May 28, 2021

THE ‘FRIENDS REUNION’ REALLY TUGGED AT ALL THE HEARTSTRINGS, AS A PERFECT, LITTLE TRIP DOWN MEMORY LANE

Since the much-hyped Friends Reunion released yesterday, there have been reviews that call it ‘empty’ because of how it didn’t address a lot of conversations that have taken place about the show since it ended. Others have said it’s a ‘TV’ event meant only for hardcore fans, and not viewers of the series who don’t care as much about it as said fans. However, was the special event meant to place a microscope on how well the series has aged since the original run ended 17 years ago? No. Is an event like this expected to appeal to passive viewers of the show? Most certainly not. It was always about talking to those who were interested enough to listen. And it would surely be meant primarily for those who are familiar enough with the show to know the context needed for the conversations and the nostalgia.


Moreover, the reunion was always meant to be a coming-together of the main cast to take a trip down memory lane, and not to pick up where the show left off 17 years ago. It was never meant to be a revival. I too was aware of that, and my expectations were in check, believing that it would be a nice throwback, and nothing else. Yet, upon seeing the full-length promo that HBO Max had released, I realized that there was a lot more in store than a group interview that one might simply expect to see on any talk show. So my expectations rose, and still the one-of-a-kind event exceeded the expectations. I wouldn’t say it ‘took me back’ per se, as revisiting FRIENDS has been a constant since the show ended, through reruns and streaming and so on. So here are just a few of the highlights of the HBO Max event that made it special—seven highlights to be precise…seven, seven, seven.

1. The hybrid, one-of-a-kind format


We’ve seen some of the actors together before on Jimmy Kimmel’s show, and with Ellen, after the show ended. So a simple interview would just not do for such a big ‘reunion’. Taking us back to those sets, as the cast reminisced, was just what was required. Moreover, the reenactment of the iconic quiz that made Monica and Rachel lose their apartment to Chandler and Joey was a wonderful way to spark those memories and even a fun way to see how the actors themselves would fare in a quiz about what they’d brought to life. Then, there was the table-reading of scenes, which was fascinating, mainly because the actors’ delivery was so close to what it was in the takes that made it to the episodes, as was evident from the clips from the scenes interspersed. The documentary-style soundbites thrown in added another layer. And then the tributes to the costumes, to ‘Smelly Cat’, to the famous guest actors, and so on against the backdrop of a late-night-talk-show setup just added to the richness of the experience. The variety package, including content akin to ‘DVD extras’, was something that I can’t really imagine being done for anything else really. It was just right for the version of itself that event this was.


2. The people behind the phenomenon

It was so good to see the creators of the show—Kevin S. Bright, Marta Kauffman and David Crane—being focused on, as they told us about their journeys towards getting the show on the air. From concept and casting to storytelling and conclusion, it wasn’t all brand new information, but it was absolutely essential to include their take on the magical phenomenon that they created, and not just bring us the faces that brought the show to life. The creators’ introduction as the three names on the closing production-house slate was nicely done as well.

3. The trivia


Through the conversations and the documentary-esque interviews, there were a lot stories told that we might have already known. Over years of reading trivia lists on IMDb, BuzzFeed and the like, we already knew that Matt LeBlanc was near-broke when he auditioned, and had a scab on his face during the final call-back. We knew that David Schwimmer was the first actor cast, and that Courteney Cox was originally asked to play Rachel. However, to hear these stories reiterated with such fondness, while also giving us perspectives one might not have thought of before was very interesting. Additionally, the on-set habits such as Cox writing her lines on Monica’s kitchen table, and how the girls always ate lunch together, and how they six of them huddled before every episode—it was just so much fun to discover and/or revisit.

