Master of None

I’m probably coming into this review with a completely different mindset because I’m not familiar with Aziz Ansari’s work. I always just assumed he was funny from other people’s opinions and the fact that Parks and Rec was an incredibly popular show. Somehow, I managed to avoid everything he made (including that pizza delivery movie he made with Jesse Eisenberg or something). But after hearing about Master of None and its unanimous 100% rating for both seasons on Netflix, I decided to check it out one night with my roommate. Boy, was that an uncomfortable experience due to the opening sex scene. I wasn’t fully sure how I felt after watching the first episode (I mean, there were a few funny parts, but nothing really stood out), so I decided to put it aside for a while. It wasn’t until a few weeks later when I revisited the show that I began to discover the genuine human story behind Master of None.

The structure of the show is quite unique. It is comprised of episodic vignettes centered around Ansari’s character Dev and his friends hanging out in New York. For some, this might be a bit disorienting; most people like their TV shows to tell a complete linear story from beginning to end. I was similarly skeptical after watching an episode that had no ties to the previous one. But at the same time, I recognized it as an ingenious technique; for most Americans, this is how life operates on a day-to-day basis. We experience random events that don’t depend on prior knowledge but rather instantaneous feeling. Sure, Master of None carries through several storylines that you would expect from television like the romantic subplot, but it largely allows the audience to walk alongside Dev and discover new things with him. I don’t think we get enough of that in this day and age.

If the show had just focused on Dev, I doubt it would be as strong. Thankfully, our energetic protagonist is joined by some memorable sidekicks like his awkward white friend Arnold, the non-stereotypical Asian friend Brian, and the lesbian black friend Denise (who’s probably the funniest of them all). This is an excellent case study where I don’t think they’re stunt-casting diversity. It really seems like Ansari, who I’m sure borrowed a lot from personal experience, would actually have friends like them and you can tell by their onscreen chemistry that all the actors work well together. Also included are Dev’s parents (played wonderfully by Ansari’s real mom and dad) and what I consider a breakout role from Francesca (Alessandra Mastronardi). It’s hard not to like any of the characters, making the show infinitely easier to watch.

But what makes Master of None truly worthy of that perfect Rotten Tomatoes score is its commentary on real-life issues. The obvious ones include relationships and racism, but others cover coming out to your parents, equal representation in media, family religion, and having kids. I may not necessarily agree or identify with everything this show decides to discuss, but it paints a realistic portrait of everyday Americans (and to a greater extent, human beings in general). Some of these are issues that people of a different skin color or sexual orientation have to struggle with and they often get pushed under the rug in favor of less controversial storylines. Master of None boldly explores those topics without forcing you to accept their worldview. Especially concerning shows with heightened versions of reality, honesty is an absolute necessity and it provides that in spades.

Still, I can find flaws with the show, particularly regarding some of the jokes. A surprising number of them just didn’t land with me for some reason, many of them from Arnold. While an endearing character, it seemed like the writers were desperately trying to make him look cool by delivering quirky lines that no one else would say. Sure, there may actually be people who act just like him, but it didn’t work all the time for me. Maybe the bar was set way too high (it’s pretty rare for anything mainstream to receive a perfect rating), subconsciously making me believe that every joke landed right on the money. Nevertheless, Master of None balances it out with exchanges like this one that perfectly line up with my experience:

Arnold: Dude, I’m hungry too. Let’s eat. I’m good with whatever.

Dev: Why do people always say that? That’s no help at all. “I’m good with whatever” basically means “I’m bad at helping decide things.”

I’m sure if you were a big Aziz Ansari fan before Master of None, you will absolutely love a show that perfectly fits his beaming personality and showcases his skills as a jack of all trades (actor, writer, director). But for me, this also served as a great introduction to his comedic genius. The guy just gets humor and delivers it well, elevating everyone around him. The production value is top-notch for a Netflix original series; I was impressed by the smooth camerawork and the use of music playing over dialogue-free scenes. The celebrity cameos are also nicely woven into the show without fanfare (my favorites are Claire Danes and Angela Bassett). You can jump in with any episode and have a good time. If this seems like too much praise, it’s well-deserved. Master of None may not be a 100% in my book, but it sure comes close. Now I should go back and watch Parks and Rec.

