TIME Television

Halt and Catch Fire Became the Next Mad Men When It Stopped Trying to Be

Scoot McNairy as Gordon Clark and Lee Pace as Joe MacMillan - Halt and Catch Fire _ Season 2, Episode 10 - Photo Credit: Richard DuCree/AMC
Richard DuCree/AMC

AMC's computer-business drama just finished one of the year's best TV seasons. It deserves another one.

One problem with the first season of Halt and Catch Fire was that it seemed, intentionally or not, like AMC was trying to make another version of Mad Men. There was a period setting (the 1980s), an office environment (the early personal computer business) and above all, a tortured mystery man with a secret, Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace). It was as unsatisfying a substitution as replacing your martini with a New Coke.

But by the end of the first season, HACF found itself. It ditched the storyline about launching an IBM PC clone, it ditched the Jobs/Wozniak dynamic between Joe and hardware wiz Gordon (Scoot McNairy). It became a story about the thrill and costs of creation, shifting attention to the marriage of Gordon and Donna (Kerry Bishé)–herself a visionary shackled to a pay-the-bills job at Texas Instruments–and to Cameron (Mackenzie Davis), the spiky-haired programmer who wanted to foresaw computers as something people connect with, not simply log on to.

The second season improved logarithmically, as if through some TV-business version of Moore’s Law. It made Donna and Cameron into the show’s leads as they launched Mutiny, an early online gaming company. Focusing on two women launching a startup in the ’80s wasn’t just refreshing–Bechdel Test, meet Turing Test–it also simply made for a more interesting dynamic than Joe and Gordon’s Don-Draper-meets-Walter-White dynamic did. HACF found a truly vital story in ’80s computing–Donna seeing the value in chatrooms, the early iteration of the virtual lives we all lead today. In the process, it stopped trying to be Mad Men and learned how to be itself.

Yet, when I watched “Heaven Is a Place,” the excellent season two finale, I realized something: HACF has, in fact, kind of become the next Mad Men, but in the best possible way.

I’m not saying that simply because “Heaven” ended with nearly the entire cast boarding a plane for California, planning to reboot Mutiny (and God willing continue the show) in the location that so many of Mad Men‘s characters saw as a place for rebirth, reinvention, chasing the future and escaping the past. And HACF doesn’t resemble Mad Men in most surface aspects. It doesn’t have delectable fashions and furnishings (this is the ’80s). It doesn’t have a vast group of urbane characters dropping bon mots. It has a truly awful title. As a result, it doesn’t have even the sizeable cult audience that Mad Men did, and its fate is uncertain even though it’s become one of the best shows on TV.

But philosophically, HACF is doing precisely what Mad Men did: it’s showing how work, and the products of that work, express character. Season one had various problems to work through, but a basic one was simply that hardware is not as artistically interesting as software. Imagine if Mad Men were set at Kodak rather than among the folks trying to sell the Carousel.

Halt and Catch Fire is chronicling a time when computer software was moving from becoming mainly a tool to run calculations and solve problems to being a means for externalizing the self. It would become a place for play, for discovery, for friendship, for sex. Now that’s interesting. It’s the story of us, of people beginning to imagine the world where many of us now live half our lives.

But that’s still just an idea. What has made HACF a terrific story is that it used that premise to develop rich characters with complicated relationships. It’s realized, essentially, that software is its answer to advertising: it’s a device whose purpose is to tap into human needs or fears or desires, and thus it can reflect those in its own characters. (Think Don selling a Hawaiian hotel as a place to disappear, or Peggy drawing on her troubled Catholic background to sell Popsicles as communion.) It is more than a product. As a certain Korean War veteran used to say, the product is you, feeling something.

Thus it’s Cameron, who resists being subject to others’ restrictions and control, who insists on pushing the immersive aspects of Mutiny’s games: it’s not enough that Mutiny be fun, it needs to be a place to can disappear into, a place that feels without boundary, where you can replace your face with a skull because it’s badass and you can. Thus it’s Donna, who has had to hold together a family, manage an erratic husband, ride herd on a stubborn business partner, who sees that the real long-term play at Mutiny is Community–enabling connections among people.

Thus it’s Joe, who has learned suspicion as the only useful strategy for life, who sees an opening in the virus-protection market: “Real security is trusting no one.” (Yeah, he hits the metaphor a little hard, but sometimes Mad Men did that too.) And thus it’s Gordon, the hardware guy in an increasingly software world, who has been adrift this season despite the freedom that cashing in on his company would seem to have afforded him. He has a neurological condition–his wiring is failing him–and he ends the season realizing he needs to put Donna’s career first: he needs, literally, to put his faith in Community.

