Psych: Season 1

PsychA few years ago USA Network launched a “Characters Welcome” campaign designed to give viewers an idea of, presumably, the kind of material they could expect to find on their station.  The gist of the campaign was that on USA Network one could find shows with interesting, unique, funny, compelling, or provocative characters rather than shows that contained too much style without any human substance.  And while I don’t know if the network was successful in re-creating their image with that campaign, I do know that Psych, which appeared on the scene around the same time as the “Characters” network reinvention, certainly has personality to spare.

Set in Santa Barbara, California, Psych follows Shawn Spencer (James Roday), a drifter of sorts who has never been able to hold down a job, a girlfriend, or even a reliable vehicle.  From an early age his by-the-book policeman father Henry (Corbin Bernsen) taught him to be cognizant of his surroundings, taking in all the details of his surroundings and noting even the smallest details that might seem insignificant to most other people.  The goal was self-reliance, but the result was a son with a near-terminal case of ADHD who has a hard time taking anything seriously.  Now in his late 20’s, he gets money by calling in the police tip hotline when he notices subtle clues on newsreel footage that help lead to the arrest of local small-time crooks and other such riffraff.  Meanwhile his childhood friend Gus (Dulé Hill) is an über-responsible pharmaceutical salesman and despite the different paths the two have taken in life, they are still friends and pal around together.

Detective O'Hara

Juliet O'Hara, police detective and Spencer's love interest.

In the first episode Spencer is at the police station collecting his tip reward when he uses his powers of observation to “read the minds” of a crook and a few policemen.  Picking up on clues like debris on clothing, unconscious hand gestures, body markings, and even discarded trash, he is able to infer key bits of information about the personalities of people around him.  The twist, though, is that Spencer convinces people that he has psychic abilities.  After using his fake abilities to solve a murder in the pilot episode, along with some help from straight-laced Gus, the two of them set up a private detective agency that they work from throughout the rest of the season.

USA Network prides itself on unique and interesting characters, and Psych has that down in spades.  Each person in the show has more personality than all the one-dimensional people and aliens in Avatar combined.  Roday is dripping with high-school-dude charm, and he is instantly likable from the get-go.  His fake psychic antics, while often ridiculous, are plenty amusing–especially when he is channeling Jim Carrey and Steve Martin with outlandish physical movements and contortions as he pretends to receive messages from the spirit world.  Gus, playing the classic role of the straight man, is the perfect foil for Spencer, often telling him how ridiculous their plans are, how impossible a given case would be to solve, and how the two of them will no doubt get into a world of trouble for embarking on whatever hair-brained idea they come up with next.  And yet he inevitably goes along with the plan nonetheless.  It’s the classic buddy cop formula that has worked for decades (Riggs and Murtaugh, Tango and Cash, Burnett and Lowery, even Carter and Lee), and Spencer and Gus are entertaining enough to carry the show even when the plot gets pretty ridiculous.

Each episode follows a similar formula:  They typically begin with Spencer as a kid in the mid-80’s learning, often through his own mistakes, a life lesson (look for creative solutions, don’t give up, don’t gamble, don’t cheat, etc.) from his harsh but loving father.  Then we join Spencer and Gus at their office in the present day.  Soon enough they stumble across a mystery by way of a newscast, reading the paper, walking by a crime scene, or just by having a client drop in looking for a psychic to help them find a missing loved one or solve a problem they can’t take to the police.  Spencer and Gus go investigate, inevitably run across stuffy Detective Lasseter (Timothy Omundson) and his partner, the perky but ambitious detective Jules O’Hara (Maggie Lawson) and police chief Karen Vick (Kirsten Nelson) who are often trying to solve the very same case.  In almost every episode Lasseter is stubbornly barking up the wrong tree, while plucky Spencer notices a handful of clues such as a lock of hair, footprints, broken glass, a misplaced business card, and the like, overlooked by the detectives but key to the investigation.  Spencer then uses these clues to piece together the solution to the crime, while waving his hands about and flailing around to pretend he is getting his information from sources in the hereafter.

Detective Lassiter

Detective Lassiter can't stand Spencer but comes to appreciate his usefulness.

It’s a reliable formula, and for the most part it works:  This ain’t Law and Order, folks.  But for the first few episodes I was exceedingly frustrated with the show.  The police detectives are so inept, the cases so far-fetched, and the “fake psychic” element so overblown that the entire show just seemed stupid.  But the ridiculousness of it all is kind of the point.  Psych doesn’t take itself too seriously, and neither should the viewers.  In fact, by the end of the season I appreciated its lighthearted take on the TV detective show genre–almost as if were an antidote to the endless heavy-handed detective shows out there.  It’s just lighthearted entertainment, and eschews the dark murder investigation and blood-n-guts shock factors of other shows in favor of silly antics and old-fashioned whodunit crime solving.

