the confines of their home. There are entire episodes set only within the ship that feel just as, if not more important, than the outside adventures.

On Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. however, the drama is external. The only time we see the team react is when they are on assignment. Characters are really only tested by action scenes, superficial technobabble puzzles, and adventures. There is little human drama to be had within their airplane.

First, it’s partly the fault of the setting itself. The production team made the decision to furbish a home-away-from-home like a cocktail bar at a swanky hotel. It’s pristine and impersonal. I don’t feel at home here. Where’s the kitchen? Who’s feeding everybody? Are they just going to leave that Nazi super weapon on the counter like that? Doesn’t a large airplane have all kinds of storage space? As an audience member I need to feel like “home base” is familiar and comfortable. I can’t do that when the surroundings are stark and we’re jetting off to other locations every ten minutes. They introduced the plane through the on-board detention cell, too. Which was unsettling. Seriously, what? Serenity never had a brig! It had a lovely kitchen and bunks with posters and artwork and clothes on the floor. That’s how you signal “home.” You make it feel like a home.

Secondly, it’s the characters. Firefly had the sense to take its nine very different personalities and coop them up in a space that compelled them to interact. By nature of being an adventure-of-the-week show, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. does the opposite, to its detriment. Relationships develop more naturally if your characters have to exist within a relatively static narrative construct. It’s why the neighbors always come over in a sitcom versus just calling on the phone. If your people are always going off somewhere, you can’t get to know who they are in their quieter moments.

But importantly, the agents of Shield are BOOORING with a capital “B’. Characterization means dick when everyone’s been drawn thin as a piece of paper. Half the main cast are completely interchangeable. Really, three beautiful nerds? And did they name two of them “Fitz” and “Simmons” just to make that joke? They cashed that joke in super early and now we’re stuck with mediocre Peggy Sues in a feeble attempt at “being relevant in a digital world.” And I can see the “Jayne” character’s turncoat from a mile away. They’ve been keeping him too generic to be anything less than a wildcard. And which one’s going to die first? This is a Joss Whedon joint after all. The problem is that I couldn’t care less who because they’re all nothing people, a complete waste of an ensemble.

And enough with the quipping crap. Everyone in this show talks like they’re in an action movie. “Let’s blow this popcorn stand!” “I thought you’d never ask!” People don’t talk like that. And I can’t get to know you as a person if everything you say comes out like a catchphrase. Imagine that person? You’d invite them out for drinks once and after realizing your mistake never return their texts because they suck.

I will say that Phil Coulson is a bright spot. Clark Gregg’s very likable and it’s fun to watch him pull the strings of a rouges gallery of prima donnas. You get the sense that he’s an adventurer but tired of the song and dance.

Anyway. We’ll see how it plays out. If it’s going to continue the monster-of-the-week format I have a feeling it’ll grow stale pretty quickly. An episodic setup was not how I pictured a show connected to so many other narrative threads to go. How all these incidental NPC’s fit into the larger Cinematic Universe is a stumbling block for me, too. I don’t know if it takes some of the punch away from the Avengers or what. I can’t put my finger on it.

In conclusion: “Blah, blah, blah, The Winter Soldier, Hydra infiltrates.” “It’s all connected!”

Give me a break. In order to justify it’s existence the show’s got to be more than just a daisy chain of scattered wow moments that “connect the dots.” I’d like to think Marvel’s raised the bar high enough to not have to sink to that kind of amateurism. And I see you, Joss Whedon! Hiding over there behind that pile of cash and your brother, who keeps getting jobs. This is the kind of crap you pull for shoot-from-the-hip web series, not billion-dollar mega franchises. The bones aren’t in place here and I’m underwhelmed.