What began seeming like a misfire is now easily one of the few best dramas of the year. It may not be a lucrative decision for AMC to pick up another season, but that’s what Fear the Walking Dead is for. If a reputation for supporting quality still matters to AMC’s brand, it will order a third season.

The first version of Halt and Catch Fire had a shelf-life shorter than a PC the day before the new Macintosh came out. But the show’s strong casting and writing now has purpose and a worthy premise: complicated people trying to create a new world. A place where your essence, your you, is abstracted from your physical shell and can roam free. Today, we call that sort of place the Internet. People used to call it Heaven.

TIME Television

Review: Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp Seems Like Old Times

WHAS-6310.CR2
Saeed Adyani/Netflix Poehler and Cooper, back for the first day of camp.

They keep getting older, but their characters are slightly younger--and just as weirdly funny.

Even by the standards of today’s reboot/remake/remodel culture, there are enough layers of nostalgia in Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp (premieres on Netflix July 31) to rend the fabric of space-time. It’s a 2015 prequel to a 2001 movie, set in 1981. To watch this reunion-cum-origin-story, with its middle-aged original cast putting on teenage drag again, is to feel a tug of memory for the aughts and the ’90s heyday of MTV’s The State (which gave us co-writers Michael Showalter and David Wain) and the ’70s and ’80s camp comedies like Meatballs it lovingly spoofs. If this eight-episode series were any more dense with resonances across time, it would be directed by Terrence Malick and have a prologue involving dinosaurs.

Fortunately, as reminders of one’s inexorable mortality go, First Day of Camp is good fun. Like the original (set on the last day of summer camp), it’s a machine constructed of pop parodies and well-curated period references (“He’s a total fox, like a young Larry Wilcox!”) that conceals an actual beating heart. On top of the goofs of the movie–which mashed up sex farces and hijinks with a plot involving the crash of Skylab and a montage of a wild afternoon that ended in heroin abuse–it adds the absurdity of showing us the “history” of characters whom, after all, we last saw only one short camp season later.

Sometimes that means putting the denizens of Camp Firewood through far-fetched changes (as when we learn how H. Jon Benjamin came to voice a talking can of vegetables). Sometimes it means characters living through essentially the same plots they did in the movie. Hapless romantic Cooperberg (Showalter, donning an ’80s-kid hair helmet at age 45) is led on by another female counselor (this time played by Lake Bell); Molly Shannon’s Gail confides her grown-up love problems to precociously wise campers; Ken Marino’s secret virgin Kulak is still fronting as a Romeo. But at eight episodes (I’ve seen six), Wain and Showalter have the chance to layer in more outlandish subplots involving toxic waste, President Reagan and ’80s rock journalism. It’s an imitation of the film, but at least it’s not a pale one.

Like Netflix’s ur-revival, Arrested Development, First Day of Camp reunites nearly all of the original cast. (Reportedly, the reunions involved creative scheduling and some use of greenscreen, but the interactions among the characters don’t suffer much for it.) And it doesn’t stop there: Josh Charles, Rich Sommer and Kristen Wiig ham it up as toffs at the rich camp across the lake; John Slattery owns the screen as a bigshot theater director; and the many, many additional guests include Michael Cera, Jordan Peele and Jon Hamm. If you are an actor known for playing cameos in oddball comedies and you are not in First Day of Camp, you need a new agent or you are dead.

Reboots often run into an existential crisis: why this, why again, why now? But the original Wet Hot American Summer was an absurd lark to begin with, which makes “Because we can, and enough people had free days on their calendars” reason enough to justify the prequel. It’s possible for a project like this to substitute cameos for creativity (think of Will Ferrell and Wiig’s Lifetime movie A Deadly Adoption, whose chief attraction was that Ferrell and Wiig were in a Lifetime movie), and sometimes First Day of Camp is more knowing than funny. But the heart of its appeal is the oldest and most effective form of nostalgia: seeing how old pals have changed after all these years. Look, there’s Bradley Cooper–he’s a big movie star now! There’s Amy Poehler–she’s a comedy icon!

A little like Matthew McConaughey’s Wooderson in Dazed and Confused, they all keep getting older, but their characters stay the same age. (The exception, of course, is Paul Rudd, who will remain unmarked by time long after the sun has flared into a red giant.) But rather than seeming tired or sad, the age dissonance–which was already built into the original movie–is all part of the fun. You could imagine the crew presenting a new, age-idealized version of themselves every few years, like a goofier 7 Up series, or like your Facebook feed.