4. Beyond bloopers: between takes and after ‘cut’

The only time the cast huddle didn’t take place was when Matt LeBlanc dislocated his shoulder and returned for the next episode. And we saw how he got injured. Now that could be classified as a blooper, but it was more in vein of seeing what happened on those sets between takes and after calling ‘cut’. Aside from LeBlanc jumping onto the armchair, there were also reactions to scenes after ‘cut’. David Schwimmer, Matthew Perry and Jennifer Aniston laughing hysterically after the ‘pivot’ scene was such a riot. Perry and Cox’s little off-scene joke for the live audience, while under the covers in that hotel room in ‘London’ was really cute. And then, the mother of it all… Jen and David’s little naps between takes on the sets, cuddling and spooning—all captured! It was just what we needed to see as we were given the biggest revelation of the special.

5. The revelations

When David revealed that he had a crush on Jen, and she said that she’d reciprocated it, it took me a second to let that sink in. To find out that arguably the most popular will-they-won’t-they couple in TV history were also almost a couple off-screen was baffling, especially since it was literally brand new information. The person in me who used to be extremely invested in celebrity relationships even had a ‘what if’ moment, as I wondered of the possibility of these two getting together in real life eventually!


Aside from this, there were other fascinating revelations too, such as how the creators really responded to the audience’s reaction to reshape Monica and Chandler. It was about turning what was meant to be one-time-hook-up storyline to an extended fling scenario, and eventually a full-blown relationship and marriage—all based on the fanfare surrounding it. Matt LeBlanc’s shoulder dislocation and how they wrote his real-life injury into the show was something I had no idea of prior to this. And then another big one was how David Schwimmer hated the monkey that played Marcel, whom Ross loved to bits. It was so funny how he declared it was time for the monkey to ‘f*** off’! I was also quite absorbed by how Maggie Wheeler brought Janice to life—the voice, the ‘oh my god’, and how that signature laughter was inspired by Matthew Perry and Chandler’s jokes.

6. The reunion of the guests

It was such a joy to see not just Maggie Wheeler make an appearance, but also others, such as James Michael Tyler (Gunther), and Tom Selleck (Richard), and even Larry Hankin (Mr. Heckles) and Thomas Lennon (Joey’s hand-twin), who were effectively woven into the little quiz that the cast had going. It was so sweet to see Christina Pickles and Elliot Gould (Judy and Jack Geller) in the audience, with them speaking so fondly about how they’d started to feel like the cast’s parents during the show. It was also endearing to see Reese Witherspoon (Jill Green) talking about how excited she was back during her appearance in season six, to be in a scene where Joey used his iconic ‘How you doin’!’ line on her.

The most glaring absence for me was that of Paul Rudd (Mike Hannigan), who effectively married into the six friends’ family, when Mike married Phoebe. It would have been nice to also see Cole Sprouse (Ben Geller), and even Jane Sibbett and Jessica Hecht (Carol and Susan). Anna Faris (Erica—the birth mother of Monica and Chandler’s twins) would have been a good addition too.

7. The phenomenon and the show’s everlasting impact

Other guests, who had nothing to do with the series also made appearances. At first, honestly, when their names were released, I thought they’d be a waste of time. However, appearances by Justin Bieber, Cara Delevingne, and Cindy Crawford were less than cameos, as they still made their impact on the runway showcasing iconic costumes from the show. Others such as Mindy Kaling, David Beckham, Kit Harington and BTS were simply to add star power to the testimonials from fans who’ve been impacted by the series in large and small ways. It was moving to hear how the show encouraged someone to take charge of their relationship, while it helped others feel less lonely, and saw many trough other tough times. This look at the far-reaching impact of the show is not at all surprising, given the evergreen nature of the series, and how it speaks to so many different people in so many different ways even today.

Speaking for myself, I’m in my 30s now, and I’ve seen the show in sequence and in bits and pieces countless times since the first viewing back in the 90s-2000s, when I was in my teens and 20s. And the show has appealed to different sides of me at different ages, all the while making me laugh and cry, and find a lot of comfort in the relatability of the characters.


