Review: MTV’s Teen Mom, Season 2

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I had been hearing off and on that MTV’s reality series 16 and Pregnant and the follow-up, Teen Mom, were interesting and addictive, but I never thought about actually sitting down and watching these series. Well, after reading a random recommendation in NY Mag while at the doctor’s office, I figured I might check them out. And yesterday, while nursing a hangover and enjoying the kind of lazy Sunday where I only put on pants to pay for my takeout (the delivery guy is old and creepy or I wouldn’t even bother with that), I decided to start at the beginning of Season 2 of Teen Mom, which finished airing in mid-October. Needless to say, I ended up watching the whole damn season, including the Dr. Drew finale special. And I loved it!

Not having seen the first season or any of 16 and Pregnant, it took me a while to catch up on the background of some of these characters, but I soon became hooked. Teen Mom follows four teenaged girls who have had babies within the last couple of years. More importantly, it shows their environments, from their almost universally awful parents to the fathers of their children to how work, school and even apartment hunts are affected by their choices. There’s Maci, the overachieving cheerleader type from Chattanooga who got knocked up by the guy she lost her virginity to, a hunky strong-but-silent type named Ryan who sort of looks like a cross between James Franco and Brody Jenner, and who didn’t stick around for long after the baby was born. She dives into relationships and thinks that every one of them will last forever, displaying that special kind of naïveté that only teens have. When she decides to move to Nashville for a brand new relationship with some guy named Kyle, you just know it’s a bad idea, but it also seems like exactly the sort of thing a teenager would do. On the plus side, Maci definitely has the best parents of any of these girls. They’re supportive, understanding, and generally just seem like nice folks, but her mom has a serious case of Alison Janney in American Beauty, with her faded beauty elegance and vacant stare. She should always be holding a martini and gazing out the window, saying “what was that dear?” softly when you didn’t say anything. I think Maci’s mom may just be my favorite character.

Then there’s Amber, a pill-popping, badly educated and, worst of all, physically abusive girl who I swear, when she showed up on screen, made me think that the show had diversified to show what women in their 30s are going through as a nice contrast. But no, she’s supposedly a “teen.” What in Jerri Blank hell? Anyway, she berates and beats the crap out of her sweet boyfriend (and sometime fiancé) Gary, who is clingy and possessive and controlling and dangerously overweight, yes, but who is still a better father than the screaming, slurring, seriously stupid and destructive creature that is Amber. It’s a wonder the kid hasn’t been taken away from her — oh wait, it kind of was. Thank F-ing god.

Then we have the star-crossed stepsiblings, Catelynn and Tyler, who had a baby and gave it up for adoption, but are still haunted by the decision and go through all sorts of guilt issues while dealing with a terrible living situation. Even though the incest implications are there (it’s weird when they talk about what their parents are going through while cuddling, and when they get voted Prom King and Queen, you have to wonder if some of the kids were snickering at the stepsibling aspect), this is still the most solid couple in the show. They’re both smart and mature, and even though Tyler goes through a jealousy phase, they seem to be generally pretty stable, especially when compared with Tyler’s in-and-out-of-jail father, the mullet-wearing Butch, and Catelynn’s emotionally and verbally abusive mother, who is a walking anti-smoking campaign.

To round out this lovely group there is Farrah, who seems at first to have it all. She’s beautiful, has rich parents, and her best friend is a hairdresser so she’s always rocking fierce hairdos. However, right off the bat we see that her seemingly together, WASPy mother has serious issues, and that just because you have rich parents doesn’t mean they give you even a penny of help. It reminds me of Warren Buffett, and how he famously refuses to give any money to his relatives except for college tuition. Anyway, she has some of the most heartbreaking moments of the season, and she’s so amazingly ignorant (not being able to write a check, falling for the oldest con in the book, and so on and so on) that I want to keep watching just to see the episode where she buys the Brooklyn Bridge. Also, what’s up with her narration? It gets a little better over the course of the season, but there’s some serious robotic foolery going on there.