At one point, for instance, we learn that a certain character, played by a 41-year-old actress who was 27 when the original movie was released, is actually a 24-year-old impersonating a teenager. I won’t spoil who or why, but when she’s told that there’s no way she can pull off the ruse, she responds by simply turning around and mussing up her hair. She looks no different, and everyone acts like it’s a remarkable transformation.

That’s the hopeful, silly, sweet spirit of Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp–you’re only as old as you say you are.

TIME Television

Review: I Am Cait Shows What It’s Like to Come Out With the Kardashians

I Am Cait - Season 1 caitlyn jenner
James White—E! Entertainment

The documentary series showing Jenner's transition proves to be more sensitive than its Kardashian counterparts

Caitlyn Jenner, at age 65, is getting ready to introduce herself to her mother for the first time. She’s nervous because her mother, Esther Jenner, knows her—as we all once did—as Bruce Jenner. And nervous because the former Olympic gold medalist and Keeping Up With the Kardashians dad is also reintroducing herself to the world as the most visible and thus scrutinized transgender person in America. “I hope I get it right,” she sighs.

I Am Cait (July 26 on E!), very un-Kardashians-like in its earnestness, is always conscious of its dual purpose: it’s a personal story played out for an audience of millions, on behalf of a much larger community. The premiere episode is emotional but controlled, much like Jenner’s carefully media-managed coming-out, from her Diane Sawyer primetime interview to the sultry cover of Vanity Fair magazine to her heart-tugging acceptance of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award from ESPN.

But at its most affecting it’s about something that can’t be massaged and mediated: a woman trying to live an honest life with her family, trying to close the decades-long distance between her self-image and her self presentation.

In a way, Esther is as important to the opening hour as her daughter, serving as a surrogate for viewers new to transgender issues. At 89, she turns out to be open and willing to adapt. She has trouble with the pronouns—”He’s a very good-looking woman,” she says at first—but she wrestles with the complexities by holding to the simple fact that her child remains her child. “I loved him with all my heart,” she says, “and I certainly love her with all my heart.”

It’s not easy for her, nor is it easy for Caitlyn—herself, after all, a senior citizen who’s spent a lifetime absorbing gender assumptions even as she chafed against them. But Caitlyn, who could come across awkward and guarded as Bruce on Keeping Up—living a secret, she says, made her “an isolationist”—now seems comfortable, free and funny. “Now I know why girls need a sports bra!” she exclaims while playing tennis with her sister.

The lighter moments in I Am Cait come via drop-ins from the extended Jenner-Kardashian clan. Caitlyn gets green hair extensions from daughter Kylie; later, stepdaughter Kim Kardashian stops by with celebrigod husband Kanye West, to consult on Caitlyn’s wardrobe. When Caitlyn shows off a little black Tom Ford dress, Kim says that her mother—Caitlyn’s ex-wife Kris—has the same one in chocolate brown. It’s service for Keeping Up fans, but it also serves I Am Cait’s theme of presenting transition not as a tragedy but an opportunity.

Of course, as Caitlyn acknowledges, she’s been privileged. Most people transitioning don’t have a stylist to prepare them to greet their mothers. (“I don’t think I can be too much in la femme mode,” Caitlyn says.) Most don’t have Diane Von Furstenberg sending them couture outfits, or get messages from the head of Twitter that their new accounts may hit a million followers faster than President Obama’s.

So I Am Cait builds in a sense of mission beyond its star subject. (The show comes from Keeping Up maker Bunim/Murray Productions, whose The Real World introduced MTV audiences to activist Pedro Zamora, one of the first gay men with AIDS portrayed in primetime.) The premiere announces itself with an Armistead Maupin quote—”The world changes in direct proportion to the number of people willing to be honest about their lives”—and ends with Jenner visiting the mother of Kyler Prescott, a 14-year-old transgender boy who committed suicide in May. At times the tone can be stiff and cautious, like a public-service announcement. But it’s a service nonetheless, lending celebrity’s un-turnoffable megaphone to the voiceless, especially kids.

That’s different from TLC’s I Am Jazz, which simply hands the microphone directly to one of those trans kids. Yet despite their similar titles, I Am Cait and I Am Jazz don’t feel like competitors so much as complements: a senior citizen entering a brave new world and a girl who has never known another world, the peculiar bubble of celebrity and the ordinariness of the ‘burbs. Neither reality show can be as poetic as Amazon’s scripted series Transparent, in which Jeffrey Tambor plays an elderly parent who comes out as female to her grown children. But as reality shows–however edited and self-consciously presented–they can send a message of authenticity: that people like Caitlyn and Jazz exist in the world; they are parents and children and siblings; and they, whatever anyone says, are real.

