Kristan Hoffman

writing dreams into reality

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Tag: TV/Movies (Page 1 of 9)

Broken promises and clinging on for too long (or: What ruined Grey’s Anatomy)

Spoiler level: HIGH. If you don’t know what happened on last night’s episode of Grey’s Anatomy — and don’t want to — then walk away now.

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Fans be like…

I could make a long list of things that last night’s episode of Grey’s Anatomy did wrong. From ridiculous plot points and redundant dialogue, to bad green screens and cheap fake-outs. There were dozens of violations, offset only by a few brief moments of brilliance from Ellen Pompeo, the endearing mother-daughter duo that Derek rescued, and Patrick Dempsey’s pretty face.

But that list, however long, is all small potatoes. That list is all forgivable.

What isn’t forgivable is the death of Derek Shepherd.

I’m not upset because he was McDreamy and I’m some moony fangirl. I’m upset because the act of killing off Derek broke a sacred, unspoken agreement between storyteller and audience.

A television pilot, like the first chapter of a book, is a promise to the viewer. This is what the story is about. This is what you’re signing up for.

The pilot episode of Grey’s Anatomy promised viewers that Meredith and Derek were the endgame. That they would get their Happily Ever After. That’s what I signed up for. Of course there were going be obstacles in the way. A first wife, a bomb, a cute vet, depression, a shooting, etc. That’s how storytelling works. Writers raise the stakes; we raise our expectations and investment.

Last night, our investment went completely bust.

I know there are reasons for what Grey’s did, even if I’ll never really know what those reasons are. Regardless, I think the better decision would have been to shut the show down. It has had 11 good years. It launched Shonda Rhimes’s career. It highlighted diversity in mainstream television. Rather than being pushed around by whatever off-screen ish came up — and eroding the artistic integrity of the story and main characters along the way — Grey’s should have gone out on its own terms, with a spectacular and fulfilling series finale reminiscent of its glory days.

But no one asked me. So I guess instead it will limp ahead for as long as it can.

In fairness, it’s not impossible for fans to enjoy Grey’s going forward. I’m sure there will be good, smart developments for many of the characters. (I’m particularly interested in Karev, Jackson, April, and Amelia.) But there is no longer any way for Grey’s to deliver on its original premise. It’s a fundamentally different show now.

Would I still have listened to my mom 10 years ago — “You have to watch this new doctor show!” — if I had known that the pilot was, essentially, a lie? I don’t know. Maybe. Okay, probably, because it was really damn good. But would I have continued past Season 3? No way. That was the end of the best years. I wish I’d seen the decline coming, found a good stopping point sometime during Season 4, and just gone off on my merry way.

(Ironically, that’s pretty much what my mom did.)

Will I quit the show now? I’m not sure yet. Part of me says I already put in 10 years; I ought to see this through to the end. But another part of me knows that those 10 years are a sunk cost; I can’t include them in the calculation of what my time is worth moving forward. And when I think about other shows I’ve quit — Scandal, Heroes, Chuck — I have no regrets.

So we’ll see.

I suppose what’s more important is that this has made me think much more critically about my own beginnings and what I’m promising to readers with my opening chapters. I don’t ever want to be guilty of this kind of betrayal.

We need to talk about Empire

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Let me start by saying: I am not going to be able to do this show justice. There is too much to unpack. But I can’t not talk about it! It’s too entertaining — and too important.

If you want to read something more comprehensive, here are two really good articles:

As for me, I just want to mention a few specific elements that hooked me as a viewer and impressed me as a storyteller.

The All-Black Cast

This shouldn’t be a big deal, but it is. I mean, “racism is dead,” yet we still have separate sections of the greeting card aisle for “Mahogany” cards. The truth is that we live in a society where non-white, non-heterosexual, non-able-bodied people are automatically designated as “other,” in ways both big and small.

So the fact that millions of viewers — of every demographic — were tuning in each Wed night to watch the Lyon family? The fact that Empire has absolutely dominated the ratings this season? And the fact that it is the first show in at least 23 years — maybe the first drama ever — to increase its viewership with every single new episode?

