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Tip from Home: Adventures of Tip and Oh is the Young Black Female Lead We Need Right Now

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Home: Adventures of Tip and Oh is based on the Dreamworks film Home, a buggered, incomplete piece of animation that never quite grasped the satirical edge needed to portray the abject and complete removal of citizens into makeshift suburban prisons. Home cared little about the uncomfortable connotation of such a premise, which resulted in a plot – in which a young black girl teams up with an alien outcast to try and find her mother – that could not shake off its racially-coded baggage. I know. I know. I wish I could just ignore the analogies – the wholesale removal of people from their homes, the wholesale removal of African people from their continent, the constant splintering of slave parents from their children to foster an economic system that possesses ramifications that last even till this day. But what you need to understand is that it is so, so hard, and Home did little to ease that discomfort from my mind.

In that regard, I had very few expectations of this show.

If a Home TV series had to be made, the best bet would be to ignore that entire premise and forge onward with new, unrelated storylines. Adventures of Tip and Oh does for the most part, although the occasional exploration of the Bov’s cinematic past actions is as awkward as you’d expect (more on that later). The animation is decent; the character designs are off-putting, as typical of Thurop Van Orman’s style, but functions well enough in movement, and viewers will find themselves getting used to it fairly quickly. The character choices are fairly trope-y and questionable, with Donny being a Mr. Krabs-esque non-entity, Sherzod gearing up to be the most decisive character in a while, and Lucy exhibiting a certain level of air-headedness that doesn’t seem to fit a single mother living in Chicago. These, and other creative decisions, suggest the writers are still working through some issues, but there is one thing that Netflix’s new show has right: Tip herself.

I didn’t warm up to Gratuity “Tip” Tucci at first. She seemed a bit all over the place. She is inconsistent, a bit aggressive, a bit loud, a bit too weird – especially compared to her cinematic counterpart. But then I realized something: that is the point. Tip is purposely, uniquely, her own girl. She is an eighth-grader who possesses her own very limited, very vain, very specific point of view. Her aggressiveness, loudness, and weirdness is uniquely her own. The writing doesn’t quite do her any favors, specifically in terms of the situations that she finds herself (and Oh) in. But Tip herself is special. She is unabashedly herself, not particularly concerned to fit within the parameters of young girl character templates – specifically, young black girl characters – that came before her. She is Penny Pride – clever, determined, confident to a fault – mixed with Star Butterfly – extroverted, adventurous, out-of-her-league. Tip is confused, lost, conceited, goofy, and, yes, even grating. She is all those things – which makes her the best, most important young black female lead for children today.

I need to reiterate something: other than Doc McStuffins – a show for preschoolers – we do not have a single animated show on the air with a black girl as a lead. Mostly cartoons are driven by young boys (or talking animals). There are more shows now with girls as leads, and/or shows with strong feminine characters. But they’re mostly all white (save for Steven Universe’s Garnet, which is another matter entirely). And that is fine. But in this era and in the call for more diversity, it’s telling that, as usual, young black girls are continually, routinely ignored. (Full disclosure: I pitched this piece to a well-known site, which was rejected, and which I deeply believe contributes to this problem.) Seeing and experiencing someone like Tip on my screen felt revelatory. It made me realize how limited in scope my expectations of what young black girls could be. (Note I didn’t say “what black girls should be,” which is an extremely important distinction.) I love Tip because, sometimes, I don’t love Tip. I love that she’s sweet and loving and naive and annoying and too much and quirky and super-weird and sometimes “uppity.” Black girls need to see this. We all need to see this.

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This scene epitomizes the kind of person Tip is as a character. There's no contextual reason why she sniffs herself her (they're in a sewer, but there's no reason why she sniffs her armpit versus any other part of her body), but it shows her her spirit, vanity, and goofiness all in one brief monologue.

This scene epitomizes the kind of person Tip is as a character. There’s no contextual reason why she sniffs herself (they’re in a sewer, but there’s no reason why she sniffs her armpit versus any other part of her body), but it shows her her spirit, vanity, and goofiness all in one brief monologue.