Obviously, the show doesn’t paint a pretty picture of what it’s like to deal with parenthood at such a young age, but beyond the teen aspect, there are recognizable elements of life in general on display throughout. It’s amazing how many issues go on in the show that I can relate to even now, and what’s more, some of the problems these girls have bring you right back to those terrifying teenage years when you felt trapped and every problem seemed like the biggest deal in the world. I like this show because it captures teenage life in an honest and often unflattering way, but in a way that seeks not to exploit the characters or make them look ugly, but rather to show the beauty, weirdness and the pain in even the little moments. It also captures amazing moments of childhood, like when Amber’s daughter watches out the window as her father moves out, or when Catelynn and the baby she gave up make faces at each other at a picnic while everyone else is talking, or when Maci’s baby is filmed just for a moment using a Big Wheel-mounted camera. Teen or adult, parent or not, we were all kids once, and we can all relate.

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Mike and Juliet: The most surreal hour of the morning

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I know I’m going to get some shit for this, but I like The Morning Show with Mike and Juliet. For one thing, the hosts are so obviously disinterested, and probably drunk — and not in an annoying way like Kathie Lee. Speaking of which, has anyone seen the dragged-out trainwreck that has been the fourth (or is it fifth?) hour of The Today Show since Kathie Lee joined the cast? Dear god! It’s like she takes a handful of quaaludes every morning before she goes on! I’m very confused by her continued employment.

Anyway, the point is that the only competition for my attention during the Mike and Juliet hour is the aforementioned disaster of a Today Show hour and, of course, Regis and Kelly. I don’t think I have to explain how I feel about Regis and Kelly. Shudder.

So that leaves me with the underdogs, and I always like the underdog, especially when they’re as desperate and sad as Mike Jerrick and Juliet Huddy. They kind of seem like castoffs from a satirical screenplay by Terry Gilliam or David Lynch, strangely consumed by their own artificiality. Despite this thick facade, you can tell that at least some intelligence lurks behind those dead eyes, screaming to get out, and that’s something I don’t usually see from those Today Show hos (except Hoda, she’s cool).

There’s a cool review of the show from when it first came out in the New York Times (link here). The best line: “This is a kind of marvelous city duo — and a nice breakthrough for morning shows. No giggly hot mom like Kelly Ripa; no model of rectitude and self-sacrifice like Ms. Vieira. And no good old Reege. Or good young Matt. Instead they’re a little sleazy, Mike and Juliet. And a little lonely.

Ah, sleazy and lonely. Just the way I like people.

Tell Me You Love Me (HBO)

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HBO’s new drama series Tell Me You Love Me is a show about love, sex, and the complications of being a couple, and in that sense, it’s not altogether groundbreaking. Plenty of shows have focused on the minutia of coupledom, from thirtysomething to Sex and the City, not to mention The L Word and Queer as Folk on Showtime. But Tell Me You Love Me‘s raw, hand-held camera approach brings new life to the relationship drama genre, and its ensemble cast is one of the finest on TV right now. What really kept me watching throughout Season One, however, was the spot-on writing. Anyone who’s had a long-term relationship or who’s had even one fight with a lover will have a moment of identification before the end of the first episode. It doesn’t hurt that the characters, while all (to my and many others’ dismay) white and heterosexual, manage to represent every age group and stage of life.

