Monday, November 28, 2011

In the Company of Wilfred

"Sanity and happiness are an impossible combination."
- Mark Twain

This year saw the end of Friday Night Lights and the short-lived remake of the V series, and while there were a number of new shows and sitcoms that premiered this fall, I was more or less looking for something different from the slew of supernatural-horror-fantasy and crime procedural shows on U.S. television. November sweeps was fast approaching and the shows that were currently airing were one by one starting to prep viewers for their yearly mid-season break. There was nothing on television and I didn't feel like starting any Asian dramas just yet, and if it was just a matter of reality t.v. it was rather easier to get my fix from History, Bio and National Geographic than resort to watching another talent contest.

Then came Wilfred, a show about a man, a dog (sort of) and that tenuous divide between reality and insanity. Imagine countless afternoons spent with a furry companion who smokes weed, plays devil's advocate and attracts trouble like nobody's business, and you'll more or less have an idea of what's going through the main character's head... or not.
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Depressed, out-of-work lawyer, Ryan Newman (Elijah Wood) was doggone desperate to bid the world goodbye when his next-door neighbor (Fiona Gubelmann) showed up at his porch to ask if he would be kind enough to watch her dog for a few hours. Tired from staying alive up all night and perhaps unable to bring himself to yet again revise the suicide letter stewing in his laptop, Ryan finds himself in the company of his neighbor’s pet, Wilfred (Jason Gann)---who, in his eyes, just happens to be a scruffy, foul-mouthed Aussie in a dog suit urging him to “throw the ball”.

Is he a figment of his imagination, a psychological manifestation of his id or merely an effect of the sleeping pills that he tried to overdose on the night before but failed to do him in?

Before having the chance to make sense of his predicament, he ends up interacting with the object in question---hanging out like childhood buddies, smoking pot in his basement and watching Matt Damon movies; including getting into ridiculous situations and barely getting out of them with some luck and assistance from his canine colleague. In the course of the series, Wilfred gets him to blow off a job interview, steal the neighborhood thug’s weed, kidnap a ginormous teddy bear from doggy day care and even consider paying the cost of repairs for a minor traffic accident by having a sexual escapade with a cougar-wabbit. Yes, a cougar-wabbit.

Whether or not the dog is a blessing in disguise or the devil incarnate, Ryan's misadventures with Wilfred has no doubt given him a new lease on life---one that's irresolutely pursued with a dash of madness and reckless abandon. A life that bored viewers like me would like to see unfold. 

Re-imagined by series co-creator Jason Gann for U.S. television, this version of Wilfred takes on a darker comedic tone, tackling existentialist themes more common to cable network sitcoms than those produced by the "big three" networks. The humor utilized can be a bit crass---it's not laugh-out-loud funny but it does have an ironic edge to it complemented by enough references that would no doubt make sense to a pet owner. Each episode is prefaced by a word that serves as a theme and though at times the situations that Wilfred and Ryan get into seem randomly thrown in along with the list of guest stars that appear in it, at the end of the day, you just can't shake this nagging feeling of concern over Ryan's mental well-being.

Jason Gann does a remarkable job playing Wilfred. He's funny and affable despite being shady and a bit vulgar. He grows on you like a bad habit and often commands the show with his doggy antics as expected of the title character. Also, major props goes to Elijah Wood for his unpretentious, everyman portrayal of Ryan Newman, without which this incredulous storyline would not have worked. There's enough honesty and vulnerability infused into those weary robin's egg blue eyes that just makes the whole thing plausible; the former child star has the acting chops to make viewers sympathize, if not empathize, with such a disturbed character.

The end of season one has brought about a number of questions regarding the direction of the show. For some, it served as sufficient reason to tune in next season to build on a theory about Ryan's true condition, for others, the events of the last episode served as an indication of what really lies behind the cannabis smoke that triggered Wilfred's inception. Whatever the case may be, I hope they get a chance to wrap this up nicely. I'd hate to hear about it being canceled without getting a conclusive ending.

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Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Kitchen Musical

Watching The Kitchen Musical is like a tacit admission that you have nothing better to do on a Saturday night. Seriously, anyone who gets to watch this thing on its given timeslot has either decided to stay in for a quiet weekend or was channel-surfing when the television-musical-bug decided to bite. Terrible, I know, but creator CheeK's concept of fusion entertainment---one that combines food, music, drama and dance in one show---has badges of an experiment gone awry and yet like any new dish that makes use of traditional and exotic ingredients, there's always hope that with enough tweaking, he can get the recipe right. There's barely enough to whet your appetite but since it traverses the so-bad-it's-good category, don't be surprised to find yourself tuning in once in a while.

I was quite curious about this show but despite several not-so-well-planned attempts to watch it, I never really had the chance to catch the premiere episode until they ran a 4-hour marathon on Studio23. The modus operandi of the show is quite simple---everything takes place in a posh, cosmopolitan restaurant that specializes in French cuisine called The Avilon where the characters prepare food, interact with each other, bust a move and burst into song.

