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Entries in qichen zhang (6)


In Which We Are All Basically Winners

My Scandalous Fantasy


creator Shonda Rimes

Contrary to popular belief, I know people aren't really concerned with who's going to win on Tuesday. No, the million-dollar question is much more relevant to the general American public: who was the brilliant genius at ABC who cast Tony Goldwyn as the President of the United States, and how much of a bonus is this person getting?

Oh, Tony. So we gonna play it like that?

Scandal is one of those shows that would be ridiculous in any other historical context other than right now. Only during an awfully polarized and a mind-numbingly exhausting presidential campaign year could ratings for a glorified soap opera about the White House post-West Wing perform decently (it's just been signed on for a second year). Revolving around a — wait for it — scandal and a lascivious affair between the POTUS Fitzgerald Grant and his campaign crisis manager Olivia Pope, the show mashes together this strange political fantasy that somehow criss-crosses the British royal family's high-profile and inconvenient adulterous tendencies with the blue-blood backstabbing found in Americana, Republicana, Brooks Brothera stereotypes. Basically, all the things that I am afraid of admitting I secretly enjoy via choice, given the natural-born liberties that this free country guarantees me. So sue me.

"The Perks of Being a POTUS" by Jed Bartlet

Innocent or guilty pleasure notwithstanding, I consider myself a relatively informed if not arrogant citizen. But I will also admit that I'm one of those media and pop culture consumers that corporate marketers and "strategy consultants" love to capitalize on. I'll shamelessly believe not only anything Hollywood shoves in my face but also anything that gently wafts in my direction.

My inability to distinguish fact from fiction makes turning on the TV amazing and turning it off devastating. Even more so if it's any form of historical or political fiction. Took me three attempts to figure out why Downton Abbey was not returning any pins on Google Maps. (Sounds real enough, doesn't it?) I was equally distressed after realizing Julia Louis-Dreyfus did not win — nor run, for that matter — for political office. (Would've been a hilarious administration.) And to this day, I'm still living in a fantasy world in which Rob Lowe ruled this nation instead of Pawnee, Indiana.

If only.Scandal provides the same level of political make-believe as The West Wing did, but to a greater and more sex-driven extent. As gratuitously and physically provocative as I am making this show appear, though, somehow, it accomplishes this weird gratification of my primetime guilty pleasure with actual, unexpected finesse. Some detractors may say that it's just due to the visible fact that Kerry Washington and Tony Goldwyn make a ridiculously attractive on-screen couple. But am I that superficial, if not culturally crass? Well. Let's just say I wouldn't take an oath on it.

Hard at work leading America. Really.

Sincerely attempting to put Tony Goldwyn's silver fox virtues aside, I would say that my affinity for the show is based on elements more substantial. Pleasantly surprised by Scandal's relative nonpartisanship, I spent the first half watching the show's premiere wondering whether the writers were depicting a Democrat or a Republican administration. Ultimately, Olivia Pope's Goyard bag and the First Lady Mellie's bulging pearls told me what I wanted to know.

The fashion clues, however, did not deter me from tuning in the next week. In indulging in Kerry Washington and Tony Goldwyn's steamy (and pretty damn good) hotel sex scene, I was also pandering to another political fantasy — that I wouldn't have to suffer through more commercial breaks listening to robotic female voice harping about "China's cheating" and how Obama encouraged it. Or hearing more from Democratic PACs shake their verbal fists at Romney hoping to raise middle-class taxes so all of his rich friends could buy their wives Goyard bags and bulging pearls.

Just makes you wonder what would happen if Michelle Obama were photographed carrying a $1500 bag. With Scandal, I am happily and necessarily commiserating with other American viewers that we have had to withstand months of nasty and very public verbal abuse from the two most upstanding men our country supposedly has to offer. Literally, I haven't been this wound up since watching Tracy self-implode in Election, and at least that was fiction.

Remember that one time when you watched a teen drama post-puberty and realized how fortunate you were that you weren't in high school anymore? Yeah.

To some, sticking my head in the sand may be seen as cowardly. But if ABC is offering me a fictional POTUS who they created to be "earnest, but overly idealistic" AND is a Tony Goldwyn-lookalike AND who goes by Fitz during off hours? Well. Consider me checked into this Hotel Fantasy for the unforeseeable future with the biggest "Do Not Disturb" sign hanging on the door.