Friends

Guest writer #3 is Matt Khor, my most recent roommate and the one who first suggested I watch Friends (thank goodness he did). We served many years together on worship team, so I know he also loves movies and TV (even though, as of this writing, he’s never seen Jurassic Park). Enjoy his thoughts on Rachel, Monica, Phoebe, Joey, Chandler, and Ross!

People who know me know that I love Friends. It is both my most recommended and most watched TV show to date, but despite my love for the show, it has always been hard for me to articulate exactly why I enjoy watching it so much – and no, it’s not just because Jennifer Aniston plays Rachel. This is an enigma known to many people: we become attached, enamored even, to things of relative inconsequence like TV shows, movies, or books. Such objects hold our attention so successfully that we can recite lines from them as easily as (and in some cases, more easily than) the required readings from our textbooks or work manuals.

By my own admittance, my love for Friends could be placed into the aforementioned category. I have forgotten whole courses worth of material in lieu of Joey’s correction of “moot point” into “moo point.” There have been days where watching Ross cook without oven mitts or Chandler make gargling noises for the umpteenth time was more important to me than any of my other more useful pursuits. I’ve noticed as I watch these episodes time after time that what I love most about many of them has changed drastically over time. What I first cherished was the witty humor of the writing and the great chemistry between the actors. Over time, however, I’ve grown to notice a new love of the show: not of the content per se, but of the fun that I can have without the risks that accompany real life. With my real-life friends, any number of errant jokes may hurt someone’s feelings and a situation that may be treated with brevity onscreen, such as forced time off work for Ross, can have dire consequences for a real-life friend. With my TV “Friends,” all I have to do is sit back and enjoy the banter – no risk involved because I know it isn’t real and the stories I see will be wrapped up neatly and nicely. In a way, this is what all modern entertainment offers us today: a window to laughter and adrenaline, without any of the troublesome risk or effort on our part.

However, as anyone who has ever loved a TV show knows, the fun must end eventually. The panning shot over Monica’s empty apartment eventually turns up onscreen, and we must come to terms with the end of the world we’ve spent so much time immersing ourselves in. I submit that our reaction should not be to simply dive into that world again, as I have been so guilty of doing. Instead, it’s to realize that even the best fiction is inspired by the world we live in right now. The great feelings we feel when we watch our favorite shows are, in some way or another, drawn from the real-world experiences of writers, directors, and actors. There is no Sherlock without real investigations, no Suite Life without real childhoods, no Friends without real friends. Even the most ridiculous notions of high fantasy and science fiction come from imaginations drawing upon the real world.

The realization of this real-world inspiration should result in not burying ourselves within the facsimile once more, but going out and experiencing the real thing. When someone describes a great experience, the usual response is not to ask for a repetition of the description, but rather a desire to experience for ourselves. Likewise, the TV shows and movies we watch should inspire us to explore the world which inspires the great high fantasy epics, to create and discover the technology of science fiction. We will find that our enjoyment of these passions will grow larger than our enjoyment of shows that inspired them. I can say from personal experience that although my love for Friends is great, it is merely a shadow of the love I have for my own friends.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

What is up with that Inhumans trailer? Who thought giving another show to Scott Buck, the “creative mind” behind Iron Fist, was a good idea? I ask this because Agents of SHIELD has already proven successful at handling Inhumans while simultaneously differentiating them from the other superheroes of this world. Sure, there were a few early bumps in the road, but the first official MCU TV show has found its stride and erased the need for another one that focuses on enhanced individuals. But we’re getting it anyway because Hollywood doesn’t know how to leave well enough alone.