Bojack Horseman: Episodes 1-4

Will Arnett, Aaron Paul, Amy Sedaris, Allison Brie

BoJack Horseman is a new adult cartoon from Netflix. It centers around Bojack, a washed-up actor who hit it big back in the nineties with a Full House-era family sitcom. He now spends his days languishing in his Hollywood mansion in the waning limelight of his past. He’s petulant, mean, and obsessed with himself. We catch up with him attempting to write his autobiography, the tell-all book he’s wasted a year and half trying to put something down for. His publisher demands a ghostwriter, and we’re introduced to Diane, the pretty girlfriend of BoJack’s sitcom rival, oblivious Mr. Peanutbutter, a golden retriever. He’s also housing a homeless succubus named Todd, and has an on-again, off-again relationship with girlfriend/agent Princess Carolyn, a pink cat person.

BoJack Horseman - BoJack at BarThe world of BoJack Horseman is a weird mix of anthropomorphic animals on human bodies and regular people. It’s a little off-putting and there’s almost no reason for it. The show barely draws attention to the animal factor and when it does, it makes offhand, very obvious jokes. BoJack makes “raspberries” when he sighs and claims to need gallons of beer to actually get himself drunk. The rest of the cast is just various animals. It’s hard to look at, in a way. It’s not funny. And if the show thinks it can coast off the novelty of a horse in everyday situations, it’s already outstayed its welcome playing it so flat.

I appreciate that the show is vaguely serialized. I’m sure Netflix is at the point now where they can trust creative teams to go and produce a show with little oversight. There’s at least the teasing of an arc. But I wonder who “proofread” this show before it aired. For one thing, it’s not very funny. I think it got one guffaw out of me for the entire first episode. Jokes fall really flat and their punchlines are obvious, lowest common denominator stuff. It’s not totally crass, but the scripts aren’t very intelligent. The voices are jarring as well, mostly because I know these actors are better than the material.

The main conceit isn’t even all that edgy, either. The show thinks it’s critiquing celebrity and reality TV culture, but its protagonist is the embodiment of that idea, completely sold on the lifestyle and un-redeemable. BoJack’s a former has-been, but he hasn’t learned anything in the interim. He’s done no soul-searching, no retribution for the jerk he’s always been. At one point he sets Todd up to debut his music passion project and then torpedoes it for his own selfish insecurites. I kind of hate him. The show even tries to sell him as a victim of a rough childhood, with no sense of perspective regarding people who never got so lucky in their jobs. I find it hard to get behind his desire to write an honest book when he’s just not that likable as a character. I wouldn’t even read a piece of junk like that anyway, so why do I care?

It’s not great. It’s not clever. It’s not even becoming familiar, making it palatable, like shows often do. I’ll stick with Bob’s Burgers.

Should Firefly Be Revived?

NO. Firefly/Serenity should not. In fact, outside of comic books and other franchise tie-ins, Firefly should never get any sort of series continuation ever again.

Steady your heartbeat, Browncoat. I have no news. In fact it’s unlikely you’ll see Whedon and company circling back to any of their former titles anytime soon. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was nominally his subsequent show instead, and after delivering so righteously with The Avengers, and now taking Batgirl with Warner Bros. and DC, Joss Whedon will be unavailable for the next few years. That means Dr. Horrible, too.

Firefly benefits from shining brightly and going out relatively strongly. The series ended abruptly, yes. And you can argue that “The Message” is the actual ending, rather than “Objects in Space.” (I will rebut that argument in a moment.) But the story is brought to a fitting conclusion by Serenity. Mal and company realize that staying one step ahead of the law is no longer a sustainable tactic, and the crew finds some meaning in life they were otherwise running from.

“Objects in Space” is the ending to the show because we need to set up River for the movie. She’s the linchpin to their troubles and needs closure with respect to her past so that she can eventually grow. Tonally, “The Message” has a farewell quality to it and we all know that it was this episode that the cast and crew discovered the show’s cancellation. But River is central to Serenity‘s conflict, and her interactions with Jubal Early in “Objects” reveals more than previously shown. Up until that point, we see her only as a force to act on other characters. She’s dangerous and capable of delivering serious hurt. But how her condition affects her self-esteem and self-worth is rarely touch upon until “Objects.” She reveals her emptiness and helplessness as a prisoner in her own fractured mind. But the audience never really empathizes with River as her role is that of an instigator. She’s a seventeen year old girl though; the guilt is probably overwhelming.