Tip isn’t African-American. She’s Caribbean-American. Her grandparents immigrated from Barbados; Tip is second-generation. The show doesn’t play around too much with this, although it is nice to see when they do. (I would love to see more Barbados-inspired bits on occasion, in the fun ways that Sanjay & Craig sometimes played with its Indian-related bits.) I don’t expect the show to really do that, though, mainly because the writers don’t seem to really grasp the full relevancy of what they have in a character like Tip. There’s theoretically a lot to unpack in a show in which the Bov implemented forced displacement and occupancy, where the setting is Chicago, and where Tip and Lucy live by themselves sans a father figure. When Tip’s grandparents visit in “Wrinkly Humans People,” that awkwardness is palpable, but the writers don’t see it. After all, her grandparents deeply distrust the Bov for what they did, and you honestly can’t blame them. Yet the show works it so as to suggest that it’s her grandparents that are in the wrong, that they’re the ones who are, essentially, the bigots, since they just can’t get over what the Bov did. Well, of course they can’t. History is ugly.

Even still, there is potential here. There is a rich complexity in the idea of Tip’s broader acceptance of the Bov and, specifically, Oh, and how that comes up against the reality of what the Bov did. There is perhaps something to how easily a young Tip has forgiven the Bov in order to maintain the stability of her small family unit, and how that continues to push up against those still harboring resentment towards their occupiers-turned-neighbors. It would be deeply interesting to see episodes in which Tip has to, in some way, address how she justifies her love for Oh, as opposed to her past hatred for the Bov’s role in separating her from her mother. Adventures of Tip and Oh might have been better served ignoring all that overall, but although I do applaud the show for dipping its toe into the thornier sides of the film, I doubt the writers have the temperament to hit such dramatic notes.

That’s a dramatic layer way out of reach for this crew. At this point, in its first season, it would be just enough to take a fun, deep look at Tip herself (in the context of a young black eighth-grader with only a mother living in Chicago). As a unique character, the writers provide her with the variety of traits that I’ve mentioned earlier. As a character who will be developed, that where the writers fall short. It’s tricky, because the show doesn’t need to be an in-depth (if silly) examination on what it means to be a young black girl in Chicago – aliens or not. But it would be worth exploring some of the issues unique to that worldview and experience. The clearest example of this dilemma lies in “Angerdome,” an episode in which Tip deals with her anger. There are volumes of content that could be written that explores the social exploitation and discrimination that exists within the “angry black woman” trope. It is both vicious (which posits all black women as unstable and prone to violence) and commodified (from the lighter-but-overused “sassy” trope, to pushing their angry reactions on reality TV). It’s hard to say how the writers see all of this in “Angerdome,” though. There’s a moment, after various characters tell Tip to calm down, where she proclaims, “I’m allowed to be angry!” and it is wonderful; filled with the personal, determined, defiant spirit that young black girls need to hear. Yet the power of that statement is undercut when, immediately after, Tip resigns to needing help (and an outlet) to deal with her anger.

That’s what makes it hard. There is the real, distinctive lesson which allows kids to understand that having an outlet to deal with anger is important, and I can’t fault the show for dealing with that (although the answer they come up with is muddled). At the same time, the show mostly ignored the opportunity to explore Tip’s individual struggle with what it means to be a black girl who gets, and is allowed to be, angry. It’s a powerful statement that the writers fail to notice as a powerful statement. It’s part of the overall verve of the show, really. It’s great to see Adventures of Tip and Oh use a character like Tip to have fun with the general complexities of childhood, especially within such a specific premise. It’s tougher to see this done separate from the unique characteristics and history that Tip (and the show) embodies: the black, only-child, fatherless, Chicagoan setting. The universal ideas are fun, and pushing them through Tip is wonderful, but the writers have an opportunity to really explore Tip’s experiences at a personal, raw level, and I don’t think the writers see it – or they refuse to.

Still, I praise the fact that a character like Tip exists. She is simultaneously fun and frustrating, and it makes her necessary to see a character like her on television. What ever issues or concerns that may happen around the lives of the Tuccis (which, for all we know, could be fixed by season two), Tip’s goofy, abject, unforgiving weirdness and quirkiness – so often contributed to white women to the point of a dated, oft-misunderstood trope – has been finally applied to a young black girl. It’s just good, refreshing even, to see a black girl outside of a typical “no-nonsense” role. (Tip is no-nonsense, but it’s defined within her weirdness, not as a sole contrast to those “silly” white kids.) A lot of her appeal is due to the voice artist, Rachel Crow, a 2011 X-Factor contender taking the role from Rihanna from the movie. Rihanna had gumption, but at best her voice work was merely passable. Crow brings a serious, specific attitude to Tip – a rough energy that’s wonderfully infectious (in the same multi-layered cadences that the late Christine Cavanaugh gave to Gosalyn Mallard). She also has a distinct singing voice that manages to add flavor to both the show and the character, without it being too distracting or random.