Our story begins when fresh graduate, Maddie Avilon (Karylle) returns from Le Cordon Bleu and lands a job at her father's restaurant as a sous-chef under the direction of renowned culinary genius, Alex Marcus (Stephen Rahman-Hughes). Young, zealous and brimming with ideas, Maddie ends up butting heads with the uptight and methodical executive chef who detests the very idea of adjusting his refined palate just to experiment on the set menu when a food critic's in town.

From there on out, it takes no great leap of imagination to see how the open antagonism between the two would soon turn into sexual tension as master and apprentice slowly win over each other with every dish that they prepare. Anyone who's seen the show knows that something's cooking in the kitchen and no, we're not referring to the evening special that consists of the four-course meal that they come up with every week.

To seemingly add spice to an otherwise proven formula, a feisty old flame of Alex's named Selena Aragon (Rosemary Vandenbroucke) gets employed as the restaurant sommelier while trusted friend, and colleague, sous-chef Daniel Ray (Christian Bautista), throws his hat into the ring to vie not only for Maddie's heart but also professional independence. Throw in a recovering alcoholic as restaurant manager (Arthur Acuña), a couple of funky line cooks (Juan Jackson, Thou Reyes, Carla Dunareanu and Erwin Shah Ismail), a gay pâtissier (Ikey Canoy), and a gaggle of receptionists/waitresses/bartenders (Oon Shu An, Nadiah M. Din, Juwanda Hassim, Gayle Nerva and Rebecca Spykerman) who can carry a tune and voila! What you have is basically a programming experiment that could have very well been conceived after hours of watching MTV, the CW Network and the Food Channel (maybe even Fox's Hell's Kitchen).   

It's quite unclear to me whether or not the said place has Michelin stars but the web that binds all the characters can by no means be considered veiled nor intricate. There's the standard love triangle that's looking more and more like a quadrangle-pentagon as the series goes on, the resort to cringe-worthy dialogue, and the oft times awkward segue to music and food that has the tendency to drive away viewers who checked in expecting more substance from the show's narrative.

Despite its numerous shortcomings, The Kitchen Musical is still quite unique for an Asian production. For one, it has a core group of characters that can generate sufficient interest from its viewers (something which can be attributed to the innate talent and charisma of the actors in its fold), moreover, it's a nice platform to launch homegrown stars from the Southeast Asian region. It might be accused of riding the musical television trend but at the moment, it's still the first of its kind from this part of the world to target a wider audience.

It's true, the first few episodes were underwhelming and the rendition of some musical productions may at times appear cheesy and amateur but unlike Glee which integrates and showcases song and dance into the story, time stands still in The Avilon whenever a musical number comes on. It actually operates more as a device to set a mood, an avenue to peer into the minds of the characters and an opportunity to convey things that cannot be said out loud as opposed to being a fine blend of lyrical drama. Granted it doesn't always work as intended but when it does, it's nothing short of magic. Their version of Faith was cute and infectious, Hot N Cold was predictably flirty and its take on The Police classic, Every Breath You Take, was simple yet loaded with meaning. I guess what I like most about this series is that it not only makes use of current chart hits but it also taps into music that I grew up with; songs by artists such as Matchbox Twenty, Semisonic, Vertical Horizon, Erasure,  and R.E.M. that don't get the same amount of air play as before but are nevertheless worthy of being rediscovered by a new generation.

To wrap things up, I think the show has potential but it could use a lot of work for the musical numbers usually take a huge bite off the show's running time and therefore there's very little time allotted for the development of the storyline. That said, I'm also quite aware of the possibility that maybe The Kitchen Musical wasn't meant to be taken too seriously; it has after all, sent out an SOS over mushroom soup, presented George Michael's Freedom with sitars and paid a tongue-in-cheek tribute to an REO Speedwagon song that has long since become a karaoke favorite. So maybe it could just go on as it is. In the same way that most people would prefer spending an evening with family and friends in a KTV bar over dining in a five-star restaurant, not everything has to be a critically-acclaimed drama or a high-end spectacle for the general public to enjoy it. 

 Photo credits: The Kitchen Musical |Facebook and Ron Leyba
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Thursday, November 03, 2011

The Frazzled Troubadour

Here's the thing, I don't really get out much nowadays with work and my part-time job teaching, so on the rare occasion that I do manage to catch a concert, watch a play or attend a ballet, I only go out of my way to see something that I'm inexplicably drawn to, really interested in or feel strongly about. So when I heard that Manila was going to be the first stop of Jason Mraz's "A Grateful Journey Tour", I immediately marked the date on my calendar and rushed to buy reserved seats [the cheapest kind, mind you]; all prepared for a night where I'll just let myself be swept away by the music, like driftwood caught in a rolling wave. Lol x).
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