“I’m Sending You Back To The Night!”

[Contains an antique cassette-storage cabinet and SPOILERS!!!]

Ellie Kemper as 'Kimmy Schmidt' in "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" (S2)It’s no secret that I absolutely adore 30 Rock, and was very sad to see it end… even more so when I watched the first season of Tina Fey‘s subsequent sitcom venture, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and found it vastly inferior to its predecessor, despite my abiding crush on the show’s spirited star, Ellie Kemper. Apparently Fey was asked to create the series specifically as a vehicle for Kemper, and went through several alternative ideas before finally settling on the premise of a woman re-adjusting to life in the outside world after being rescued from a bunker, where she’d been held captive for 15 years by a duplicitous preacher, as part of his bijou doomsday cult. Personally, I found that set-up left quite a sour taste in my brain, along with the fact that everyone Kimmy encountered after arriving in New York seemed to be either totally indifferent to her suffering, or actively seeking to hurt her. Although there were plenty good jokes and performances scattered throughout the 13-episode-run, overall the show just seemed too misanthropic and cynical for my tastes, despite (or perhaps as a reaction against?) the upbeat sweetness and naivety of its heroine.

Tina Fey as 'Andrea Bayden' in "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" (S2)Anyhoo, I’d pretty much given it up for dead until I read a recent article on the Observer website, in which a real psychotherapist was asked to assess his fictional on-screen counterparts, and he gave Fey’s character in the second season of this show an enthusiastic thumbs-up. That intrigued me enough to check out a couple new episodes, and I quickly became hooked, binge-watching this second batch as quickly as my limited Netflix access allowed me! No doubt my renewed appreciation for the series had much to do with the fact that Kimmy was finally starting to make some real progress towards self-sufficiency and solid mental/emotional health, with the help of supporting characters who actually went out of their way to support and understand her, rather than simply dismiss or screw her over. Chief among them, of course, was ‘Andrea Bayden’ (Fey), the troubled uptown therapist with clashing, “compartmentalised” Jekyll-and-Hyde-style personas, who Kimmy first met while working as an Uber driver, picking her up off the pavement, and receiving some unsolicited (and very slurred) “tough love” wisdom from the hot mess in her back-seat… who eventually helped our heroine to blackmail the more uptight day-time Andrea into treating Kimmy as an actual patient. Hurrah! Besides bringing some much needed compassion and positivity to the series, it also proved to be a knockout role for Fey herself, allowing her to play two distinctly different sides of the same woman, while stealing numerous scenes with her unruly drunken antics, and incisive barstool diagnoseseses (eps #2.9-10/12).

Ellie Kemper as 'Kimmy Schmidt' and Carol Kane as 'Lillian Kaushtupper' in "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" (S2)Meanwhile, both Kimmy’s landlady ‘Lillian’ (Carol Kane), and former employer ‘Jacqueline’ (Jane Krakowski), were given Quixotic season-spanning quests, which gave their characters a little more depth… even if it was rather hard to cheer either of them on, for various reasons. Horrified by the creeping gentrification of her rundown neighbourhood, Lillian set her mind to sabotaging any attempts to clean-up the urban squalor that she’d become accustomed to… even if it meant resorting to stabbing suspected “hipsters” before they could take root in her (extended) backyard! As for Jacqueline, well… in the previous season, the seemingly WASP-y socialite had been outed as a white-faced Native American, in a move that many critics and representative groups found very troubling and/or offensive. At the start of this season, she returned from an unsuccessful sojourn to her parents’ Lakota reservation, intent on raising money to help “her people”, and seek reparation for centuries of white oppression and abuse. Although I thought this subplot raised some interesting issues along the way, and also made Krakowski’s character far more interesting than the generic “oblivious rich bitch” she started out as, I’d have to agree with the BuzzFeed’s assessment that there’s something slightly problematic about how this show deals with race, generally… because I really don’t think Jacqueline is the ideal “poster girl” for this particular issue, even in an exaggerated comedic context.