It would have been nice enough to simply see the cast together again, reliving the 10 years of their lives that made them household names, and helped them forge bonds and friendships for life. That everlasting camaraderie was the biggest overarching aspect of the reunion that made it what it was. However, to see the actors enter the sets reconstructed to look exactly as they did on the show was nothing short of beautiful. The last shot of the series, with the camera panning Monica’s empty apartment and landing on the gold picture frame on the door, with that music, anyway gets to me every time I see it. And then to see this event starting with that last scene of the series—and seamlessly giving us a ‘17 years later’ on the same frame that ended the show—set the tone of this trip down memory lane just perfectly. The cast got emotional, as they walked onto the sets thereafter, and so did I. Revisiting a series like this would anyway be a nice treat, but to revisit it through the eyes of the six people who brought those characters to life—and have also been such good friends themselves ever since—was what made it extremely heartwarming. It was a one-of-a-kind experience without a doubt. Nothing else can conjure up such emotions, and especially not after such a long time.



May 15, 2021

‘MOM’ SERIES FINALE REVIEW—THEY’RE ALL GOING TO BE AA-OK

Gone too soon, MOM—a gem of a series—wrapped up its eight-season run this week. It was a sweet ending, but left me feeling less than satisfied. Here’s why

 

It started in the AA group room, and ended there, with Wendy saying, “Who else would like to share,” which was incidentally the first and the last line of the series finale, albeit unintentionally. The intention was, however, to present a sense of the characters’ journeys going on, as life isn’t about everything getting tied up in neat, little bows. As series co-creator Gemma Baker said in an interview with TV Line, “…It didn’t feel accurate to wrap everything up with a happy ending, or tie it up all in a bow. That’s not life how works. In recovery, people have to face life on life’s terms. Some of the things that our characters are going to face are going to be happy and joyful, and some of them are going to be terrible, but they’re going to be able to face those things together.” I wouldn’t disagree with her, because it’s true. Particularly in a show like this, the idea of a typical ‘happily ever after’ would not really be fitting, because it’s about facing life’s constant, never-ending challenges, without being dependent on substances to help you cope.


So, sure… I wasn’t necessarily expecting so much of a grand finale that gave all the characters their happy endings. Aside from Jill being at that point where she was finally settling down (not that finding a man and expecting a child is everything, but it was something she’d said she wanted), no one really had that neatly tied bow. In fact, one could say, everyone already had their ‘happily ever after’ events prior to the finale. For Tammy, it was getting back on her feet and starting a successful business (her new boyfriend is just a new development; there’s nothing ‘final’ per se, about it). For Marjorie, it was being able to repair her relationship with her son and to be able to have one with her granddaughter. For Wendy…well, unfortunately, she’d never been given that much importance. We didn’t really see much of Wendy’s personal life. For Bonnie, it was way back when she married Adam. And then it was when she sent off Christy for her future, after the years that the mother and daughter had put in to rebuild their bond, making it a solid, healthy relationship. In fact, in theory, Christy leaving town to pursue higher education, new career and a new life would have been the perfect book-end for the series, after having fixed her relationship with her mom. The show did begin with Bonnie coming back into Christy’s life, back when Christy was the lead, and back when she hated Bonnie, and their relationship was a complete mess.


I’m not saying that the show should have ended with season seven. That would have been wrong, especially since we didn’t even get a good Christy farewell. What I am saying is that, just like there’s an inciting incident that marks the beginning of the story as being told to us, there should also be something that marks the end of story as being told to us. There should be a solid reason to stop telling us the characters’ stories—from a storytelling point of view. And that doesn’t mean neatly tied bows, or even ‘happily ever after’. It doesn’t even have to be directly connected with the beginning—certainly not with Violet and Roscoe, and all of that. Bonnie’s grandchildren haven’t really been a part of the show since season three. However, Christy was an integral part of the show almost throughout, even if she had shared the lead character spot with Bonnie for the most part of the series. And I think we needed to see her—or at least get more than a mere mention of her. Maybe there could have been a graduation for Christy down the road in an epilogue. Or maybe Bonnie and Adam had to move to the east coast for Adam’s treatment, which would also take them closer to Christy. Something like that would also appropriately book-end the chapters of these characters’ stories that we were being told to us, while also making it clear that life’s challenges were not ending, as life goes on. 