For most basic cable TV shows, I think they traditionally need a few episodes to gain traction. Agents of SHIELD fits that mold because the pilot leaves you wondering, “Why should I care about any of these characters?” You recognize Agent Coulson from The Avengers, but his reintroduction only raises more questions due to his apparent death at the hands of Loki. Thankfully, it doesn’t take too long for the team to display some endearing qualities; once we see them put aside their differences to defeat a common enemy in the second episode, we understand why we should care about agents like Melinda May and FitzSimmons (so adorable). I think that any show with a central team needs to do a similar thing to engage the audience; when you put the characters in peril and then show them working together, you feel invested in the outcome rather than just plain bored. Honestly, it’s hard to explain why you latch on to certain TV characters and not others, but the Agents of SHIELD team quickly becomes one of my favorites. Maybe it’s the performances by all involved or their seemingly effortless ability to bounce ideas off each other. Nevertheless, they quickly recover from a rocky beginning.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has a long tradition of including post-credits scenes in their movies and it clearly carried over to the television world. However, I think it works more effectively for the latter because you know you’re getting a new episode every week, so you don’t have to wait several months to find out what Nick Fury was talking about. In Agents of SHIELD, there are several jaw-dropping final moments that successfully whet your appetite without making you sit through 10 minutes of credits. The first major surprise has to be supposed good guy Grant Ward revealing his allegiance to HYDRA, killing a high-ranking SHIELD agent, and joining forces with the Clairvoyant (RIP Bill Paxton). From there, the stakes are significantly raised, resulting in some quality television for multiple seasons.

One area where Agents of SHIELD will continue to suffer is the constant references to other MCU properties. I understand that there needs to be some sort of continuity and it’s often used for comedic effect, but it definitely gets annoying knowing we will never see RDJ or Chris Evans actually make an appearance. After introducing the Inhumans and now Ghost Rider (thankfully not played by Nicolas Cage), I think the show can stand on its own without having to rely on stealthy tie-ins to keep viewers engaged. The only exception is the ripple effect from Captain America: The Winter Soldier. With the revelation that HYDRA had secretly operated within SHIELD for decades, the show takes a turn into darker territory that propels an up-to-this-point lackluster story into an action-packed thriller.

The latest fourth season (now available on Netflix) also introduces some important real-world concepts like artificial intelligence. After the disastrous results with Ultron, Agents of SHIELD takes that initial idea and expands on it with AIDA and her quest to take over the Framework. It paints a scary but realistic portrait of technology that incorporates everything from virtual reality to alternate timelines. Not anything we haven’t seen before, but a logical next step for a show whose premise could ultimately end up repetitive. There is also a subtle commentary on the current presidential administration with the presence of a terrorist group hunting down Inhumans simply because they aren’t like us. Movies like The Dark Knight proved that the superhero genre can serve a greater purpose and Agents of SHIELD strives to do the same. I’ve heard some people say they stopped watching after the first few episodes, but if you can manage to get past that, I think you will be rewarded with some actual thought-provoking content.

In summary, Agents of SHIELD is a definite recommend for anyone who professes to be a Marvel fan. It expands the lore of the universe and introduces compelling new characters who may one day cross over into the movie side. It employs the traditional Marvel brand of humor, but it’s not afraid to explore deeper themes when given the opportunity. While it’s certainly cool to see the big superheroes, Agents of SHIELD reminds us that there are still ordinary people on the ground fighting to survive and, in some cases, support those same heroes. I think there is something for everyone here, but you should find out for yourselves.

ALF

Got another Throwback Thursday TV show for you and it’s one that premiered all the way back in 1986. I was first introduced to ALF by my good friend in middle school Ian Bateman; this was also the guy who convinced me that The Princess Bride (now my favorite movie ever) was not a “chick flick.” I’ll admit I was skeptical; after all, what kind of family sitcom adds an alien life form and expects to succeed? Well, to my surprise, ALF combines heart and humor into a weird but glorious package. Thanks again Ian!