Anna Camp as 'Deirdre Robespierre' in "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" (#2.2)Although Kemper, Kane, and Krakowski remain the main draws here, I also really enjoyed Amy Sedaris‘s twitchy turn as ‘Mimi Kanasis’, an extremely needy and insecure friend of Jacqueline’s (eps #2.1/3/6-8)… as well as Anna Camp‘s demented performance as ‘Deirdre Robespierre’, a dangerously unstable and self-loathing trophy wife whose suppressed intelligence and curtailed ambition kept cracking through her smiley, immaculately-styled veneer (eps #2.2/7). In fact, Deirdre might well be my fave new sitcom character of the last year or so… and I’m gutted that Camp hasn’t received any major award nominations for the incredible work she did here. For shame! On a one-and-done tip, Zosia Mamet made a very strong impression as ‘Sue’, the female half of a happy-go-lucky hipster couple who run afoul of Lillian (ep #2.6)… while Lisa Kudrow brought her finely-honed tragi-comic skills (and a satisfying sense of closure) to the season finale, in the role of Kimmy’s estranged, rollercoaster-lovin’ mother ‘Lori-Ann Schmidt’ (ep #2.13). Bless her.

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Quinnesis (Pt. 3)

[The third (and final?) part of my increasingly drawn-out ramble about the animated origins of DC’s beloved villainess/anti-heroine ‘Harley Quinn’, inspired and voiced by Arleen Sorkin. Contains Kryptonite-chip cocktails and SPOILERS!!!]

Harley Quinn and Mercy Graves in "Superman: World's Finest"Although Harley was taking baby-steps towards independence and rehabilitation the last time we saw her on-screen, she seemed to suffer an unfortunate relapse after Batman: The Animated Series went off the air… or perhaps the story presented in the Superman: World’s Finest (1997) crossover was intended as a flashback? Either way, she was back to playing super-cute side-chick to ‘The Joker’ (Mark Hamill), as he decided to take a jaunt to Metropolis to offer his rather dubious services as an assassin to ‘Lex Luthor’ (Clancy Brown), working on the rather arrogant assumption that the recent acquisition of a sizeable Kryptonite supply would give him the edge over ‘Superman’ (Tim Daly), despite the fact that he was seemingly incapable of killing a certain not-at-all-super-man-in-a-bat-costume (Kevin Conroy)! To be honest I have very little interest in Superman and his supporting cast*, so this “movie” was kinduva snooze for me, but there were a few fun Harley highlights, such as the scene where she attacked a room full of hoodlums with a ramped-up pogo-stick (while cheerfully chanting “Boingy! Boingy! Boingy!”), or the extended brawl she had with Luthor’s own aide-de-camp ‘Mercy Graves’ (voiced by Lisa Edelstein!), which kept rolling back-and-forth across the screen, as their respective employers sat having a civil chat on the side-lines. Fun fact: It’s suggested on the DCAU wiki-page for “Joker’s Favor” (B:TAS ep #1.7) that Harley’s chauffeur disguise in that episode was used as the model for Graves’s initial appearance when she was created… making the scene here where Harley passes herself off as Graves (in order to kidnap Luthor) an in-joke/easter-egg of sorts.

Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy in "The New Batman Adventures" (ep #1.1)After that, it was back to Gotham for The New Batman Adventures (1997-1999), which kicked off with a festive anthology episode, following various heroes and villains over the course of the Christmas holidays. The first chapter, “December 22”, finds Harley holed up in a flea-bag motel room with her bad-girl bestie ‘Poison Ivy’ (Diane Pershing), bored and bemoaning their lack of a festive fir-tree. To cheer her up, Ivy initiates a caper involving mind-controlling lip-stick and Bruce Wayne’s credit cards! Of course, they’re both sadly unaware of the billionaire-playboy’s secret identity, and quickly come a cropper once the toxin’s effects wear-off, after dragging him all over town on a seasonal spending spree! Un-fun fact: Apparently, this episode was adapted from the Batman Adventures Holiday Special (published January 1995), but sadly they skipped a line of dialogue from the comic in which Harley explicitly confirms that she’s Jewish (rather than just a recreational Yiddish-user). Boo to that! Slightly funner fact: This episode also marked the DC Animated Universe debut of future-Harley-in-waiting Tara Strong (nee Charendoff), in the role of ‘Batgirl’/’Barbara Gordon’… who then went on to get a near-fatal dose of Scarecrow Fear Toxin in ep #1.11 (aka “Over the Edge”), resulting in an episode-spanning fake-out nightmare in which the secret identities of the vigilante Bat “family” were revealed to the public, as the police hunted them down and brought them to justice. This also resulted in several villains launching a class-action lawsuit against the unmasked Bruce Wayne, and Harley was among them, but it was just a one-scene cameo, so… meh to that…

Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn, and LiveWire in "The New Batman Adventures" (ep #2.7)She and Batgirl had a much more significant encounter in ep #2.7 (aka “Girl’s Night Out”), when a Metropolitan super-villain named ‘LiveWire’ (voiced by Lori Petty!) wound up in Gotham, and decided/deigned to join forces with Ivy and Harley… while Batgirl got her own gal-pal/partner-in-crime-fighting, thanks to the timely arrival of ‘Supergirl’ (Nicholle Tom). Although our clown-girl was repeatedly overshadowed and belittled by her more powerful cohorts (a skilled athlete/acrobat is pretty small potatoes next to a woman who can turn herself into lightning and travel through telephone wires!), she did get some great scene-stealing slap-schtick involving a comically oversized sledgehammer, and backfiring boxing-glove gun, so it was still a pretty hilarious Harley episode, even if she was mostly consigned to tag-along status. Meanwhile, on a feminist tip, I found it kinda sad that Supergirl was so thrilled/flattered when Detective Bullock condescendingly described her and Batgirl as “rookies [who] show some potential” during a TV interview, when he’s just some ineffectual flat-foot (who’d probably have been killed off years ago if it weren’t for Batman), and she’s a world-saving super-heroine! Tch!

The Creeper and Harley Quinn in "The New Batman Adventures" (ep #2.10)Harley attracted far more attention and admiration, albeit from an unwanted (and unhinged) quarter, in ep #2.10 (aka “Beware the Creeper”), when her worser-half decided to mark the seventh anniversary of his rebirth as “The Joker” by dosing nosy news reporter ‘Jack Ryder’ (Jeff Bennett) with laughing-gas, then shoving him into the very same vat of crazy chemicals that gave him his own permanent make-over. The resulting primary-coloured creature (“The Creeper”) capered and cackled its way out of the factory intent on seeking revenge against its creator, by stealing both his act and his gal! Despite the Joker’s inexplicable annoyance at his main squeeze’s attempts to seduce him, Harley shows admirable loyalty to her “puddin'”, as she defiantly fends off all of The Creeper’s overbearing attempts to woo her. This eventually leads to a pasty-face-off between the two disfigured foes… though The Joker seems far more concerned by The Creeper’s supposed plagiarism, than by his amorous intentions towards Harley, who he complacently praises as “a one man loon”. Inevitably, Batman intervenes with a rather convenient “antidote” patch that returns Ryder to his previous sane and sanguine condition… though an ominous cliff-hanger ending suggests that he might be looking to unleash his alter-ego again, sooner rather than later… uh-oh!

Dr. Harleen Quinzel and The Joker in "The New Batman Adventures" (ep #2.11)Finally, Harley received the unique honour of bringing the curtain down on the series, with an adaptation of her Eisner-Award-winning origin story “Mad Love” (ep #2.11), which reveals how she first fell under The Joker’s spell as an ambitious but impressionable young psychiatric intern (Dr. Harleen Quinzel), who’d eagerly volunteered for a post at the infamous Arkham Asylum, and was soon suckered in by his duplicitous plays for sympathy. Personally, I found the original comic a little disappointing, in that it depicted Harleen as a superficial bimbo on an athletic scholarship who’d sexed her way to higher grades, rather than a serious and gifted student… thus making her fall from grace a little less tragic, imho… so I was glad that the TV version omitted those slanderous scenes, and left her academic integrity intact. And, of course, it’s very gratifying to see her (almost) besting Batman all by herself, even if it was only to get her estranged boyfriend’s attention/affection back, by using (and subtly improving) one of his own discarded death-trap plans against the meddling do-gooder. Apparently her efforts were appreciated, as “Mr. J.” kindly sends her a get-well-soon gift after shoving her out of a high window in a fit of jealousy, and letting her fall to her near-death in the dark alley below. Er, what a sweetheart? Sadly, this pathetic token of “love” is enough to bring Harley back under his insidious influence, just as she was on the verge of coming to her senses and going straight (again). Dammit!