The youngest couple is also the one that seems to me the least defined. 20-somethings Jaime and Hugo (Michelle Borth and Luke Kirby) suffer from some form of sexual addiction, especially Jaime, who accuses Luke of plotting infidelity, all the while cheating behind his back. They have the hottest sex scenes, but, I believe, the weakest conflicts. Meanwhile, 30-something couple Carolyn and Palek (Sonya Walger and Adam Scott) are struggling to conceive a child, and it’s tearing their otherwise solid marriage apart. They have a fancy house and plenty of money, but Palek seems to be poised to leave Carolyn at any moment. The middle-aged couple is also the one with the most heart-wrenching problems. Katie and David (Ally Walker and Tim DeKay) have raised two kids and have all but stopped having sex, more or less as a result of the pressures of childrearing. They have the most trouble communicating out of all the couples, and it’s painful at times to watch them lie to each other, to themselves, and, needless to say, to their couples counselor. They constantly apologize for themselves, especially Katie, and consistently reveal themselves to be quite ignorant about sex and terrified of intimacy. It becomes clear right away that they use their kids as an excuse not to have sex (they insist on leaving their door open at night, although their kids are fully grown, for God’s sake).

The therapist they see, Dr. May Foster (Jane Alexander), also happens to make up half of the show’s fourth and final couple, representing the 60-70 year old crowd. She and her husband Arthur (David Selby) have the most solid relationship of any we see on the show, and their sex life is as strong as ever. We find out later that May has maintained an ongoing flirtation and sometime affair with an old flame throughout her marriage, but she and her husband have a healthy approach to dealing with their issues, and their bond seems unbreakable.

May is also the device that connects the other three couples, as they all go to her for therapy at some point in the season. Some have decried the graphic sex in the show, but I would argue that it would be impossible for us as an audience to have the same amount of insight into the therapy scenes without having witnessed the previous night’s sex (or lack thereof). When the characters lie, withhold information, and dodge questions, we know why. It also makes sense that sex is given equal weight with conversation and other interactions, because after all, sex is a very important part of people’s lives that often gets ignored (when it isn’t being censored) in movies and television. Now that the industry isn’t obligated to show married couples sleeping in twin beds anymore, writers should recognize that they have a chance to portray how people really live. I’m glad networks like HBO and Showtime understand that.

Setting aside the sex for a moment, one thing I find interesting about Tell Me You Love Me is how up-to-date it is, from the set decoration and props to contemporary references littering the dialogue. Even the character types seem updated for the modern age. Characters smoke pot, order in Thai food, and research their sexual hangups on the internet. This helps to support the realism of the show while helping us relate to the characters, and it’s very effective without being overbearing (like, say, Sex and the City namedropping Tasti D-Lite enough times to make me never want to eat there).

Finally, there are a lot of strong emotions and depressing situations in this show, and therefore it might be considered too intense for some. I feel, however, that the show brings to light some very important issues that everyone deals with at some point, and that people should get over their discomfort at seeing all that emotion splayed out, because there’s a lot to be learned if you pay attention. If just one sexless housewife watches Katie and David’s situation and sees herself in it, and through watching discovers how to begin to improve her marriage, then the show will have done the world a valuable service. And that’s more than you can ask from most of the poo on TV these days (Cavemen, I’m talking to you).

Oh, and for you Lost fans, there’s an added bonus, in the form of 2 crossover stars: Sonya Walger, Carolyn on this show, is better known as Desmond’s lady friend Penny on Lost, while fan favorite Ian Somerhalder (Boone on Lost) makes a mid-season appearance as one of Jaime’s flings.

Big Love: Polygamy Never Looked so Good

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Big Love is an odd show about an odd topic. It combines two things that appeal to very different audiences — devout religion and abnormal sexual practices — but is completely justifiable in its juxtaposition of these two elements in that it’s based on real life…sort of. Our protagonists, a large (to say the least) three-mother family led by Bill Paxton, live according to “the principle,” which was part of the original Mormon church and was carried on by the society they are having a hard time separating from, The UEB/United Effort Brotherhood (based semi-loosely on the AUB/Apostolic United Brethren, or any number of other polygamist fundamentalist sects that are still very much in existence). Of course, each member of the family has their own understandable reason for having joined this lifestyle, and they range in their devotion to the religious core of the principle, from the fully-indoctrinated second wife Nikki (played by Chloë Sevigny), who happens to be the daughter of UEB leader Roman Grant (played by the awesome Harry Dean Stanton), to newcomer and third wife Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin), who knows little about the family’s religion but loves the idea of polygamy. The original couple out of which this family grew, Bill and Barb Henrickson (Paxton and Jeanne Tripplehorn), provide the “monogamous” front for the family, which lives in three connected houses, and occasionally show regrets at having shared their love with the others. However, any regret is temporary, as even though it was an unusual path that brought them all to this current state of family, it seems undeniably to work for them and bring them all happiness. Of course, it also brings them constant fear and paranoia, and plenty of dramatic twists and turns.