See you after November 6… or maybe not.

Qichen Zhang is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Cambridge. She last wrote in these pages about Up All Night. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. You can find her website here.

"Black Sonar" - Born Gold (mp3)

"Fires of Disappearing" - Born Gold (mp3)


In Which The Third Wheel Is No Afterthought

Watching and Growing 


Up All Night
creator Emily Spivey

I've recently begun to realize that there's a slight possibility that I may be projecting my own self-proclaimed third-wheel identity onto my film and television choices. I'm shocked I could feel as much unadulterated loathing as I did for Keira Knightley when watching her steal Carey Mulligan's doomed loverboy in Never Let Me Go. Blame it on my ethnicity, but I can't help but see myself as the "supportive Asian friend" in rom-coms living vicariously through the obviously more sexy and more sex-having (and usually blond) main character. I liked Seth in The O.C. before it was cool to like him more than Ryan. Without getting too Freudian about it, I can definitely see myself chilling with onscreen tagalongs. 

Even without my inherent gravitation toward underdogs, though, Maya Rudolph wins my sidekick of the year award for her role as the pure embodiment of womanhood in NBC's Up All Night. Playing attention-loving TV personality Ava who hosts an eponymous, motivational show for women à la Oprah, Rudolph is initially and ironically portrayed as the single friend of the married couple, of which the wife is Ava's producer. Which is fine. Ultimately, someone’s gotta play the supporting role. But as a person whose YouTube habits accounts for half the views on Rudolph's national anthem video, I really cry at the prospect of her being relegated to the side. 

So when NBC first rolled out commercials for the debut of Up All Night I was initially disappointed that Rudolph was cast as the third wheel. The show mainly revolves around the hip married life of Reagan (Christina Applegate) and Chris (Will Arnett), a young couple with a newborn who create comical hijinks from their unusual stay-at-home-dad arrangement. Chris used to be a stuffy corporate lawyer but, once becoming a father, makes the progressive decision to stay at home, simultaneously quitting his job to take care of the baby and buying Bjorn Borg underwear. Instead, Reagan goes off to work each day running Ava’s show.

The show’s premise spotlights the couple as an exemplary paradigm of what a young, contemporary marriage should be. They drink, they party, they squabble over the tackiness of Chris’ Brendan Shanahan cardboard stand-ups. Somehow in all of that, they find time to change diapers as well. Among the fanciful notion that a serious relationship consists of disagreements on décor complemented with a shit ton of midday drinking, I found little space for Rudolph’s comedic prowess to manifest in NBC’s starry-eyed attempt to make marriage “edgy” and “alternative.” Guys, it’s Christina Applegate, not Christina Ricci. 

And what's ironic about the character positioning is that Ava is pushed off to the side despite her headlining her own fictional show with the main character behind the scene. In most episodes, Ava's constantly barging into Chris and Reagan's home uninvited, usually clutching a bottle of Sauvignon and smiling Rudolph's signature bright-eyed and gummy smile, with Chris mumbling sarcastically, "Why, Ava, come on in." 

But Rudolph doesn't take to the sidelines meekly. In just a few episodes, she's successfully managed to embody femininity and mock it at the same time. And it's hard. Last year's Holly McKay article that basically told female comedians to "be less ugly" demonstrates how the assumption that women can't be funny and attractive at the same time prevails in mainstream comedy. Rudolph confronts this assumption head on, embracing and yet rejecting it at the same time.

Wearing designer clothes as a TV idol and acting like the biggest diva since Beyoncé post-C-section, Ava sasses us into oblivion with zingers like, "Can you cut your hair? We are neither in a little house nor in a prairie." Even though we're supposed to be focused on the fact that Reagan and Chris are disrupting traditional gender roles, it's Ava that makes us acknowledge the reality of double standards. "At a certain age, a woman has to choose between her ass and her face," she delivers with complete sincerity in the pilot episode. I guffawed, even though I instinctively wanted to nod. But actually. After Ann Coulter, slowing metabolism is probably the biggest asshole around the block. 