It’s crucial then that we understand River’s true feelings because we need to be convinced that her and her brother’s departure from the ship is in the best interest of everyone. Remember, they are wanted fugitives and the lightning rod for much of the show’s conflict. The audience knows it will hurt too. Simon’s integral to the well being of the crew and resourceful when direly necessary, but without Mal’s protection and experience, he and his sister are vulnerable.

One of the finer points of Firefly is that the story was meant to be fluid. We catch up with the crew as they’re picking up passengers we eventually grow familiar with. But it’s likely that they’re not the first group of outsiders to reside on the ship. People come and go and Mal is essentially aimless. He loves Serenity, but I suspect could ultimately part with it if it meant saving a member of his crew/family. Wash and Book are of course the big examples of life after Firefly. The crew must now learn to live without Wash’s voice of reason and Book’s apparent moral compass.

This is why a sequel wouldn’t make sense. The characters are done. Most importantly River is done, having found some semblance of peace. “I’m alright,” she admits as she learns the identities of the voices in her head and the truth behind her abruptly detoured existence. Her taking the wheel of Serenity post-climax symbolizes the personal shift she has undergone. She’s in control of her own life now.

Whatever adventures might follow would not carry the emotional weight of the film and cheapen the crew’s implied last stand. We can safely assume that Mal and company go on to other capers, but we don’t need to see them. It’s enough to know that they’ll be “alright.”

None of that matters of course because I’d be first to drop a month’s pay into that Kickstarter if it ever happened. I’m a sucker.

Why Sherlock Needs Watson

This is a response to Nerdophiles‘ Kirstie Haruta’s article defending the U.S. modern Sherlock Holmes show Elementary as a worthy take on the British literary hero, even in the shadow of the BBC’s own Sherlock

I’ve never seen Elementary, so I’ll reserve judgement. I did however feel that the article short-changed Martin Freeman’s Watson and I wanted to properly discuss his character.

Read the article here. It’s otherwise very thorough.

SPOILERS
Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes is brash, curt, and impatient. He’s overtly misanthropic, manipulative, and often abusive. But he’s a mastermind of critical thought and reason. In his own words, he observes where others see, able to deduce convoluted mysteries and solve complicated problems. He’s a genius that while perfectly suited for intelligence or science, “chooses to be a detective” because of an insatiable sense of adventure. Sherlock is a lone wolf; he excels in solitude and few can simply keep up.

So why does he need anyone else?

Haruta’s article seemed to be of the opinion that Martin Freeman’s Watson really has little to do and serves no real purpose in helping to solve problems. Yes, Sherlock is a investigative wunderkind that would probably come to any answer independently. But Watson is in fact very important to his strategy and life.

Superficially, John Watson is the audience proxy. We the audience would have no idea what Sherlock is thinking if he didn’t have to speak it out loud to John. We need an uninitiated character like Watson to say, “stop, explain yourself to me” so that we can know what’s happening. It’s a classic plot device that shows up in almost every mystery/science fiction genre story, especially those that world-build, introduce foreign concepts or concern technical jargon. It’s why many stories involve a “new guy” character. When new information needs to be disseminated to the audience, the “mentor” character explains it to the new guy, whom the audience relates to. This is a critical technique for engaging the audience because if we don’t understand what’s going on then we aren’t emotionally invested and don’t care.

Think about it this way: Smart people don’t talk about things out loud. Two business partners -two “mentors”- have a certain unspoken language between themselves as a result of expertise and shared experience. They don’t talk about information that they already know. We the audience are the new guys, looking in on their daily life. These two businessmen are not going to chat about why the red binders go into the blue folders because they themselves already know why and it would sound weird and unnatural. By instead giving direction to an uninitiated character, an intern, new hire or girlfriend, the message is indirectly explained to the audience in a plot-relevant way. Here Martin Freeman is perfectly cast. From Arthur Dent to Bilbo Baggins and Tim Canterbury, he’s the fish-out-of-water everyman scripts use to engage the audience and introduce new information.

