Hudson Valley Girl

(Copyright Apatow Productions)

I recently¬†finished viewing season one of “Girls”, the lightning-rod show of the moment. Viewers, non-viewers, everyone seems to have an opinion about the brainchild of wunderkind Lena Dunham. I’m not here to discuss the show’s strengths and flaws; there’s plenty of (digital and traditional) ink addressing that topic. I’ll just say I’m a fan, and especially because of one performance: Zosia Mamet as Shoshanna.

Zosia has the smallest role of the quartet making up “Girls”, but in watching her, you recognize her. Everyone at this age has met a Shoshanna: the rapid-fire can’t-pause-for-breath chatter, regardless of discussion topic, place, or company. This girl couldn’t code-switch if she tried. Throughout the season, and with not a lot of expository background or dialogue, Mamet conveys the desperate push-pull of longing to be worldly and sophisticated against crushing naivete and sheltered privilege. The viewer sees Shoshanna’s childlike need to keep up with her circle of friends, as part of a larger process of discovering who she is (and will be). It’s a maturity-in-process performance.

Mamet is the rare performer who accurately conveys the underlying nerves that accompany the early adulthood period, when so many “firsts” are experienced. Excitement, anxiety, ambition — these are the many layers detected in Mamet’s performance. It’s not that Shoshanna is shallow, not exactly. It’s that she just hasn’t yet experienced the world — this girl hasn’t ever gotten her heart broken, lost a loved one, not been able to make rent. The audience knows this because of what Dunham has Shoshanna worry about — the unspoken hierarchy within class members at kickboxing, which “Sex and the City” characters correspond with those in her real-life immediate circle — in other words, the concerns of the blissfully young and untroubled.

I find this performance so celebratory, as well, when viewed in direct contrast to Mamet’s recurring “Mad Men” role as Joyce Ramsay, a worldly and cool lesbian who introduces Peggy to the counterculture movement of the mid-1960s. In that show, just before Mamet’s big break on “Girls”, the audience sees an actress capable of going small, with a character that’s nuanced and effortlessly confident. Joyce is as different from Shoshanna as two personalities can be — a smoky clarinet compared to a flighty piccolo. It’s a testament to Mamet that she carries off both roles with ease.

The above two scenes take place during my favorite episode of “Girls”: “Welcome to Bushwick a.k.a. The Crackcident” (Episode 7, Season One). The first shows Shoshanna sober, preoccupied with an upcoming blind date from an online matchmaking site. The second shows Shoshanna high, and on crack, no less. Dunham writes Shoshanna’s traits in even starker relief under the influence, and Mamet’s performance is crazily game. In a season of very funny and witty writing, in my opinion, this episode stands out as the best — primarily because of Mamet’s go-for-broke commitment.

This post first appeared on the Good Taste and a Sense of Humor blog.

The Constant Gardener

(Copyright HBO)

I was unable to find an episode of HBO’s “In Treatment” to link to, so the above, summarizing Blair Underwood’s role, will have to suffice. Needless to say, if you haven’t seen Underwood’s performance as patient Alex in season one, go out and rent the season — it’s absolutely unforgettable.

Anxiety is the settling in of a planted seed. Several people–or events–may have interred it, but once it starts to grow and flourish, its maturation can take unexpected, unanticipated turns. Usually, at this point, the host seeks to starve the plant of further sustenance, to deny its further health and existence. That’s what Alex seems to be seeking in therapy — how to kill off these growths at the root, and thus stop his anxiety cold.

His anxiety doesn’t present itself in the typical way, or not by a textbook definition. He’s arrogant, abrasive, argumentative. The viewer gradually understands that Alex is trying to learn the difference between denying/starving the plant and suppressing/avoiding it. Clearly, thus far, he’s been an expert at the latter. The suppressed can be dealt with, albeit temporarily, if buried. The problem is the method: The buried becomes the perfect condition for the seed.

To starve his anxiety, however, is to expose it — to leave it, and himself, vulnerable. Can a proud, perfectionist person be vulnerable? One sees Underwood struggle with this paradox in every episode. The first few sessions, he cannot even articulate the anxiety. He presents it in the abstract: Something is waking him from sleep, something is growing just under the surface.

Underwood’s role is all journey, and offers no guideposts toward progress or setbacks, no absolutes. It’s one of the most maddening, enigmatic, and difficult roles I’ve ever seen an actor play. With a lesser performer, the role of Alex would be an all-out mess, alienating the audience. Instead, embodied through Underwood, Alex is utterly compelling in his complexities and mystery.

In the end, the viewer wants the plant starved as much as Alex does. But we also want to see what type of plant is there, too, even knowing its roots and flowers are poisonous.

This post first appeared on the Good Taste and a Sense of Humor blog.

