Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Bunheads 1x14 - "The Astronaut and the Ballerina"

I have to confess: I’m stupidly excited to be reviewing this back half of Bunheads’ first season.  “The Astronaut and the Ballerina,” although it had me concerned at first, proved exactly why.  Because even with its slow beginning and a cast list lacking three of my faves (SASHAAAAA.gif) - the emotional payoffs were meaningful, and ultimately the perfect progressions for this show and its gloriously flawless constructions.  In case it hasn’t been clear, I’m a structure nerd, especially when it comes to character and arc design… and Bunheads is proving to be so stellar in this area that I’m afraid it might actually be breaking my brain.

The centerpiece of the episode was, indeed, the dynamic between the Astronaut and the Ballerina - or rather, between new character Scotty Simms and his little sister… our one and only Michelle.  (If that sentence was confusing, blame the fact that the episode’s title starts with the Astronaut and not the Ballerina.  I did the best I could.)  I admit, I wasn’t terribly keen on Scotty’s introduction at first.  Why do we need to meet Michelle’s brother - especially when Sasha, and Truly, and Fanny are nowhere to be seen?  Their early scenes were cute, sure, in the Foster siblings’ charming kind of way, but… what was the point?

I was a fool to wonder.  Because every scene with Michelle and Scotty was, in fact, slow-burn kindling for the episode-ending argument which blew up in their faces.  And suddenly, it made perfect sense.  Of course we have to meet Michelle’s brother - or at least, some blood relative from her life past.  Bunheads 1.2 has endeavored to put Michelle on a new path, to anchor this lost soul with purpose and meaning and a new family to call home.  (Seriously.  She wandered the desert [of Nevada] for an entire episode.)  And what better way to test that conviction than to bring someone from Michelle’s Life 1.0 and let them confront her new choices?

All of Michelle’s scenes with Scotty were designed, sneakily, to show Scotty that Michelle’s circumstances have changed.  Michelle has even changed, maybe.  She has students, and responsibilities, and she knows every Paradise resident drinking at the Oyster Bar.  Michelle is a part of Paradise now, and so the argument of course has to end with Scotty calling into question Michelle’s change.  There are a few things that are great about this.  First: we get a glimpse into Michelle’s family life.  The title of the episode, “The Astronaut and the Ballerina” alludes to Scotty and Michelle’s grand plans for their lives - except their lives didn’t exactly turn out to that expectation.  Both share an aura of unfulfilled potential and wandering irresponsibility, even down to similarity in reckless marriages.  Except Michelle isn’t really like that anymore, now that she has a home in Paradise, and so the next great thing about this whole exchange is Michelle’s reaction to Scotty inadvertently attacking her new way of life.

Remember how 1x11 showed Michelle wandering in the desert and brought her home, 1x12 tangled Michelle up in Truly’s life, and 1x13 tangled her up in Sasha’s?  Well, 1x14 shows Michelle standing up and defending those choices.  In related news, this beautiful construction makes me want to die.  Because Michelle, in her place as the show's central figure, has gone from a passive character whose one dumb choice spirals her life out of control, and is becoming a character who actively fights for the pieces of her life, no matter how wacky or unplanned.  Growth!  Development!  Arc!  Swoon.

The mind boggles that this concept could even be any more perfectly incorporated in “The Astronaut and the Ballerina” - and yet, there’s icing on the already-delicious cake.  Because it’s not as though Talia came to town and questioned Michelle’s new life.  It’s of particular importance that this role belonged to Michelle’s brother, because it underscores the notion that Bunheads is building an ensemble of found family dynamics.  And it’s embracing that!  Michelle flat-out says that she can make her family just as she can make her own destiny - and Fanny, her new family, is the one that taught her that.  Michelle rejects her brother barging into her new life and deflating the purpose she’s found there.  It doesn’t matter that it's her blood brother, and it doesn't matter that she stumbled drunkenly into this life.  It’s her new life, her new family, and she’s working hard to keep it now.  She can do this.  And Baryshnikov help me, I am so delighted to see Michelle on this journey.

The other emotional power-punch of "The Astronaut and the Ballerina" came in Mel and Ginny’s storyline.  Melanie has been ditching ballet for roller derby as per the suggestion of Cozette, and Ginny is under maximum stress as her father’s wedding to Fay Mendelson marches ever closer.  This is classic BFF drama: interests are changing, new friends emerging, and the weight of that redirection can harm a worn-in relationship.  But Bunheads, by virtue of strong writing as well as the performances of Emma Dumont and Bailey Buntain, made it something more than the basics.  By showing us Melanie and Ginny’s mixed-family dinner, and the familiarity between the two parents, we got a glimpse behind the simple idea that these two were originally a packaged comedic pair to support Sasha and Boo’s main teen characters status.  Melanie and Ginny really are best friends - to the point where their operation as a partnership is genuinely something real for them.  

Naturally, the conflict escalated to Melanie forgetting to show up and support Ginny through Fay Mendelson’s photoshoot madhouse, and Ginny discovering Melanie’s roller derby secret - the one that’s pulled them apart.  I won’t deny that both girls’ reactions pretty much broke my heart, and in that moment I was so happy that these two now get conflict like this instead of Charlie drama.  Melanie has every right to a new interest, especially in that it’s a relief from the pressure of applying to colleges; and Ginny has every right to be upset that her best friend isn’t there for her when she really needs her - and would ordinarily have her emotional support.  But before we could feel too heartbroken, the material flipped quickly to comedy - I laughed hysterically when Ginny shrieked “I’M NORWEGIAN!” at Frankie before she stomped away.  Last week's episode really showed off Melanie coming into her own as a character, and this episode served the same for Ginny.  Mostly, I’m just so pleased that this storyline was taken seriously - and emotionally -  as a real issue for two girls who have long been attached at the hip.

Rounding out the episode was the continuation of Godot and Michelle’s flirtation (after her apology via Finding Nemo DVD, natch) as well as the introduction of Ballet Generalissimo Jordan.  But my favorite background bit of the hour, by far, was Boo and Carl comedically falling into a harried marriage storyline.  I know I ragged on the show for devoting time to the prospect of these two getting married young, but this was a hilarious way to extend (and invert) that notion - by basically showing that Boo and Carl already ARE married.  Plus, it furthers the delightful notion that these teenagers are really just mini-sized adults, AND, allows for Boo to have some comedic moments.  How great was her spiral into mother-speak, as she valiantly tackled Ginny’s problems with the promise of a juicebox, and the Jordan Problem with a threat for timeout?  I also genuinely laughed at her repeating the name “Beaver” over and over again as she tried to get the kid’s attention during ballet.  It seems that while Julia Goldani Telles and Emma Dumont have the corner on pitch-perfect sarcasm and flippant remarks, tonight’s episode proved that Bailey Buntain and Kaitlyn Jenkins round out the square with great delivery of frenzied neuroticism.  Well done.