TIME Television

Review: Sharknado 3, Bigger, Hungrier and More Commercial

Sharknado 3 - Season 2015
Gene Page/Syfy Ian Ziering as Fin Shepard .

This franchise can still be gross, surprising fun. But first, you have to swim past all the product placements.

Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No! (Wednesday, July 22, on Syfy) is, of course, a disaster movie: sharks are swept up into storms, hurtle through the air eating humans on the fly, you know the drill. But even before a chainsaw is raised or a single extra goes torso-first into a great white’s gullet, it hints that Earth was struck by an earlier, unmentioned apocalypse: one that destroyed nearly everyone and everything not owned by Comcast Corporation.

Last year’s Sharknado 2, sequel to the 2013 social-media-rubbernecking sensation, already showed that the franchise was willing to use every part of the fish carcass to cross-promote Syfy’s siblings in Comcast-owned NBC Universal, giving prominent roles to Matt Lauer and Al Roker of NBC’s Today show. But that was merely tip of the dorsal fin compared with the feeding frenzy of placement in the third installment.

This time, as Fin Shepard (Ian Ziering) prepares to battle a toothy superstorm, we get saturation coverage from a full Today team, right down to wine-hoisting Kathie Lee and Hoda; cameos from Kim Richards and Reza Farahan of Bravo and Maria Menounos of E!; and repeat appearances of the Comcast Xfinity logo, which whips past us on a race car in Daytona.

Above all, we get lavish, loving, not-even-pretending-to-be-uncommercial shots of Comcast-owned Universal Orlando Resort, the setting for the greater part of the sequel’s carnage–because when man-eating sharks vacation, they Vacation Like They Mean It™. The Universal globe is more prominent than the black monolith in 2001. Characters casually-not-casually name-drop the Cabana Bay Resort. There are loving, languorous pans over the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit and Twister… Ride It Out rides. The movie is so overtly promotional, I suspect you can show your Tivo recording pass at the Harry Potter Three Broomsticks restaurant for 20% off a butterbeer.

But at least a theme park is an appropriate tie-in for Sharknado, because this franchise is really a series of rides, each of which has to somehow be faster and more vertiginous than the last. And there Sharknado 3 delivers, especially in the beginning (which destroys a major American city before the opening titles even roll) and the climactic ending, which after all the insanity of the first two movies somehow manages to boldly go where no shark has gone before.

We begin in Washington D.C., where Fin, wearing a tux and his trademark stomach-cramps grimace, is receiving a medal for valor from President Mark Cuban and Vice President Ann Coulter. The movie doesn’t waste time; essentially there are a few raindrops and soon hammerheads are flying through the halls of the White House (which, somehow, Comcast neglected to purchase naming rights to). Meanwhile, Fin’s pregnant wife April (Tara Reid) is visiting her mother May (Bo Derek) in Orlando, giving Fin a reason to race to the resort after D.C. is saved/decimated: a massive “sharknado wall” is bearing down on the East Coast, and Washington was merely an amuse-bouche.

The middle of the movie delivers the expected Sharknado-isms–stiff line delivery, brazen pseudoscience, lines like “Biometeorology is not really an exact science yet.” Tornadoes seem to appear out of blue sky (as do the emotional subplots), characters survive a plane crash that leaves them conveniently half-naked.

But it’s all buried in a cameo-nado of celebrity guest appearances: I won’t spoil your fun or cramp my fingers by listing them all, but they include the bipartisan appearances of both Anthony Weiner and Michele Bachmann, who prove that in today’s media climate a politician can both jump the shark and later costar with it. The slog of guest casting and product placements only underscores that Sharknado has become a big, bloated seafood platter, and everyone and their agent wants a bite.

But for all that, Sharknado 3 keeps its own self-aware sense of humor and it can still deliver a gorily surprising action setpiece. The best sequence by far is the movie’s climax, which involves almost no cameos, plugs or in-jokes; manages to both wink at and outdo the original movie’s chainsaw coup de grace; and ends with what is simultaneously one of the most disgusting, laughable yet weirdly beautiful visuals I’ve seen on TV this year.

In the end, Sharknado 3–like the CGI monsters that are its true stars–is the beast that it is: single-minded, greedy and ravenous. But for all that, it can still be a lovely creature.

TIME Media

Like It or Not, Donald Trump Is News

Saying that his campaign isn't a legitimate political story may feel good, but it denies reality.