So flaws and all, I look forward to see where Home: Adventures of Tip and Oh takes Oh and Tip in future stories. The creative critic in me wants to see the show lean a little harder on its premise, on its boundaries and issues, just to see them contextualize how Tip might respond to those tougher dilemmas and grow as a person. I would love to see those issues hit upon, to expose it to kids, particularly young black girls, who struggle through those issues every day. As for now though, I just want to see more Tip. I want to see more of her odd, assertive, annoying behavior. I want to be challenged, bothered, and amused by Tip’s antics, because I want young black girls – and all viewers, really – to understand that being like Tip is okay.

(Final note: I know this is “just a cartoon.” I know I should just enjoy it for what it is. What I’m telling you is, I just can’t. Not with what I know and experienced, not with what I’ve read, not with the history and context of this country and even Chicago itself inside my head, not with the news stories and the personal accounts of people’s experiences shared every single day. I physically, emotionally, psychological cannot separate the two. I can only channel it, and I would hope and love to see Home: Adventures of Tip and Oh do this as well.)

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Zootopia’s Runaway Success, and the Disney Afternoon Connection

Zootopia/Disney Afternoon

Alan Young passed away on may 19, 2016. To many, he was the lead farmer who could communicate with talking horses on Mr. Ed. To others, he was the perennial voice of Scrooge McDuck in Ducktales, the irascible richest duck in the world who led the way for one hundred episodes, one theatrical film, a number of classic and modern shorts, and even in the Nintendo reboot of the Capcom game. Young’s passing was memorialized by many of those who worked with him in TV, film, and gaming, yet in terms of the animation community at large, both creators and critics were mostly silent. It was a widely mute, seemingly moot passing: a death of the lead of what could arguably be the most important, game-changing cartoon in the last twenty-five years. Yet it’s representative of the general malaise, it seems, of the pop cultural response and respect to Disney’s 1980s-1990s animated output, which we could call The Disney Afternoon*.

I mention the Disney Afternoon for a reason. The kinds of cartoons that Disney produced – from the two cutsey-yet-complex starters The Wuzzles and The Adventures of Gummi Bears, to the TV show versions of Aladdin and The Lion King – really weren’t what we think of cartoons these days, or even what we thought of cartoons back then. In our current culture, we think of cartoons in sort of broad categories: wacky, silly, and childish; action and (super)heroic; adult and poignant; adult and absurd. Disney’s cartoons, however much they leaned into any of those categories, were anything but. At their core, the Disney Afternoon lineup were driven by adventure, specifically by strong, specific, and non-human characters who sought items, emblems, villains, and icons across multiple locales that thrived with an unique locality and ecology all its own. They were truly their own thing: the cuddly Gummi Bears with their thriving, complex society; the talented-yet-lazy ursine pilot with a surrogate son and a fussy-yet-determined boss; the team of rodents who actively sought to help others as they struggled to help themselves. Even as the quality of the shows varied throughout the years, the core nature of these shows thrived with exaggerated characters who were never-the-less grounded with real emotions, in worlds that only touched upon what could be possible in their unique, respective universes.

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There’s been a lot of shock and surprise over Zootopia’s runaway success, the only original animated Disney film to gross over a billion dollars globally since Frozen, and it’s been admittedly a bit frustrating to see how people both misinterpret the movie and/or downplay its proven success. I’ve seen a lot of explanations and theories that I’ve disagree with (the “night-howlers as crack” being particularly insidious), but what prompted me to write this was this fairly dismissive piece. Mr. Spiegel is a fine writer, but the impression I get is that instead of praising Zootopia’s success and offering a credible theory as to why it’s been a global box-office draw, he dismisses the billion-dollar revenue as a new normal, a “non-event.” Which is… pretty disingenuous. As of this point, only Marvel properties have hit the billion dollar mark on their own, as well as a handful of Disney properties (give or take a Minions, which success is couched more in its universality and less in its quality). Not only has Zootopia resonated with audiences across the world, it has incredible rave reviews; yet, at the same time, those reviewers, along with Spiegel, seem flabbergasted to place the film’s success in any context. Spiegel mentions how Zootopia lacks any real Disney World or Disneyland presence, which mainly speaks to Disney’s surprise that the film did so well, not to the “perplexing” nature of the film not gaining much cultural permeation (although I would argue it has, particularly on social media).