The drama comes mostly from the UEB compound, known as Juniper Creek, where Roman Grant persists in making Bill’s life hell for leaving the UEB as a teenager, and for various other transgressions. However, when you’re living an alternative sexual lifestyle like our protagonists are, danger can come from anywhere, and new threats continue to appear in the form of coworkers, neighbors, and even family. Everything stays nice and believable due to the incredible supporting cast, which includes character actors like the aforementioned Harry Dean Stanton and Joel McKinnon Miller (as Bill’s coworker and fellow polygamist living in suburbia, Don Embry), and, as women living the principle, Melora Walters, Grace Zabriskie, and Mary Kay Place. Even the younger supporting actors, among them Daveigh Chase, Tina Majorino, and Amanda Seyfried, are accomplished thespians in their own right.

Regardless of the dramas that befall our beloved family, the show keeps coming back to the unique relationship between the four lovebirds at the center of it all. The amazing opening credits, set to the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows,” immediately establish the undeniable love that they all share. Even if the love between the ladies is platonic, they consider themselves married to each other, and have their own tiffs and reconciliations. After watching a season or so of this show, I guarantee you’ll be as in love with this family as I am, and you might even start to think, “hey, there’s something to this polygamy idea after all!”

In fact, with shows like The Bachelor and its feminine counterpart The Bachelorette constantly analyzing the theme of being in love with multiple people, and indeed how effortless it is after you get used to it, it seems like America might finally be coming around to the idea that love needn’t be selfish. If you think about it, a hundred years ago (and even today, in many parts of the world), it was absolutely unacceptable for a woman you married to have been with anyone else in the past. She would be considered some kind of whore! People have slowly been coming around to the idea of accepting their lovers’ past lovers as just another part of life. Nowadays, if you can’t deal with your partner’s past, you’re considered weird or old-fashioned. Maybe in another hundred years, it’ll be considered square to get jealous about your partner’s other current partners. If you’re unconvinced by that, consider this fact: most men live polygamous lives anyway, they just don’t tell their wives about it. Think about it.

If you’re interested in reading more about this fascinating topic, “Pucker Up” columnist Tristan Taormino provides an excellent analysis of this show and compares/contrasts it with The Girls Next Door, the show about Hugh Hefner’s three girlfriends, in her article “Every Man’s Fantasy?: Two television shows explore nontraditional relationships.” There’s also an amazing photo slideshow with voice-over, documenting a real-life “plural family” along the lines of that in Big Love, available on the Salt Lake Tribune website (accompanying article here). Check it out!

Weeds: The best show ever made

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Marijuana-related entertainment carries a bad reputation, and with semi-good cause. What with Cheech and Chong numbers 2 through 18, Dude, Where’s My Car? , Evil Bong (some movie we spotted on the TV Guide channel, probably while drunk, and decided to Netflix, but which nearly destroyed our will to live), and any of the other millions of lousy stoner flicks out there, someone not familiar with the genre might be inclined to dismiss it altogether. This would be a terrible mistake, however, as this hypothetical person would be missing such film classics as Half Baked, How High, Killer Bud, and of course the masterpiece known as Harold and Kumar go to White Castle. And, okay, I’ll give you Up in Smoke, though I have to admit that, rewatching their films these days, Cheech and Chong are less funny to me now that I’m not 15.