Rudolph's making this transition from SNL to prime time look so damn easy. Although Arnett and Applegate are also playing characters relatively new to them — Arnett's trying out this new thing where he's not over the top, and Applegate is still reclaiming her dignity from those Kelly Bundy days — Rudolph is just killing it with her new role as a Hollywood diva and life-coaching guru. "Keep on watching and growing," Ava repeats in each episode while her face delivers a wise and perfectly lip-glossed smile. I want to laugh, but at the same time, I'm wondering if I would've become more in touch with my "inner woman" or whatever if I had watched more Oprah growing up. 

I'm not implying that Rudolph triumphs as the underdog on a show sustaining marriage norms despite tricking viewers into thinking it's defying gender expectations with the stay-at-home dad gimmick. (Although that's exactly what it does. Married life is so fun! A husband and wife's most serious problem is how to organize the junk drawer! How quaint, ammirite?!)

I'm not even trying to suggest that the show instinctively sought to overshadow Rudolph with Arnett and Applegate in the first place. I mean, the chick is undeniably funny in her own right without being obnoxious about it, unlike Molly Shannon, who guest starred as an incompetent soccer mom in arguably the worst episode of the season. (Put her back in a Catholic schoolgirl uniform and we'll talk.)

Up All Night caught my attention for its unique and relatively harmonious relationships between its characters. I'm not sure how long this third-wheel act can work, and whether dynamics between Reagan, Chris and Ava will change once Ava gets more serious with her new handyman boo Kevin, played by a lumberjack-y Jason Lee who actually seems to have gotten lost and confused on the way to the My Name is Earl set. But maybe it’s a good thing that the writers have incorporated this May-December romance into the show. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have gems like, “When he touches me, I feel as if I’m being sandblasted.” 

For now there's a certain balance to the show, in terms of both comedy and relatability, that gives each character his or her due. In the Christmas episode that primarily focused on Reagan's obsession with giving her newborn Amy the best first Christmas evarrrrr, Ava gets to jab the audience with her funny bone too. Not a mere reminder that her character's existence on the show is relevant, Rudolph's punchy deliveries stand well enough on their own, usually due to how damn relatable they are. After she tries on a skiing outfit to prepare for a romantic winter getaway with Kevin, she gets trapped in said outfit and shouts to her assistant, "It feels like I'm being raped by a sleeping bag!" Girl. You and every other chick trying on a North Face monstrosity at the mall. 

Maybe I'm biased, given my history of underdog admiration. But in Up All Night viewers can see just how the third wheel gets the audience's attention while simultaneously maintaining the balanced feng shui of the cast. In a recent episode, Ava appears in a karate outfit for a particular segment on her show. She asks the guest instructor, "Master Hu, what's the belt that allows me to catch a fly with chopsticks?" This has got to be a step up from that Karate Kid rerun on TBS you'd be watching instead. Plus, Megan Mullally just guest starred last week. Don't tell me you haven't missed that squeaky little woman. 

Qichen Zhang is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Cambridge. She last wrote in these pages about Parenthood. She tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

"The Wind" - The Fray (mp3)

"I Can Barely Say" - The Fray (mp3)

"Munich" - The Fray (mp3)


In Which No One's Dad In Real Life Looks Like Peter Krause

Braving It With the Family


Maybe if we didn't allow him to wear a pirate costume to school, he would fit in a little bit better.

Parenthood's Adam Braverman, played by Peter Krause

Television's always been slow to pick up on parental irony. I probably wouldn't find Adam Braverman's delivery of a banal line so guffaw-worthy otherwise. To segue the family TV genre into a wholesomely sarcastic direction, NBC's new show Parenthood rallies Krause and a diverse cast (diverse meaning Joy Bryant as the token black character) in an attempt to portray real-to-life family issues without any syrupy ethical undertones, without any cultish evangelist propaganda, and — most importantly — without the sixties hair.

TV is so avant-garde these days.

