2017 Summer of Sitcom Binge-watching

From my lack of reviews over the summer, it may be obvious that I, like critics and audiences everywhere, think this was the worst summer movie season ever. I only got out to a couple of movies in the theatre, so what have I been doing to satisfy my pop-cultural cravings over the summer? I’ve been couch-potatoing: binge-watching a number of sitcoms (many on Netflix). Some of them I never thought I’d like, or gave up the first time around. Giving them a second chance, they aren’t half bad. So now I’m going to provide a quick recap of ten (count’em, 10) of these shows, so you can decide whether or not to give these shows a viewing.

1. Grace and Frankie

This is probably the biggest surprise on the list. Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin play two women in their 70s who become unlikely best friends after their husbands come-out and become lovers. I could not relate too much with the situation behind this comedy, but an excellent cast, some pretty good writing, and a funny-yet-heartfelt tone really won me over. Fonda plays Grace, a serious, sophisticated business woman who ran a cosmetics company and needs her life to be perfect. On the other side, Tomlin plays Frankie, an unpredictable free spirit and hippie who teaches art classes to convicts and named her sons Coyote and Nwabudike. At first, they were mortal enemies, forced to live together in a shared beach house after their husbands moved in together, but they eventually learned to tolerate and even depend on each other. To me, the show’s focus on their offbeat-yet-solid friendship is what got me hooked in spite of all the stuff about seniors and their sex-lives (which definitely did not). (4 out of 5)

2. The Ranch

Just like Grace and Frankie, I’d seen promotions for The Ranch all around Netflix, as one of its originals, but I had no intention of giving it a shot. Ashton Kutcher does not really headline my kind of entertainment. I thought he was pretty funny on That 70s Show as Kelso, but his stupid goofballs are not the kind of characters that I like. When he was joined by fellow 70s alum Danny Masterson on The Ranch in a show about rancher brothers who struggle with their family, and with relationships (often due to their inability to express their feelings). These elements were all warning flags for me to stay away. However, once I tried on Kutcher, as a pro footballer who returns to his family’s cattle ranch after his career ends, I actually found myself interested in what happened to him and his family. Masterson plays his brother and in true Prodigal Son fashion, Kutcher’s character’s return stirs up a tornado of resentment from Masterson’s character who stayed behind. Topping off the triangle of stolid masculinity is their father, played really well by Sam Shepherd, who can definitely work a stone-faced glare. Again, the actors do a pretty good job (Kutcher inhabits his character well), and the show is surprisingly heartfelt about finding humour despite the financial hardships that the family faces. One weak point is Debra Winger as the mom: she’s kind of stiff and as a character, she doesn’t fit too well into the ensemble. (3.5 out of 5)

3. Life In Pieces

When it first premiered (it’s not a Netflix original), I dismissed Life In Pieces as a Modern Family knock-off. It kind of is, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyable and diverting. Also about a family of adults (including grandparents, as well as grandchildren) who spend an unusually large amount of time together, there’s a very similar feel to this show. On Life In Pieces, there are three segments per episode (hence the title) and each segment brings together different members of this extended family in different situations. It’s taking the concept of “situation comedy” and putting an organized framework around it. The characters vary in likeability and quirkiness. I can’t say there are any that I am a total fan of (though maybe Colin Hanks as a hapless new dad comes close), which means I don’t have a character who anchors me to the show. It’s very take-or-leave for me, even after having watched the entire first season plus a bit of the second. (3 out of 5)

4. No Tomorrow

Another show that I gave up on originally, this one features Joshua Sasse as Xavier, an eccentric, free-spirited guy who is convinced that the world will end in eight months so he wants to live what remains of his life to the full. He meets up with Evie, who falls for Xavier’s good looks as well as his cavalier spirit. He ignites the risk-taker in her own relatively buttoned-up life (as a middle-manager for a Costco-style chain store). The situations for comedy are triggered by the two working through their doomsday bucket lists, as well as from the odd ensemble of friends and co-workers in Evie’s life. This show was alright, and it actually had a bit of an interesting background story arc around Xavier trying to get the message out about the imminent disaster. However, I did not really fall for the side characters, who are just oddly-mediocre. As for the main couple, I believe their story would have played out completely differently if they weren’t both so attractive, which just makes this show even more ridiculous. I enjoyed the episodes well enough, but if the show had not been cancelled already after its first season, I probably would have stopped watching. (3 out of 5)

5. About A Boy

Do you know of the Nick Hornby book of the same name, which spawned the original Hugh Grant movie; or that the movie also got turned into a TV series? Well, it lasted two seasons from 2014 to 2015, and presented the story of Will Freeman, a songwriter and bachelor, living off royalties from a megahit single and a roguish charm with women. However, when a quirky, hippie mother (played by Minnie Driver) and her young son move in next door, their lives start to intrude on each other and eventually bond and blend. I did watch the first episode of this show back when it aired, but immature man-child characters are one type that I really don’t like, so I stopped watching. However, as I stuck with the show this time around, I got to see a really crazy-yet-healthy relationship grow between Will and the neighbour kid (Marcus). As a bro/surrogate dad to Marcus, Will’s character really developed over two seasons. I enjoyed how they brought out the best in each other. It eventually became a plot point how close the two guys became, but I’m glad that the show leaned into that kind of unique relationship. It’s a bit too bad that the show ended, because I think I might have continued to watch it. (3.5 out of 5)

