This week’s recommendations include Abbott Elementary, Smiling Friends, music from Ella Flame & The Nighthawks, and a writeup on The Gilded Age that Clay insists I not call a recommendation.
Each week our writers gather in this space to let you know what we’ve been into lately, in something of an attempt to filter through the noise of everything that’s out there on the basis of our collective taste. It’s not about what’s new, but about what we think is worth your time, or at least worth our own in a way we want to share with others.
TV Recommendation: Abbott Elementary
Joel Kananen: As a lover of everything television, Abbott Elementary is a welcome reminder that network sitcoms can still be funny and good. The latest in the prestigious line of mockumentary-style workplace comedies, Abbott Elementary is worthy of its predecessors. I truly can’t recommend this hilarious and heartfelt show enough. The show brings joy with each and every weekly episode, and will hopefully be around for many seasons.
Wholesome and educational without feeling preachy or judgmental, Abbott Elementary is accessible for anyone. I enjoy that the show doesn’t take itself too seriously, and the characters feel like heightened versions of real people. Going to school is a universal experience, and that is a huge reason the show has made an impact on such a diverse audience.
Abbott Elementary was created by and stars breakout talent Quinta Brunson as Janine Brunson, the second-year second-grade teacher whose optimism has not yet been broken by the Philadelphia school district. Ms. Janine wishes to like veteran teacher Ms. Barbara Howard (Sheryl Lee Ralph), but her youthful inexperience causes issues for her and her fellow educators at every turn.
While Brunson shines in a starring role, everyone knows that it is the supporting characters that raise a comedy’s overall quality. Abbott Elementary is full of wonderfully weird personalities played to perfection. From the child actor students to the support staff to Janine’s boyfriend Tariq played by rapper/Internet personality Zach Fox, each part adds so much to the whole.
Tariq’s anti-drug F.A.D.E. rap performance at the school is a highlight of the season and an important catalyst for the rest of the story arcs. My personal favorite teacher is Ms. Melissa Schemmenti (Lisa Ann Walter). A true South Philly original, Schemmenti has a different guy for everything she wants and a don’t-mess-with-me attitude. Another standout is the scene-stealing Janelle James, who plays the inept principal Ava Coleman. Ava’s constant quips and nods to the camera are reminicent of a meaner and more culturally aware Jim Halpert.
Fans of the classic sitcom Everybody Hates Chris will be thrilled to see Tyler James Williams, who portrayed the titular Chris Rock in the beloved show. Now grown-up (and glowed up), Williams plays substitute teacher Gregory Eddie, who sees his time at the school as temporary. One of my favorite parts of the show is Principal Ava’s totally inappropriate thirsty comments towards the sub. As the year goes on, Gregory begins to find his love for teaching, as well as romantic feelings for a fellow teacher.
My favorite episode of the show’s first season involves Ms. Teague’s struggle to manage her new psychotically charismatic student Courtney (Lela Hoffmeister), whose file reads that she “could be a good cult leader.” While Janine struggles, Ava and Barbara have their own fun by betting on whether their young colleague can manage the student. The other story of the episode revolves around the students absolutely roasting the nerdy Mr. Jacob Hill (Chris Perfetti). The roasts that the students lay on their teacher are comedic perfection.
The show also has a ton of heart and holds a mirror to the beauty and horror of the American public school system. The lovable teaching staff is forced to beg for basic supplies, or even use their own funds to purchase them. As someone who grew up as the son of a 4-K teacher and is dating a special education educator, I have seen this firsthand. The resourcefulness that the teachers display is an inspiration, and a reminder that we all should treasure our educators.
Abbott Elementary can be seen at 9/8c on ABC. It also streams on Hulu the next day. Educate yourself with this show that you and everyone you know is sure to love!
Music Recommendation: Ella Flame & The Nighthawks
Timothy Glaraton: She was a jazz singer, they were a surf rock band, can I make it any more obvious?
While on a recent Wikipedia rabbit hole concerning Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand,” an article I happened to stumble upon mentioned a cover done by a group called Ella Flame & The Nighthawks, describing it as a rockabilly ballad makeover that sounded like it could close out a David Lynch movie.
Now, I had never heard of the group, but I like Nick Cave’s music, I like rockabilly, and I like David Lynch movies, so I figured I couldn’t go wrong with at least giving it a listen. Turns out, that cover was just one part of what’s quickly become one of my favorite hidden gems: the group’s only EP so far, The Cracked Bell Rings.
It’s a short and sweet collection of four covers, each one translated into an enticing surf rock/rockabilly meets late-night jazz club style. “Hoist That Rag” twists a Tom Waits sea shanty into an almost militant surf rock march. “Lonely Avenue” translates Ray Charles into a swaggering jazz number. “Red Right Hand” is, as promised, a rockabilly ballad that wouldn’t feel out of place on the stage at The Roadhouse.
But the standout track might just be the last one, a cover of Massive Attack’s “Live With Me” that gives the original track an almost ethereal makeover. The first minute or so is a dialed-back jazz tune, with the bassline and the vocals smoldering to the point where you can almost see the cigarette smoke of a late-night jazz club pouring from your headphones. Then, the guitars kick in and the whole thing erupts.
As of now, The Cracked Bell Rings is all we currently have of Ella Flame & The Nighthawks. But, as I wait for what will hopefully be more from them in the future, this EP will no doubt feature heavily in most of my Spotify playlists for the foreseeable future.