To catch up, one sentence sums up the plot — a family living in Berkeley headed by a grandfather/grandmother couple with four smaller nuclear families living in northern California maneuvers around the tensions of their criss-crossing relationships. At face value, the show sounds mundane at best, a contemporary American Dreams at worst. With mostly B-list actors who peaked in movies with titles like Let's Go to Prison and How to Rob a Bank, the cast's potential to depict domestically-oriented characters seem initially dubious as well. But after giving it a chance, I realized that throwing a Berkeley hippie into the mix would've just complicated the weird, almost-incestuous, boyfriend-sharing debacle that pops up in later episodes of this falsely tame debut. NBC. Who could've guessed?

But isn't this northern California? Scandals don't create Parenthood's entertainment value. Instead, the show relies on character quirks for its draw. Even though the Braverman clan appears as though the members came out of an assembly line at the perfect-All-American-family factory, the script takes surprisingly humorous digs at the paradigms of kin.

Juggling both a son with Asperger's Syndrome and a teenager daughter who just started shopping at Victoria's Secret, Adam's bottle-blond wife Kristina (Monica Potter) acts as the doting and patient mother until you realize her stammering is just the beginning of her control-freak neuroses. Julia (Erika Christensen), the youngest Braverman sibling and feminist corporate lawyer, still eats dinner with her husband and daughter in their sleek kitchen, but only to project her personal competitiveness onto her soon-to-be-OCD kid at meal times and to make her husband feel insecure for cleaning so much as a stay-at-home dad.

It would be easy to assume that Parenthood's producers simply took Girl, Interrupted and removed all the knives and pills, if it weren't for the fact that Adam and Kristina's huge house in Berkeley's 'burbs looks too welcoming to double as an insane asylum.

Sadly, the next generation of Bravermans don't live up to their complicated adult counterparts. Haddie (Sarah Ramos), with enough teenage insecurities to fill up her pink Jansport backpack, gives off a more than irritating vibe as a sullen, typical, and over-privileged suburbanite. The inclusion of her edgier, pseudohipster cousin Amber Holt (Mae Whitman) in the show aims to balance Haddie's tall, blond goodness with a short, brunette hipster who moves into Berkeley with a too-cool-for-school attitude and an entire wardrobe from Urban Outfitters (fake glasses included).

A lapse in good script judgment — or lack of story ideas — further makes Amber out as an immature, boy-obsessed dunce, especially when Haddie and Amber get into a bitchfight during gym class about Amber sleeping with Haddie's scrawny boyfriend. Slogging through plotlines that make American middle-class teenagers look the fools, Sarah Ramos and Mae Whitman with their one dimensional performances make the show's Tuesday night counterpart The Biggest Loser look like intellectual fare. With the exception of Drew, Amber's introverted brother played who's SuPeR dReAmY in that soft-spoken way, the Braverman teenagers make a hysterectomy sound not only necessary but pleasant.

Having kids is so rewarding. Um. Yeah. Unquestionably, Whitman's character would've been better as a nonchalant ne'er-do-well, but her idiotic conversations with her mother about moving in with her boyfriend and, like, totally loving him always escalate into shrill, overdramatic chicken squawking and destroys the possibility for collected coolness in a deafening way. Get a grip! You're from Fresno, not a farm.

The kids are all right?

And the recasting of Graham to replace Maura Tierney — originally slated to play Sarah Braverman who left the show to deal with breast cancer treatment — doesn't exactly do the show favors either. What hopes I had for her television comeback dried up from the frictional heat of her never-ending babble, whether she's screaming at her over-processed daughter or covering up her awkward flubs at diner lunches with her siblings. Blaming the irritating pace of Graham's delivery on the writers resolves only a part of the problem. Soon, you start to realize that Graham basically started her new show where her old one left off. As the daughter who never managed to get her life together with no college degree toting sassy offspring, it's like we're back in Connecticut all over again, only with better weather this time.

Sarah, without a precociously wise daughter to fire back in witty repartée or a scheming, bougey mother to make her look like the good guy, doesn't pull off the friend-mother role in what Graham's treating as Gilmore Girls: The Sequel. Instead, she's stuck stuttering like a moron into the phone while she looks for her runaway daughter, making her look more incompetent parent than an insightful "frother."