It’s hard to sum up the entire show succinctly because of all the adventures ALF goes on, but they range from the predictable to the truly insane. From camping with the Tanner family to dealing with the dreaded Melmacian hiccups, the alien never fails to deliver the laughs for the studio audience. I realize that I’m probably not making any sense right now, but if you look up clips on YouTube, you’ll see what I mean. Clearly, this was a different time for television, so the quality may not hold up to today’s standards, but I often found myself replaying several episodes for the entertainment value. They even had several guest stars that I didn’t realize were famous until much later (like Ben Stiller’s mom Anne Meara and a teenage Carla Gugino).

There is one infuriating thing about ALF that may make viewers shy away and that’s a cliffhanger ending. I’m not talking about a recurring theme though; the show literally ends with (SPOILER) ALF surrounded by the Alien Task Force, the organization that has been trying to capture him from the beginning. We get the classic “to be continued” text and then…nothing. NBC decided to cancel the show after the last episode was broadcast, leaving its audience in a state of shock and uncertainty (apparently the cliffhanger was resolved in a TV movie, but I never saw it). I certainly can’t blame you for thinking this would ruin your viewing experience.

I also discovered much later that production of ALF was very grueling on the actors and crew. The people playing the Tanners were upset that ALF kept getting all the good lines of dialogue while having to navigate complex sets with trapdoors everywhere. From what I read, it sounded like everyone involved was incredibly relieved when the show finally ended. This broke my heart a little because for those middle school years, I genuinely enjoyed watching all four seasons (favorite episode: the cockroach one if you need somewhere to start). To learn that it wasn’t as fun on the other side diminished the quality ever so slightly.

So will you like ALF? It’s hard to say; the visuals leave a lot to be desired (although I will applaud them for making the alien look realistic), but the constant shenanigans are guaranteed comedy. I own all the DVDs, so if you ever want to borrow them and see for yourself, be my guest. Just don’t bring your cat.

House of Cards

To celebrate the release of the fifth season, this post will cover House of Cards. But I won’t be the one writing about it. I’m proud to introduce the second guest writer for Differing Opinions (and first since last July): Patrizia Man! We go way back…to 2014 when we were part of the same college fellowship and served together on worship team. She is an avid fan of the show, probably more than me, so I have tasked her with describing her overall experience with Frank Underwood and company. Enjoy!

Antiheroes are all the rage these days. And I do think that when the character is done right, villains can be way more complex and interesting than the heroes. In celebration of the new season, I was invited to write about House of Cards which features a villainous POTUS who people love to root for. This post involves important plot points from Seasons 1-4 though, so read at your own risk if you’re not caught up with the show yet.

I came across the DVD box set of the first season and it only took the first episode to get me hooked; I didn’t even know what Netflix was back then. Needless to say, I finished the whole first season in a couple of days and four seasons later, it remains one of my favorite shows (after Sherlock and Breaking Bad). One of the biggest draws of this show is definitely David Fincher, who serves as one of the executive producers and directed the first two episodes of the first season. He’s one of my favorite directors and his distinctive style definitely got me even more interested in the show. Fincher’s involvement also led to a perfect cast for the show; I can’t imagine anyone other than Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright playing Frank and Claire Underwood respectively.

In general, the main storyline of each season can be summarized in one simple sentence Season 1: Frank’s revenge plot and attempt to become the VP; Season 2: Frank’s plot to get rid of the then-POTUS (who’s a bit of a moron); Season 3: Frank doing random stuff with the Russian president; Season 4: Frank trying to win the election to stay in power. The show works best when Frank has a clear singular goal to achieve, which is why Season 3 was so boring when Frank didn’t have that (even when Lars Mikkelsen plays a terrific Russian president). The show also succeeds when Frank and Claire work together as a single entity. In my opinion, they are one of the best power couples ever, which is also why Season3 and the first half of Season 4 didn’t work as well for me when the writers pitted the two characters against each other.