That’s huge.

Because it’s proof that black characters are not “niche” by default. It’s proof that American audiences are willing and able to identify with protagonists who might not look, sound, or act like them. (And not just identify with those protagonists, but be riveted by them.) It’s proof that stories do not require white, straight, able-bodied characters in order to make them financially or critically successful.

Empire isn’t the first show to tell us these things. From my childhood, I can remember Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Family Matters, and more recently, there are shows like Black-ish, Jane the Virgin, and Fresh Off the Boat. But Empire is the biggest, loudest, and most impossible to ignore. I have no idea if it can sustain this momentum or for how long — but I don’t think that matters. Nothing can erase the accomplishments of this first season.

I think Empire could be a watershed for mainstream American culture. I hope so.

The Social Commentary

One of the show’s many strengths is its audacity. Empire goes where most stories are afraid to go, and it does not tread lightly.

One gay son. One with bipolar disorder. One with mommy issues that lead to dating inappropriate women. And then there’s the racism, sexism, wealth, creativity, religion, and more. Empire doesn’t shy away from anything.

What I think is most significant, though, is that Empire is tackling these topics from the “hip hop gaze,” so to speak. Political correctness is not a priority. Keeping it real is. Which means that even the family members who have no issue with Jamal’s homosexuality refer to him in ways that would make most liberals cringe. And when Andre experiences a mental health breakdown, his concerned, loving mother still has a hard time believing that he could be afflicted by “white people problems.”

The Lyons are not intended to serve as role models. The things that they say, do, and believe are not always kind or pretty. But the Lyons are not our court jesters either. This isn’t like a trashy reality show where the viewer is meant to laugh at the contestants, to watch from a safe and comfortable emotional distance, to feel superior. When you watch Empire, you are a Lyon.

That’s why the social commentary is so impactful. Would I say that? Have I done that? Do I think that?

Cookie and Her Sons

With a book, good writing needs only the reader to make it come alive. But for the screen, good writing needs good acting to really shine.

The entire cast of Empire is top-notch, but Taraji P. Henson is divine. Her Cookie Lyon is everything. Fierce, fresh, and foul-mouthed — yet also vulnerable, sensitive, and savvy. Music may be the heart and soul of Empire the company, but Cookie is without question the heart and soul of Empire the show.

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Terrence Howard does a fine job as Lucious Lyon, but Lucious to me is just the engine for the story. His ambition and his selfishness are what create all the conflict. In some ways, he’s more like a force of nature than one of the heroes. I’m certainly not rooting for him.

So after Taraji/Cookie, I would say that the Lyon sons (collectively) are the next best part of the show. No matter how many times they are pitted against each other — either directly or indirectly by their father — Andre, Jamal, and Hakeem keep coming back to their brotherly bonds. Hakeem and Jamal are particularly close, since they share a talent and passion for music, on top of everything else. But even Andre, the business-minded tone-deaf “black sheep” of the family, can put aside his resentment at being left out and offer a hand to his brothers when needed.

Edited to add: The depiction of Andre’s bipolar disorder is perhaps not entirely medically accurate, but I think there’s an emotional truth to it. Also, Trai Byers does an incredible job with the material he’s given.

More than anything else, I hope the relationships between Cookie and her boys will stay strong over the course of the story. That fierce family love is what’s most powerful and universal in Empire. It’s what got us through the scheming, murders, betrayals, and countless other twists of this first season. I can only imagine the storms it will have to weather next year.

Empire

The Best Pictures that I’ve seen this year

Last week I was in Taiwan — more on that to come — and thanks to jet lag, I only made it through half of the Oscars on Sunday night. I recorded the rest, but when I woke up at 4 a.m. the next day, Facebook spoiled me for the big awards. Ah well.

I’m happy for all of the winners, but having now seen 4 out of the 8 Best Picture nominees, I do think Selma was snubbed in several categories, and I can’t for the life of me understand why.