It's not like the woman can't act — after all, of all jobs Graham could've bagged after Gilmore Girls wrapped, she took on the role of a biblical wife with realistic aplomb and without wearing Jesus sandals. Parenthood provides a storyline with plenty of opportunities for sharp quips and introspective performances, but Graham refuses to budge from the comfort of Lorelai's nervous and energetic rambling, something that doesn't work within an ensemble cast where Krause's calm Adam just ends up making anxiety-ridden Graham's Sarah look dumb. After 10-plus episodes, I pin it to sheer acting laziness. So I stayed up on a Tuesday night for this?

But a huge surprise redeems Graham's disappointing job and allows for another low-key actor's potential comeback. As Crosby Braverman, Dax Shepard somehow manages to make the youngest, most irresponsible member of the middle generation look the most in touch with reality. Granted, the producers took a cheap shot and stuck the usual black sheep into the family ensemble for variety's sake. But the casting of Shepard as a born-again father when he discovers his old girlfriend gave birth to their son Jabbar — which could've backfired given his history in über-family-friendly shows Punk'd and King of the Hill — is supported by his kooky take on the bachelor who refuses to settle down until forced to do so.

When the rest of his family becomes conceitedly embroiled in their own lives, Crosby reminds us that there's nothing wrong with just chillin' on a house boat, playin' some ping pong. With Type-A Adam and Julia fending off husband-and-wife problems in power suits, Crosby brings some laid-back attitude without breaking out the NorCal weed once. In an odd Zach-Braff-on-Scrubs manner but without the annoying exaggeration and overt displays of "Look at me! I'm madcap and funny!", Shepard uses his honest goofiness paired with an emotional conscience for his new task as his son's role model in order to legitimize himself as a "serious actor," leaving behind his days making movies in a New Mexico Costco.

Or maybe he just learned how to frownIt could be the onslaught of vampire fantasy dramas within the past two seasons. It could be that fat people losing weight is now considered prime entertainment. Whatever the reason, at the end of the past few Tuesday nights, I like Parenthood. I didn't mind that taken as a whole, the manufactured Braverman family resembled all the rest in television history. If the dialogue's this perfectly laced with sarcasm, I can take some of the more predictable moments.

If Peter Krause actually existed as a suburban dad in real life, I wouldn't mind moving to Berkeley for a piece of that jawline. And after the season finale in which Haddie dyed her hair black, maybe she'll be less angsty and more cool come September. In this age of hipsters where everyone is only allowed to like things ironically, Ron Howard's latest project lets me feel genuine for once. (With a hipster on the show to boot! OH, THE IRONY.)

After watching the season finale on Tuesday, I thought I had come to a neat little conclusion. Alas, NBC had again resorted to packaging a cute, family-oriented program into an hour-long dramedy dominated by levelheaded men complemented with their shrill overstrung wives and sisters, handing the viewer a challenge of making sense out of it. Looking back at past mediocre dramas like 7th Heaven, American Dreams, and even supposedly realistic but actually voyeuristic Friday Night LightsParenthood follows the lead of its many, many, many, many, many (press one for English, oprima numero dos para espanol) predecessors.

This is real life... I guess.This conclusion was promptly destroyed when Grandfather Zeek threw a first-class hissy fit at the dinner table when his own children attempted to help his property insolvency issues. Try as he may to ease into the warm and fluffy family genre, Craig T. Nelson flounders almost as much as his bald mullet. Whether acting gruff after cheating on his wife or bickering with his children in a redneck accent, the charm of senile seniority is lost on me. Kudos to Nelson for knowing how to channel maternal and menopausal onscreen — I just really wish he could've let Graham take over those reins.

Even though his character fails miserably at imparting wisdom even at his age, Nelson may singlehandedly make Parenthood must-see TV. You can't help but respect NBC a little more for breaking the mold and turning the usually wise and caring grandfather into a certifiable jackass who congratulates his granddaughter on standing her ground "when that boy was trying to get you to have intercourse with him."

Did I also mention they made Jason Ritter grow a 'stache and goatee combo?

Qichen Zhang is the senior contributor to This Recording. She last wrote in these pages about Gilmore Girls. She tumbls here.

"Bears Only Hibernate Sometimes" - Options (mp3)

"Back Home" - Options (mp3)

"The Best Part" - Options (mp3)