Thursday, March 12, 2015

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Review

Jill and I finished Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt last night (we started on Saturday). I know what you're thinking: "13 episodes in 5 days -- what took you so long?" And while that is a slow pace for us, we had unusual obstacles: We were vacationing in Vegas and missed our normal Sunday TV, so we had a lot to catch-up on. Even a great new show has to yield when you're behind on Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

The most amazing thing about Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is how fresh it feels. This is particularly astounding when you turn over the constituent elements. The music and comedic beats are highly reminiscent of 30 Rock (unsurprising given the Tina Fey/Jeff Richmond nexus). Character-wise, Jane Krakowski (Jacqueline) is playing the same role she did in Thirty Rock, Carol Kane (Lillian) is playing the same role she is in Gotham, and Ellie Kemper (Kimmy) is (I'm told) playing the same role she did in The Office -- though I see more than a little Liz Lemon in her. Even Ki Hong Lee (Dong) feels like he's playing a character I've seen before, even though a quick IMDB search reveals no prospects.

Yet the concept feels like something that's genuinely new. Kimmy Schmidt escapes from a doomsday cult and, rather than going back to her old life in Indiana, decides to try and make it in New York. I'm pretty sure I came up with something similar in a New Year's Balderdash game, but it would not have anywhere near the polish. The closest cousin to Kimmy Schmidt might actually be Big Love (a great show in its own right). But Kimmy Schmidt is different in important ways, and not just because it is a sitcom. Kimmy was kidnapped in 8th grade -- she neither was a born-and-raised believer in the cult, nor is she completely unaware of the workings of the modern world. Plenty has changed in 15 years, but not so much that Kimmy is utterly lost -- she mostly doesn't know about contemporary slang ("troll the respawn, Jeremy") and pop stars. And she is not particularly conservative -- though she's understandably a bit stunted in her personal and romantic development, she is excited to have a boyfriend and kiss a boy. Kimmy has enough difficulties on her plate without the show going overboard and pretending like she doesn't know what a car is, and that restraint is greatly appreciated.

Another element that has to be remarked upon here is the incredible cast diversity. I give credit to Brooklyn Nine-Nine for being majority non-White male. But Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt might be unprecedented -- there isn't a single White dude in the main cast. The four largest roles are three White women (Kemper, Krakowski -- playing a passing Native American -- and Kane) and a gay Black man (Tituss Burgess as Titus Andromedon). There are a few recurring White male characters amongst Ellie's boyfriends, and of course Jon Hamm as the cult leader Rev. Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (and can I just say how lucky Jon Hamm is to have Mad Men? Because literally every other part I've ever seen him in he's been typecast as "charismatic idiot"). But they're firmly on the periphery.

But by far the most impressive attribute of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is how it deals with the very real trauma Kimmy experienced. It manages to treat this in a manner that is realistic, sensitive, subtle, and hilarious -- a combination I would not have thought possible in advance, particularly in a comedy of this sort. The trick is that the "jokes" on this front blend in with the overall comedic rhythm of the show, but on closer examination they are obviously distinct. When Kimmy's colleague sneaks behind her to do a playful "guess who" and Kimmy whirls while screaming "I don't like that" (before immediately plastering back on her normal chipper face upon seeing who it was), that's the sort of gag that fits in well with the show's overarching run of jokes. But if one thinks about it, it is clear that this isn't part of Kimmy's normal personality. It's a product of the hell she went through for a decade and a half. She knows it and she wants to escape from it as best she can, and is taking impressive strides in that respect. But while Kimmy might be unbreakable, she is not unaffected, and the series shows that in surprisingly vivid (but not melodramstic) fashion.

And that's what Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is about, ultimately. It is about a bright and irrepressible girl who went through something terrible and is getting past it in her own way. The comedy is there but never at her expense, and underneath it all is a surprisingly poignant commentary on surviving. It really is an excellent show. Indeed, I think it's got a strong case to be the strongest original series Netflix has ever produced.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Greater and the Lesser

Last week, the 8th Circuit ruled in an 8-3 en banc decision that a prisoner had not stated a viable claim against Missouri's lethal injection protocols. The Court also held (this time 7-4) that the prisoner had not stated a valid claim because his complaint only conceded in the abstract that alternative methods of execution were constitutional; he did not specifically say "X method of execution would be constitutional."