On Friday, July 17, the Huffington Post announced that it would no longer cover Donald Trump, a candidate for President of the United States, as political news; instead, his campaign would go in the entertainment section. “Trump’s campaign is a sideshow,” wrote Huffington’s Ryan Grim and Danny Shea. “We won’t take the bait. If you are interested in what The Donald has to say, you’ll find it next to our stories on the Kardashians and The Bachelorette.”

The next day at an event in Iowa, Trump insulted Sen. John McCain, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, saying McCain was only a hero “because he was captured.” Most of the major Republican candidates and the Republican National Committee condemned Trump’s comment with an eagerness and alacrity they would not have shown had Kim Kardashian said it.

The reason, of course, is that Trump has become a problem for them: a political problem, not an entertainment problem. He’s claiming one of the limited spots in the upcoming debates and inflaming racial controversy by vilifying Mexican immigrants. His Nielsen ratings are not the issue here; his poll numbers are.

He’s a problem–and a story–because at this moment in time, Donald Trump is a politically newsworthy figure.

You could, of course, argue that Trump–like Martin O’Malley or Lindsey Graham or any number of political candidates covered as such–has no chance of winning. That he has no intention of winning. That early polls–which had Herman Cain the leader four years ago–are useless. That Trump shouldn’t be in the political debate because he’s outside the pale of civil discourse. And any news outlet is free to say just that!

You could also argue that Trump is getting way too much coverage proportionately, and you would probably be right. A good way to send that message would be by not covering him, or covering him far less, and ceding the delicious traffic that everyone in the news business knows comes by hanging a shiny golden ‘T’ on your stories.

But if Trump is newsworthy at all right now, it’s for political reasons.

A candidate doesn’t have to have a shot at winning to affect the race, even after he or she leaves it. Look at how Ross Perot made the deficit a central issue in the 1992 campaign, or how the conga line of Tea Party favorites pushed Mitt Romney to declare himself “severely conservative” in the 2012 primary.

It says something that Trump, a clown even by the forgiving standards of reality TV, is leading the polls–and it says something political, whether you like it or not. It shows how volatile and open the GOP race is right now. It shows that there is a streak of angry nativism in the party electorate, and the party establishment’s attempts to squelch it are like trying to squash an air mattress: the air will just find another place to swell out, and right now Donald Trump is that gas-inflated prominence.

Moving him to the Entertainment section is a symbolic message, but a bad one. For starters, it’s an insult to the Entertainment section, which should be more than a repository for “the dumb news.” The Huffington Post’s TV critic, Maureen Ryan, is one of the best in the business; I’d rather read her analysis of Trump as a media figure than 95% of the glib political hot takes out there. (There’s nothing wrong with doing serious coverage of political issues in the Entertainment section too; that’s where the article you’re reading now appears, because that’s where we run much of our media coverage.)

It smacks of paternalism. You may think you support this candidate, it tells voters, but you really don’t, or you won’t eventually. Or anyway you shouldn’t and since you clearly can’t be trusted to come to right thinking on your own–you wouldn’t even take Jon Huntsman seriously in 2012 when the political press told you to!–we’re going to need to give you this nudge.

Above all, it bolsters the bogus idea that coverage equals approbation. Covering candidates isn’t an endorsement any more than covering ISIS is. You do it because they matter. If they don’t, you should use your limited resources elsewhere.

If Huffington, or anyone else, wants to make the case that Trump is a fraud, or dangerous, or unserious, or simply wrong, by all means go ahead! Serious, smart journalism can argue a point of view. But it has to be grounded in reality, and the reality is that America has come to the juncture where Donald J. Trump is a political figure.

If you believe he’s news, then cover him as political news. If you don’t, but you still want to cover him because you know people will flock to something gilded and loud and shiny: well, Donald Trump knows a thing or two about that business.

TIME Television

Let’s Take a ‘Glass Half-Full’ Approach to This Year’s Emmy Nominations

There's always plenty to fume about in the Emmy nominations. This year, I'm meditating on what they got right

I am delighted with you, Emmy nominations! I am sorely disappointed in you, Emmy nominations. How did you manage to recognize my new favorite, Emmys? How could you keep nominating this old retread, Emmys?

You could cut-and-repaste some variation of this for every summer’s Emmy nominations, and to some extent that’s exactly what we do. In the past few years, Emmy voters—notorious in the past for choices that suggest they watch no TV other than last year’s Emmys—have opened the books just enough to ensure a mix of refreshing choices, autopilot renominations, and infuriating screwjobs. There are trends in each year’s Emmys insofar as there are trends in TV at large: this year, note the continuing rise in streaming services and primetime’s improvement in diverse casting. But really, the overarching message is always, simply: there sure are a lot of awards, and yet there’s even more deserving TV.