So even without three of the show's 1.2 heavyhitters, “The Astronaut and the Ballerina” built its way to strong emotional payoffs that honored both perfectly-constructed character arcs and well-developed relationships.  I don’t think I could ask anything more from a show, especially one that keeps me entertained along the way with jokes like “Scary Skate and Crashley Olson.”  There are loose ends from tonight’s episode that will surely continue, from Sasha’s apartment hunt to Melanie’s relationship with Roller Derby and/or Cozette (intrigued set of question marks???) and I can’t wait to see how Bunheads handles them.

The Report Card:
Dialogue: A
Plot: B
Character: A+
Joke of the Night: "I'M NORWEGIAN!!!"
Scene of the Night: Michelle and Scotty's argument
Episode MVP: Michelle (Ginny's a close second)

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Bunheads 1x12: "Channing Tatum is a Fine Actor"

"Channing Tatum is a Fine Actor" doesn't quite achieve the sublime quality that treated us in "You Wanna See Something?" - but it's an adequate episode, and shines in a few key areas.  The main highlight, without a doubt, is Michelle's storyline.  Now that Michelle is back in Paradise, ready to engage in a real life here, the Bunheads writers are smartly beginning to entangle Michelle with the characters around her.  "Channing Tatum is a Fine Actor" picked two excellent candidates to start with: Truly, and Sasha.

I've discovered recently that a lot of people don't like Truly?  Which is beyond my comprehension, frankly.  Sure, much of my Truly love may stem from residual Mindy Riggins devotion - but the character as a standalone construction is incredibly versatile, and an important fixture for the narrative.  She's a supporting act that can provide comedy with virtually no limit on kookiness, and serves as a sounding board for both Fanny and Michelle.  At the same time, the writers have established a little thread of dramatic potential for Truly with one single line from earlier in the season: "I've always been able to tell exactly what everybody wants... except me."  That seed allows for Truly to be a tragic character, should the writers develop that, and helps keep her available for serious storylines when necessary.  

"Channing Tatum is a Fine Actor" used Truly for that comedic/dramatic double-up perfectly, especially as an extension of Michelle's storyline.  Michelle allowing Truly to move Sparkles into her little bungalow was a perfect way to ensnare Michelle in someone else's storyline, and what's delightful about Bunheads 1.2 is that Michelle offers.  The point is not that Michelle is helplessly subjected to the insanity of this town, but that she is willingly opening up her home - her home! - to it.  This storyline is a perfect next step for Michelle's journey, and I hope we get many more like them.  To boot, it sets the stage for a Michelle-Truly friendship.  Michelle offers moral support for Truly, and in a valiant but ill-fated attempt to take care of her rent problems, winds up doing more damage.  Truly's in Michelle's space permanently, for now.  Only more great story material and character moments can come from this.

As for Truly's angle of this storyline, "Channing Tatum is a Fine Actor" treated us to two delightful reveals.  The first, thanks to casting news, was not altogether unexpected: Liza Weil, who charmed all with her scowl as Paris Geller on Gilmore Girls, is back to play another buttoned-up frown tornado.  The second came from left field: Millie, Truly's landlady, is also her sister.  What's great about this reveal is that it's also used as a point of comedy.  The reason we don't guess this relationship at all is because Truly and Millie's dynamic really is closer to one we'd expect between landlord and tenant more than sister and sister - which is inherently funny, especially when interspersed with randomly specific references to their shared past.  (Like Truly accidentally giving Millie's kid a concussion.)

But at the same time, Truly and Millie's crappy relationship is sad, when you get right down to it.  So I'm hoping we'll see more from Millie, and maybe get a further exploration on these two and their dynamic.  As I mentioned before, the opportunity to use Truly dramatically is there, if the Bunheads writers want to use it.  In the meantime, it looks like we'll definitely see more with Truly and Michelle, since Truly will continue to be all up in Michelle's space while the Rent Saga continues.  I'm 100% excited for it.

Michelle's more emotional participation in "Channing Tatum is a Fine Actor" bookended the episode, through her interactions with Sasha.  Bunheads is consistently delivering solid scenes between these two, and the pair in this episode were no different - even though they served little logistical purpose.  But I think that's what's nice about the Michelle-Sasha dynamic: the writers are using them for emotional beats, which helps create a gooey center for this show's ensemble.  Of course, this could all easily be set up for a logistical payoff.  Now that Sasha's getting her family yanked out from underneath her, is it likely she'll move in with Michelle?  And for how long?  It's certainly a possibility, considering that it's another way the narrative can get Michelle emotionally involved in Paradise.  And it's not that far-fetched, frankly.  "Channing Tatum is a Fine Actor" opened with Michelle pledging to be there for Sasha in whatever way she can.  Hopefully the show will hold Michelle responsible for this emotional investment!

As for Michelle's own storyline for "Channing Tatum is a Fine Actor," it kind of encapsulated what the writers are doing with her arc.  Michelle was a supporting role for Truly, for Sasha, and Boo... but her own storyline went completely offscreen.  While Bunheads 1.1 might have delineated Michelle's blurry blind date onscreen in awkwardly entertaining detail, I actually appreciate the decision to move it to the corners of the episode.  Had it been shown, it would have plotted Michelle away from Paradise and its previously-established characters, which is antithetical to Michelle's journey this season.  It's a tough cut to make (so many joke opportunities there!) - but the right choice.

The rest of the hour focused mainly on the girls: Boo and Carl meet each other's families, and a new brother-sister pair shake up the social structure at high school.  These storylines were adequate, but I confess to be slightly less engaged with them than the Truly-Michelle and Michelle-Sasha storylines.  Boo's stuff was cute, although sustaining the misunderstanding about a marriage proposal was a bit silly.  It was also a bit ridiculous that Boo followed Michelle's advice to the letter, even with embarrassing results.  I did, however, like the opportunity for Boo to ask Michelle for guidance - and it was of course hilarious that Michelle's advice was fairly terrible and also rife with really hilariously trainwreck-ish anecdotes.  The storyline also gave away the little character nugget about Boo not knowing who she is yet.  Do I smell a character arc, or is that just the grease at the Oyster Bar?  Hopefully the former.

"Channing Tatum is a Fine Actor" also saw the introduction of Frankie and Cozette, who are comically over-the-top robo-perfect teenagers who benignly invade the school.  First things first: as a former devotee of So You Think You Can Dance, I am delighted that Jeanine Mason is getting some exposure!  Girl's talented, and I'm excited to see her dance.  Of course, knowing that Jeanine won Shoobie-Doobie S5 spoiled the reveal that Cozette is also staging a charm-coup of Fanny's dance studio, but whatever.  I'm curious to see how Cozette and Frankie incorporate into the narrative for the rest of the season.  The fact that Cozette is immensely talented in the dance department makes it an easy opportunity for her to be a threat, but I'm hoping that Bunheads won't go that route.  I'd rather not see any of the girls in a bitchfight.  It does look like we'll be seeing Frankie and Ginny get a little closer, though, which I wouldn't mind.  