The dissenting opinion by Judge Bye begins as follows:
The constitutionality of the death penalty itself is not before us in this case, and we proceed on the assumption the death penalty is constitutional. While it follows there must be a constitutional means of carrying out a death sentence, it has not been determined that Missouri's current execution protocol is constitutional.
Is this true (at least as a matter of logic)? I'm inclined to think not. It is perfectly sensible to me the opinion that the death penalty is constitutional in the abstract -- there is no constitutional problem with the state taking a person's life for certain heinous crimes -- and that as it turns out there is no method for carrying that sentence out that satisfies various constitutional constraints. The former question is one of pure legal principle, but the latter is about particular factual assessments about, e.g., the amount of pain and suffering caused by various execution methods and the "evolving standards of decency" that cause our society to reject certain types of punishment as intolerable under the 8th Amendment. Indeed, hasn't this been the functional position of Jewish law: The death penalty is okay in the abstract, but the secondary rules surrounding it interact in such a way as to make it practically impossible to carry out?

It does not seem wrong to me that government might have a certain power in the abstract but that other constitutional constraints make the practical means of carrying that power out a null set. The problem with the dissenters' position (shared by the majority) is that it distorts constitutional doctrine. The constitutionality of any individual execution protocol is a distinct question from the abstract constitutionality of the death penalty. If an execution protocol fails whatever specific 8th Amendment doctrine we have, it does not matter whether we can envision another procedure that would alleviate these concerns.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Las Vegas Trip: Recap and Review

Jill and I, along with my parents and brother, all were in Las Vegas this weekend for a much-needed vacation. All of us love it -- which is amazing, because we're pretty different types of people. My dad and brother are into the traditional Vegas life (playing craps into the wee hours), while Jill and I (and my mom) aren't really gamblers at all. But for us there is great food and other fun activities, and we can keep ourselves amused with video poker without breaking the bank. Highlights:

* Gambling: As mentioned, I'm not a big gambler generally. Mostly I just play video poker, interspersed with some video blackjack. This trip, however, my brother discovered a video craps table and taught me how to play. I certainly see the appeal, and I even was able to fly solo for awhile (it looks more intimidating than it is). But even still, most of my time was spent doing video poker. And luckily for me, I had a bonanza Saturday (for me -- I don't bet large enough figures to actually have a true bonanza) which included hitting a straight flush. While I ended up giving all of the money back on Sunday, it was nice to play with house money for the majority of the trip.

* Boxing: This trip was not originally envisioned to be a "boxing" trip. But that ended up being somewhat of a theme. I found reasonably priced ring-side (fourth row) tickets for Friday Night Fights card at the MGM Marquee ballroom, so Jill, my father, and I all attended. It was a fun show (all but one of the fights ended in knockouts). There was also boxing on NBC Saturday -- putting all my wagers together on both evening's entertainment, I ended up $6 (hey, being up is being up). But in reality, my overall win/loss stat for this trip hinges entirely on a bet that remains pending. I put $60 on Mayweather by decision (technically, Mayweather and "will go" 11 1/2 rounds); a bet that will pay slightly over double if it hits. Getting 2:1 odds on Mayweather by decision? I'll take that action all day.

* Other sports: A few years ago, we were in Las Vegas for my brother's birthday. My gift was a bet on the Cowboys game, and we just hung out in the sports book watching the game with a rooting interest and chilling out. It was really nice. This year, Jill and I had some time to kill on Sunday, so we decided to do the same thing with the Maryland/Nebraska basketball game. I bet on Maryland to win (they were favored by 3), and Jill picked the "over" on points (123). It was a fun and exciting game that (in general and from the vantage of our bets) went to the wire. Final score: Maryland 64, Nebraska 61. My bet pushed, but with 125 points Jill collected on hers.

* Food: Since (despite what the last three entries indicate), I'm really not a huge gambler, the highlight of any Vegas trip for me is the food. This trip we mixed up some old favorites with some new entrants.
* Noodles (Bellagio): My favorite Thai dish is Pad See Ew (or Gway Teow -- as best I can tell there is no real difference between them). The best Pad See Ew I've had in a place I've lived is at Amazing Thailand in Minneapolis, though Asia Nine in DC is a close second. Frankly, Berkeley should be ashamed at how badly it is losing this category. But anyway, the best Pad See Ew I've had anywhere is at Noodles. Just spicy enough to be perfectly flavorable, and delicious in every bite. Jill, Jason and I had been before and we nominated it for our first restaurant Thursday night. It was a hit with the parents as well. And when Jill and I had one more dinner before we left Sunday night, we thought about trying someplace new -- then decided we'd rather just close the show at Noodles again. And it was delicious. Again. I will, however, agree with everyone who says it is overpriced. 9/10.

