Sunday, September 25, 2016

Series: This Week's TV MVPs -- Week 41

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The return of fall television has finally arrived and even though where I currently live it doesn't feel much like fall (hello, 90-degree afternoons), new shows have debuted and old shows have made their triumphant returns. Over the next few weeks, shows will continue to debut which means that we'll continue to talk about all of the incredible performers in them. This week, a lot of new comedies kicked off (while old ones settled back into those familiar timeslots). But television isn't just funny again — it's dramatic again, too, with new series focusing on everything from family dynamics to new presidents to baseball.

Jen joins me this week as we discuss who made our TV MVP lists and why. Read on, friends!

Jenn's MVP: Kristen Bell as Eleanor Shellstrop (The Good Place)

Why she's the MVP: Kristen Bell can pretty much do anything and play any part and I'll buy into it. Awkward but ultimately incredibly strong Disney princess? Sold. Young woman who plucks coins from a fountain in Rome and suddenly is surrounded by an assortment of oddball suitors? I buy it. (When In Rome is a fun movie, you guys). Or how about a young professional who realizes her brother's fiance is her high school tormenter? Yup, I'm also sold. (And you should watch You Again because it's fun.) Even if she's playing opposite her husband in a commercial for a washing machine, I'm totally on board whatever Kristen Bell does. So when commercials began airing for her new NBC series, The Good Place, I knew I would have to give it a shot. Obsessed with Parks and Recreation and Mike Schur's writing style, I rightly assumed that The Good Place would be a quirky, odd but meta humor-filled series about a young woman who has a lot to learn about life... after death.

Bell's strength is in her ability to bring something human to this disaster of a character. Eleanor is selfish, antagonistic, and didn't ever do anything on earth worthy of her being in the good place. A clerical error got her in, but now it's up to her to belong. Thankfully, Eleanor has a tutor in Chidi, her heavenly soulmate, who was an ethics professor on earth and has decided to help Eleanor learn to be a good person. What I love so much about Eleanor already is that she's someone you're not entirely sure you want to root for yet. Bell plays her with this charisma and snark that's simultaneously hilarious and also disarming. Eleanor keeps people at a distance, doesn't want to invite any sort of reality into her heart, and is learning to deal with the consequences of both.

In this week's episode, "Tahani Al-Jamil" presents a very jealous version of Eleanor — one who believes that because Tahani is self-righteous, she's automatically bad. But it's when Eleanor sees Tahani in a moment of vulnerability that her true humanity is expressed. Bell plays that moment with such tenderness and honesty that we see a glimpse of the person Eleanor is, when she thinks of other people besides herself. I'm so excited to watch her journey unfold, and to continue to both love and kind of be irritated by Eleanor. Kristen Bell, no doubt, will continue to shine in this role just as she has done in so many others, and I look forward to more of her spot-on humor (her facial expressions alone are a source of so many giggles from me in the first three episodes) and her nuanced drama.


Jenn's (other) MVP: Zooey Deschanel as Jessica Day (New Girl)

Why she's the MVP: It's no surprise to anyone who has read my reviews of New Girl that I believe the show has made a stellar return to form after a rocky year and a half. Only a strong comedy series could manage to not only survive but also continue to be funny when its lead actress was on maternity leave. But what's always made New Girl so attractive to me as a series is its ability to extract genuine heart from even the most normal of circumstances. That ability to find the funny in the ordinary or the heartbreaking in the simplistic is what makes this show relatable. And this season, after a few years of hiatus from Nick/Jess, we've finally returned to the discussion of their relationship due to one of them pining for the other.

Except this time, Jess is pining for Nick.

I could wax poetic about Nick's incredible character growth, but this is a blurb celebrating Zooey Deschanel for her incredible work in this week's premiere, "House Hunt." In it, we get to see Jessica Day busying herself in order to keep her mind off of Nick. But when he comes home earlier than expected from New Orleans, she finds herself trapped by her feelings. She's helpless to talk to him and Deschanel conveys those emotions so perfectly. One moment, she's excelling at physical comedy and delivery of hilarious lines (that flashback to Jess getting ripped was so great), and the next she's pacing awkwardly outside of Nick's door. The way that Deschanel plays that particular scene opposite Lamorne Morris is so good. We're not used to seeing Jess THIS nervous about a guy. Yes, we've seen her do a lot of insane things and pratfalls galore. But this time, it's different. Because this time, the emotions are so deep and complex that it's tearing Jess apart inside bit by bit.