Mixed Feelings About The Gilded Age (as is only apt)
Clay Dockery: I love a historical drama as much as the next human, and probably more than most. So I was intrigued when HBO announced the new Julian Fellowes project, The Gilded Age. His Downton Abbey and Gosford Park remain a beloved tv show and one of my favorite movies of its era. Additionally, the entire genre of upstairs/downstairs storytelling has been intriguing to me since I discovered… well, Upstairs, Downstairs.
This project was also given an additional spice of being different, as instead of being set in the last days of the pastoral British Aristocracy this show is set in the bustling United States of the late 19th century. The era of course has a lot of the sort of class conflict between the upwardly mobile and the merely upward that Fellowes has so often mined to great effect. But it is also rife with villainous capitalists, vicious politicians, and much more obviously virile tension. The 1880s in New York is a great time in which to set a story. This is what makes the actual results so frustrating so far.
Don’t get me wrong, The Gilded Age is an eminently watchable show and I’ve devoured every episode eagerly as soon as it aired. It is just slightly off from what it could be. Carrie Coon and Morgan Spector play the Russells, the newly wealthy (albeit insanely wealthy) Railroad magnate family at the center of the story. Coon is, as always, exceptional. As Bertha Russell, she is all pointed delivery, deep-voiced purring provocation, and shrewd machinations. Bertha Russell not only wants to be accepted into society, but she also wants to reign over it. Spector is perfectly matched with Coon as her husband, George Russell. His railroad man is dastardly and greedy, as one must be, but also dedicated to his wife and full of quiet contemplation. The two of them have smoldering chemistry and a propulsive presence that instantly fires any scene with them in it.
But that is also part of what creates that feeling of frustration. Because Coon and Spector are so good, and they dominate the show when they are on screen, the many (MANY) other characters seem like distractions or worse yet drag things to a halt. The creative team also clearly seems to have decided that the Russells are the heroes of the show. It takes some of the fun out of watching a wicked capitalist tycoon and his Lady Macbeth of a wife when it seems the show is on their side. I want to revel in their lust for power, certainly, but I want to be able to view it as the distasteful plague on society that it is.
The other characters are, even a few episodes into the first season, a bit difficult to get straight. Christine Baranski and Cynthia Nixon are great as the old New York—old money—sisters, Agnes Van Rhijn and Ada Brook. The “Van Rhijns” are the other central family in the show, the counterpoint to the Russells, and they do get some fun moments from time to time, but their overall portrayal has been one-dimensional. Luisa Jacobson is their niece, Marian Brook, and probably the ostensible lead of the show, but her demure, love-lorn portrayal has yet to hit for me. More successful, but still underused is Denée Benton who plays Peggy Scott who is an aspiring writer, friend to Marian and Baranski’s assistant. The idea here is good and it makes sense to bring the experience of Black Americans into the forefront, but once again even her stories seem less developed than they could be.
In addition to Baranski, Nixon, and Benton, The Gilded Age also boasts a verifiable murderers row of other Broadway stars (Such as Audra McDonald, Kelly O’Hara, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Michael Cerveris, Donna Murphy, and Patrick Page among many many others). As a huge theatre fan, this is always a great treat. Every time I recognize someone from the stage, I get excited, and several of them seem poised to play important roles. Especially among the “downstairs” staff—there have been a lot of setups that could be great, but so far have not really gone anywhere.
The Gilded Age is, much like the era for which it is named, not exactly what it seems. When Mark Twain coined the term he meant it as a pejorative after all. It wasn’t really a golden era, it was fake, like a bronze staircase merely coated in gold. Despite that, the show is eminently watchable, for the Russells and the huge cast of Broadway luminaries if nothing else. It just seems that, so far at least, there is nothing of great value beneath the gilded shell.
Another TV Recommendation: Smiling Friends
Hawk Ripjaw: I was lucky enough to be going through my teens in the heyday of Adult Swim’s more absurdist, experimental shows such as Aqua Teen Hunger Force and Space Ghost Coast to Coast, as well as some of the wild shorts on the likes of Newgrounds and eBaum’s World (before both got mangled into what they are today). As such, my post-high school media diet consisted of a healthy smattering of some extremely unhinged animation videos (Salad Fingers, anyone?). In 2022, Adult Swim’s Smiling Friends scratches a very specific nostalgic itch.
Smiling Friends, from animation veterans Zach Hadel and Michael Cusack, is an absolutely deranged series about a company that receives requests from depressed clients in need of a smile, with each case often morphing into an existential or nihilistic nightmare. The entire aesthetic of the show’s world is kind of freaky, but so natural to its characters that it builds a sense of unease counterbalanced by the characters’ comfort with and natural reaction to it.
Sprinkled liberally throughout the episodes are live-action interludes and alternative experimental animation styles such as stop motion and 3D models, for a freaky and surreal overall feel. It’s abundantly clear that the animators are completely off of the leash, and the experimental, freewheeling creativity of the show’s look and feel are integral to its bizarre personality. The revolving door of guest voices (Red Letter Media’s Mike Stoklasa even makes a surprise appearance in the pilot) is a consistent delight.
Smiling Friends is glowing with chaotic energy that takes me back to the times I would go to my friend’s house after school and laugh my ass off at those bizarre internet shorts. This is an evolution of that experience, distilling that random and more-than-occasional horrific feel into episodes that have individual narratives with deep-cut meme references that are funny on their own, but absolute gold for those who are online enough to recognize the joke. Adult Swim has already approved the show for a second season, and if the quality is this high on just the first season, Season 2 should be even more refined.
What have you been into this week? Let us know in the comments!