Monday, July 18, 2022

Everything Doesn't Always Have To Make Sense

I'm not sure when the term "High Concept" first appeared as a descriptor for single idea shows and movies. Wikipedia isn't much help, merely observing (In an entry flagged "This article has multiple issues") that "The origin of the term is disputed".

I seem to remember first coming across it in the nineties but clearly the concept of the concept goes back to the dawn of time. Well, to the dawn of the broadcast media era, at least, as exemplified by James Thurber's excellent series of articles on the invention and subsequent explosion of soap opera on American radio, published in the New Yorker in the late 'forties and reprinted in the collection "The Beast in Me and Other Animals", which I just happen to be re-reading for the third time.

Whenever and however it began, it's useful shorthand for those shows (and games) that can easily be summarized in a single sentence without leaving out anything that matters, a practice sometimes referred to as the Elevator Pitch, for reasons that should be self-explanatory. The Wikipedia entry for that is solid, leaving no issues to be resolved by future editors, something I find curiously appropriate, highlighting, as it does, the subtle but important differences between the two ideas. 

I was brought to musing on these topics by two Netflix half-hour comedy series I've just finished watching. I started both around a week or so ago, working my way steadily through the pair of them, one episode of each per evening and seeing them so close together I couldn't but be struck by certain structural and conceptual similarities.

The first, God's Favorite Idiot, I finished a couple of days ago and last night I watched the final episode of Boo, Bitch! I enjoyed them about equally but I still haven't quite come to terms with the sheer lack of concern both show towards any semblance of compromise with an audience, not just in terms of the unabashedly self-serving premises but with their complete disregard for any sense of internal logic. 

To use another frayed cinematic cliche, both shows really cut to the chase. These days, I'm more used to watching TV series where the entire first season seems to have been conceived as some kind of extended pilot, taking eight or ten hours to get to the point any networked show of the previous century would have reached in the first episode. 

The most extreme example of the trend I can remember would probably be Cloak and Dagger, a show I really liked. It ran for two seasons, twenty episodes in total. The final episode ends with the two leads having finally settled on their names and destiny as a super-hero duo, at which point the show was cancelled. That's what happens when you plan a slow burn intended to catch fire across a hundred-episode arc, then get canned after twenty.

The elevator pitch for God's Favorite Idiot, starring Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone, would appear to be "Good Omens meets The Office". For nebulous reasons, God gives ill-defined powers to Falcone's character, Clark, a klutzy cubicle worker, who is then supposed to use them in unexplained ways to bring about indeterminate results. 

Everyone shows up, from God to Satan, both of whom take on a female-looking appearance. There are angels and archangels and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and I forget what-all else.

The season begins with a shot of Melissa McCarthy riding what looks like the kind of mobility scooter a geriatric Hell's Angel might rig up and ends with her character, Amily and Clark, the eponymous hero and idiot, fleeing the Four Horsemen in a beat-up car, while a cloud of beetles of biblical proportion, presumably sent by Satan's boss, Beelzebub, boils out of the sky behind them.

In between those bookends, most of what we get is an endless round of bickering and office romance, much of which I found quite amusing. Melissa McCarthy is on good form and there's good chemistry between Amily, and Clark, whose longstanding worship-from-afar is brought into close focus by his sudden selection for divine attention. I guess there should be, since the two leads are real-life married.


Because the ensemble cast is uniformly strong and the jokes frequently land, I had a good time. I was a little disappointed to see Amily's prodigious drug and alcohol consumption slowly drop out of the picture as we went along. Her character also becomes less snarky and more soft-edged, presumably in response not so much to the literally apocalyptic situation in which she finds herself as her growing realization she might actually have fallen in love with Clark.

As for the plot, not only was there was no moment when I ever felt it made the slightest sense whatsoever, I didn't even get the feeling the writers knew or cared where things were going from one scene to the next. The whole farrago careens along like an over-confident goat falling down a mountain but so what? Everyone laughs at a pratfall. 

If nothing else, God's Favorite Idiot is worth it for the scenes with Melissa McCarthy as an extremely unlikely LARPer. Like a lot of the show, there seems to be little reasonable explanation for that to be a thing that happens but it does, several times, and I'm glad.

Boo, Bitch, which I found less funny but more emotionally engaging, is arguably also more coherent, although that's really not saying a lot. The premise is that one of two best friends, high school seniors about to graduate, is killed in a freak accident and comes back as an "embodied ghost" to complete some as-yet unknown "unfinished business" before "ascending".

The series stars Lana Condor and Zoe Margaret Colletti, each of whom, in the tradition of high school movies and TV shows, is old enough to have graduated college. I'd never heard of either of them and based on the first episode I was entirely willing to believe they were actual high school seniors in their first major acting roles. That's not necessarily a compliment.

Looking up their resumes on IMDB for this post, I realize I should have been at least passingly familiar with Condor. She played Jubilee in X-Men Apocalypse, a movie I bought on DVD about three years ago but haven't gotten around to watching yet.

After a somewhat stagey first episode, both leads quickly become more convincing. It's just as well. The entire (High) concept relies on them having excellent chemistry together. Fortunately, they really do. 

