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Daily Reads: The Genius of ‘Girls’ Lies in Its Unlikeable Characters, How ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’ Brought the Asian Bro to TV, and More

Daily Reads: The Genius of 'Girls' Lies in Its Unlikeable Characters, How 'Crazy Ex-Girlfriend' Brought the Asian Bro to TV, and More

Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.

1. You Don’t Like the Girls in “Girls”? That’s Its Genius.
Lena Dunham’s HBO series “Girls” ended its fifth season last Sunday receiving much critical acclaim, the most it has received since the very beginning of its run. Yet it’s still dogged by many of the same complaints and criticisms, namely the characters are profoundly unlikeable. The New York Times’ Wesley Morris argues that the characters’ unlikeable nature is the genius of the series.

When it started, “Girls” was received as an anthem for entitled white women. Detractors had a field day with Ms. Dunham, who created this show and has written and directed much of it, for privileging privilege, as if she couldn’t be aspiring to the withering heights of Luis Buñuel or Carrie Fisher. Through 52 episodes of television — some of them, like that Kitty Genovese episode, marvelous — “Girls” has never stopped looking for the grander, harsher psychological picture. It’s never stopped looking for tough laughs. It fights real-life American absurdity with its own version of it, as it does in the final episode of the season, in which Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet, a crayon turning at last into a scalpel) rebrands Ray’s coffee shop as a hipster-free haven for people who actually work — that is, for “adults,” in other words. But in its highest gear, the show peerlessly vanishes the line between sociocultural satire and mental instability, between send up and crack up. That business with Hannah, Adam and Jessa closes the season with an unnerving cliffhanger. Hannah performs her pain for the storytellers’ radio hour “The Moth,” which obviously she takes to like a you-know-what to a flame. The night’s theme is jealousy. In her tale, she proves she’s overcome it by delivering a peace offering in the form of a fruit basket. But the story deepens and darkens a deranged argument that took place a few minutes earlier. Suddenly, Hannah’s narcissism seems terroristic. Her personality disorder has the power to disorder other people’s personalities. Maybe, she’s the disorder.

2. “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s” Greatest Legacy Is The Asian Bro.
The CW’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” ended its critically acclaimed debut season on Monday, and many TV critics are set to call the musical romantic comedy one of the best shows of the year. Vulture’s Jada Yuan examines how the series’ greatest legacy will be its embrace of the Asian bro.

A couple years after college, a friend of mine spilled some devastating news about our mutual past. Apparently during our freshman year at Yale, Anthony Young, one of the hottest sophomores on campus, almost asked me to a school dance, but took my friend instead. “It should have been you!” she said, as my heart sank. Anthony was a star intramural athlete with hair that fell over his eyes and T-shirts so tight you had no choice but to stare at his muscular biceps. He was also, like me, half-Chinese. What I hadn’t realized until I started watching “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” though, is I’d never seen a guy like Anthony Young as the alpha-male lust object of a TV or movie rom-com. Of all the wonderful things to come of the beloved CW show’s first season, which came to an end Monday night, I’d posit that the show’s most subversive act was placing Josh Chan — a ripped and wonderfully chill Filipino skater dude (played by Broadway vet Vincent Rodriguez III, also Filipino) — front and center as the love interest of a prime-time sitcom…Josh Chan is distinct from the John Cho’s who came before him in that he’s not a nerd or control freak whom the girl eventually realizes is sexy, or a skinny Asian buffoon whose horniness is played up for comic relief (looking at you, MILF guy #2 and Long Duk Dong) — “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” treats his good looks as a matter of fact. The show’s setup is essentially a late-20s /early-30s “Felicity” with musical numbers, centered on a pretty, successful, Jewish, Manhattan lawyer named Rebecca Bunch (played by show co-creator Rachel Bloom) who drops everything to move to the hilariously banal, far-inland L.A. suburb of West Covina, California, in pursuit of the hunk who was her boyfriend for a minute during high-school summer camp: Josh Chan. The fact that he’s Asian isn’t even referenced until the second episode, when it’s mentioned by way of introducing his muscle-y doppelgänger buddy, White Josh.

3. Nina Hoss On Her Staggering Star Turn In “Phoenix.”
Christian Petzold’s post-Holocaust drama “Phoenix” was one of the very best films of last year, breaking the top five in the Best Film category in Indiewire’s 2015 year-end critics poll. Now, “Phoenix” heads to the Criterion Collection library later this month. For The A.V. Club, Adam Nayman interviews “Phoenix” star Nina Hoss on her staggering star turn in the film.