Ode to Joy

(Video copyright Grub Street Productions, Paramount Network Television)

The trope of mistaken identity (and ensuing miscommunications) is a go-to for sitcom writers, easily played for laughs by appealing to the audience’s egos. The audience, always one step ahead of the actors, is always aware of the true identity (and what’s at stake), while the characters get clued in to the joke one by one. If it works, hilarity should ensue. If it doesn’t, the entire episode can come across as stale.

The “Frasier” episode above (season 2, episode 3) works, and primarily because of the terrific ensemble. Among the cast, though, one performer stands out: John Mahoney as Martin Crane. The setup: Frasier has invited his new boss, Tom, over to dinner as a potential suitor for Daphne, his father’s live-in physical therapist/housekeeper. Tom, as it turns out, is gay, and thinks he’s there on a date with Frasier. No one at the get-together knows this until Tom clues in Niles, Frasier’s brother, and thus the miscommunications get set straight (pun fully intended).

I have such affection for this episode, and it’s primarily because of Mahoney. The character of Martin has always been written as the average Joe in this ensemble — a working-class blue-collar retiree contrasted against his silver spoon sons, a beer-swilling guy-next-door among port-sipping prima donnas. The character could have been played as irascible, grumpy, mean-spirited — more than a few of his lines over the show’s run could have been delivered with a harsher tone, a gruffer interpretation. Mahoney, though, makes Martin not just likeable, but loveable — a grin always threatens to overtake his face, a bemused “can you believe these guys” gleam is ever-present in his eyes. His line delivery is often just a breath away from good-natured laughter. Despite Martin’s nature, he enjoys his sons, the push-and-pull dynamic of their opposite personalities, forced to coexist. And when Mahoney gets to put Martin’s true nature on display, it’s nearly always jubilant.

Mahoney was nominated for an Emmy just twice for his work on “Frasier”, and both times went home empty handed. While the Emmys are regularly bemoaned for getting it wrong, this oversight (and lack of subsequent nominations) seems particularly egregious. (Out of 11 seasons, the awards committee couldn’t find one year Mahoney deserved to win?!?)

But I digress. If you have time, watch the whole excerpt of the episode to see Mahoney’s glee build and build. If you don’t have 20+ minutes to spare, start the clock at the 15:30 mark and wrap up at 17:00. Mahoney’s burst of laughter is undeniably contagious, and the camera’s perspective of outside-looking-in makes the viewer want to run in and join him. I dare you to watch that scene and keep a straight face.

This post first appeared on the Good Taste and a Sense of Humor blog.

All the Rage

(Video copyright Bright/Kauffman/Crane Productions, Warner Bros. Television)

For my money, no one does yuppie urban angst for laughs better than David Schwimmer. And he does it particularly well in the the post-Thanksgiving episode of “Friends”, “The One With Ross’s Sandwich” (season 5, episode 9).

A recurring thread of this season was Ross’s rage problem, a cumulative result of the character’s ongoing romantic and professional frustrations. In this scene, the switch gets flipped, and out comes the anger. The (seemingly minor) catalyst? A colleague at the office has eaten Ross’s lunch, a sandwich (made from Thanksgiving leftovers) he had been looking forward to eating all morning.

I love how Schwimmer accents the word “my” throughout this scene, how his colleague’s seemingly innocuous mistake takes on the full weight of the personal. We’ve all been there, just trying to slog through the work day, the little thing we’re anticipating (be it a sandwich, a cookie, a cup of coffee) the one bright spot in a otherwise dull day, or the one moment of relief and indulgence in an otherwise stressful day. That sandwich represents a moment of individuality in a city where you’re one among millions, in a corporation where you’re one among hundreds. That 3 p.m. snack–a handful of M&Ms, perhaps–evokes the many afternoons, so many years ago, when school let out and that sweet taste signified that the rest of the day was blissfully yours. Discovering the vending machine is out of M&Ms, or that a coworker has emptied the candy jar, is akin to waking from a pleasant dream, one that promised to rejuvenate and fuel the coming day, and instead finding yourself jolted, frazzled, and grumpy.

Which is why Schwimmer’s outburst is so hilariously relatable. We’re all just trying to keep it together, day in and day out, and most of us never get to have our own individual meltdown. We have jobs to keep, bills to pay, responsibilities to uphold, and so we bottle up our reactions. But for a moment, Schwimmer lets us live vicariously through Ross, and goes for the primal yell. His release–and our corresponding belly laugh–may be as effective, and therapeutic, as if we were able to react so honestly. The performer evokes our own authentic reaction–however inappropriate and juvenile, however over-the-top–and we laugh as we recognize ourselves.

This post first appeared on the Good Taste and a Sense of Humor blog.