Yeah, it doesn’t make any sense. Sigh.

Anyway, in the awards season spirit of honoring great storytelling, I just wanted to share my thoughts on the “Best Pictures” that I’ve seen this year.

The Imitation Game

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I actually mentioned this one earlier. Basically: it’s solid and well-made in every way, and I appreciated the historical context.

Benedict Cumberbatch does a good job differentiating Alan Turing’s social obliviousness and vulnerability from the social indifference and snobbery of Sherlock Holmes. I never quite forgot that Keira Knightley was Keira Knightley, but she portrayed Joan Clarke well nevertheless. Matthew Goode was both excellent and dashing. Why is he not in more things?

Grand Budapest Hotel

the-grand-budapest-hotel-posterCaught this one on cable. I find Wes Anderson to be interesting but a bit overrated, and Grand Budapest Hotel did nothing to change that impression for me. The movie is amazingly crafted, every detail impeccably styled. But for all its prettiness, the story seemed a bit pointless to me. It’s a bromance, I guess? And it makes some sort of commentary on an old-fashioned sense of honor and doing things the “right” way? I dunno. The plot and themes seemed to be afterthoughts, simply there to justify the aesthetic.

Selma

I was afraid Selma would be out of theaters by the time I got back from Taiwan, so between errands and packing, I squeezed in a weekday matinee.

Selma was, in a word, powerful. David Oyelowo deftly carried the weight of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy, but he was also supported by a superb cast. In particular, Carmen Ejogo shone, along with Stephan James as the young civil rights activist and future congressman John Lewis, and Keith Jackson (from Short Term 12) in the heartbreaking role of Jimmie Lee Jackson.

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At this point I would say that Dr. King is known for his idealism and inspiring speeches, but I loved seeing the strategic side of his movement too — as well as having that balanced out by people who didn’t fully support him, and understanding why. In addition to being moved to tears many, many times, I felt liked I learned.

For better or worse, I had the entire theater to myself, so I was able to capture a couple of my favorite quotes on my phone:

No citizen of this country can call themselves blameless for we all bear a responsibility for our fellow man.

Boyhood

Andy and I watched this one together on the flight from Minneapolis to Tokyo. Thank you, Delta in-flight entertainment system.

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The production of this film is a fascinating story all on its own. Filmed during one month of every year for 12 years, with an overall arc in place ahead of time, but with specific scenes being written each year based on how the lead actor has grown and on what had come before. A unique and ambitious project, for sure.

I liked the idea of following a character through such a formative period in his life — and there was definitely something special about it being one young actor growing up before our eyes, as opposed to casting multiple actors to play the same character at various ages.

In some ways, nothing really happens. There isn’t some big plot to follow. It’s just life. But in spite of that — or maybe because of it — Boyhood is strangely compelling.

Also, Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke are both outstanding.

12 Years a Slave

urlLast year’s Best Picture winner. Better late than never.

I watched this one by myself, on the flight from Tokyo to Detroit. At first I didn’t enjoy how the beginning jumped around in time, but then I thought about the way it reflected Solomon Northrup’s longing for home, and his precious memories of his family and freedom, and I decided it was a good device.

All of the performances were pretty stellar, especially Lupita Nyong’o. Brad Pitt and Benedict Cumberbatch might actually have been the weak spots, which is both unusual and not that bad of a problem to have. Chiwetel Ejiofor was his usual awesome, understated self, and Michael Fassbender (who I will no longer call my Hollywood Boyfriend, because I’ve outgrown that phase) was his usual creepy, unhinged self. I’m not sure what it says about him that he always takes these roles, or that he always does them so well… Hopefully nothing!

I actually watched several other movies and TV shows traveling to and from Taiwan (36 hours each way!) so you may be reading more about them in the near future. Right now, though, I have a manuscript to get back to. And jet lag to combat. And a million loads of laundry to tackle.