Spiegel’s confusion is understandable. The creators and directors of Zootopia often cite Robin Hood as the example in which the film draws its inspiration, and no one could argue that. Yet I feel like Zootopia also draws a tremendous amount of inspiration from The Disney Afternoon, shows often staring talking animals of a various sort in vibrant environments, shows that were also surprisingly deep and complex and meaningful in small ways. And these shows also lack cultural permanence as well. They are rarely showcased at Disney World or Disneyland. They are not quoted on social media or often gif’d or cited as inspiration by many of today’s current batch of animators (I have yet to see an interview with Byron Howard or Rich Moore that brought up TaleSpin as an inspiration, a show that might have well have taken place in 1920-Zootopia.) These are shows that are regularly taken down from Youtube and, until recently, only had (semi-incomplete) DVD releases. Zootopia’s lack of cultural permanence mimics that of the Disney Afternoon’s cultural permanence.

Yet I would argue that Zootopia’s success is exactly due to an audience that’s craving that kind of entertainment – films and/or TV shows driven by an adventurous spirit, led by non-human characters who feel grounded, real, and relatable, all within out-sized worlds that connect to our worlds in more ways than one. The aesthetics and atmosphere of Zootopia fit squarely within the aesthetics and atmospheres of the various Disney Afternoon cartoons: they may not match one-to-one, but they all possess similar criteria: strong, flawed, non-human characters; bursts of silliness mixed with raw, poignant moments; adventure-driven stories that far surpass the need for excessive silliness or wackiness; strong, detailed visuals and proportional character designs; clever uses of pop cultural references that neither stop the flow of the story or interrupt the proceedings for the easy gag. And even though the elements of both the film and the classic animated line-up seem absent from all social cachet, I think audiences are craving it. Viewers are way more open to the kind of entertainment they can find solace in as nerd spaces open up: Steven Universe and My Little Pony and the myriad of superhero films have expanded fanbases considerably. Back in the 90s, small but dedicated fans wanted to live in Gummi Glen, Saint Canard, or Cape Suzette**. Today’s audiences can add Zootopia to that list.

I believe this is what Dreamworks attempted to do in the 2000s. As the less-respected studio began netting large scale success with Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon (another movie that seemed to have legs, financially), the studio sought to expand their visual worlds and rich characterizations onto the small screen. For a little while, it was a success, with Penguins of Madagascar a solid hit for Nickelodeon, which could be categorized as a wackier version of Rescue Rangers. Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness was a solid follow-up, and Dreamworks followed that up with the Dragons series and Monsters vs. Aliens. But it became clear that Nickelodeon interference, combined with the limitations of the TV CGI landscape, deeply held things back. Nick never established a full Dreamworks block (Dragons went to CN, which promptly burned off the show, which was egregiously boring anyway). Kung Fu Panda, potentially closer to Darkwing Duck’s sensibility (a few writers wrote for both shows!), squandered its potential by leaning way too hard on its lead’s silliness instead of adequately building up its cast and its Valley of Peace locale. Monsters Vs. Aliens just wasn’t good. Given the deal between Dreamworks and Netflix soon after, Nick basically decided to cut its loses and moved on. (And no, the Dreamworks shows on Netflix have not quite matched the aesthetics of the Disney Afternoon.)