Of course, the exuberant, effervescent, emotionally-overcharged personalities of the characters, as personified by the punchy performances of both actors, make absolute nonsense of the secondary premise of the show, which is that these are two absolute non-entities in the rigid hierarchy of high school. Even in their toned-down, pre-party scenes, it's clear they have a spark that wouldn't easily be extinguished by the day-to-day dreariness of school life.

It somehow has to have been, all the same. Otherwise the plot, such as it is, just wouldn't work. 

We do get a partial parse on how it happened, for once. Thanks to an unfortunate incident on her first day, Lana's character, Erika Vu, hasn't even been called by her own name for her entire high school career. She's known, if at all, as Helen Who? Coletti's character, Gia, fares even worse. No-one seems to register her existence at all, although why that should be is far from clear. Hold that thought...

The plot develops along typical high-school movie lines with the the usual cast of mean girls, jocks, geeks and nerds all taking on the exact roles you'd expect. It won't surprise anyone to hear that the "unfinished business" ends up involving and being resolved by Prom. There's also a major plot twist towards the end of the run that I'd be amazed if anyone hadn't seen coming from Episode Two. No spoilers but I've already dropped a hint or two.

The sparkle that makes this familiar scenario zing to the extent it does comes from the aforementioned leads but also from another strong supporting cast, particularly Aparna Brielle, playing queen bitch Riley, who often threatens to walk away with the show. I also liked Mason Versaw, whose mostly laid-back take on being Riley's ex and Erika's current slips from dazed and confused to world-weary and accepting. His IMDB credits barely go back twelve months so maybe he really is a fresh talent. Erika's on-trend, hip parents also deserve a nod for bucking the expected Useless Adult trope.

The writing, which is solid enough, except when it veers towards the occult, leans heavily into some gentle social satire focused on Gen-Z mores. I'd be very curious to find out how actual teens and twenty-somethings react to it. It didn't seem to me to have as much of the usual, dismissive attitude self-identifying Grown-Ups all-too-often direct at any behavior they don't themselves exhibit, but I suspect that, for the target audience, even that benign acknowledgment might itself arrive tainted by an uncomfortable tinge of cringe.

While the high-school elements chug along nicely enough and the comedy, for the most part, sticks the landing, the ghostly plot makes not one whit of sense from beginning to end. It's still clever, all the same, to the point that, having watched the whole thing, I'm quite keen to watch it again in the light of what I now know. Just because you see a plot twist coming doesn't mean you pick up all the nuances as it unfolds.

The last episode ratchets up the emotional pressure with a barrage of on-the-nose musical choices. I can't say I even noticed the music in the rest of the series. They must have saved up the whole audio budget for the finale. 

The ending verges on the satisfying, as you'd hope, not least since this is a one-season Limited Series with no more to come. The coda does potentially leave the door the tiniest bit ajar for some kind of follow-on, although frankly by then I'd forgotten exactly how the key scene to which it calls back went, so I was left more confused than ever. 

Confusion is the key factor that connects both these series. If you insist on stories that make sense and plots that follow some kind of consistent, internal logic, neither of these shows is for you. If you're willing to switch off the "Wait! What?" switch at the back of your mind and just go along with whatever's put in front of you, though, there's plenty here to enjoy.

Now, what am I going to wach next?


  1. Okay, I'm not necessarily interested in either show, but I was totally amused by the elaborate send up in the first pic you posted. I'll freely admit that at least around our part of the Midwest the Homecoming dance gets the elaborate "will you go with me" requests, but using a goth look + coffin gets a big thumbs up for originality from me. Is that from Boo, Bitch?

    1. Yes it's from Boo, Bitch!. The shot's from a throwaway gag that works particularly well. The girls are quizzing a bunch of would-be goth classmates about how ghosts work. While they're all spouting nonsense you can see something out of focus happening center shot in the deep background. The two leads have their backs to whatever's happening so when one of the goths in front of them yells somethng like "Yes! I will go to hell with you!" in reply to the prom invite (Promvitation!) they naturally think it's a response to what they've said, leaving them shocked for a fraction of a second, until the goth leaps up and runs past them to jump into the coffin and sink down into it with her girlfriend.

      It's a very funny set piece that's done really well. The whole show has a lot of smart, throwaway moments along those lines but that's one of the best.

  2. I have started God favorite idiot, only based on the trailer - love the premise - but was not able to attach to any character, and the plot did not seem to go anywhere. I stopped after 3 episodes.

    If you love the non-sensical energy, but it actually make sense at the end, I would recommend Dirk gently, especially season 1.
    For god related series, but with a different type of comedy - still absurd, but less frantic - , The Good Place is a masterpiece.

    1. I have both of those in my watchlist. They've been there for a while. Somehow i never seem to get to them but I will eventually. GFI never at any point makes any kind of sense, neither in the supernatural plot nor, perhaps less forgiveably, in the multiple romantic subplots. While I was looking stuff up for the post I read that all the actors had been given free reign to improvise throughout the shooting and went nuts with it, which certainly would explain a lot, if true.


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