Week in review (Feb 3, 2015)

As an experiment, I’m doing away with the bullet points, even though they’re like a security blanket for me. “Oh, this is just a list, not a real blog post.” But what does that even mean, lol? What’s a fake blog post? And why do I have to take everything so seriously?

transparent-posterTransparent

Like Jane the VirginTransparent jumped to the forefront of my attention after its Golden Globes wins. I binge-watched all ten episodes on Sat, Jan 24, thanks to Amazon making them free to stream for that day. (Normally the series is only available to Amazon Prime members.) And just so you know that I’m not a total slug: I was cleaning while I watched.

Transparent felt like an HBO show to me — a bit like Girls, actually — in the sense that it’s well-written, well-acted, and well-produced, but not something that would probably appeal to the mainstream. Not because the topic is niche (though I suppose some would argue that it is…) but rather because the tone of the show just isn’t easy to swallow. It’s a dark comedy (meaning there’s humor, but not the kind that makes you laugh out loud) starring a fairly “unlikable” family. They’re all messed up and abrasive, and they make a lot of bad decisions.

That said, you do sympathize with them, because they love each other, and they’re doing the best they can. The acting is excellent, and there’s interesting storytelling at work too. Flashbacks that parallel the present storyline, or enhance it with revelations. Unreliable narration, or arguably magical realism, depending on your interpretation. Also, the sets are kind of old-timey and gorgeous.

For the most part I do enjoy the show, but I wish there were at least a couple well-adjusted characters. Partly because it would just be a nice contrast, but mostly because I worry about the (false) implication that a trans person can’t have a “normal” family. That by being trans — even (or especially) when she was closeted — Maura irrevocably damaged the people who she loves. I know that isn’t what Transparent is trying to say, but I fear that (so far) the show is sort of saying it anyway.

Krohn Conservatory

On the same day that I was streaming Transparent, an old friend came into town, so I took a break and we went to see the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired garden show at Krohn Conservatory. It was small, but smelled amazing. Wasn’t too bad to look at, either.

Small but beautiful exhibit at Krohn Conservatory, inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright.

A photo posted by Kristan (@kristanhoffman) on

Note to self: Get a plant. Something green and alive to freshen up your home.

MV5BMTI0NjEwNDgwOV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwOTI1NTA3._V1_SX640_SY720_Mona Lisa Smile

Believe it or not, I’ve never seen Dead Poets Society, but I know the gist of it, and I’m pretty sure Mona Lisa Smile is the female version. Forward-thinking teacher inspires brilliant but hesitant young minds? Check!

Personally, I very much enjoyed the movie and its overtly feminist messaging. I also liked the entire cast, including the somewhat divisive Julia Roberts. (You either think she’s gorgeous or has a toothy horse face. I am in the former group.)

There aren’t any surprises in this movie, but that’s okay. It’s about character. My favorite moment, hands down, is when a heartbroken Betty (Kirsten Dunst) viciously lashes out at Giselle (Maggie Gyllenhaal) for being a slut with daddy issues, and Giselle just gathers her screaming, crying friend into her arms, and they hold each other.

Broomball

Usually Andy and I just play flag football from Sep to Nov, but this year the team wanted to try a few other sports in addition. Right now it’s broomball, which is like hockey without skates. And “brooms” instead of sticks. And a ball instead of a puck.

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Yeah, it’s weird. But also surprisingly fun!

Writer Unboxed & the Super Bowl

Speaking of sports… Since my latest Writer Unboxed post fell on Super Bowl Sunday, I decided to spotlight 3 football players and share what I’ve learned from them about pursuing dreams.

“Talent, Perseverance, and Hard Work: Lessons on Writing from Football”

Fred Jackson may never end up in the Hall of Fame, but he’s got heart and soul, and he’s the reason I fell in love with football again. Although the odds of him making it to the NFL seemed grim, he had faith in himself, and passion for the sport. He is living his dream because he looks at every step of the process as an opportunity to improve and impress.

That’s the kind of writer I want to be.

“You don’t have a black role. You have an equal role.”

An amazing anecdote from Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Uhura in Star Trek: The Original Series:

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