What you take from the Emmys, then, is a reflection of your personality as much as anything. So in an attempt at self-improvement, this year I’m thinking positive. Not for me to moan about the Emmys still ignoring The Americans (which has joined The Wire‘s “It’s an honor just to not be nominated” club), or overlooking Constance Wu’s sparkling work on Fresh Off the Boat, or stiffing Timothy Olyphant his last season on Justified, or what the hell, Downton Abbey again, over Empire, seriously? (Though I’m just passive-aggressive enough to sneak those complaints in there.)

Instead, in the hope that the Emmys respond to praise, here are some of the things they got right:

* Sometimes, Emmy does the right thing in a way you’d expect it to. There was no way it could have not rewarded Mad Men in its final season, but the show deserved it–and in particular Jon Hamm, who deserves to finally take home the hardware for his essential portrayal of Don Draper. After having had so much wonderful dialogue to deliver over seven seasons (eight, depending how you count), he sold the show’s final moments with his eyes closed, the minutely shifting emotions on his face and a resonant “Om.”

* And sometimes, Emmy does the right thing when you were sure it wouldn’t. That Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt got a nomination is not just deserved but a welcome statement: that there’s a payoff for outlets like Netflix to invest in shows so idiosyncratic that the likes of NBC would cast them off.

* Three cheers too for the supporting nomination for Kimmy‘s Tituss Burgess, who not only made scenes like Titus Andromedon’s local-TV meltdown endlessly rewatchable, but played off others well in the ensemble. (That there was no nomination for Ellie Kemper’s show-making performance in the title role is—wait, I’m being positive! Jon Hamm got a second nomination as Rev. Richard Wayne Gary Wayne!)

* Also, sometimes Emmy does the right thing slightly after it should. This convoluted season of Orphan Black was a comedown, but Tatiana Maslany’s multitudinous performance was no less virtuosic, and she picked up a drama actress nomination after last year’s cries of social-media anguish. Turns out the Internet works!

* It’s worth remembering that acting nominations are just that: not a verdict on the writing or the show as a whole. I wasn’t a fan of Netflix’s Bloodline; nonetheless, Ben Mendelsohn’s prodigal Danny Rayburn was one of the best things I’ve seen on TV this year, and Kyle Chandler also opened my eyes in a role that steered him into choppy waters leagues away from Coach Taylor.

* Comedy actress is a jam-packed category, and one with a lot of veterans. (I don’t care how funny Nurse Jackie is, Edie Falco killed it in the title role.) But I’m glad it opened up a chair this year for Amy Schumer. As much attention as she’s getting for her writing and her feminism and her attitude, her versatility as a performer makes the show.

* As for supporting, HBO’s darkly funny end-of-life medical comedy Getting On gets too little attention–including, frankly, from me–which is why I’m not just happy but damn impressed that the Emmys nominated Niecy Nash, who’s been giving a rich performance as overstressed nurse Didi.

* No one will ever be entirely happy with where any awards show categorizes Orange Is the New Black–especially as shows increasingly submit themselves strategically–but it was among the best comedies and dramas on TV last season. The more-dramatic second season landed in drama, and rightfully got a nomination.

* And while we’re on the subject of I-don’t-care-how-funny-it-is: Transparent and Jeffrey Tambor won television in 2014, even if they were on Amazon Prime. Win or lose, the Pfeffermans are a more modern family than Modern Family‘s.

* Maybe Empire, like Maslany, will get its nomination the second time out, but Taraji P. Henson basically kicked TV’s door down this winter. Whether she wins or not, I’m glad that–as erratic as Empire could be–there’s some recognition for the value of risk, excitement and fun in TV drama this year.

* Likewise, as up-and-down-and-back-up as Last Man on Earth was, few performances were as essential to an episode of TV last year than Will Forte’s in its pilot.

Is it all happiness and justice in Emmyland this year? No! But life is life and the Emmys are the Emmys. This once, in the spirit of Don Draper, I’m going to try to close my eyes, chant “Om,” and be content with what is.

Just nobody get me started on The Knick not getting nominated for Best Score.

TIME Television

Review: An Extraordinary, Ordinary Girlhood in TLC’s I Am Jazz

A reality show about growing up transgender--and simply being a teenage girl--in the suburbs.

It’s only coincidence that I Am Jazz (premieres July 15) is coming to TLC shortly after 19 Kids and Counting was forced off the same channel. But it feels like a change of era.