Last week's premiere set a high bar for Bunheads... wait, did I just accidentally make a dance pun?  I think I did!  Anyways.  Ahem.  Last week's premiere raised the expectations for Bunheads this season, and "Channing Tatum is a Fine Actor" didn't quite meet the same mark.  However, it was still a great continuation of the 1.2 arc, especially for Michelle, Truly, and Sasha.  Even with the episode's individual weaknesses, it succeeded in sustaining my interest and emotional investment for this batch of episodes.

The Report Card:
Dialogue: A
Plot: B
Character: A
Joke of the Night: Frankie's thought-provoking and ridiculous reply to Ginny having always wanted to see Mad Ludwig's Castle -- "As he saw it, or as it really is?"
Scene of the Night: Michelle learns Truly's financial woes, offers up her place
Episode MVP: Michelle

Friday, January 25, 2013

The RBI Report: "Sadie Hawkins"

Glee is still a show!  I'm still writing about Glee!  I forget sometimes.  Unfortunately, "Sadie Hawkins" probably won't do much to change that.  Certain parts made me smile, but very little of the episode had me sitting up to take notice.  

"Sadie Hawkins," written by Ross Maxwell, directed by Brad Buecker

So, "Sadie Hawkins" was supposed to be about female empowerment... but this is Glee.  "The Power of Madonna" and "I Kissed a Girl" were supposed to be about female empowerment too, and we all know how those turned out.  "Sadie Hawkins" wasn't nearly as persistently misguided as those two episodes, though, and frankly it was too scattered to abuse the theme too terribly.  I mean, yeah, every girl's storyline linked back to a boy somehow, but that doesn't mean they can't be empowered.  You can still be an empowered woman with a dude in your life!  Don't get me wrong.  I'm just tired of Glee's girl storylines being primarily about boy troubles, and Glee's boy storylines being primarily about what it means to be the good guy.  (Both were present tonight, unfortunately.)

Let's just go through the list.

Really Awkward Unrequited Triangle

I guess Glee got bored of creating relationship drama through love triangles.  Or at least, they have now decided to shake up the usual three-person romance conflict by inverting it and developing a three-legged awkward triangle built on two unrequited (and impossible?) crushes.  I'm not really sure what they're doing with this storyline, because it seems so strange that Glee spend time on crushes that (probably?) aren't going to result in kissing or dating or someone else getting jealous.  Really, are we just building friendships here?  Are we just exploring the teenage angst of falling for someone who unfortunately is not attracted to your gender?


Regardless, most of the Tina-Blaine interaction was solid, simply in that they were nice to each other and supportive.  I'll watch friends be friend-like on TV; sure!  The thing that I keep getting stuck on, though, is that the writers chose Tina to have a crush on Blaine in the first place.  It crops up all of a sudden, and before we know it Tina's singing her Sadie Hawkins invite and we're flashing back to memories of Blaine's ass and a happy jaunt with tater tots?  The episode also kind of glosses over the idea that it's entirely possible to invite someone to a dance just as friends.  In fact, they never are really clear about what Tina's expectations are with Blaine, and we don't know if we should feel sorry for the poor girl who's knowingly getting her hopes up for a gay dude, or if she's really serious about it at all?  

On the other leg of this non-triangle, we did at least get those answers from Blaine.  He apparently has crush-like feelings for Sam, but doesn't want to be the "predatory gay," or ruin a friendship.  In other words, Blaine has zero expectations, and will continue to pine like a puppy dog.  Questions answered!  And it was sweet to see Tina commiserate with Blaine and form a nice little bond over his "human and moving dilemma."  But I do wish we could have gotten a little more explanation from Tina's POV.  Or maybe a reminder that it's possible to fall in love with people beyond the bounds of gender and sexuality - or is that too deep for Glee?  Never mind.  Don't answer that.

Sidenote: I will ignore Blaine thinking that Tina's empowerment is somehow a new thing for her, since he missed her only storylines back in S1.  I will also ignore the reply that she loves his everything because, ooh, gurl, I got secondhand embarrassment.

Jake and Marley 

So I guess Jake stopped calling Marley after she fainted during Sectionals, which seems kind of like a dick move if they're related incidents, but whatever.  With some random but cute encouragement from Brittany, Marley stepped up and asked Jake to the dance!  Not only that, but she was straightforward with him about her expectations for the relationship!  I dug it.  Although I don't quite know why the conversation was scripted against a backdrop of really enthusiastic dancing, and began with the poetic exchange "You're awesome/No you're awesome."

The conflict for Jake was a bit lame, though.  Naturally, Kitty offers her body up to Jake after learning that he accepted Marley's invitation to the Sadie Hawkins Dance.  Even though she and Marley are supposedly friends now, and the fact that Kitty doesn't even really like Jake?  Oh.  I kind of miss the days when they bitched at each other and sang duets.  Regardless, Jake has to choose between his penis and his heart, as all boys under the Glee treatment come to at some point, and Puck comes along and helps him choose his heart.  Which leads to...

Kitty and Puck

If Puck still had his old haircut, I'd say the ship name could be Kitty 'Hawk.  But alas.  Actually, the thing stopping me from assigning a ship name is the fact that Kitty is meant to be, what, in the 10th grade?  The fact that the show literally addressed the underage thing and handwaved it away with a fake ID is super gross to me, even though Kitty and Puck have an amusingly hateful back-and-forth.  But this is Glee, a world where Puck macks on Rachel Berry, Rachel Berry's mother, and the not-so-virginal head cheerleaders of 2009 and 2012.  A world where all the Cheerios are regarded as bitchy, back-stabbing, power-hungry sex machines.  A world where Puck can't spell, but still graduate high school and emerge a screenwriter talent.

I just... I can't.

Sadie Hawkins

Culminating the "female empowerment" angle of a Sadie Hawkins Dance, Coach Beiste encouraged the "Too Young to be Bitter" Club to go out on the dance floor and go for the guys they wanted.  First: points taken away for putting Lauren Zizes in that club, Glee.  Homegirl had Noah Puckerman wrapped around her little finger.  She does okay for herself.  Second: more points taken away for the "Too Young to be Bitter" Club comprising females only.  What, only ladies are lame dateless sad sacks?  Party foul.  Third: even more points taken away for cross-cutting to Kurt having the "female empowerment" to ask Adam out on a date.  Look, it didn't have to be a thematic parallel for Kurt to pluck up the guts to ask someone out.  It takes chutzpah to ask anyone out, no matter the gender or sexuality.  But by putting Kurt right next to the ladies of the club going up to their dudes of choice... it shuffles Kurt into the group of ladies through narrative and thematic association.  Sigh!  Friendly reminder that even though Kurt is gay, he is still a man.