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* I’m not sure how long Clark Kent and ‘Lois Lane’ (Dana Delany) had been working together at this point, but personally I would have been sick to death of all those Smallville cracks after the first week or so, if I were him!

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A Very Cunkmas

Diane Morgan as ‘Philomena Cunk’ in “Cunk on Christmas”One of the other festive treats I was looking forward to this year was the return of my second-favourite TV historian* ‘Philomena Cunk’ (Diane Morgan), with her uniquely nonsensical exploration of the origins of Christmas… which included the shocking revelation that Pagans didn’t crawl around everywhere on all-fours, old-timey people didn’t eat nearly as many peacocks as the presenter presumed, and that bread-sauce reminds her of “jizz”. Good to know! Overall, it was another hilarious barrage of brain-melting disinformation, and weirdly belligerent interviews, that helped to relieve some of the gloom that was descending on me in the wake of recent events… so bless ‘em all for that. This one-off special was accompanied by auxiliary articles in various publications, such as Cunk’s guide to Christmas food in The Guardian, and advice on how to enjoy “a budget Christmas in London” from Time Outboth of which were written by Jason Hazeley & Joel Morris, who co-write her shows with Charlie Brooker… though a recent article about Morgan states that the segments where she confounds unsuspecting experts with idiotic questions “are entirely improvised”, in case you were curious.

Diane Morgan as ‘Philomena Cunk’ in “Charlie Brooker's 2016 Wipe”Speaking of Mr Brooker, Cunk also cropped up in his 2016 Wipe special, which took a caustic scowl back at the year’s social/cultural/political ups and (mostly) downs… though I found her “Moments of Wonder” here a little disappointing, as her interviewee (Professor Brian Cox) seemed to be in on the joke, which takes a lot of the awkwardness/fun out of it for me. Sorry.

Oh, and according to the aforementioned interview, Morgan would be well-up for making a regular series of Cunks, but reckons she’d be the last one to hear about it: “I imagine they’d speak to Charlie first. He’s the grown-up.” In the meantime, she’s been busy writing a prospective sitcom series, in which she and fellow-Boltonian/ long-time-pal Maxine Peake will play long-lost sisters. Yes, please!

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* Obviously Lucy Worsley is my number one fave… but she’s a real-live person, and not a comedy character, so I probably shouldn’t be ranking them in the same category…?

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R.I.P. Debbie Reynolds (1932 – 2016)

Debbie Reynolds, Carrie Fisher, and Billie Lourd, following the 21st Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards (2015)Well, this is turning out to be a spectacularly shitty Christmas for Billie Lourd, as she now has to deal with losing both her mother and grandmother in the space of a single godawful week… so, heavy condolences to her.

I’m not quite as familiar with Reynolds’s work as I am with Fisher’s, though I do remember enjoying her recurring (and Emmy Award-winning!) role as Grace’s irrepressible/overbearing mother ‘Bobbi’ in Will & Grace… and I know I must have watched Singin’ in the Rain (1952) on TV at some point, but not recently enough to have anything constructive to say about it (though I do have the songs playing on a loop in my head now…). Regardless, she clearly had an extensive and highly successful career, culminating in a Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award in 2015… and the circumstances of her death are truly tragic, coming just a day after her daughter’s untimely demise.

Sigh… culturally and politically, this year has just been a soul-crushing cluster-f*ck from start to finish…

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R.I.P. Carrie Fisher (1956 – 2016)

Carrie Fisher as 'Rosemary Howard' in "30 Rock" (ep #2.4)It was only a couple days ago I was watching Carrie Fisher in a Christmassy episode of the comedy-panel-quiz 8 Out of 10 Cats, and marvelling (once again) at how acerbic and awesome she was… funny, feisty, and full of life… so it was particularly shocking when the news of her heart-attack broke shortly after this triumphant TV appearance, followed by yesterday’s gutting announcement that she had died.

To be honest, I was never as obsessed with the Star Wars movies as many of my friends were/are, but I’ve always had a crush on ‘Princess Leia’, and remember owning several action figures of her in various get-ups (my favourite was her “Boushh Disguise” from Return Of The Jedi). I probably admired Fisher more as a raconteur and personality than as an actress, though she has appeared in several great movies and TV shows over the years, including Sex and the City, The Big Bang Theory, and a particularly memorable episode of 30 Rock. I often think of her scenes from that show when I’m sipping a “medicinal” glass of red wine… though obviously the line about it being “heart healthy” is going to rankle a little in future viewings.