A.V. Club: There is a lot in the movie to take apart. When you were making it, did you think about all of the political or symbolic complexities of the script, or is that secondary to finding a way inside the character?

Nina Hoss:
 I tend to surround myself with whatever material I can get a hold of, especially if it’s a historical movie. So I did read Primo Levi, and watched the movie by Claude Lanzmann,”Shoah,” which was the thing that really helped me the most. You see these people talking about their experiences, and they have this urge to tell their stories, because finally somebody has asked them. They feel this need to tell the world what happened and what humanity is capable of, and for the first minute, you think they’re over it, that they can look at it and talk about it, and then there’s always this moment where the voice cracks, or they get so quiet that you can’t hear them, or you see them fighting away the tears. And I thought, “This is the moment that Nelly is in.” There is a combination of trying to analytically understand what trauma is, and also working through it to get to a very emotional place.

 In a way, though, Nelly is the reverse of the people you describe. She gets stronger as the movie goes along.

 I think that’s what happens when you go through trauma and get some understanding of where you’re at. You come to a place where you find strength, hopefully. That’s what people did, they jumped right back into life. Or they didn’t want to talk about it, because they couldn’t make sense of it. They wanted to have families and build lives as if nothing happened. But people couldn’t forget about it, and it caught up to them as well. That will happen to Nelly too, but much, much later. I had to forget about what we know, and everything from our perspective. I had to simplify it for myself, without history books in hand. I had to think about a person who’s been through such a trauma, and how she looks for the light again. For me at the beginning, she is just zombie-like, or baby-like. She’s trying to make sense of the world again.

 You mention zombies, and the film’s title is a metaphor of re-birth. What’s strange is that she’s being “re-born” into her own life, and seeing herself through her husband’s eyes, which is unsettling.

:  It’s something superficial. All he tells her is how his wife used to dress, how she used to walk. “Walk seductively.” It’s a very male view of women. It’s something she’s unaware of in the moment. That was hard, but I had to go with it, to float with Nelly without judging anything. She doesn’t have the strength to judge anything. All she wants is to get her life back. “I was able to laugh once,” she thinks. “I never thought about politics.” She doesn’t want to be what they made her be. There are so many rich things in this movie! So much to think about.

4. Looking Back at Peak TV’s Beginnings.
It’s easy to think that our age of Peak TV only began a few years ago with the advent and rise of multiple streaming services, not to mention the expansion of cable, but in truth it began a decade ago back in 2006. Variety’s Maureen Ryan looks back at the year when TV first peaked

Much has been written about the fact that the number of scripted prime-time programs has more than doubled in the last few years. And there’s no doubt that what FX Networks CEO John Landgraf dubbed Peak TV has brought us dozens of wonderful shows to suit every taste. There’s dross out there too, of course (there always is), but last year, I had to expand my annual Top 10 list into a Top 20. TV is positively bursting with great storytelling these days, from a wider array of creators than ever. That’s a very, very good thing. And yet, I find myself with lurking nostalgia for the TV scene of a decade ago. With my relatively new DVR, I could keep up, some of the time, with what felt then like an avalanche of worthy and entertaining shows. Oh, what innocents we were in 2006. What did we know? A few dozen shows worth following — that was nothing! Last year alone, more than 400 scripted shows inhabited cable, broadcast and streaming platforms. Like Don Draper, I’m inclined at times to see the past through rose-colored glasses. From this remove, there are moments when 2006 looks like the good old days, an era when critics and viewers had time to sleep and occasionally converse with loved ones. Good times! I joke, but I sense a bit of weariness in the culture at times, as though we are all constantly behind on our homework and feeling vaguely guilty about it. Even a decade ago, DVR fatigue was not uncommon among hard-core TV fans (who among us hasn’t secretly rejoiced when a DVR unexpectedly bit the dust and took unwatched TV episodes with it?). But now, thanks to the explosion of catch-up options, there are even more opportunities to stay current with a huge array of shows — and the pressure’s on us to keep up with it all. With more shows and more viewing options come more opportunities to feel a little overwhelmed. And yes, that is the most high-class problem in the world to have, and also, at the end of the day, it’s not really a problem. That creeping sense of feeling constantly behind is a mild inconvenience that is far outweighed by the bounty of the small screen. But just because the current heap of TV shows is so huge, we shouldn’t forget what’s gone before, and the distinctive tone and feel of previous eras (for instance, comedy may reign now, but a decade ago, macho, brawling dramas ruled the land).