In May, TLC suspended the reality show about the fecund fundamentalist Duggar family–whose matriarch Michelle once warned that transgender people were child predators–after revelations that one of the Duggars’ sons had molested girls, including his sisters, when he was a teen. The network’s newest family-reality series introduces viewers—who didn’t already know her from her YouTube videos, writing, fundraising and activism—to Jazz Jennings, a soccer-loving South Florida 14-year-old who was assigned male at birth but has identified as female since she could speak. (Or, as she puts it in a children’s book she wrote: “I have a girl brain but a boy body. This is called transgender. I was born this way!”)

I Am Jazz may be overshadowed by E!’s I Am Cait (debuting July 26), about Caitlyn Jenner, which had the booster-rocket launch of a primetime Diane Sawyer interview, not to mention the media-bait combo of an Olympian decathlete transitioning amid reality’s royal family on Keeping Up With the Kardashians. (Jazz, at least, had dibs on the title locution; I Am Jazz was also the title of an OWN special on her aired in 2011.) But I Am Jazz may be most radical for how ordinary it is.

It’s not that Jazz’s gender identity is incidental here. The hour-length premiere especially focuses on it; her mother Jeanette remembers two-year-old Jazz asking, “When is the good fairy going to come and change my penis into a vagina?” Her family, including a college-aged sister and twin older brothers, are universally supportive; her grandmother, well-meaning but unsure on the nomenclature, asks at one point if “tranny” is an offensive term. (It is.) And while I Am Jazz is conscious of the trap of obsessing on transgender people’s biology over all else (the first thing most people ask, Jeanette says, is “Has she had the surgery?”), it’s an unavoidable issue for a teen taking hormones to avoid forestall male puberty–and yes, weighing the eventual possibility of what her doctor calls “bottom surgery” (as distinguished from cosmetic surgery above the waist).

But like many of TLC’s family series–Jon and Kate Plus Eight, Our Little Family, Sister WivesI Am Jazz is about the extraordinary amidst the mundane. This is at heart a show about being a teen in the ‘burbs–changing schools, gossiping with friends, shopping, having trivial family arguments about money and curfews. It all just happens to be heightened: when a group of boys don’t show up for a bowling date with Jazz and her friends, they have to wonder if it’s typical social weirdness or transphobia. Jazz’s parents are protective–when a passer-by calls Jazz a “tranny freak” while the two are eating out, it’s Jazz who has to calm her mother down–but it’s combined with typical parental anxiety about a youngest child growing up.

Jazz is an appealing guide to her own life, confident but with a kid’s awkwardness and dorky sense of humor. She’s remarkably self-possessed for a 14-year-old, likely a product of having grown up in the media. Besides her video series, she cowrote a children’s book and was one of TIME’s Most Influential Teens of 2014. But it’s not until the fifth episode, as Jazz gives a book reading, that the series presents her as “the leader of the trans kids’ movement”–in her coauthor’s words–rather than as she first describes herself in the premiere: “I am a teenage girl.”

Overall I Am Jazz plays less like advocacy and more like the approachable, if stagey, family-reality hybrids cable has made a staple. Reality shows like these, for all their sensationalism or sleight-of-hand, increasingly do what sitcoms like The Cosby Show (also recently fallen to controversy) used to. On the one hand, they offer a sense of possibility to an audience—here, trans kids—that had never seen itself on-screen. On the other, they introduce the rest of the audience to virtual neighbors many of them don’t have in real life, be they transgender, rural and poor (Here Comes Honey Boo Boo), rural and rich (Duck Dynasty), Muslim (All-American Muslim), blended (Kardashians) or devout (19 Kids). Amazon’s Transparent, the best show of 2014, dealt elegantly with gender transition in a family, but Jazz and Cait—as well as ABC Family’s current docuseries Becoming Us—may have a reach beyond that show’s indie-TV audience.

I Am Jazz allows that audience plenty of surrogates beyond the Jenningses, choosing to teach to the curious rather than preach to the converted. In a later episode, Jazz’s twin brothers argue with a friend who believes that being transgender is a “choice”–literally, “I thought when she was born they gave her a choice, do you want to be a boy or do you want to be a girl?”

The show could easily have given him a villain edit. Instead the brothers explain that Jazz identified as a girl from her earliest memories. He feels badly for making the assumption, we move on, and the show is better for giving him, and by extension audience members, the room to make a mistake and grow. I Am Jazz is an engaging story of a teen girl who has transitioned. But it is also the story of everyone else, transitioning.

