You Should Enroll In The Umbrella Academy

If you’re looking for a new show to binge, I highly recommend Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy.  I just finished it last night and it’s one of the only series that I’ve ever watched that made me think to myself, “I can’t wait to watch this whole thing again.”

There’s something absolutely delightful about this show that makes it a blast to experience.  I’ll share with you just a few of the things that I appreciated most.

If you’re unfamiliar with The Umbrella Academy, I describe it as The X-Men meets Stranger Things.  An aristocratic stick-in-the-mud named Sir Reginald Hargreeves takes it upon himself to collect seven babies born under mysterious circumstances throughout the world.  He trains them from birth to fight evil and deter an impending apocalypse.  He counts on his android nanny and sentient, well-dressed primate to assist him.  His Umbrella Academy is cold, rigid, and unforgiving.

The show begins with the adult members of the Umbrella Academy returning home due to Hargreeves’ death.  It’s the first time they’ve been together in years.  It becomes very apparent, very quickly, that all of these former child super heroes are damaged goods.

However, this isn’t the melodrama of The X-Men.  This show is actually fun.  In fact, while it’s never laugh-out-loud hilarious, it is consistently amusing to the point you are on the verge of laughing.  The light touch even among serious happenings is why I compare it to Stranger Things.

Consequently, and perhaps surprisingly, The Umbrella Academy is just as much about its characters as it is about the unavoidable apocalypse.  Every single member of the Academy is given a backstory and a concrete personality that is easy to love.  The show randomly slips in and out of characters’ pasts, which makes it unpredictable and captivating.  Furthermore, every aside, every detour, contributes to the overall story line.  This is a tight plot with well-developed characters.

I adore the fact that they took the execution of this show so seriously because they easily could have shortchanged the plot and allowed the visuals to take center stage.  Because, wow, this show looks amazing.  The production quality is out of this world.  I felt like I’d actually entered another world.  For example, Pogo, the gentleman primate, seems to be just as solid as the actual human beings in the scenes with him.  Astounding.  The special effects are Netflix-money good.

Speaking of production quality, some Netflix shows have had a bit of trouble with pacing.  I’m specifically talking about the Marvel programs and even the recent seasons of Orange Is the New Black.  Granted, we’re only in The Umbrella Academy’s first season, but the pace never let up.  This show knows it’s competing with your cell phone, and it dares you to look away.

Even amidst the crazy action, the huge explosions, the wonky time travel, and the intense fight scenes, I liked this show best because I loved the characters.  In their own unique way, each and every one of them is charming with a great deal of charisma.  I challenge you to pick one overall favorite.  For me, it changed from episode to episode.

So what are you waiting for?  Get enrolled in The Umbrella Academy tonight!

umbrella academy

(Did you enjoy this article?  Check out Scott William Foley’s Dr. Nekros e-book series HERE)

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GLOW: Season 2 — Even Better Than the First

GLOW: Season 2 outshines the first for the very simple reason that much of the groundwork for this ensemble cast has already been laid.  Season 1 entertained and impressed in many unexpected ways, but it still had the task of introducing us to the characters and getting them onto the mat.  Season 2 benefits in that it can build on what came before and really explore these interesting people.

Make no mistake–these are wonderful characters.  Yes, it’s a program about an all-female wrestling show set in the early 80s and much of the comedy centers around that scenario, but these are very real people being portrayed.  All of them are lovable in their own way, and all of them are awful in their own way.  They each have their victories, but they all suffer their indignities as well.  The magic is that the actors have managed to make us care about each and every one of them.

What I like best about this second season is the writing.  Many of the supporting characters get fleshed out this time around.  It’s intriguing to learn about who they are, what makes them tick, and why in the world they got involved with this crazy show!  We become much better acquainted particularly with Kia Stevens’ character named Tamme Dawson.  It would not be easy to be a black woman playing a character named Welfare Queen, and both Stevens and the writers do a magnificent job of exploring that conflict.

Even better than the characterization, though, is the tight–so tight!–plot.  Little moments in the early episodes are hugely important later.  Yet it all feels natural and organic.  The plot isn’t forced, but it all ties together so nicely.  I could be wrong, but I got the feeling that the writers had this entire season perfectly laid out before they even started shooting the first episode.

Furthermore, the main characters became even more complex.  Debbie Eagon (played by Betty Gilpin) evolves as a businesswoman taking control of her own professional life, yet her personal life is falling apart as she struggles with divorce.  She also teeters precariously close to becoming the show’s villain which is an interesting development considering that she’s the star all-American wrestler on the roster.  It would be so easy to make her the obvious heel, but they don’t.  They instead present her as a woman who makes a few bad decisions but ultimately tries to make good even as she keeps her own self-interests at the forefront of her mind.  See what I mean?  Wonderfully complicated.