So I guess by now you know which season is my least favorite. Fourth-wall breaking is an important element in the show, as it humanizes Frank Underwood and connects the audience to his inner thoughts. When Frank basically stopped doing it in Season 3 and the first half of Season 4, you got the impression that Frank didn’t care about his audience anymore. But it also made the second half of Season 4 so much more delightful when he turned to the camera once again and told the audience that he’s back after a nearly-fatal attempt on his life. And I literally flipped out when Claire joined him at the very end of Season 4 and the two of them stared dead straight into the camera. It was the best ending scene of any season ever. My favorite episode, though, has to go to the first episode of Season 2. It quite literally started the season off with a WHAM! and delivered one of the most shocking plot twists in the show.

All things considered, House of Cards is as binge-worthy as everybody else is saying and you should definitely watch it if you haven’t yet!

Iron Fist

Yeah…they can’t all be perfect. While I thought the trailer for this show looked decent, nothing could save Iron Fist from poor writing and rushed action scenes. It’s not all bad as that 17% rating on Rotten Tomatoes might indicate, but it’s by far the worst of the individual superhero shows. I’ll start with the good though because I think people have been dismissing Iron Fist without actually stopping to consider its merits. First, Jessica Henwick as Colleen Wing is without a doubt the best character on the show. She possesses a fiery and independent spirit; while she does fall in love with Danny Rand, she doesn’t conform to a typical romantic interest. Her fight scenes (especially in that caged arena) are awesome and yet it still doesn’t feel like there’s enough of her in Iron Fist. Henwick completely redeems herself from the awful Dorne storyline in Game of Thrones (which wasn’t really her fault because the writers gave her NOTHING to do) and I can’t wait to see how she fits into The Defenders later this summer.

Starting in the sixth episode, the show actually starts to intensify in terms of stakes and actual plot. Danny Rand has to go through a Mortal Kombat-style tournament to free a kidnapped girl. Now this stuff is more exciting! The writers finally put aside all of the boring corporate drama and let RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan have some directing fun. In addition, the Drunken Master fight a few episodes later rocks and brings back memories of younger Jackie Chan. It’s true that most of the fight scenes in Iron Fist employ terrible editing and choreography, but not all of them are devoid of a little enjoyment.

There are some great supporting performances as well, from returning Marvel regulars Rosario Dawson, Carrie-Anne Moss, and the woman who plays Madame Gao, but let’s get to the bad parts of the show. Iron Fist commits what I will dub the “Star Wars prequels” mistake; in other words, it chooses to dwell on the boring aspects of the character rather than what everyone really wants to see. Just like we don’t want to see endless council meetings in The Phantom Menace, we also don’t want to see board meetings with Danny Rand and the Meachums as they make poor decision after poor decision. That’s not to say that the show has to only consist of fighting though; in Daredevil and Jessica Jones, some of the best parts were the conversations rather than the punching and kicking. As much as people may rush to blame the actors for being bland, they were handed some awful dialogue (much like Hayden Christensen). I believe that Finn Jones, also from Game of Thrones, can be a convincing and good Iron Fist if the writers had just established him as a strong character and not someone who has to constantly remind people that “I am the immortal Iron Fist!”

While the script is mostly to blame, I still take issue with some of the actors, in particular Tom Pelphrey as Ward Meachum (or as I like to call him, depressed Fred Armisen). I just found him to have absolutely no energy whenever he was onscreen. Trying to focus on his drug abuse and alcoholism also felt like desperate attempts to make him a relevant character; we all know that Joy was the only worthy sibling anyway (their dad even admits this), so why do we have to endure his lazy performance?