I’m not even sure it would have mattered. Dreamworks’ shows have yet to capture cultural permeation either. Except for perhaps Shrek memes, not a single show, either one Netflix or Nickelodeon, seems particularly discussed anywhere, despite the accepted fact that Dreamworks’ television decision is apparently still financially viable. All Hail King Julian has gotten the occasional note in the media, and most recently, Voltron has gotten the social landscape talking. All Hail King Julian sort of resembles Marsupilami, in that it’s focused on the antics of forest-based critters, but with bursts of cultural/social commentary that’s extremely hit or miss. (It actually functions better the rare times it focuses on its characters and pushes them in unique, new, personal directions, but it’s unfortunately pretty rare). And Volton, despite its high quality, doesn’t adhere to any of the Disney Afternoon aesthetics. The other various Netflix Dreamworks shows: Puss in Boots, Turbo FAST, Dragons (which moved from CN a few years ago), arguably do adhere to those aesthetics, but vary in quality and lacks cultural permeation. The former point really smothers up the latter.

It’s that point, which leaves Dreamworks’ programs scattered, random, and unregulated, that seems to allow Disney the opportunity to return to the Disney Afternoon glory. Not only is Disney rebooting Ducktales, but they also are working on TV shows based on Tangled and Big Hero 6. The latter two shows are human based, but, as they are based on some of Disney’s more successful animated films, they most resemble the 90s television takes on The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. I also don’t think it’s no coincidence that Ducktales, Rescue Rangers, and TaleSpin were recently released on iTunes, in their entirety (except for one lone Ducktales episode). In addition, there’s the new Darkwing Duck comic that’s comic happening. In mostly all those cases, these shows and announcements lack cultural permeation, but it would be a grave mistake to assume that means they lack an audience or a fanbase. Zootopia and its success is not an outlier, or an excuse to toss aside the significance of a global billion dollar draw. It’s an opportunity to examine the very content and context of Zootopia itself, and realize that the world is craving a very specific type of cartoon, one that died out so many years ago.

 

* to clarify, many of the early cartoons within the Disney Afternoon lineup were originally Saturday morning network-syndicated cartoons, before they were re-packaged as an after-school lineup in the 90s.

** the stylistic nature of the Disney Afternoon show could be a bit more malleable – Darkwing Duck and Bonkers were “wackier” than Ducktales, which itself was looser than TaleSpin – but even in all those cases, fully-realized characters and fully-realized worlds were still firmly established.

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THE BEST FIVE KIDS CARTOON EPISODES OF 2015

5. All Hail King Julian – “Crimson and Clover”

All Hail King Julian attempting to mine observational commentary on the relationship between science and religion was a colossal failure, but that didn’t make the entire show from falling apart. In fact, it had a better (if not perfect) handle on more grounded topics, like the ridiculousness of fashion trends, or the absurdity of capitalism at its most callous. It’s difficult to cull that commentary out of something so wildly wacky, though; but character work is another matter.

What makes “Crimson and Clover” such a surprise is how it managed to explore and deepen the silly, but solid, relationship between two wacked-out characters: the nonsensical King Julian and his loose-cannon bodyguard, Clover. Crimson, Clover’s sister, arrives and hits it off with Julian (leading to a not-at-all subtle, off-camera sexcapade), whom Clover suspects is using for nefarious purposes. In a clever use of a narrative twist, Crimson and Julian’s relationship IS genuine (Julian’s unbounded energy matches Crimson’s constant need for entertainment), up until the the latter’s fear for commitment comes through. Sure, it ends with a cliche “men hate commitment!” climax, but the episode manages to delve into some real truths about its characters, from the broken bond between Crimson and Clover themselves, and the clear, friends-only (as in, non-loving) connection between Clover and Julian themselves. It’s the only episode with that level of emotion in the entire run so far, but it’s note-worthy.

4. The Mr. Peabody and Sherman Show – “Peabody’s Parents/Galileo”

Bet you didn’t expect this! Well, honestly, neither did I. The Mr. Peabody and Sherman Show, Netflix’s “updated” take on the original segment from Jay Ward’s Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, hardly had much of a marketing push, and to be clear it’s not really that great show. But it is fascinating, primarily how it establishes itself: as a late-night talk show with an assortment of insane characters, variety show bits, and mid-show shenanigans. It’s inspired, for sure, if not always effective, but it works better than it has any right to, especially if you factor in how it both matches and improves on the original show’s animation style.