In a way though, the series ender did celebrate how far these women had come from when we first saw them. Finding a sense of peace, after having survived the worst of their struggles with sobriety, is definitely some kind of closure, even if addiction recovery is life-long process. That peace is something these characters had already accomplished, so the finale was more to reinforce that they’d made it, in their own individual ways, and even together as friends. The newcomers Shannon and Jolene (Melanie Lynskey of TWO AND A HALF MEN, and Rondi Reed, of MIKE & MOLLY—both also Chuck Lorre shows) were a nice device to remind us where our main characters were when they hit rock bottom, and where they are now. Seeing Bonnie, Marjorie, Jill, Wendy and Tammy owning their past struggles with positivity, and having overcome them, to show these new women some hope for a better future, was sweet and funny even. I think in that sense it was a nice end, even if it wasn’t a perfect series finale. Despite life’s constant challenges, we know that these women will be alright.


Besides, by not giving the show a hard end, with complete finality, there’s scope for a potential revival down the road, seeing as how many shows get revivals and sequels these days.




April 27, 2021

HERE’S WHY THE ‘SUPERSTORE’ SERIES FINALE WAS PRETTY PERFECT

When America Ferrera decided to leave SUPERSTORE last year, it was disappointing. Even though it’s always been an ensemble show, she was the face of the series when it first began—the hook that drew me to SUPERSTORE initially. Sure, the show could go on without her. The other characters were definitely developed enough to continue as a solid ensemble. So one made one’s peace with Ferrera’s departure. Yet, season five ended abruptly, as the COVID-19 pandemic forced production to stop prematurely, and we didn’t get a proper goodbye. Thankfully, Ferrera decided to give the show and its audience that, as she returned for a proper exit in the first two episodes of season six. And so America Ferrera’s Amy Sosa packed her bags and went off to work for Cloud 9’s parent company, Zephra, at their headquarters in California, also ending her relationship with Jonah. It was a break-up that seemed rushed and forced, with a very ‘manufactured’ reason—Amy not being ready to build a future with Jonah. 

It was only after all this that NBC announced that this would be the final season of the show. It was likely because the entire cast's contracts would be due for renewal, and salaries would need to be renegotiated, which the network might not have wanted to do. However, it was quite apparent that the producers/showrunner didn’t have everything in place to wrap up the show properly. So the season continued, as any other would, with the regular workplace comedy. The team was shuffled around, with Glenn and Dina becoming co-managers, and Cheyenne becoming floor supervisor. Aside from that, it was business as usual at Cloud 9—as usual as it could get during a global pandemic, which was very much included in the show’s narrative.

Portraying the pandemic was a great idea, to begin with, because even during the strictest pandemic-driven lockdowns around the world, when everything was closed, it was the grocery stores and supermarkets that always stayed open. So like other supermarket employees in real life, even the employees of Cloud 9 never had ‘work from home’. And the show did a fantastic job of bringing some humor into a tough situation, while every other show that portrayed the pandemic quite understandably showed the grim side of things. SUPERSTORE, however, has never made things distasteful, even while managing to not have things get to serious or depressing. They’ve always excelled at that, with humor tactfully infused into matters of labor unions, race, disability, immigrant issues… and now even a global healthcare crisis. It was a very impressive season, despite Amy’s exit, even though she was missed. The writing and treatment of the show was good enough for it to go on for another two or three (maybe shorter) seasons at least. Yet the show had to end.