TIME Television

Review: Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll Delivers Rock of the Aged

Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll - "Don't Wanna Die Anonymous" -- Ep 101 (Airs Thursday, July 16, 10:00 pm e/p) -- Pictured: (l-r) John Corbett as Flash, Denis Leary as Johnny Rock, John Ales as Rehab. CR. Patrick Harbron/FX
FX

Denis Leary's sendup of a classic-rock has-been suffers from a datedness of its own.

When Denis Leary hit it big in the early ‘90s, he was as much rock star as comedian. He ranted about videos and R.E.M. in a leather jacket on his MTV interstitial clips; he took the stage with a guitarist and a pack of smokes, belting out his single “A**hole” in his standup special No Cure for Cancer.

So it makes sense that in his FX comedy Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll (premieres July 16), he plays a rock star who hit big in the early ‘90s. But the effect is less comeback tour than dad-band performance.

Here, the acerbic Rescue Me star plays Johnny Rock, once lead singer of The Heathens, who were legendary for about five minutes on the New York City music scene in the early Nirvana era and broke up the day their breakout album was released after he cuckolded his guitarist Flash (John Corbett). Now he’s a has-been, snorting anything powdered and seriously considering a job with a Jon Bon Jovi tribute band.

His luck changes, sort of, when a young woman he hits on at a bar turns out to be Gigi (Elizabeth Gillies), the daughter he didn’t know he had. She’s come to town with the idea, and the cash, to reunite the band—but with herself as lead singer and Johnny as her mentor. But that means luring back Flash–now a well-paid sideman for Lady Gaga–and it means Johnny checking his still-arena-sized ego.

The self-destructive egotist is a riff Leary can play with his guitar behind his neck. In The Job and especially Rescue Me, the mashup of comedy and pathos was erratic, but when it worked it was raw and bracing in a way more self-serious antihero series couldn’t achieve. But the old-man-meets-millennial comedy that Sex&Drugs sets up feels cranky and creaky. Gigi, you see, wants Johnny to teach her the ways of authentic rock: “I’m not shooting fireworks out of my tits. I want to sing real songs with real musicians.”

Sex&Drugs can be laceratingly funny about Johnny as aging rocker in denial (he’s still huge in Belgium!), but it shares his grumpy attitude that authenticity died with Kurt Cobain, his Manichean view (and Gigi’s) that music is a battle of real vs. phony, analog vs. digital, Joe Perry vs. Katy Perry. And if it’s not male vs. female, the women—like Johnny’s girlfriend Ava (Elaine Hendrix)—sing backup, unless, like Gigi, they prove their balls. (“Dad,” she says when Johnny writes a sensitive ballad, “that song sounded like something that Sting would write if he was living inside Sarah McLachlan’s vagina.”)

Johnny’s dinosaur act may be intentional; but the show’s references and rockumentary clichés are just fossilized. Besides Sting, there are jabs at David Bowie and Radiohead, making this the edgiest rock satire of 1993. There is a set piece about rock bands’ over-the-top greenroom requests (“Twelve filet mignons in a box, like meat donuts”), not to mention an actual “Did I just say that out loud?” joke.

In a show that has so much to say about authenticity, the details simply feel off. The Heathens were meant to have been edgy in the early ’90s–in an opening mockumentary, The Afghan Whigs’ Greg Dulli describes them as “If The Who f*cked The Clash and they had four kids”–but sound like a bar band. (Leary wrote much of the series’ original music.) And while the snide, lizardy Johnny comes effortlessly to Leary, Corbett, a comfy jean-jacket of an actor, is unconvincing as a difficult rock god. (It doesn’t help that the character names–“Johnny Rock,” “Flash,” the drummer “Bam Bam,” played by Louie’s Robert Kelly–sound like something from a Hanna-Barbera cartoon.)

For all that, the return to more straight-ahead comedy feels liberating to Leary, and at times the show hits on a real, productive conflict. In the third episode, Johnny watches Gigi nails a new song that he wrote, and he’s both moved and unsettled to see that his music may be better through her than through him. For a minute, Johnny the father overtakes Johnny the rocker–but when he gets a chance to steal the spotlight back, he takes it.

There’s potential here for a sharp sitcom about a man who’s kept aging but stopped growing. But too often Sex&Drugs shares Johnny’s arrested development, at the expense of both relevance and comedy. In one of his School of Rock sessions with Gigi, Johnny holds forth on how Keith Richards wrote “Satisfaction” while high, and he sees himself as the same kind of grizzled rock lion. But the refrain Sex&Drugs keeps singing is: “Hey! You! Get off of my lawn.”

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