Sadly, I’ve often seen Fisher’s books (fiction and non-fiction) in shops around town, and chosen not to buy them… but I intend to make more of an effort to read them from now on. I was also unaware that she had a successful side-line as a “script doctor”… even working for George Lucas on his 1992 series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, and some of the dialogue for the Star Wars prequels! It’s really rather shameful that it’s taken her sudden demise to spur me into learning more about Fisher’s off-screen work, but better late than never… right…?

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“We’re Number One In Azerbaijan!”

[Contains “special gypsy sauce” and SPOILERS!!!]

Celeste Dring as 'Eugenie' and Ellie White as 'Beatrice' in "The Windsors" (Christmas Special 2016)One of the Christmassy treats I was most looking to this year was an hour-long seasonal special of The Windsors, which aired December 23rd… and it definitely didn’t disappoint! The hilariously absurd accents, soapy back-stabbing, and sly satirical digs were all present and correct, with a dusting of fake-snow and a couple extra cast members… including Vicki Pepperdine as the phantom-like ‘Princess Anne’, whose spooky disappearing/re-appearing act (and wacky habit of throwing anything that upset her into the incinerator) allowed her to sneakily steal every scene she was in. Hurrah!  Lizzy Connolly also made a very strong impression as ‘Ellie Goulding’… especially considering that this was the actress’s television debut, and she was facing-off against an old pro like Morgana Robinson! But the ingénue held her ground, and proved herself a worthy addition to the ensemble… so snaps to her for that, and here’s hoping we see much more of her in the future.

Still, for all the (very welcome) new arrivals, my fave characters remain the super-cute (and adorably sloaney) sister-princesses ‘Beatrice’ and ‘Eugenie’, played by Ellie White and Celeste Dring respectively. The highlight of their storyline (and possibly the entire episode) was undoubtedly the viral-music-video-plea they recorded to call their horrible father home for “Cressmus”… but I also enjoyed the way they changed-up their trademark “fascinators” for the festive season, with puddings, robins, and antlers. Bless ’em.

Now… where’s the DVD of the first series that I asked Santa for, dammit!?

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No Sugar For Pud…

[Contains bewigged badgers and SPOILERS!!!]

Frances Bishop a la "The Apprentice" (UK) 2016And so the latest series of The Apprentice (UK) has come to an end, and sadly my fave contestant, Frances Bishop, didn’t win a life-changing investment from Lord Sugar… but she did at least survive the gruelling interview round to make it into the final three*, which is pretty impressive considering how many times she unwittingly found herself on the losing team, over the course of the preceding tasks.

Thankfully she returned for the finale, to aid eventual winner Alana Spencer in creating and pitching her mass-market “home-made” cake business… though there were a couple buttock-clenching moments along the way, such as when Frances and fellow final-fivalist Grainne McCoy rang Alanna up towards the end of a long day to throw some indirect shade on her rather blah brand logo design. Their “boss” angrily questioned what they were hoping to achieve by second-guessing her decision, so they backed down… but, of course, the answer is obvious: They were hoping to nudge her towards recognising how generic her logo looked, so that she could tweak/polish it in time for the big make-or-break presentation, and put her own unique stamp on it… which is exactly what she ended up doing, in fact, and it was this timey shift towards an “I am the brand!” attitude which won her the task, and the whole ball of dough.

I also supported Frances’s very wise (and sensitive) decision to withhold the rather mixed/negative feedback they’d received from the public after their faux-product-launch-publicity-drive, since there was nothing any of them could do about polishing the packaging/branding at that point, and it would only have served to shake Alana’s confidence going into the pitch.

Frances Bishop pointing at a Pud store (circa 2016)So snaps to her for all of that… and I have to say, despite only taking home the metaphorical “bronze medal”, Frances remains my favourite “apprentice” to date, and I’m really going to miss watching her on TV every week…

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* And it was such a relief to discover that her business plan involved expanding her current (successful) chain of children’s clothing boutiques, rather than jumping into some crazy new industry… which is where several otherwise promising hopefuls have come unstuck in the past.

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