We didn’t see any signs of the show coming to an end, as one often does. There’s usually a signaling of a major turn that marks the beginning of the end, but not with SUPERSTORE. It was only in the episode before the two-part finale that such a turn was alluded to. We found out that Zephra was planning to close stores. And then there was Amy Sosa, on the phone, confirming what Cheyenne had heard. Meanwhile, Jonah had also been stalking Amy on social media with some help from Sandra, to let us know that Amy was still very much on Jonah’s mind. It was clear that the show did this just so the inevitable Jonah-Amy reunion in the finale wouldn’t seem to be coming out of nowhere (not that they needed to remind us that he hadn’t completely moved on). 

Finally, the first of the two-part finale was all about everyone trying to help prevent the store from closing, with Amy visiting from California to lend some ‘Zephra insider’ assistance. Jonah and Amy coming face-to-face again was so awkward—in a good way. America Ferrera and Ben Feldman have had the right chemistry for all kinds of scenes from day one of the show. Ultimately, though, severed feet or no severed feet, it seemed like Zephra had already decided to shut the store and open a ‘fulfillment center’ in its place. Amy decided to go down with the ship, and resigned in solidarity with her Cloud 9 family, and also from having gone off Zephra, one might imagine. 

The second part of the two-part finale was the final wrap, sending characters off on their next chapters after Cloud 9’s closing, and giving us some closure. Was it all rushed? Sure, definitely! It was too much to happen in just 43 minutes of the double-episode finale. And one had to make peace with the fact that everyone, barring a handful, was going to lose their job, without putting up much of a fight. Yes, these guys haven’t always been successful in going up against corporate in the earlier seasons, with the unionization and all falling through. And Zephra had been running a tight ship since they'd taken over. But the Cloud 9 folks had always put up a fight, even with trying to help Mateo escape from immigration officials in what was one of the best episodes of the show. So yes, it would have been more fitting to see some kind of resistance from them against Zephra—perhaps a 'wrongful termination' lawsuit, based on some loophole or something. If they had a few more episodes, or maybe even a short additional season to wind things up properly, they could have done it in a way that didn’t feel rushed. I mean, in just one season, Amy left, the store management changed, Amy returned, the store shut down, and everyone got on with their lives.

At the end of the day though, the moving-on that we did get was pretty perfect. Even if they’d taken a more gradual approach, I would’ve still wanted this ending. Everyone got to say goodbye to the store nicely. The collective viewing of the interview videos was a great way to do it. It also helped some of them get onto their next chapters. Mateo was hired by Glenn, and Amy decided not to give up on a future with Jonah. We all knew there was unfinished business between them, so it was perfectly understandable that it would only take an instant for them to open up their hearts and give it another shot. And then the epilogue was everything! The montage against the backdrop of Garrett’s voice-over, making the final Cloud 9 announcement, was moving and sweet. It was good to see everyone finding their next thing—be it Dina and Sandra running the fulfillment center with Marcus and Justine, or Glenn opening his hardware store, with Cheyenne and Mateo. Amy got another job as an executive, Jonah got into politics, running for city council, as they built a life together and expanded their family. Dina and Garrett stayed together, while Mateo and Eric got married. And they all stayed a close-knit Cloud 9 family, even after they go off on their separate paths, as we saw them together at the barbecue in Glenn and Jerusha’s backyard. (Which was Lynette’s house in DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES, by the way, in case that red tree house didn’t give it away.) Even Carol, Justine, Sayid, Janet and Nia were invited. 

All the while, SUPERSTORE kept alive the hilariousness we’ve loved about it for six seasons, with Cheyenne and Bo being as they were, with the washing machines, and the transition shots that show customers doing weird things in the store** (including the subtle revealing of who was placing the severed feet). Even everyone talking about Jonah’s love-life vis-à-vis Amy’s return, during that staff meeting, had me in splits. It was a perfect finale in most ways that count, and a sweet goodbye indeed, as Cloud 9’s lights went off for the last time.  


**I was later reminded that the girl on the potty in one of the aisles was a throwback to a an interstitial from the show's pilot, which featured the same girl, only much younger. She happens to be the daughter of show creator Justin Spritzer, who also made a cameo in the finale, as the customer whom Glenn hugs.