("Sadie Hawkins" gets a few points back for the fact that Sugar went up to the boy in a wheelchair and asked him to dance, without any reservations.  And then they did.  Cuties.)

Meanwhile, in New York...

The New York storylines kind of hinted at the idea that even best friends can drift apart when their lives start to change, and I quite liked that a lot.  But unfortunately, it wasn't really about that.  Rachel's "All Brody, All the Time" lifestyle was really in place to facilitate Kurt looking into extracurriculars, and leading him to new love interest Adam.  We also got a pit stop in Rachel not wanting Kurt to join NYADA's glee club because it's social suicide, and the confirmation that the real Rachel is tied up in a closet somewhere.  Seriously, I don't know how the writers are flying the idea that this is the same girl who once screamed "There is nothing ironic about glee club!"  Girl takes glee club seriously, no matter the institution or social order.  This was practically the original bastion of Rachel Berry's character - may she rest in peace.  (The question becomes: when did Pod Rachel abscond with Old Rachel?  Did Finn put the wrong Rachel on the train?  Was the prom queen crown bewitched to effect a body swap?  Or maybe Finn's engagement ring caused Rachel to disappear when she put it on, not unlike the Ring of Sauron?  All possibilities.)

As for Kurt, I wasn't too enthralled by any of his scenes with Adam at first, because they were a bit basic in Adam's blatant flattery of Kurt.  Until!  Oh, until.  The dynamic became suddenly fascinating as soon as Adam purposefully (and charmingly, that bastard) reiterated his compliment to Kurt, so that Kurt would accept it without discounting his abilities in favor of Blaine's.  What a delightful angle to play, especially in an episode that also features the non-sarcastic question posed to Blaine: "Is there anything you can't do?"  I mean, if I really devote brainspace to it, I'm sure I could argue that Blaine complimented Kurt all the time (I can't really remember), that Kurt probably complimented himself all the time (I can't really remember), and that it's kind of weird how a 22-year-old guy is super enthusiastic about pursuing an 18-year-old NYADA newbie.  But whatever.  It was an interesting construct to bolster the new dynamic.  Color me intrigued.

I confess, I'm less intrigued by the strange Brody/Rachel scene tacked onto the end of the episode.  More than anything, I spent most of the screentime trying to catch up to the scenario.  Suddenly they have a mini-plot in this episode?  Something about Rachel making turkey burgers (I hope she caressed the meat with butter in a sensual way) and Brody being late and Rachel being mad and throwing dinner away?  What?  Did we just fall through a wormhole into a bad 50s sitcom?  And then suddenly Brody was making sweeping confessions about lifetimes and snow and they danced to no music and now they're moving in?  Could we not have stretched this out in an episode that had room for these two and their rapidly advancing love story?  And could we also not have staged half of Rachel's NYC dialogue in the middle of a crosswalk?  Because I was legitimately concerned a yellow cab would just come out of nowhere and hit her.  (I don't know why, though.  It's Rachel, not Quinn.)

Oh yeah, and apparently the Warblers cheated

So that's a plot device to get the glee club back in competition.  I guess it was supposed to be funny, the idea that performance enhancing drugs would help with an actual song-and-dance performance?  Sure. And I'll pretend I know who Trenton Warbler is.

In all, "Sadie Hawkins" was all over the place, mostly forgettable and contrived, even despite a few nice moments here and there.  Final shout-out to the weird editing and cutaways in the episode!  Glad to see you're having fun, Mr. Buecker.  

The RBI Report Card...
Musical Numbers: B
Dance Numbers: B
Dialogue: C
Plot: D
Characterization: D
Episode MVP: Sugar

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Bunheads 1x11 - "You Wanna See Something?"

Bunheads' first batch of episodes was good; don't get me wrong.  They were competent, enjoyable, and packed with potential.  But the show wasn't quite firing on all cylinders yet.  It was still figuring out its own strengths and weaknesses.  Luckily, ABC Family picked it up for more episodes, and as a result, I had high hopes for what its return might bring.  Here was an opportunity for the show to step back, consider its strong points, and capitalize on them!  This premiere, “You Wanna See Something?" did exactly that.  It stands as a turning point, an episode that reintroduces the show we knew and presents the new show we're going to get - with sophistication, confidence, and some pretty solid storytelling.  I couldn't be more delighted by this turn of events!

"You Wanna See Something?" picks up right where we left off: after having accidentally maced the dancers during a performance of "The Nutcracker," Michelle flees Paradise and attempts to pick up the pieces of her old life.  Of course, being that the entire premise of this show hinges on Michelle living and working in Paradise, we know coming in that Michelle won't stay in Henderson forever.  However, Bunheads lets us reach that conclusion emotionally, with the narrative itself - and takes its time.  All of "You Wanna See Something?” successfully communicates the dramatic need for Michelle to return.  Everyone is miserable without her.  

And the episode brilliantly shows these two concepts - Michelle is gone and Michelle must return - in the opening sequence.  Our first reintroduction to this world is exactly what it should be: Michelle is comedically involved with ballet class instruction.  She's warm, she's goofy, she's effective.  This is what Bunheads is all about.  But, alas -- it's not real.  Fanny Flowers is watching a recording.  Instantly, we know what is supposed to be, and what is lacking.  It's a perfect setup for us to want Michelle back, and a perfect pang to the heart of these characters' situations.  

Every character in Bunheads is in some level of distress or ennui as a result of Michelle's absence.  I loved in particular the idea that all four of the girls have graduated into little mini-adults, which is a smart choice for the show in general.  We have a fairly sizeable age range that naturally limits the logistical possibility in overlapping storylines and themes.  But with Ginny acting as a pint-sized realtor, Boo as a fill-in mother, and Melanie as a caretaker to the elderly, each girl is scaled up into a miniature version of an adult.  In fact, with Boo and Ginny in particular, they are actively scripted as stepping into a role that an adult (their mothers) cannot currently fulfill.  It's a great choice, both comedically and dramatically, and tweaks the foundation of the show just enough to be an improvement.

But there are two characters in particular whose Michelle-less state goes beyond simple boredom or stress: Fanny, and Sasha.  And it's with these two dynamics that "You Wanna See Something?" delivers its best material.  Let's start with Fanny.  Without Michelle, Fanny is listlessly redecorating her home, while Truly manically manages the actual work involved.  In the process of going through old crap, she comes across Michelle’s wedding video, and decides to venture to Henderson and get Michelle back.  The glorious reminder here is that Michelle and Fanny are family, whether they like it or not.  They are connected permanently, even despite the odd circumstances and the fact that they can both disappoint or get mad at each other.  Their conversation in Henderson was wonderfully even-footed in that both Michelle and Fanny weren’t let off the hook for their roles in precipitating this estrangement.  (“Macing their children is not a ‘whatever!’”)   They argued, they blamed one another, they griped.  But even with that, Hubbell’s prediction is teetering on fruition: Michelle is important to Fanny, and Fanny’s life involves Michelle.  There’s no running away from that to Henderson, Nevada, where she’s the third wheel in a husband-wife magician’s act.