Deschanel did incredible work in the premiere of conveying the depth of Jess' feelings for Nick and I'm so excited to see those feelings develop as the season goes on, along with seeing just what else Deschanel has in store for us with Jessica Day.

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Jen's MVP: Milo Ventimiglia as Jack (This Is Us)

Why he's the MVP: The rave reviews started early for This Is Us and I deliberately didn’t read any of them. In truth, I didn’t want to set my expectations too high and be disappointed. I went into the show with very little information. All I knew was it was about five characters and somehow their lives intersected... maybe. Honestly, I wasn’t even sure about that part.


If you’ve watched the pilot, then you know the big surprise twist. The five characters are a complete family. Milo Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore play the parents of triplets and their half of the story takes place in flashbacks during the seventies and eighties. Sterling K. Brown, Justin Hartley, and Chrissy Metz are their adult children and their stories take place in the present-day. The reveal is a "wow" moment because for most of the pilot, you think Ventimiglia and Moore’s storyline is taking place during present-day too.

The same day Jack and Rebecca are delivering their triplets, Sterling K. Brown’s character, Randall, is abandoned by his birth father at a firehouse. When Jack and Rebecca lose the third baby, they decide to adopt Randall, who was dropped off at the hospital by a firefighter. He’s in the incubator next to Kevin and Kate when Jack first sees him.

Truthfully, I didn’t get it until the firefighter offered Jack a cigarette as he looked at his newborn children in the nursery. Even then I was a little confused, but then my husband started screaming, “Oh my God! It’s in the seventies! Look at the dude to the left!” Thanks, dude on the left. You helped the series click for me. Hopefully that was a well-paid day of extra work for you.

This wasn’t an easy undertaking, to keep this twist under wraps until the big reveal at the end of the episode. Personally, I think Milo Ventimiglia had the most difficult job of all in the episode and he blew me away. The pivotal scene in the pilot is after Dr. Katowsky — played by the phenomenal Gerald McCrady — informs Jack that they lost the third baby. I have experienced this loss in my own life. I know countless other people who have lost or miscarried children. Milo Ventimiglia’s job wasn’t an easy one because he had to capture the pain only those who’ve lost children can know. He had to make it real — otherwise the entire series would implode on itself.

Ventimiglia’s shock is what struck me the most. Dr. Katowsky had to repeat the news to Jack a few times: his wife is fine, he has two healthy babies, and they lost the third one. Jack's mind was simply not able to process the information the doctor was telling because there is no world in which you exist and your children do not. So when you discover it actually does exist and are meeting it head-on, it is the most confounding experience of your life. Your mind just shuts down. It’s like your brain knows the pain that’s coming and this is your body’s last ditch effort to protect yourself against it. Everything in Ventimiglia’s performance conveyed that level of shock to perfection. It wasn’t overdone. It wasn’t underplayed. It was just... honest.

As the grief hits Jack, Ventimiglia pulls us underwater with him. He has to sit, because the weight of what he’s feeling is crushing him. This is when Dr. Katowsky gives the “sourest lemon into lemonade speech” that Gerald McCrady needs to win an Emmy for. (It’s not an option, Academy. If you don’t give him the Emmy, I’m going to view it as a personal affront to the art of acting.)

It’s a heck of a monologue and Ventimiglia just has to sit and listen. I think listening to another actor is just as important — and perhaps even more difficult — than speaking the dialogue. We watched as Jack internalized what Dr. Katowsky was saying and we needed to feel that internalization because the entire series is built around it. We had to know Jack was irrevocably changed, not only by his grief, but by the advice this incredible doctor was giving him. As Jack stared at those three babies in the nursery, we had to know what he was going to do even before he did.

Milo Ventimiglia excluded such a warm humor towards life, a doggedly hopeful optimism, and a youthful innocence of a man just beginning his family. You could feel the a deep and abiding love for his wife, which — in a sea of TV shows about broken marriages and relationships — was refreshing. But most importantly, Ventimiglia brought quiet strength to this man who will take the sourest lemon life has to offer and make some kind of lemonade out of it. It’s the strength this family will depend on and what the entire series is built around. Believe me, they picked the right man for the job when they chose Milo Ventimiglia for the role of Jack.

Who were YOUR TV MVPs this week? Sound off in the comments below!


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