But as much crap as there is in Iron Fist, I have to defend it a little bit. Finn Jones has said himself that he wasn’t given proper time for martial arts training, which explains why there are so many cuts during his fight scenes. Whether that’s a problem with the casting department for not picking someone with more experience or the showrunners for not understanding the source material, I can’t speculate, but it goes to show that not all the blame can be placed on Jones or the other actors.

But the main point I want to make about Iron Fist is this: I don’t think he works as a solo character. I’m going to make up another term, but I think he suffers from the “Ant-Man syndrome.” This refers to a superhero who didn’t really deserve his own property but worked great once he was surrounded by others (like Paul Rudd in Captain America: Civil War). I’m certainly not putting Ant-Man on the same level as Iron Fist quality-wise (although I only rank the former right around the middle of the MCU), but I don’t think either of their stories lends itself to a feature-length movie or TV show. That’s why I’m still holding out hope that Danny Rand can work in The Defenders; judging from that first trailer, his interaction with Luke Cage is one to watch.

Normally, I wouldn’t write this much for a below-average TV show, but it’s because I think people are being too unfair. There are some distinctly great parts of Iron Fist that make at least some of the episodes tolerable. Yes, it’s still terrible as a whole compared to the three that came before, but if you’re like me, you understand that you can’t properly judge a show without watching it for yourself. Was there a part of me that kept watching simply because I thought it was necessary for setup purposes? Of course, but I would urge you to give it a try. It’s definitely not 17% bad; the average rating of 4.24/10 is much more accurate.

Luke Cage

By now, I wasn’t in any position to doubt Marvel. Two great seasons of Daredevil and one solid entry for Jessica Jones established the high expectations I had for Luke Cage. There was no waiting for the hype this time; I was all in on the underutilized black superhero (which will hopefully come to glorious fruition in next year’s Black Panther). So what was the result?

If you only watched the first seven episodes of Luke Cage, you would end up with one of the best superhero TV shows (maybe ever, but certainly in the last few years). It perfectly captures New York City and particularly Harlem with its stylistic choices and 90s hip-hop music. One of the first scenes takes place in Pop’s barbershop with the guys discussing the Knicks and their recent drafting of Kristaps Porzingis. As a basketball fan, this opening immediately hooked me. The way to ground these seemingly unending superhero movies or TV shows is to show them having regular everyday conversations.

I briefly mentioned the music, but it deserves another paragraph. You could tell that everyone involved gave 110% when it came to incorporating music into the show; there’s a swell of energy every time an artist performs at Harlem’s Paradise. The soundtrack could’ve been even better too because according to reports, the showrunners wanted Prince to perform in the season finale before his passing in April. Personally, I really enjoyed the Method Man cameo (probably because he’s the only artist I recognize), but come on…he came up with an original song for Luke Cage! Throw in the fact that every episode is named after a song from the group Gang Starr and you end up with the best music in any Marvel property to date.

However, as soon as Oscar-winning actor Mahershala Ali (MAJOR SPOILER) bows out, the show takes a dive off the deep end. His “replacement” Diamondback basically amounts to your standard bad guy who just wants revenge against Luke Cage. Their final showdown was very unsatisfying as it only amounted to two guys forcefully punching each other. They also tried to make Alfre Woodard’s character more of a central figure, which didn’t really work for me. She was much more conniving when she worked in tandem with Cottonmouth, who could play suave and intimidating at the same time. Ali was the best thing about Luke Cage and I can’t understand for the life of me why they decided to get rid of him (I know, it probably follows the comics, but it sure didn’t work onscreen).

In all honesty, the Netflix Marvel shows are somewhat of a downward slide, but it’s not as severe as you would think. The first half of Luke Cage is amazing and stands up there with the best that Marvel has to offer in television. But a disappointing second half keeps the whole thing from measuring up to the lofty heights of Daredevil. As someone who had no idea who Luke Cage was or why he deserved an entire storyline, this show proves me wrong by providing interesting backstory and great music. It’s still definitely worth checking out ahead of the next one…