Of course, Fanny leaves the wedding DVD for Michelle, and we get to see what Fanny saw, what Hubbell said, and what ultimately will make up Michelle’s mind the same way it made up Fanny’s.  Hubbell saw something in Michelle.  Hubbell wanted to make sure Michelle did the great things she was clearly capable of.  Now, I know the Michelle-Hubbell connection is a bit tenuous, considering that they got married when Michelle was super drunk, and that Hubbell displayed slight obsessive-stalker tendencies.  It’s murky territory to tread.  But I love that Bunheads isn’t afraid to dive right in and explore it, legitimizing it without handwaving it.  Yeah, Michelle was drunk.  Yeah, it maybe wasn’t the best idea to get married in that state.  But it made so much sense for the character, who was aimless and rejected.  Hubbell made Michelle a promise, and it’s hard to refuse a promise.  Especially when the promise involves the other person seeing you as not just a showgirl, but a spectacularly wonderful human who’s capable of doing great things.  

So Hubbell made Michelle a promise, and Fanny is keeping that promise.  And Michelle, in choosing to return to Paradise, is taking responsibility for that promise.  How great is that construct?  How lovely and character-driven is this idea, which validates not only the show's entire premise but also serves as a plot point and a step forward in character development?  It’s a genius device that meets the needs of the story, that’s fueled by character instead of contrivance.  And this is why Michelle’s exile, odyssey, and return is so emotionally effective - it’s tethered to her relationship with Hubbell, and shines a light on her relationship with herself, which is revealed to be a bit malnourished and shriveled.  From here, Michelle can wholeheartedly embody Paradise, and foster emotional connections, and freely let her life take this different direction.  It was a necessary step for the show, which will only benefit from creating meaningful ties between its ensemble, and “You Wanna See Something?” facilitated it beautifully.  They even went one step further, and capped off the hour with Fanny and Michelle giving disclaimers to their reunion: Michelle still may want to return to NYC; Fanny still may want time off.  And that’s fine.  Life may point them in yet another direction, and that’s fine.  But for now, they’re here in Paradise.

The other character who’s adrift without Michelle is Sasha, and although Fanny and Michelle get more of an explored dynamic in “You Wanna See Something?”, the single interaction between Sasha and Michelle is perhaps the episode’s most emotional moment.  Sasha, having arrived home from Joffrey’s Summer Program without informing her parents, is splitting her time staying with Boo, Ginny, and Melanie.  She refuses to go home, and when her usual plans fall through, she winds up on Michelle’s old doorstep, in the empty space she left behind.  

What Bunheads does with Sasha and Michelle in this episode is careful, specific, and genius.  The first half of season 1 hinted at a narrative parallel for these two characters, yet never quite manifested that into an actual dynamic between them.  This culminated with Sasha initiating the “O Captain, My Captain” moment for Michelle, but ultimately the devotion to exploring this dynamic wasn’t quite there yet.  In this premiere, however, Michelle and Sasha were constructed in parallel, and given an actual emotional payoff that served to illuminate their character-to-character relationship.

At the beginning of the episode, it’s Michelle and Sasha who are mysteries.  We don’t know where either of them are, or what they’re up to.  We catch up with Fanny, Truly, Ginny, Boo, and Melanie before the credits.  Only after do we cut away to Henderson, and it’s later still when Sasha enters the picture.  In this way, both Sasha and Michelle are symmetrically portrayed, as two souls in self-inflicted exile who refuse to make the journey home.  Sasha moves from couch to couch, Michelle lives in accessory to Talia, and both stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the difficult truth: you have to go home sometime.  It is therefore no accident that Michelle’s first reappearance in Paradise involves Sasha, and only Sasha.  Michelle finally comes home, and the instant she does, Sasha throws her arms around her and tells her she’s glad she’s back.  It also suggests that Sasha is finally home too - or at least has someone that serves as a safe place for her, someone with whom she can rest her stubborn wandering.  

Ultimately, you can’t really argue with the notion that Michelle and Sasha have now been set up as each other’s homes, and it’s an emotionally powerful character dynamic to suggest.  In doing that, Bunheads seems to be creating a “found family” lineage, from Fanny, to Michelle, to Sasha.  Fanny, in honoring Hubbell’s memory, serves as someone who cares about Michelle when she needs it, and Michelle, in turn, serves as someone who cares about Sasha when she needs it.  Sure, in structure it’s starting to look like the core of Gilmore Girls - the bloodline from Emily to Lorelai to Rory - but it’s fantastically constructed and executed on Bunheads as well as it was on Gilmore.  I’m not complaining.  Just the opposite, in fact.  I’m immensely enjoying the choices Bunheads is making for these characters and their place in the show.

As such, “You Wanna See Something?” does exactly what it needs to as a hinge from Bunheads 1.1 to Bunheads 1.2, and it does so with panache.  What, on most shows, would be a simple inevitability, is instead explored as a moment of choice, an insight to character development, and an opportunity to redefine character interactions.  Any reservations I held previously about the future of this show, creatively, have effectively been swept away.  Of course, now that I’ve reinvested in Bunheads emotionally, I’m terrified that ABC Family is going to cancel it.  I really, really, really hope they don’t.  

The Report Card:
Dialogue: A
Plot: A
Character: A+
Joke of the Night: "Nothing is more terrifying than a canoe."
Scene of the Night: "Hey, kid." / "I'm so glad you're back."
Episode MVP: Fanny

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Bunheads 1x13 - "I'll Be Your Meyer Lansky"

You know that quote from You've Got Mail?  It's the one where Kathleen Kelly says that in e-mails, you're more likely to talk about nothing than something... but all this nothing has meant a lot more to her than so many somethings.  That quote summarizes, pretty perfectly, how I feel about Bunheads.  Sure, when I take notes, I can condense entire minutes-long scenes into one basic three-word sentence (skimming past the non sequiturs and pop culture references, of course) -- but even so, the hour is so damn enjoyable even without intricate plotting on a grander scheme.  There are three things Bunheads does well: character dynamics, comedic pacing, and scene building, and it's by far enough to make the show work.  “I’ll Be Your Meyer Lansky,” for what it lacked in sophisticated plotting, shone in all three areas.