But finally there is a TV program that brings some dignity to the world of marijuana, and of course some daring and controversy-courting comedy as well. First of all, I should comment that the opening credits are just lovely, especially during the second season, when the theme song, “Little Boxes,” is covered by a bevy of musicians, among them Elvis Costello, Jenny Lewis, Regina Spektor, and Death Cab for Cutie. The song, originally performed by Melvina Reynolds, perfectly introduces the perfect, 1950’s-style, picket fences mentality at Agresta (the gated community in which our scene is set), and simultaneously laments its conformity-producing powers.

The brilliant cast includes Mary-Louise Parker as protagonist Nancy Botwin, Elizabeth Perkins as the delightfully malevolent neighbor Celia Hodes, and of course the ever-hilarious Kevin Nealon, who surprised everyone, including me, by turning in an amazing performance in this show. Nancy’s scheming and freeloading brother-in-law Andy is played with endless charisma by good-looking Justin Kirk, and as Conrad, Nancy’s obvious love interest-to-be, Romany Malco provides more eye candy, as well as that whole nice guy thing. Kudos as well to the fine actors who portray the children of Nancy and Celia. They all act much wiser than their years, with excellent comic timing, no less.

But the real star of this show is a little friend called Mary Jane. The premise, you see, is that Nancy was recently widowed, and has a huge mortgage and two kids to raise, with few marketable skills. So she takes to dealing pot, buying from Conrad’s sassy business partner and aunt, Heylia James (played by Tonye Patano), a character who becomes increasingly important as Nancy’s business grows beyond what she ever anticipated. Twists and turns abound in this show, as does irreverent and oft-shocking humor. There’s also sex a’plenty for those of you out there who are fond of sex, though it is always presented in an unusual and thought-provoking fashion (you’ll have to watch the show to see what I mean). Guest stars such as the always-fabulous Zooey Deschanel, whose name always reminds me of bechamel sauce, keep things fresh and add wacky side-plots to the mix.

In conclusion, you don’t have to be a pot smoker to enjoy this program, though it would probably add to your level of interest in that aspect of the show, which is actually downplayed much of the time (Nancy herself rarely smokes the stuff, so most of the time it’s Kevin Nealon who adds the pothead humor in his comic relief scenes). Even the most stiff and unhip television viewer is bound to get hooked once the drama gets going, especially anyone who likes crime-related shows like The Sopranos. In conclusion, go watch it now and keep this awesome show on the air. Why? Because we said so.

BBC to Scientology: “I ain’t afraid of no Thetans”

The BBC’s Panorama: “Scientology and Me”

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Ah, the British.  Whenever I lose faith in America, which happens a few times a day, I take comfort in knowing that there is a major world power filled to the brim with atheists and other smart people.  Instead of bowing to economic pressure like they could have so many times, and like America, um, did, the UK still refuses to recognize Scientology as a religion.  And with good cause, i.e. they’re an evil cult.

Don’t believe me?  Well, check out this amazing episode of BBC’s hard-hitting series Panorama, entitled “Scientology and Me.”  (Tips: You can watch it in parts on YouTube, or if you’re one of those rebellious downloaders, you can get a nice high-quality copy on Bit Torrent).  The episode follows reporter John Sweeney as he investigates what Time Magazine once called “The Thriving Cult of Greed and Power.”