“Peabody’s Parents/Galileo” takes all that into consideration with rich episode of visual niftiness and narrative intuitiveness. The normally confident Mr. Peabody becomes flustered when his parents – two regular, non-talking dogs – come to visit, their generic barks interpreted as a series of forceful, embarrassing comments. The seemingly “flat” visuals, culled from Ward’s original designs, get some delightfully clever upgrades, like a 360-camera shot around Mr. Peabody as the audience laughs at him, and some John K.-esque expressions as the normally-composed canine professor goes crazy. It’s funny and inventive, with a bit of character-study to boot. The entire show doesn’t match that level of sharpness, but it’s definitely an episode that showcases it at its full potential.

3. Gravity Falls – “Not What He Seems”

It’ll be sad to see this show go, but Gravity Falls has been such a funny, inviting show that, in its own way, going out on its second season feels like the right choice. Part of me is disappointing – for as great as this show is, it never really managed to reach its full potential (a lot of side characters never got past “cliched comic figure” and about forty percent of the episodes, while fun to watch, are mostly irrelevant). Still, nothing will take away from Alex Hirsch’s signature, influential show.

“Not What He Seems” is probably the show at its best, in which a shifty Grunkle Stan finally comes “clean” after a season and a half of secrecy. The full explanation of his actions occur in “A Tale of Two Stans,” but “Not What He Seems” has the smart-mouth senior citizen kicking ass and taking names (particularly in a fantastic animation fight sequence in a gravity-shifting interrogation room) as he desperately tries to convince his wards – Mabel in particular – that his behavior is all for a truly important reason. Stan’s sketchy antics all season are put to the test against genuine, familial trust, and viewers are the winners.

2. Steven Universe – “The Test”

I know this is going to turn some heads but hear me out. Steven Universe has been a revelation, not just in its massive, universe-expanding world-building, but in its exploration of gender/sexual identity and relationships. Choosing a “best” episode of Steven Universe is like choosing a “best” slice of pizza from a whole – it depends on the a host of personal reasons and really, it ultimately doesn’t matter. Still, I tend to be less interested in the overall storyline and more interested in the small, individual explorations of coping with new, unidentified feelings (Peridot’s story has been a highlight.)

So, yes, “Jail Break,” “Sworn to the Sword,” and “Cry For Help” are excellent, but “The Test” felt truly transitional, the moment the show acknowledged a lot of rich, bubbling tensions to the surface. Steven is sent on a mission by his Gem guardians only to realize it was a can’t-fail farce. Upset, he manages to sneak a view of the Gems discussing their actions, which dovetails into a honest, complex admission of their utter cluelessness on how to handle someone like Steven. These Gems are complete novices to raising a half-Gem, half-human kid, let alone the full concept of love itself, with Amethyst admitting in full honesty how terrible they are. Parenting is hard, a complicated act made all the more confusing with aliens involved – which Steven realizes when he plays into their farce in order to lift their spirits. It’s just a perfect moment, which, in its own way, leads to more trust, more missions, and more epicness.

1. The Amazing World of Gumball – “The Egg”

I’ve been singing my praises of The Amazing World of Gumball for ages now, as its pure, audacious animation, it’s pin-point humor, and its surprising forays into genuine emotional/social commentary are quite frankly some of the best narrative/visual choices on TV today. It takes its cues from The Simpsons and South Park, but channels them through its own unique, insane visions, unafraid to be cartoon-y and wacky, while thoroughly exploratory on its central family, lower-class living, the absurdity of suburbia, the inane school politics, the artifice of TV cliches, and so-on. It can do anything, which tends to clutter other shows, but Gumball has been, for the most part, on point.

“The Egg” is essentially everything I mentioned above distilled into one 11-minute episode of hilarity and pathos. Gumball can be as sad, depressive, and as dark as any other “Golden Age of TV” show can be, but not only does it keep one sure foot in the realm of positivity, it actively pushes back against those depressive forces. Nicole’s desperate acts to showcase her family as perfect to the eyes of a snooty mother named Felicity is immediately crushed by said mother’s pure, direct, vitriolic read of Nicole’s darkly sad life. The thing is, Felicity isn’t wrong, but instead of wallowing in the sad truth of questionable life choices, Nicole turns into a dragon and eats her. It’s pure cartoon aesthetics but representative of the family’s (and the show’s) refusal to reflect in regret, especially on the backs of one’s family. In other words, “Fuck that sad sack noise.” Add to it some genuinely great jokes and a sweet, if kind-of screwed up, connection between Anais and William, and you have a great episode that manages to say so much in so little a timeframe.

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