In fact, the worst complaint I can level against the show is that at times it’s just too ridiculous.  In “9 Lives” Spencer claims to get information from a cat, “Cloudy…Chance of Murder” has him joking around in a courtroom murder trial and eventually becoming a legal consultant, and in “Poker? I Barely Know Her” he pretends to communicate with poker chips.  Scenarios like this take things just a little too over the top and dangerously close to frustrating, as if creator Steve Franks is insulting the intelligence of his viewers.  But this is escapist entertainment, and as someone who enjoyed Ace Ventura, I don’t think I can complain about Psych being a bit too outlandish.  It’s good clean entertainment, so long as you check your brain at the door.  But then, that’s kind of the point.

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Nanny Diaries

TND posterIt’s hard to put my finger on why I like The Nanny Diaries. There isn’t a single shootout, car wreck, or fist fight in the entire thing; not even one punch thrown to accent a dramatic moment. Not only that, but (male audience members be warned) this is very much a chick flick – be prepared for a lot of whining by several characters about how hard it is to be a woman.

I guess it boils down to two reasons: first, for all its fashion tips and feminism, Diaries is ultimately a movie about kids and family life, two areas that are just as important in the end to men as they are to women, whether we like it or not. And second, it is one of those few movies that succeeds in telling a very engaging story with nothing more than everyday life.

The lead, Annie Braddock (Scarlet Johansson) graduates from college with honors in business. Her mother, a nurse, has spent the last 22 years pulling extra shifts, in between raising Annie alone. (Just for the record, in the book, the protagonist, Nanny, or “Nan,” had a very involved father, who, being a teacher, was a key part of her life and a mentor in her career as a nanny.) She has done this to give Annie something better than what she had, and wants her to go on to an illustrious career in finance.

Annie’s first love is anthropology. Her mother’s reaction, of course, is “how are you going to make a living at that?” Grudgingly, Annie accepts an interview at the prestigious Goldman, Sachs firm, but gags when the interviewer asks her “who is Annie Braddock?” She suddenly realizes she doesn’t know. She rushes out of the interview and into Central Park, where she saves a child from being run over. The mother, Mrs. X (Laura Linny), breathlessly runs up and showers her with thanks. Annie introduces herself as “Annie” and Mrs. X blurts out “Did you say you were a nanny??” Annie immediately finds herself buried in the calling cards of moms from the Upper-East-Side of Manhattan, including Mrs. X.

Repulsed by the finance profession, Annie decides to adopt the persona of

The "ideal specimen of an Upper-East-Side female" pushing her son out of the way.

The "ideal specimen of an Upper-East-Side female" pushing her son out of the way.

an Upper-East-Side nanny for a summer and treat the experience as an anthropological case study. She narrates the rest of the movie as though dictating a field diary. She finds herself being wined and dined by moms all over Manhattan until she accepts the job with Mrs. X. She tells her mother she’s gotten a finance job and moves to the city.

Much like with a human trafficking syndicate however, once a Manhattan family has a nanny hooked, the sweet talk is over. As Annie arrives at the Xs’ Fifth Avenue apartment, expecting a fun, easy job, she suddenly finds herself stuffed into a bedroom that is more like a closet, and expected to learn to cook and work 24 hours, single handedly raising the X’s five-year-old son, Grayer (Nicholas Art). The first thing Grayer does on seeing her is kick her in the shin and scream “I hate you I want Bertie! (The last nanny).” Annie battles through the next several scenes, trying to find a way to Grayer’s heart, reminding herself that anthropologist “Margarette Mead didn’t run home every time she contracted malaria.”

Grayer soon becomes the least of Annie’s worries, however, as an Upper-East-Side Nanny must also serve as the punching bag for an Upper-East-Side mother’s anxiety, anguish and insecurity. Mrs. X loads Annie down with non-child-related errands to give herself time for shopping, and vents her pain over Mr. X’s infidelity on her. In one scene, she barges into Annie’s room holding a negligee, and demands “This is not mine so it must be yours, right? Right??”

Annie observes “Male monogamy remains an elusive … practice throughout the world. In many Bedouin tribes, powerful men are encouraged to take multiple wives. In contemporary France, mistresses are de rigour and quietly tolerated. But for the women of the Upper-East-Side, adultery is pathologically ignored.”

It takes a while for the audience to meet Mr. X (Paul Giamatti), who the authors of the book describe as a common example of an Upper-East-Side Male, who is “bashing his brains out on Wall Street, so that his wife can have thousand dollar curtains … but he’s missing out on what he has … a wife who craves his attention, and a son who thinks he hung the moon.”

"Nanny" is singing to Grayer in French when he drops the "L" bomb.

"Nanny" is singing to Grayer in French when he drops the "L" bomb.

With the strife between his parents, Grayer transfers his affection to his Nanny. In a pivotal scene (above), Annie narrates that “three little words made it a thousand times harder to leave” the job she has learned to hate.