6. The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

I didn’t discover this series this summer. In fact, I had really enjoyed previous seasons when they first appeared on Netflix. Unfortunately, my interest and enjoyment of the series has decreased each season. The show about a young woman who had been rescued from a doomsday cult, trying to find a life for herself in New York, was an extreme and humourous fish-out-of-water story in season one, and I kind of enjoyed the over-the-top supporting characters, including her flamboyantly gay roommate, oddly crotchety landlady, and strangely clueless, rich boss. After two seasons, I now find Kimmy (played by Ellie Kemper) unbearably naive — though it was funny before. I’m finding it hard to stomach roommate Titus’s ridiculous melodrama, and the rest of the stories and characters are just getting broader and broader. As the situations get more soap-opera melodramatic (Can you believe there’s actually a “remove the bandages” reveal for one character, who ends up looking like a totally different person?) I don’t know what to laugh at anymore. (3 out of 5)

7. Master of None

As another acclaimed Netflix original sitcom, Azziz Ansari’s labour of love, has gone the opposite direction in my estimation from Kimmy Schmidt. I watched the first half of Master of None season one and gave up, feeling very little connection to Ansari’s character Dev (a struggling actor trying to find love and success in New York), and I didn’t like his friends much. (I did, however, love the acclaimed episode connecting a couple of the character to the stories of their immigrant parents.) Fortunately, good buzz caused me to retry the show, and I was really glad that I did. When Dev went to Italy to study pasta-making in season two, it transformed the show. The writing seemed to get a bump up in sophistication, while still remaining focused on Dev’s successes and failures in life. I enjoyed the characters much more in the second season, and the stories were richer and more satisfying (a high point was the Thanksgiving episode that not only traced Dev’s relationship with one of his best friends, Denise, since their childhood, it also showed Denise’s family come to terms with her being a lesbian). On top of all that, Alessandra Mastronardi is beautifully-flawed perfection as Dev’s friend/girlfriend Francesca; and the season ends with a subtle, nuanced, will-they-won’t-they cliffhanger. I can’t wait for the next season! (4.5 out of 5)

8. Friends From College

First off, this show looks like a comedy from the advertising, but it is not one. It’s a drama (with some humourous elements) about a group of friends and acquaintances from college whose group is potentially reforming when one couple moves back to New York. Keegan-Michael Key and Cobie Smulders play the pair in question, whose marriage is a bit shaky (wife does not know that husband has been having a long-distance affair with another one of their friends from college all these years, but now that they’re going to be co-located, it might just come up). I think the title of the series is meant to be ironic, or at least point a finger at the idea (which gets a lot of play on TV) that a group of friends from college will be friends forever. These characters act friendly and tease out the relationships that reach back into the past, but they are not very good to each other. The show reaches an extreme climax in the season finale as revelations lead to confrontations and a nice car is ruined. I didn’t find this show fun to watch, but I did want to see how these relationships all played out. Still haven’t decided on season 2 (3.5 out of 5)

9. Bajillion Dollar Propertie$

Coming from Seeso, a streaming channel that you’ve probably never heard of, this show lampoons the many real-estate based reality-TV shows. It focuses on a single top-end real estate firm in California, whose agents are all clawing their way to the top. While the characters are all pretty broad, they play pretty well (especially when paired with one of many comedic guest stars as clients, including Nick Kroll, Jack McBrayer, Patton Oswalt, Randall Park, Andy Richter, Casey Wilson, Weird Al Yankovic, Rhys Darby, Bret McKenzie, and Sarah Silverman). The scene that convinced me to give the whole series a shot was one where Dan Ahdoot (who plays Amir Yaghoob, a very driven agent) tried to wrangle The Walking Dead‘s Steven Yeun as a spoiled rich kid who has gotten high with his friends in a home that Amir is trying to sell. The writing and tone is uneven, but if you enjoy poking fun at the excess that this kind of tv normally promotes, then this is a fun cartoon of a show. (3.5 out of 5)

10. Rick and Morty

Last, but definitely not least, is an animated comedy that I should have discovered a long time ago. It is tailor-made for sci-fi geeks such as myself and, for my money, contains the highest concentration of sci-fi ideas of any series currently active. Think of it as a cross between Futurama and Doctor Who. The title characters are Rick Sanchez (a hard-drinking, hard-partying, vulgar super-genius who can invent virtually anything) and his grandson Morty Smith (a semi-naive 14 year old brought along as a companion for his grandpa’s crazy inter-dimensional adventures). Though it’s an animated show, it is not really for kids. There is a lot of profanity and some pretty perverse and deviant ideas are tossed around left and right (I confess, I would have enjoyed less of that element). Armed with a portal gun that takes them to other places in the universe as well as alternate versions of reality, this show has everything from robots, space creatures, shrinking down to microscopic, splintering of space-time, intergalactic talent competition, insectoid alien assassins, a planet of amazon women, and the list goes on ad infinitum. This show has so many details that fanboys (and fangirls) pore endlessly over them to form fan theories, etc. On top of all the science fictional goodness, there is also an intense family backdrop. The rest of the family consists of Rick’s daughter, who is Morty’s mother, Morty’s older sister Summer, and their father Jerry. The family is far from perfect and they struggle with lack of communication, lack of mutual respect, lack of affection, lack of acceptance, which may be typical in some family dramas that are trying to depict the challenges of actual family life, but on this show, it’s all part of a dark sense of humour that underlies the stories. I love that this show does not shy away from the tough stuff, and also that it does not hold back on the sci-fi. I’m currently rewatching the series (even as the third season has already begun) to try to catch as many of the details as I can. (4.5 out of 5)

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