“I’ll Be Your Meyer Lansky” found Michelle and Fanny facing money issues.  The opening sequence was a delightful comedic bait-and-switch, showing the two women waking up to a rigorous morning routing usually reserved for intense physical workout… only to smash cut them into a boring accountant’s office trying desperately to stay awake.  Bunheads mined some really great comedy out of Fanny and Michelle’s attempts to understand Eric the Accountant, and just as much comedy out of Eric the Accountant trying to put up with Fanny and Michelle’s antics.  And there actually were antics!  This angle was so great, because it placed Fanny and Michelle on the same team.  Two-handed partner comedy is rare between these two, simply because they are mostly used as diametric opposites.  Their rhythm usually constitutes one of them delivering a ramble and the other person sarcastically punctuating it.  But in the accountant’s office?  Fanny and Michelle were in a constant back-and-forth, getting wrapped up in each other’s wacky stream of conscious, since, in a conversation about taxes, they’re equally as kooky.  It was lovely to see them on the same side, instead of at odds.

So, since Fanny is apparently terrible at knowing when hippie candlemakers are selling their wares on her property while paying rent to someone else for ten years, the ladies need a business plan.  Something on their land that can make them money.  Naturally, the first thought is picnics.  That probably won’t work.  But their second idea?  An amphitheatre!  Which actually is great, because it gives the studio their own place to put on performances, and they can use it to rent out as well.  Not only that, but it gives Fanny and Michelle a project, which means that these characters are now getting a story arc!  And even if that weren’t enough to provide material, Bunheads also involved Truly - via last week’s new character, Millie.  With Millie wanting to invest money in the building of the amphitheatre, it inherently drags Truly into the picture.  Millie is, after all, Truly’s sister, and landlady, and general enemy on earth.

Bunheads has already made great use of this complication in tonight’s episode, with Michelle reaffirming to Truly where her loyalties lie.  Other shows might take the Millie complication and mine it for pesky story drama later on, but Bunheads nips the issue in the bud (the bun?) and puts Michelle and Truly on the same page right at the start.  This, I think, was a smart choice, considering Michelle’s role in the show.  This is a woman who has been a reluctant participant in the world of Paradise, and Season 1.2 is smartly finding ways to entangle Michelle meaningfully into the town and its citizens.  It started with Truly’s shop in Michelle’s house, and continued with Sasha seeking Michelle as a parental figure.  And tonight, we got a lovely scene between Truly and Michelle, confirming that Michelle does, in fact, regard Truly as a friend.  (Even if she doesn’t invite her to come watch her emotional breakdowns.  But next time, she will.)  

How great is that?  The scene was charmingly played, and cements these two characters into one of the show’s stronger dynamics.  The Truly-Michelle interactions of the first ten episodes were some of my favorites - in some part because Michelle was around someone her own age, but also because the two are balanced in their wackiness.  This is, after all, an Amy Sherman-Palladino show.  Everyone’s quirky.  But Truly and Michelle are quirky in different ways, and it allows for them to ramble and snap at each other in a sort of harmonious syncopation.  The rhythm that Fanny and Michelle had in the opening scene?  Michelle and Truly have that as a sustained dynamic, all the time, and it’s lovely.  And it’s even lovelier to see that rhythm slowed down so that Truly can voice her fears about losing Michelle as a friend, and Michelle can reassure her that she won’t.  This is Michelle letting Paradise into her heart, letting it be her home, letting herself maybe do those great things Hubbell was talking about.  This is Michelle on a character arc!  

The other strong dynamic of the night, of course, belonged to Michelle and Sasha.  The past three episodes have really pushed these two to the forefront, perhaps even edging out Michelle and Fanny as the core relationship of the show.  And rightfully so - Michelle and Sasha have a really great interaction founded in the idea that Sasha is a kid who has rapidly aged into a mini-adult, and Michelle is an actual adult who hasn’t quite gotten her life together yet.  Overly mature, and completely immature, Sasha and Michelle balance each other out, and ground each other in their actual ages.  Only with Michelle does Sasha let herself behave as a child (wonderful acting choices by Julia Goldani Telles), and only with Sasha does Michelle really embody the confidence of a caretaking adult.  Yet, even with the age difference and mother-daughter overtones, Michelle approaches Sasha as a friend, and vice versa.  Sasha ribbing Michelle about her love life, and Michelle promising Sasha “I’ve got your back” round out the dynamic, steering it clear from an overt parent-kid paradigm.  (But who are we kidding?  This is Amy Sherman-Palladino.  Since when have her parent-kid relationships ever been under-developed?)

Sasha, individually, is having a rough time of it now.  Have I mentioned how much I love this character?  Every time we get to see a little crack in her hard shell, my heart can’t help but spasm in sympathy.  And, I also can’t help but be reminded of JD’s scooter on Scrubs.  Bear with me - she was named Sasha as well, if you recall, and there was one particular episode where Sasha - the scooter - was gunned down by police outside a convenience store.  Well, JD reacted with a rebel yell of “SASHAAAAA!” and now when anything bad happens to Sasha on Bunheads, I want a reaction gif of JD screaming her name in total agony.  Because frankly, that’s how I feel when Sasha goes neurotic over house keys and then asks one simple question, with a quavering voice: “What am I going to do?”

It’s true that Sasha’s storyline right now isn’t the most plausible.  The fact that her parents pay so little attention to her that she could simply NOT continue to live with either of them seems a bit of a stretch, especially since the evidence to this is basically offscreen.  It’s even more unlikely that Sasha just somehow isn’t convinced that her parents are even moving at all when there are boxes literally everywhere in the house.  But if you’re able to suspend disbelief and go along with these two notions, this storyline basically renders Sasha the most tragic figure in the whole show.  Which was set up, frankly, from Season 1.1 - but poorly executed at the time.  Sasha had tragic hints of family drama and identity crises, but we got to see very little from her POV, and moments that could have been empathetic were instead over-the-top and alienating. She was more raging bitch than hardenest lost soul, and her characterization was worse for it.

Season 1.2 has improved on this oversight, and gave us not only a scene of Sasha’s vulnerability with Michelle, but also a DANCE NUMBER.  I love the dance numbers on this show.  Sue me, I’m a creative arts nerd.  I adore the idea that even with dialogue and story and character moments, there’s still some wavelength of emotion that can only be communicated by expression through dance.  So while the Sasha-Michelle scene on the stoop was heartbreakingly revelatory of Sasha’s fear, I still didn’t feel the full impact - that punch to the stomach - until I saw the slow push-in on Sasha’s face at the end of the dance number.  And it was all building to that moment, with the choreography, the emotion, the music - even the sound of the dull thuds and smacks, as the girls’ legs hit the hardwood.  The number was graceful and elegant, yet gritty and real - that mix of beauty and pain.  I was completely sucked into the moment.  I needed my “SASHAAAAA!” gif.  (Seriously, will someone make that for me?)