One darkly comic scene was eerily reminiscent of my experience at a “Bar Bench Conference,” where lawyers and judges are “allowed” to voice their grievances against each other. Of course, with things going back to normal the next day, you can probably guess how much the lawyers had to say. Likewise, Mrs. X takes Annie to a Mother-Nanny Conflict Resolution meeting, where Annie joins a collection of third-world women standing against the wall who know better than to say anything.

"Nanny" assists the tyrant queen in her chamber.

"Nanny" assists the tyrant queen in her chamber.

Laura Linny has a glare that can truly freeze the blood. After awhile, Annie starts jumping in fear every time Mrs. X comes around a corner. One of the most memorable scenes in the movie is when Grayer gets upset and runs straight past his open-armed mother, throwing his arms around Annie. Mrs. X is starring daggers at Annie while Annie frantically begs Grayer “Go to your mom! Go to your mom!”

Having also read the book, I know that it just begged to be put on the screen. Believe it or not, director Robert Pulcini asked the authors of the book if he could make a movie out of it a year before the book was even published. I’d have to say the changes that he made to it are for the better. He starts it off with a fantasy sequence of Annie wandering through the museum of natural history looking at dioramas that depict child-rearing customs from all over the world – coming eventually to dioramas of Manhattan life, where they have “the most prosperous, but idiosyncratic social structure in the world.” In the book, Nan was a veteran nanny, explaining the field to the reader. As she is, Annie is more of the audience’s character, discovering the world of the Upper-East-Side the same time we are. Pulcini also flavors the soundtrack a bit with a few throwbacks to Mary Poppins, and plays jungle sounds and tribal drums over several scenes to emphasize the bizarreness of the rituals Annie encounters.

Johansson plays the role well, involving the audience in her reactions to this bizarre world, and entertaining us with her native New Yorker acting. Giamatti is creepy and devilish as Mr. X, and for a child actor, Art is very impressive. The rest of the cast also does a great job. Pulcini definitely paints a bleak picture of our world, but illustrates a number of excellent points, including that being rich doesn’t guarantee any happiness. Unfortunately, after doing such a great job with the darkness, he feels the need to force in a text-book happy ending in the last five minutes of the movie.

Overall, The Nanny Diaries is an excellent film about an unusual and very thought-provoking subject. And despite the fact that it’s a chick flick, I have to admit it is genuinely touching.

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Paul Blart: Mall Cop

This movie is exactly what anyone would expect–nothing more, nothing less.  It’s an enjoyable, mindless romp full of pratfalls and slapstick humor that strives to be little more than lighthearted entertainment.  And as such, it succeeds admirably.

Few professions are as oft-maligned or disrespected by the public as that of “rent a cops” like the patrolmen we often see at malls, banks, or entrances to gated communities.  Never minding his public image, however, our hero Paul Blart (with a name that perfectly fits his character) played by the affable Kevin James, is determined to do his job and do it well.  He might not have the best home life, he might not be the coolest guy in the crowd, but he has a duty and he will see it done no matter the consequences.  Blart exists to serve the public as a mall security guard, and he takes it upon himself to perform this task, that might seem insignificant or silly to the rest of us, as best as he possibly can.  In the meantime he falls for a cute kiosk worker, finds ways to bond with his daughter, and ends up saving the day when a gang of robbers take over the mall in an attempt to get millions of dollars by hacking the…oh, it really doesn’t matter anyway.  What’s important is that Blart saves the day and we learn a thing or two about not judging people in the process.

Despite the movie’s predictability and total lack of originality, it is an enjoyable story that is perhaps even more noteworthy for what it is not:  a crass, sophomoric, attempt to push the boundaries of family comedy like so many of its contemporaries.  I’m so tired of seeing PG-13 rated schlock, that is just barely not edgy enough to deserve an R-rating, being passed off as family or teenage entertainment.  But Paul Plart is far more the exception to this trend than the rule, and the movie not only has blatant messages about the importance of family relationships, not judging others by their looks, never giving up under pressure, and even a hint of Ecclesiasted 9:10.  I was surprised at how clean this movie was, and in today’s day and age, that’s something noteworthy in and of itself.   Take note, Hollywood:  Paul Blart and his nearly $100 million domestic total at the box office might just be saying a few things about entertainment today.

But enough of my digression.  What really matters here is that this movie is silly but funny, and enjoyable from start to finish largely because of Kevin James’ over-the-top portrayal of the classic mall cop.  The movie never takes itself too seriously (since when do bank robbers use skateboards and BMX bikes?) and everyone can find something to relate to in Blart–whether he’s longing (not lusting) for Amy, his kiosk-inhabiting coworker, wishing he could save the day by doing something special, standing up to one of his high school tormentors who is now in charge of the SWAT team, or simply trying to put in an honest day’s work.  Despite a few flaws (every character here is a stereotype, and there really is nothing original onscreen in terms of plot) this is an enjoyable movie that, honestly, the whole family could enjoy together.

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