Sunday, April 9, 2017

Series: This Week’s TV MVPs -- Week 58

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As much as I hate to admit it, summer is just around the corner (for this Floridian, that means days of heat and humidity are already here). And that means that shows are beginning to wrap up and go on break for the summer. But before they do, these series are busting out some of their most impressive episodes, and that's what we enjoy celebrating each week. Whether heartwarming comedy, or intensely-focused drama, this week's TV MVP Series — like all the others — is about celebrating the incredible acting that is on television at the moment. Joining me this week are:

Let's get started!

   

   

Jenn's MVPs: Jake Johnson and Zooey Deschanel as Nick Miller and Jessica Day (New Girl)

Why they're the MVPs: Truth be told, everyone in the New Girl finale deserves the title of MVP. "Five Stars for Beezus" was an exceptional episode of television that served as the perfect season or series finale for my favorite show. Hannah Simone did an incredible job with her understated yet emotional acting, Max Greenfield reminded us why he's so lovable as Schmidt, and Lamorne Morris got to tap into a more serious side of Winston. But it was Jake Johnson and Zooey Deschanel who really stole the show for me, as we finally — FINALLY — returned to Nick and Jess' romantic relationship. I have to give immense credit to the writers, who have slowly but carefully developed this pairing over the course of six years. Though there were bumps around halfway through, the team recognized what went awry, and did an incredible job of fixing it. Nick/Jess wasn't always at the forefront of the stories in New Girl, but it was always there. And the writers waited for the perfect time to resurrect the couple. They, of course, succeeded.

What's always made Nick and Jess so believable for me is Johnson and Deschanel. They really and truly understand their characters — their wants, their fears, and their emotions — and that's what really sells the pairing (apart from, obviously, their incredible chemistry as actors). I've always loved the idea of Nick and Jess, but it's mostly been a one-sided story: one that Jake Johnson has carried on his shoulders for a long time. We're used to seeing Nick pine for Jess, and Johnson has this beautiful and genuine way of playing him. Every look, every touch, every word is intentional. And that has shone in the series thus far. But Deschanel recently got the opportunity to reciprocate that kind of emotional intensity in Jess. For the last two seasons, Jess has been the one pining for Nick. It's been a great opportunity for Deschanel to tap into Jess' emotions, and this episode was evidence of her ability to excel in doing that.

The reason that these two are my MVPs is because they work so seamlessly together. Nick and Jess are both still in love with one another — even after all of these years — and the performances by the actors make it so easy to believe that. In particular, Johnson's scene with Max Greenfield (in which Nick recounts the night he first met Jess) is so simple and so lovely. You can see Nick slowly realizing that he's never stopped loving Jess. And Deschanel's scenes are equally powerful. My heart broke when she listened to Nick tell his readers that he doubts Pepperwood and Jessica Night will ever be together. And then I could feel the nerves within Jess as she runs through the cards of what she wants to say to Nick to confess her feelings. Jessica Day has a big heart — she loves with her whole self, and Deschanel always understands this and how important it is to convey that to the audience.

Of course, the most satisfying scene in the episode is when Nick and Jess finally are in the same place (literally and metaphorically), confront their feelings, and kiss. It's a perfect conclusion to the chase and dance these two have been doing, and the actors do a fabulous job conveying the awkwardness, but utter joy the two feel in finally being reunited. "Five Stars for Beezus" is probably going to go down as one of my favorite New Girl episodes of all-time, and that's thanks to Jake Johnson and Zooey Deschanel for knocking it out of the park. For all of that and more, they deserve to be crowned my TV MVPs.

   

Stephanie's MVP: Elizabeth Henstridge as Jemma Simmons (Agents of SHIELD)

Why she's the MVP: Has more been asked of any actor on this show? Jemma began the series as one half of a duo, FitzSimmons, and has slowly but surely developed into her own character. She also slowly became another amazing woman in the Marvel universe. This week she was, again, asked to do something new: come back from the dead. Okay, technically, Simmons wasn’t ever really dead. It was just the digital version of herself in the Framework. But Henstridge still started “What If...” by literally crawling out of a mass grave. She then proceeded to run around in dirt-covered clothes and spoke in such a convincingly squeaky, hoarse voice that it was easy to believe she had just woken up from being dead. 