There were some stray high points in the hour: favorite parts include Melanie becoming a protective ragemonster, Michelle discovering she didn’t finish high school, and Truly’s inability to physically maneuver through her own clutter.  I’m not really sure how I feel about Godot’s return - but I can say I didn’t really miss him.  I did miss Boo in this episode, though!  I wonder if we’ll skip the freakout about Sasha potentially moving, and just save poor Boo’s sanity.  I’m also curious to see what the show will do with new kids Cozette and Frankie.  At first it seemed inevitable for Cozette to come into some kind of rivalry with one of the girls, but now it’s looking like she may just flit through the background and be utterly charming and annoying all at once.  The fact that she handed Melanie the flyer for roller derby was definitely a winsome moment, and it made me hope that Cozette will be a running joke more than an antagonist.

Regardless of loose constructed and bare plot, Bunheads delivered an episode that delivered interesting setup for future storyline opportunities, and a fine serving of the show’s signature fare: sharp comedy, developed relationships, and well-constructed scenes.  I’ve been immensely relieved that Season 1.2 is maximizing the potential created in Season 1.1, and delighted to see where the series is taking these characters and their interactions.  

The Report Card:
Dialogue: A
Plot: B
Character: A
Joke of the Night: Michelle admitting that her land discovery came from chasing the squirrel that stole her toothbrush
Scene of the Night: Michelle and Truly cement their friendship
Episode MVP: Melanie!  She’s getting to be quite a scene stealer for me, actually

Friday, January 18, 2013

Natalie Keener, "Up in the Air," and the Impossible Ideal

If there’s one complaint I ever had about 2009’s Up in the Air, it’s that one half of the film’s core dynamic simply vanishes in the third act, a harsh reminder that the story truly belongs to George Clooney’s Ryan Bingham and not Anna Kendrick’s Natalie Keener.  The first two-thirds of the movie features the characters in a two-part dialogue on human connections, and puts forth the idea that Natalie is the yin to Ryan’s yang - or maybe the yang to his yin, a complementary force of nature designed to blow Ryan off course.  It’s unexpected, then, that Natalie all but disappears for the film’s final forty minutes.

But even though Up in the Air turns out to be more about Ryan than Natalie, it doesn’t take away from the importance of the character, both in her design and function in the film.  It may not be her story, but she is incredibly vital to it.  So while the movie is about Ryan… this character study is about Natalie.

The easiest way to initially examine Natalie Keener is in contrast to the film's main character, Ryan Bingham.  She is, after all, designed to be his perfect foil.  Their relationship is arguably the highlight of the film, and furnishes most of the conversation the movie puts forth about human connectivity.  They interact as interlocking opposites - antagonists even - who find themselves in the same place with different ideologies. 

So let's start with Ryan.  Ryan Bingham fires people for a living.  He comes into people's lives when they are at their most fragile, and he helps them on their way.  But while these people's lives are 'up in the air' in a metaphorical sense, Ryan's is literal: he spends 322 days of his year traveling across the US, his life compacted into a single suitcase.  His home is in airports and on planes; his sense of belonging in rewards cards and membership perks. He preaches the gospel of a life unfettered with personal relationships and the weight of material possessions.

Natalie Keener, 23 and impossibly smart, threatens to take that away from him -- unwittingly, of course.  Natalie has worked out a way to revolutionize the business of firing people.  With the cost of travel rising and technology marching forward, Natalie Keener's proposes to fire workers via the internet, using a Skype-like program and a conversation workflow that makes it easy for anyone to perform the task, from any place.  This plan not only eliminates the need for people like Ryan to travel around the country, but also dismisses the idea that Ryan Bingham is intuitively better at this delicate task than others.  It is, simply, an affront to his entire existence.

But rather than require these two to carry out their roles in plot-propelled opposition, Up in the Air instead directs Natalie and Ryan to friendly professional interaction.  Their boss requires Natalie to accompany Ryan on the road, so that she can learn the art of firing from someone who’s been in the “biz” a little longer. And to Ryan Bingham, this IS an art.  This is a way of life, a philosophy of being.  But to Natalie, this is a simply a business.  She creates an instruction manual for letting employees go, and touts practicalities over than the intricacies of human emotion.  Everything is by-the-book, and bottom lines.  Ryan, however, understands the power of empathy in such an intimate social interaction.  His pitches are not rote, nor are they impersonal.  Where Natalie is buttoned-up and formal, Ryan is profound and engaging.  

This is perfectly seen in their exchange with J.K. Simmons' character Bob, who belligerently asks what he should tell his kids about losing his job.  Smartly, Ryan lets the gravity of the question sink in, allowing for a moment of silence that validates Bob's point of view.  Natalie, however, misses the social cue, and jumps immediately into the conversation.  She reassures Bob, telling him that his kids' test scores will likely go up because of his career trauma.  Naturally, this lack of sensitivity pisses Bob off.  He tells Natalie to go fuck herself.  But Ryan has Bob's number: he's taken the time to study the man's resume, and tells him that his kids will admire him if he doesn't give up on his culinary dreams that he abandoned so long ago.  Ryan is able to successfully navigate the interaction, where Natalie falls short.

Thus, in their professional lives, Ryan Bingham is the heart, where Natalie Keener is the head.  He intuits; she makes judgments. Where he allows for poetry and complexity, she essentializes human interactions into a series of memorized lines and projected responses, and seems unable to perceive nuanced emotional cues.  As is, this is enough to construct Natalie as the perfect foil to put opposite the main character.  However, Up in the Air takes the notion and extends it further - into their personal lives… where they are exactly reversed.  "The head" and "the heart" are switched when it comes to personal relationships: Natalie speaks often of falling in love and having a family, whereas Ryan has no desire to "settle down" and commit to a long-term relationship.  While it can perhaps be attributed to the age difference between them, it remains that Natalie doesn’t subscribe to the idea of “casual (personal) relationships” in place of those that can be mature and meaningful.

Through her position as Ryan's foil, it's fairly straightforward to understand the basic construction behind Natalie Keener’s conceptual traits.  But there's more to examine with the character, in particular with how she is wielded by the narrative.  Natalie arrives as a catalyst to the film; without her, we have no story.  She is the "inciting incident," the wrench in Ryan Bingham's life that upends his way of living and puts him on a path to change.  But here's the funny thing: Ryan doesn't change.  Not really.  He's still "in the air" at the end of the film, even after having boldly tried to pursue a romantic relationship with Alex.  While the film's experiences certainly affect Ryan and leave us with a sense that he’s different now, fundamentally, he does not change.  In fact, the only one in the film to change is Natalie.  It’s ironic; the character introduced as the film's catalyst turns out to be the one changed most by the film's events.

By the end of the second act, we begin to see cracks in Natalie's conviction.  After seeing offices disassembled and rooms full of empty chairs, after hearing employees calmly threaten to commit suicide and tearfully plead for their livelihoods… Natalie Keener can't handle this world any longer.  During the first implementation of Natalie’s virtual-interaction program and after weeks on the road, you begin to see, through little flickers in her face, that she’s starting to not believe in her idea anymore.  And it’s a fascinating subversion of what we’d expect.  This is where the head and the heart converge in each character, and flesh each of them into three dimensions.  The man who understands the specificities of human emotion, Ryan, is desensitized to them; whereas the woman seemingly incapable of grasping their subtleties is wholeheartedly affected by them.  Ultimately, the final straw for Natalie is learning that Karen Barnes, in Wichita, actually did kill herself after Natalie fired her.