5. Why Film Criticism?
With the release of A.O. Scott’s new book “Better Living Through Criticism,” the question of criticism’s relevancy, specifically film criticism, has comes up yet again. Vague Visages’ Justine A. Smith examines the “Why criticism?” question in depth in a new column about the importance of the practice.

Criticism has changed monumentally in the past decade. The Internet has removed the power from the critic as a gatekeeper, allowing just about anyone to set up a WordPress blog to share their thoughts on the latest film. Criticism, which used to be elite and maybe even important, suddenly became diluted by the democratic power of the Internet. And, it wasn’t long before it started to eat into the staff positions at major newspapers and magazines across the world. PR companies started to go to the blog writers before the bigger critics, and to this day, it often seems that film criticism has become an extended branch of major studios’ marketing departments. So, why write criticism? Well, the obvious misdirect would be to ask something similar to any form of art. Why paint? Why sing? With criticism, this answer never seems sufficient. Criticism has a poisonous air, which makes us want to disassociate it from other arts. Never mind that some of the greatest films in history were extensions of critical writing. Without film criticism, I dare say we would never have films by Godard, Rohmer, Andersen or Rapaport. Without criticism, what would cinema even look like today? Why do I write criticism? I’m not even sure. It’s something I’ve done ever since my late teens, and I’ve never wanted to stop. Eventually, I’d like to write my own movies, but for now, I feel challenged enough by the task of writing about the films I’ve seen. Lately, I’ve tasked myself with translating as closely as possible my feelings onto the page. Reaching into my heart and mind and taking images, colors, heartbeats and making sense of them with writing. That wasn’t the case a year ago, and it will likely change a year from now. Really, my ideas about my own need for criticism are so broad and ever-changing that it seems impossible to settle on a permanent answer. So, why do I feel qualified to field an entire column on the topic? Because I think writing criticism is often about asking questions.

6. Andrew McCarthy On Directing Television and His Acting Career.
Filmmaker Magazine explores the ins and outs of the technical side of the entertainment industry, the strategies that go on behind the camera. Case in point: Jim Hemphill interviews Andrew McCarthy on directing television and the numerous differences between acting and directing.

Filmmaker: You don’t usually direct shows in which you’re also acting, but “The Family” is an exception. Did they approach you as an actor first, or as a director, or was it a package deal?

I first heard about it when my manager gave me the script and said, “Joan Allen’s doing this,” which sounded promising. They were originally thinking of me to play the husband role, and I said, “Well, I’ve played that part before. What about this pariah over here?” Things evolved from there, and I had spoken with Jenna a year earlier about possibly directing a pilot of hers that didn’t go forward. So we had already had those kinds of conversations, and when I agreed to do “The Family” as an actor she said she’d like me to direct a couple and I said, “Perfect!” It was interesting, because we shot the pilot, and then started the rest of the series months later; I directed episode three, so I was prepping as soon as we started the series. When I would show up to act in other director’s episodes, I was more consciously aware of what they were doing than I might otherwise be as an actor – I was going to school at the same time as I was acting.

I would think it would be challenging to lose self-consciousness in the way that you need to as an actor when you’re directing yourself, since to direct you have to be hyper-aware of everything.

I’d only done it once before, and it was the first time I ever directed episodic. I was on a show called “Lipstick Jungle,” and directing that was a lot more overwhelming – mainly because it was all new to me. It wasn’t as hard as you would think on “The Family,” because the guy was so specific and not really me, whereas so often characters are just an extension of yourself. Here it was like putting on a hat, because everything about Hank was so different from me both internally and physically, down to his walk. But it did take a little adjustment, because he’s very insular and doesn’t speak a lot, and directing is anything but that – you have to really take the floor and communicate well to a large group of people so that they all know what they’re supposed to be doing. So it took a few minutes sometimes to make that shift; when I was directing myself I probably slowed down a bit. But there was also great liberty because the first thing I had to check at the door with this character was my vanity, so I wasn’t ever looking at the monitor thinking, “Oh God, that’s not a good angle for me.” Making sure I was attractive was removed from the equation, because nothing about this guy was attractive! [Laughs]

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