While everyone else in the main cast was asked to play alternate versions of themselves, Henstridge was still the same Simmons, but in a completely different world. Only Chloe Bennet was similarly unchanged, but even she had to pretend to be an agent of HYDRA for a little while. Not Henstridge. More than any other actor in this episode, Henstridge made me feel the constant internal battle Simmons and Daisy were fighting: knowing the world they were in wasn’t real, but needing to fight against it anyway. There’s one scene where Simmons is arguing with a teenager about HYDRA’s Nazi ties and then realizes it doesn’t matter if she convinces him because he’s actually not real. 

It’s because of Henstridge’s ability to maintain the character even in this Twilight Zone-like universe that made each of her scenes extra poignant. When she begs Coulson to remember her, we see all of the vulnerability of a young, science agent who — under Coulson mentorship — became a capable field agent. When she learns that her soulmate, Fitz, is trapped as a soulless doctor within HYDRA and his inventions are being used for actual evil, there’s a weariness that Henstridge made me feel in my own bones. Her face in that moment made it impossible for me to not think of every other moment the cosmos had attempted to pull Simmons and Fitz apart. 

Then there were the times that cemented Henstridge as the queen of sass. Without a doubt, she had all of the funniest lines in this episode, particularly when it came to Grant Ward. Back when Ward was alive, Simmons had promised to kill him if she ever saw him again. When she encounters him in the Framework, it doesn’t matter that he’s just a digital copy or that he’s actually, for once, really on their side. She still drags him with every look and every word out of her mouth. Henstridge infuses these lines with such heavy doses of skepticism and exasperated sarcasm, I was expecting Ward to be applying burn cream by the end of the episode.  

She made me laugh, cry, and cheer all in the space of one episode. And that’s why Elizabeth Henstridge is my MVP this week. 

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Erin’s MVP: Katherine Langford as Hannah Baker (13 Reasons Why)

Why she’s the MVP: A lot of responsibility comes with the role of Hannah Baker. It’s something that is vitally important to get right. The show takes on serious issues that face kids like bullying, slut-shaming, rape, and suicide. For it to be the cautionary tale it would like to be, these stories need to be honest and authentic. Katherine Langford’s portrayal of this young girl who goes through many traumas that too often plague too many real life teens today is honest and authentic. So much to the point of making the viewer uncomfortable. But, for a role to send a message of such importance it needs to get uncomfortable.

The 20-year old actress plays a really believable teenage girl, and she believably portrays what it’s like being in high school — from the highs to the lows to the final extreme low of suicide. We see her tragically-fated love story unfold, we see her make friends and lose friends, and we see every step that brings her to make the decision to end her life. She is funny, imperfect, and very human. Langford saturates her character with so much humanness that it makes the tragedy something the viewer feels rather than just observes. Her achievement in this puts a face on a statistic, and makes it something that we can’t ignore.

The subject matter is dark and difficult to stomach. Having Hannah as our guide with her painful candor and poetic truths makes it a powerful journey. Langford never strayed into cliched teen angst territory. The hurt she feels when her classmates betray her or the guilt she feels when she behaves in ways that are less than ideal are genuinely expressed. It was easy to sympathize and empathize with her because of how fully she fleshed out this complex character. This is one of the goals of the show — to cultivate compassion instead of judgement. Going along with Hannah through her final months really hits home the message of being kind because you never know what someone is going through. Langford’s breakout performance as Hannah Baker helps the show relay this message to the audience, and hopefully start a dialogue about these issues.   