* Burgr (Planet Hollywood): Another repeat for Jill and I, new to Jason and the parental units. This is a high-class burger joint, and the burgers were exceptional. Dad and I also shared a pudding shake (half traditional chocolate milkshake, half caramel pudding), which was excellent (and impressed dad with the novelty). French fries were wonderful -- I brought the extras back to my hotel and tried in vain to keep nomming on them (unfortunately, I was too stuffed from all the other meals). The only thing that didn't match the memory was the spiced "devil dogs". Though impressive in length -- at least 1.5 feet -- they weren't sauced with quite the kick I remember. 8/10.

* Crush (MGM Grand): This was the first newbie for us, which Jill and I attended late after the boxing match. We weren't super-hungry, so we kept it light -- a caesar salad for her, a bowl of french onion soup for me, and a margherita flatbread for us to share. Of the three, the caesar was genuinely bad with an overwhelmingly mustard flavor. The french onion soup was genuinely excellent -- savory with a perfect cheesy crouton on top. And the flatbread was fine but unspectacular. It's hard to screw up a flatbread. The highlight might have actually been the blackberry cocktail Jill ordered, which even non-alcoholic I thought was wonderful. 6.5/10.

Trevi (Caesar's): Jason recommended this one (I don't think I had been, though I admit it looked somewhat familiar. I have spent a lot of time in the Forum shops). Jason raved about it, but I was a little underwhelmed. The mozzarella fritta had virtually no flavor (and nowhere near enough marinara sauce to make up for it). Their specialty was a "lasagna pizza" that they graciously made with ground beef instead of ground pork. It was good, but nothing eye-popping. This was still a good meal under any objective metric, but given what one can find in Vegas I can't say I came away impressed. 6.5/10.

Mastro's Ocean Club (CityCenter): We always try to do one nice steakhouse, and the Ocean Club was this year's pick. Mom and Dad had been to the version in Scottsdale, but it was entirely new on the rest of us. I ordered a bone-in filet (I always get a filet), which was excellent. My dad kept insisting that the mac-n-cheese here was the greatest dish ever invented, but I can't say I shared his enthusiasm. Other sides (and the "butter cake" dessert) were right on par with the filet though. But the true highlight was Jill's "Kansas City Strip". If there was one dish this entire trip that knocked my socks off, this was it. And the thing is, a New York Strip (I checked -- they're the same thing) is by far my least favorite cut. Yet this rendition just melted in your mouth like butter. It was absolutely unbelievable. Also, I have to compliment the ambiance of the restaurant, which had this very cool inside balcony thing going on. On price points -- well, you're going to be paying a bit to eat here. The party behind us (15 people) reportedly racked up a $3700 bill. 8.5/10.

Gordon Ramsay Pub & Grill (Caesar's): Jill and I are big GR fans, and we had already been to Burgr and (on a previous trip) GR Steak. So we wanted to complete the Ramsay trifecta. While still quite enjoyable, Pub & Grill definitely ranks last of the three. For someone like me who doesn't eat pork or shellfish, the menu ended up being surprisingly limited (and even the pretzels we ordered as appetizers turned out to have bacon in them! They did take them off our bill). The ale onion soup was quite good, and the wings Jill got were delicious. But when you're up against Burgr and GR Steak, that's tough competition. Oh, and I think this is massively overpriced -- the pub burger, for example, is far more expensive than what you'd get at Burgr. What's the point of that? 7/10.

Bonus hearsay entry -- Tao (Venetian): This was the scheduled meal that got bumped for boxing. But my mom and brother still went, and they thought it was great. But they did say that it might not have been for Jill and I. It was absolutely for the bachelorette party that was knocking back sake bombs like there was no tomorrow.
* Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: This might get its own post, since it's not really Vegas-related except for the fact that Jill and I started watching it there. So all I'll say here is that (a) it rapidly shifted from "show we'll watch after we finish House of Cards" to "show that we'll finish binging before returning to House of Cards" and (b) we watched 9 episodes in 24 hours, including one in the back of the Planet Hollywood sports book waiting for the Maryland/Nebraska game to begin. It's really good.