That’s why the plot needs him, but why does Sherlock need him? Remember, Sherlock Holmes picked John Watson. They didn’t simply happen upon one another and decide to become roommates. Sherlock learned about his soldiering past and determined that his disposition would be a good fit for his roller coaster life.

Recall how Sherlock interacts with people. His brusque personality pushes them away, his seemingly omniscient knowledge prompts suspicion from Scotland Yard, and his inquisitive mind inspires violence and disorder. Sure, Inspector Lestrade allows him access to sensitive material, but more out of workplace respect and a lack of better options, his own force being bumbling and useless in comparison. What Sherlock needs is a PR guy, someone to synthesize his prickly demeanor in order to ingratiate himself into deeper circles: Molly, Mrs. Hudson, Baskerville, etc. He needs someone to smooth over his social faux pas, excuse his behavior and occasionally explain why other people react to his personality the way they do. Molly’s reaction to Sherlock’s insensitivity at her Christmas gift, for example.

But Sherlock does not simply consider John Watson a tool. Despite repeated examples to the contrary, notably his aural horror experiment in the Baskerville lab, and of course, his death. No, their’s is an unconventional relationship, one where feelings are not discussed without consequence or ridicule, because that’s not Sherlock’s way. He considers John a friend in the way only two mutual adventurers could: respect for companionship on the hunt. Watson doesn’t need to be Sherlock’s equal in solving crime because he understands his past and recognizes in him the hunger for action. Anybody can pay half the rent. John Watson is Sherlock’s partner because like the detective himself, he’s obsessed with adventure.

Important is Sherlock’s unconventional opinion of himself because it informs his behavior and desires. Without question he fashions himself a classic crusader in some epic tale of mystery, blazing a new trail like a colonial-era legionnaire or sea captain. It’s this romantic streak that lets him be both dispassionate and totally engrossed in whatever he’s put his mind to. He stresses that the case must inspire him, be profound and fit into his idea of what a rousing tale ought to be. Why shouldn’t he then have a sidekick? Like a Robin to his Batman, it’s natural that he would want some sort of companion, perhaps a protege, to take under his wing and share in adventure.

Most importantly, why would he even bother befriending a man with a psychosomatic leg injury if not to reform him? Isn’t that the type of person he would otherwise loathe as lazy and distracted? Clearly there was a small part of Sherlock that wanted to help John, restore the latent fire in his heart. He must have seen a man of similar ilk, temporarily stalled, only needing an opportunity to jump back into the game.

Moreover, the chase in “A Study in Pink” where John loses his cane and forgets all about his apparent injury was, in Sherlock’s mind, an interview for a potential new friend. And rightly so, the best friend of Sherlock Holmes would have to be a singular person himself. Not everyone is enthusiastically game to repeatedly put themselves in harm’s way for the sake of a mystery. The opening episode’s chase served two purposes: 1. It helped John regain his courage and get over his mental funk. And 2. It endeared him to Sherlock as a friend who could provide the excitement and danger he once enjoyed as an army doctor. Sherlock is looking for a companion. And like a real person, chooses to associate himself with someone who isn’t interested in making fun of his sexual choices or suspects his skills are potentially sinister. He’s interested in sharing a good time with a like-minded guy.

It’s not much of stretch to see that Sherlock needs Watson more than just as a partner on the job. Think about the kind of person he’s probably been in life up until the series. Bureaucratic coldness (and betrayal) from his only shown family; school was probably torture. He’s been stuck inside “Sherlock” all his life and is without a doubt lonely.

John Watson provides the appropriate balance to Sherlock’s eccentricities. He is genuinely impressed by his deductive acumen while providing the necessary social lubricant the consulting detective so desperately needs. He defends Sherlock to the cops, has his interests at heart, and relishes the opportunities Sherlock affords to get off his ass and feel alive. The fans and boys have it wrong. There’s no sexual tension between Sherlock and John. John fills a brotherly role left empty by Sherlock’s real family, the inadequately human Mycroft.