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Chelsea’s MVP: Shailene Woodley as Jane Chapman (Big Little Lies)

Why she’s the MVP: I made the tactical error today in marathoning Big Little Lies in its entirety because I didn’t want to lose my opportunity to write about any of the wonderful actresses. It would have been easier to wait and not write about them because trying to pick just one is just not fair. There is not a single weak link in this cast. The character that really stuck with me throughout the series and kept it grounded was Jane Chapman, played by one of my favorites: Shailene Woodley. 

We all knew Woodley had experience playing a mother after spending half a decade playing a teen mom on ABC Family, but she never got to stretch that maternal muscle until Big Little Lies. Jane moved to Monterey with her child to get a fresh start and try to move on from the assault that gave her the aforementioned child. She spends the series dealing with the trauma but being a strong mother and defending her child when he’s accused of bullying. The way she acts with the child helps keeps the character from falling into the Lifetime movie trap that we so often see with female characters. She doesn’t stigmatize her child as being the product of rape or throw her pain onto him. Instead she’s his protector, best friend, and raises him to be the moral center of the show. She’s the mother every kid would want all thanks to the warmth and bite Woodley gives Jane. 

On top of being mother of the year, Woodley gets to play opposite so many well-written female characters, but particularly Reese Witherspoon’s Madeline. At first I was scared that it would become a Mean Girls-esque situation where Jane was Cady and Reese was Regina, but the viewers quickly saw the friendship and trust develop between these two women. By the finale, it only felt right that Jane would run after her friend and try to comfort her, or Madeline protect Jane when faced with her rapist. I hope those two actresses get the chance to work together again in the future because we need more female friendships like Jane and Madeline. 

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Bonus MVP: Reese Witherspoon as Madeline Martha Mackenzie (Big Little Lies)

Mama Jenn let me cheat this week, because how can we not honor Elle Woods for not only starring in this amazing miniseries but also producing it and making it a point to create real roles for actresses? Witherspoon bursts onto our screen as the rough and feisty Madeline — a woman admired by many and feared by most. She’s a completely ridiculous person that you would hate in real life but that Witherspoon charm has you empathizing with her and wanting her to win. 

As mentioned above, I was so worried at first that Madeline would fall into the Regina George trope of being your best friend who then betrays you. When you get a little deeper, you can see that she’s just a lonely woman looking for a real friend who can challenge her and put up with her. She’s mean and tough and not a good person, but viewers like myself can’t help but love her. We understand why she has the affair, even though we don’t want her to hurt precious Ed. You know there is love between the couple but Madeline and Ed are like some bizarro version Leslie and Ben (if Leslie and Ben had no passion and didn’t know how to deal with their issues). It’s a testament to Witherspoon’s chemistry with Adam Scott and how they can still make you cheer for these two idiots to stay together. 

WItherspoon brings so much to the show and these characters. These women are all messes who we love while having no reason to love them. Celeste and Madeline are best friends but I can believe that Madeline would be too self-absorbed to notice Celeste’s home life. Madeline only notices more about Jane because Jane opened up about her past and gave her a reason to look after her. Witherspoon edges that beautiful line of being the best and worst friend. She would do anything for those in her life but can be an oblivious and stubborn idiot. Director Jean-Marc Vallée brings out the best messy sides of Witherspoon, and along with the feminist touches Witherspoon brings, the two help create a miniseries for the ages. 

For all this and so much more, that’s why Witherspoon and Woodley are my MVP’s for the week. Do yourself a favor and start watching this series now, because the greatest does not stop with these two women. 

Who is YOUR TV MVP this week? Sound off in the comments below!

2 comments:

  1. My MVP would be Nicole Kidman as Celeste. I love how she played the complexities and nuances of her character in the situation with Perry. Through her, we saw sides of domestic abuse that went beyond the scope of a cliché Lifetime movie. My favorite scene is Celeste and Perry in the car in the finale. Perry is trying to keep his wife from leaving him but Celeste refuses to give in. She sees that for the sake of herself and more importantly her children, she has to leave. I was moved by the passion and desperation of Celeste's resolve.

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