For those already familiar with the ridiculous beliefs and practices of this insidious, brainwash-happy organization, some of what is presented may be old news.  But this episode offers a very rare glimpse of what the Scientologists, specifically Tommy Davis (a spokesperson for the organization), do when someone tries to expose them or portray them in a bad light (should I be worried?).  Tommy stops at nothing, following and spying on the reporter, yelling it him in that scary-calm, Tom Cruise-ish way, and attempting to sabotage the shoot at every turn.  The Scientologists attempt to put a good face on things at first, showing off their tacky mansion house and bringing out the loony bin of celebrities (like that chick that played Stacy in Saved by the BellLeah whatever the fuck, who looked recently like she was plotting to convert Tyra Banks…don’t fall for it Ty!) and then refusing to grant interviews when the word “cult” is mentioned.  They all deny the Xenu story and refuse to talk about Thetans, despite the celebs’ Operating Thetan levels being well known and talked about.  Their main trick seems to be digging up some sort of dirt, true or not, and then relentlessly mud-slinging until their opponents are, to their minds at least, discredited.  Fuckers.  One thing I’m glad Sweeney pointed out during his tour of the Celebrity Center is the callousness with which Scientology uses the horrors of the Holocaust for their own purposes, i.e. to criticize psychiatry.  They basically call anyone who believes in the legitimacy of psychiatry a Nazi sympathizer, despite the fact that many of their Thetan-reducing techniques involve understanding how childhood traumas have influenced their actions.  But unlike psychiatrists, Scientologists blame those devils inside people for all their negative actions, forgoing personal responsibility.  This is the trick of Scientology, much like psychic readers and other fortune tellers: instead of focusing on community like some religions, the entire structure of the religion is based on self-absorption and navel gazing, finding a way to blame everything on outside evils.  Perfect for people with larger-than-life egos like Tom Cruise, no?

The sad part in all this is that I used to be a really big Beck fan, and I could tolerate him simply being a Scientologist, but then he had to marry Marisa Ribisi, the chick who used to date Jason Lee.  For those who don’t know, the Ribisis, i.e. Giovanni and Marisa and the rest of their wacked-out family, are one of the head Scientology families, next to TomKat and their “baby” (even if Tom could get hard for a woman, that baby is fucking Asian!).  Anyway, it’s just sad to imagine Beck stressing out about his fucking Thetans, when he should be worrying about where it’s at, and/or sleeping with me.

Oh well.  Religion in general is on the decline, so we can only hope that Scientology dies along with the rest of the cults and sects and transcendental meditation practices.  Until then, at least they’re good for some laughs.  Now to get that restraining order I’ve been thinking about…

To Catch a Predator

One of the reasons I love network TV (possibly the only reason) is that just when you’re so fed up with all the bullshit that you’re about to swear off TV altogether, something crawls out from the wreckage, much like a wildflower seeking out the sun. To Catch a Predator is just such a flower.

I was a fan of the Dateline clips of the same name from the moment they aired on YouTube, but I held out no hope or expectation that the bit would get a spin-off. I was personally hoping to see a full hour of John Stossel’s delightful reports, but alas, it’s beginning to seem like that is only a pipe dream. The point is, I was flipping through the channels one day, lamenting the lack of quality programming, beer in hand (probably). All of a sudden, something beautiful appeared before me. At first I thought it was just another one of the Dateline bits, but slowly it dawned on me that this was no ordinary segment on America’s favorite news magazine. It was, in fact, its own show. The BEST SHOW EVER MADE.

There are so many reasons I love this show, I don’t know where to begin. First of all, unlike, say, Dr. Phil, with this show there’s no pussyfooting around it. It’s all child molesters, all the time. No phony cliffhangers, no lie detector test results that take three episodes to be revealed. No, it’s just good honest American kidfuckers, naked, armed, and humiliated beyond belief. Plus, they don’t spend a half hour analyzing one boring guy. In fact, they manage to squeeze in more mini-dramas in their time slot than probably any other reality-style show.

Another thing that blows me away is the cheesily reenacted IM transcripts. For one thing, instead of LOL, they have them giggle ridiculously. It’s really weird. Also, they manage to get the most wholesome sounding actors to play the child molesters. By the time the guy shows up you expect him to be Charles Bronson.

What I always wonder is, are there really this many child molesters in the world? I guess it makes sense, but who’s dumb enough to hit on kids on the internet these days? Doesn’t anyone watch, say, To Catch a Predator?