Allison Brie’s character, Ruth Wilder, is just as enthusiastic and positive as ever, yet she can get very close to annoying.  She never quite crosses that line, but there are moments when you can understand Debbie’s frustrations with her.  Debbie and Ruth are so charismatic because they are utterly realistic.  Like all of us, they have moments where they are at their best, but also moments where they are at their worst.  Ruth is also far from perfect, but she’s learned from her mistakes during the first season.  Amid the first season, her adultery always cast a shadow over her.  That shadow disperses this second season and they seem to have opted to give her some time in the light to make up for the first season.

Marc Maron’s character, Sam Sylvia, started out the season as an absolute jerk who couldn’t care less about his wrestlers, but by the season’s end–well, he’s still a jerk–but he becomes someone we can’t help but love.  There are moments when he finally reaches self-awareness and owns his shortcomings.  Sometimes he just flat-out admits why he’s being so crass.  Those instances really touched me.  I wish I could just say why I’m being so difficult like he finally does.  I don’t want to spoil anything, but watching his evolution as a father, a director, a friend, and a person really brought me joy.  He’s still a cranky old man, don’t worry, but now he’s the kind you want to hang out with anyway.

I’d finally like to touch on Bash Howard, played by Chris Lowell.  Bash originally seemed to be the dim-witted millionaire producer–an ardent wrestling fan with the means to make the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling a reality.  In this second season, Bash is still a little naive, yet his simple innocence really pays off regarding his friend and butler, Florian.  Florian is missing the entire season with Bash doing his best to locate him.  Florian’s whereabouts are finally revealed, and Bash is absolutely stunned.  It seems he didn’t really know his friend at all, and it’s heavily hinted that Bash may not fully even know himself.  Lowell plays Bash with such unassuming charm that it’s hard not to love the guy.  He could have come off as a rich, pampered moron, but instead he’s written and performed as someone just trying to make dreams come true.  Again, isn’t that all of us?

I’d also like to commend the cast on introducing some serious wrestling moves in Season 2.  I can’t say for sure, but it looks to me like Brie and Gilpin are doing a lot of their own wrestling, and these are more than simple headlocks.  For actors, especially Gilpin, to execute some technically difficult wrestling maneuvers really speaks to their dedication to the characters.  I appreciate the symmetry of it because, ironically, their characters are just mastering the moves as well since they are new to wrestling.  It’s an interesting learning curve to behold both on the show and in reality.

Finally, GLOW captures the 80s perfectly.  The hair, the fashion, the cars, the food, the music–everything!  My wife and I feel like we’ve stepped into a time machine when we watch it.  There is one episode during Season 2 in which it is made to look like an actual episode of the show on your TV during the 80s.  It’s got the square screen, the locally made commercials–it’s perfect.  It looks exactly like I remember TV from the early 80s.  They really outdid themselves.

If you’re looking for a show with short episodes, magnetic characters, great writing, and funny comedy mixed in with an actual story about real people, GLOW is for you.  There really isn’t anything else like it on TV.

Image result for glow season 2 poster

(Did you enjoy this review?  Check out Scott William Foley’s latest book HERE!)

Why the Amazon Show Fleabag Deserves Your Attention   

I first heard about the Amazon comedy Fleabag from Glen Weldon during NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour.  Weldon made a point to let the listening audience know that Fleabag is so much more than it seems.  He referenced in particular the final episode, which, according to Weldon, proved especially poignant.

What can I say?  Weldon’s praise captured my interest.  Best of all, the first season is only six episodes long, with each episode averaging not quite half an hour.  That’s the sort of fleeting commitment I adore in a show.

I introduced the possibility to my wife.  I sold it to her much the same as Weldon sold it to me, and she also seemed interested in the concept of the show.  Plus, we agreed that if either of us didn’t care for the first episode, we would jettison it from our lives and move on.

We obviously both liked it or I wouldn’t be writing about it so exhaustively and, perhaps by the time you’re done reading, exhaustingly …

The show features a British woman in her early thirties in England.  She is never mentioned by name, but the summary of each show refers to her as “Fleabag.”  Yes, “Fleabag.”  Only as “Fleabag.”  She has a habit of speaking to the camera with brief asides and explanations, letting us in on a particular joke or an integral piece of information.  When we first meet her, she is having sex with a man while offering us a play by play of the activity and even adding in a few predictions of what’s to come.  When the man rolls her over in order to use a different <ahem!> … orifice, “Fleabag” reacts unexpectedly, hilariously, and in such a way that we learn everything we need to know about her.

Or so we think.