In a way, Natalie's character journey in the film adopts a kind of quixotic element.  While her role is more that of Sancho Panza than Quixote himself, she bears many similar identifiers to the tragic fantasist, and an awfully parallel arc.  At film's beginning, Natalie is armed with an impossible ideal and an uncompromising self-confidence… but by film's end, the events of the narrative - of life - have broken her belief system and stripped away her self-assurance.  She even occasionally demonstrates a similar kind of absurd ridiculousness: her introduction shows her coining the inane compound word "glocal," and a serious crying jag in the hotel lobby is comedically exaggerated.  And ultimately, like Don Quixote, the narrative communicates that she's not meant for this world.  For the Man of La Mancha, the world is too harsh and cruel for someone so idealistic and deluded.  For Natalie, the business of firing people became too harsh and unpredictable for someone so incapable of dealing with the imperfection - and reality - of human emotion.

But there's something else lurking behind the notion that Natalie Keener didn't ever belong in the business of firing people: she wasn't even supposed to be there in the first place.  After her boyfriend Brian dumps her, Natalie reveals that she had turned down a job in San Francisco to follow Brian to Omaha, on the promise that they'd have a life together.  From this light, Natalie's arc turns intriguing under the lens of feminism, and there's much to discuss - particularly as it plays out in conversation with Alex, a woman eleven years her senior.

The film very explicitly puts forth the idea that Natalie has been given unrealistic expectations about the kind of life she'll lead.  She directly states that by 23, she expected to be married, with a kid, and a corner office.  She was supposed to have a Grand Cherokee by now.  This idea is the Post-Feminist Dream - or is it the Post-Feminist Curse?  "I can have it all.”  With women's march into the office environment, it was first an expectation of them, by society, to maintain their place in the domestic sphere in addition to their newfound professionalism.  But as time wore on and the concept internalized, it frequently became women's expectations of them themselves.  Why choose?  Why not do both?  Fulfillment at home and at work is not too much to ask for, right?  We can have it all!  We have to have it all!  Natalie makes it very clear that she somehow still felt like career accomplishments weren’t enough to constitute life success until she'd found the Right Guy.  In other words, Natalie Keener was probably raised by a working mother and a slew of flat romantic comedies in which uptight working women feel unfulfilled without their dream guy.   It’s not hard to see how Natalie was sold a broken promise and clings stubbornly to the pieces of hope.

Of course, the society- and self-imposed stress of "having it all" can do wonders to create 20-something lady taskmonsters like Natalie.  After all, her life design is not unlike the flowchart she makes for business interactions.  There is a path to take, and protocol to follow, and an end target in mind.  She is goal-oriented to the point of having a laundry list of laughably specific characteristics identifying the Perfect Guy, with an accompanying relationship timeline.  Not only is a she a Quixote at work, but she's a Quixote in her personal life.  How can that rigid ideal possibly live up to the dregs of reality?  It can’t.  Ryan and Alex gently advise her that life’s not really about deadlines and unrealistic expectations for yourself.  But Natalie refuses to settle.  Settling, by definition, is failure.  

In a perfect world, Natalie Keener would have the corner office, because she perfectly implemented the perfect way to fire employees while saving costs.  She would have a perfect husband with a perfectly one-syllable name, and the perfect kids, and the perfect life.  She's come to expect no less - even if Brian weren’t the right guy, she could make it work, because this is a reflection on her life accomplishments more than anything else.

But nearing the end of Up in the Air, Natalie Keener's perfect plans have failed: the professional plan, the personal plan, the life plan.  And the film chooses only to show us this deconstruction in one single shot, of Natalie retreating from the camera on an airport conveyer, face hidden and body rigid.  These four seconds, this one singular shot, is almost enough to assuage Natalie's third act absence.  A jarring cutaway, it does more to communicate the tragedy of a quixotic downfall than any prolonged conversation or emotional acting moment.  For the purposes of her own character, independent of Ryan, it is her farewell shot... and for a fleeting moment, this is her story.

Most parting shots feature the camera pulling away, to suggest finality, and in doing so, the characters onscreen get smaller.  Natalie's parting shot achieves the same effect, but does so by leaving the camera static.  Taking advantage of the film's natural airport setting and the inferred poetry of travel, Jason Reitman puts Natalie on a conveyor, and lets her get smaller in frame without moving the camera at all.  As a result, there's no real sense of peace or happiness in the finality - the camera is static, the character is static, and she's simply being carried off.  The idea behind her leaving is beautifully muddled, because the fact of the matter is that she failed.  Her departure is actually a retreat.

Beyond that, she's moving towards a vanishing point: the parallel fluorescent lighting and the handrails of the conveyor all create a large "X" that the eye subconsciously processes - and that Natalie Keener is disappearing towards.  She moves towards a horizon, much like a cowboy into the sunset, and at this point in the film we don't know what's waiting for her.  She's not following a boy.  She's not making a plan, that we know of.  She's being set adrift, leaving a world that was never meant for her, and heading into the unknown.  And from what we know of the character, that's about the most terrifying thing she could possibly chance.

For one brief moment, Up in the Air lets us entertain the idea that Natalie Keener is the hero of her own story.  She may not be the hero of this story, which rests squarely on Ryan Bingham's shoulders… but she gets her own hero shot, and we get to see her soul in a moment of limbo.  It is, after all, a core theme of the film, and the concept Natalie herself never quite grasped.  Ryan Bingham lives in limbo, and ushers others into the condition with the attempt to make it more tolerable for them.  Limbo is inevitable, limbo can be beautiful, and without limbo we cannot grow.  Natalie may not ever come to terms with that spirituality; she may not spearhead the idea like Ryan… but she's still a part of it.  She didn't change this story; she was changed by it.

In the end, Natalie Keener ultimately moves forward, changed, and while Ryan doesn't quite evolve as much as the audience probably expected, she's also part of the small footnote Ryan makes in his life mantra, as his character’s development.  While the answer to life's problems may not be in a marriage or a romance, like Natalie thought, it's clear that life - like limbo - is more tolerable with others beside you.  They may not be dance partners, or life partners - but they're important.  So while Ryan doesn’t "end up” with Alex in a Hollywood fulfillment of life's meaningful relationships, he does give his miles to his sister and brother-in-law so they can travel, and he does write a recommendation for Natalie, to usher her out of limbo and into the life she was supposed to be living.  

Perhaps there, she is the hero of her own story, and finding a way to negotiate the life she leads with her list of expectations.  Perhaps there, it’s not a perfect world… but one in which she belongs.
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