The actress playing “Fleabag” is Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and she is absolutely charming, which is astounding because she’s playing a character that should be utterly unlikable.  Her little quips to the camera are typically biting, but it’s her facial expressions that won my wife and me over.  She will deliver the most amazing joke with nothing more than a lift of her eyebrow.  She will let you know exactly what she’s thinking with a quick glare.  Honestly, Waller-Bridge entertained to no end and enriched a character that really wouldn’t work if played by someone else.

Be warned, though, this is a raunchy show.  There are many sexual situations, loads of suggestive dialogue, and ample visits by sex toys.  The language is rough, very rough, with “f-bombs” galore.  However, I wouldn’t describe it as a “dirty” show.  There is virtually no nudity by actual human beings.  If I remember, there was an errant breast coming out of a shirt and a few shots of men’s rear ends.  The most explicit things on camera were often, again, the sex toys (which were not actually in use).

So while this is a comedy, it slowly revealed itself to be something far more, just as Glen Weldon said.  I want to offer caution here, because while I will not explicitly spoil anything past the second episode, you will more than likely be able to connect a few dots.  It’s just that I can’t really address what moved me the most about this show without getting into a few specific details …

You learn early on that Fleabag (I’m dropping the quotes from here on out) is fairly amoral.  She’s not necessarily out to purposefully hurt anyone, but her impulsivity and lack of forethought to both word and deed often upsets someone in her immediate vicinity, whether strangers, friends, or family.  Actually, she doesn’t have any friends.  More on that later …

She has no qualms in taking advantage of someone to meet her own agenda, nor does she mind being taken advantage of so long as that also ultimately suits her base desires.  I wouldn’t call her a master manipulator, but she is a manipulator, to be sure.

Fleabag sleeps around, steals, drinks too much, curses, degrades people, and cuts corners whenever possible.  It’s no wonder she’s friendless.

But she hasn’t always been.

In fact, we learn through flashbacks that Fleabag had a wonderful friend, one whom she loved dearly.  They opened a café together.  Sadly, though, her friend died, leaving Fleabag with the failing café, no other real friends, and a spiraling case of depression that becomes more and more obvious as the series progresses.

Her sister, Claire, humors Fleabag as best she can.  Claire is also a complicated person, though, with issues of her own.  Though very successful, Claire cannot seem to relent control to anyone, cannot navigate a dubious marriage, and cannot achieve enough introspection to glean what she really wants from life.  She has much in common with Fleabag, but she manages normalcy in the outside world far more productively.

Her father has remarried after the death of Fleabag’s mother due to breast cancer.  His new wife is actually the sisters’ godmother, a family friend since their childhood.  The stepmother is the portrait of passive aggressiveness as she makes the sisters feel unwelcome all the while with a smile plastered across her face.  The sisters hate her, she hates them, and the father seems too meek to confront either situation.  In the process, Fleabag appears, though she never gives voice to it, to feel as though she’s lost her father as well as her mother.

The show achieves originality when you slowly begin to realize that Fleabag’s abysmal behavior is absolutely the byproduct of guilt, anger, depression and low self-esteem.  It never crosses over into cliché, it never dives into pop psychology, but it does become very apparent that she only feels of value when someone sexually craves her.  She uses sex as therapy for all of her issues, but never realizes the promiscuous sex is only compounding her problems.

Yeah, pretty deep territory for a comedy.

Furthermore, we can relate to her.  I think we’ve all done something we wish we hadn’t in the hopes of acquiring someone’s approval or favor.  She’s a likable person doing very unlikable things, and I know I personally can say I’ve been there as well.  Haven’t we all in some facet or another?

This character has lost her best friend.  Her sister doesn’t trust her.  Her father will not stand up for her.  Her stepmother detests her.  She’s losing her business.  She can’t pay her bills.  She has every reason in the world not to give a shit about anything.

Which she doesn’t.

Until … she does.

The beauty of that sixth episode is what happens when she does finally care.  How will her family react when she actually tries to engage them meaningfully?  How will she respond when she finally faces the truth of her friend’s death?  What happens when she gazes within and attains a manner of self-realization?

Comedy!

Honestly, Fleabag is hilarious, but it doesn’t shy away from these profoundly important moments.  It never feels heavy even as it’s dealing with incredibly troubling material, and it always prompts an uncomfortable chuckle, an awkward giggle, and an inappropriate laugh at just the wrong time.  It is a serious show wrapped so deeply within a comedy that it’s not until you think about each episode afterwards that you realize its gravitas.

Glen Weldon, you were right.  Fleabag is definitely worth a watch.

P.S.  I know I didn’t discuss her timid boyfriend, whom she pushes away at every opportunity.  I’ve written over a 1,000 words at this point, and frankly, he would require another 1,000, and I won’t be presumptuous enough to believe I deserve that much of your attention.  Plus, it’s late.  And, I’m tired.  Good night.