Tag Archives: Stephen Tobolowsky

A Serialized Man: The Narrative Pleasures of The Tobolowsky Files

When character actor Stephen Tobolowsky was a guest on the /Filmcast, a podcast which (as some long-time readers might remember) I’ve had the pleasure of taking part in myself, I remember being shocked at his level of preparedness: for his first show he watched several movies as research just to be able to offer as much to the conversation as possible, and he was both candid and conversational in regards to the subject at hand. I will admit to not knowing much of Tobolowsky’s work heading into that appearance, but his enthusiasm for that simple podcast gave me a great deal of respect for the man himself.

On its own, that would be enough to recommend his own podcasting project, The Tobolowsky Files, which is entering its second season this week. The podcast, produced by /Filmcast host and friend of the blog David Chen, is a series of stories about “life, love, and the entertainment industry;” it’s a new outlet for his enthusiasm, as he takes hours out of his week to write and record these stories for us to enjoy. The stories are reflections of his personality, hilarious but also able to delve into more emotional territory, and there is a genuine honesty about the podcast which completely erodes any sense that he is simply reading a script. These podcasts are not so much performances as they are expressions of emotions, and the result is a really great way to spend roughly a half-hour of your time each week.

However, I had expected to be entertained: I knew Stephen was a gifted storyteller (he produced a movie, Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party, which is built around this ability), so of course he can spin a good yarn. What shocked me, however, was that this podcast has become an extended serialized narrative, turning his past into an ongoing story which has me more involved than I could have imagined. I figured I would enjoy episodes talking about his time in the entertainment industry or his experience on Deadwood or Glee, but I did not expect that I would get sucked into his past, terrified of being spoiled about how certain stories about life and love end.

And that’s something I never expected from a podcast: a true triumph of storytelling from a master of the art form, and something that lovers of narrative storytelling should certainly be listening to.

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Glee – “Bad Reputation”

“Bad Reputation”

May 4th, 2010

It’s never good for a show about high school to raise comparisons to Freaks and Geeks, but by choosing “Bad Reputation” as the title for this episode Glee entered into that dangerous territory. Joan Jett and the Blackhearts’ “Bad Reputation” was the theme song to that show, and it has to be said that there was an element of irony in its use. Deep down, all of the characters on that show cared about their reputations, but what set the show apart was that they cared about them for realistic and dynamic reasons that felt true to life. The show never felt like it needed to sensationalize high school to create conflict, and as a result is one of the best shows of the past decade.

I understand that the “point” of Glee is to sensationalize, but the show can’t have it both ways. The problem with “Bad Reputation” is that it wants to come to saccharine and emotional conclusions but it wants to get there through the sort of bombastic, over the top chaos the show enjoys so much. And while a few of the musical numbers nicely encapsulate the way the characters are feeling, the storylines the episode uses to crystallize and set up those qualities are so far off the mark that I never once believed what was happening on screen.

While the message of the episode seemed to be that people shouldn’t worry so much about their reputations in high school, I think we’re at the point where Glee should be worried about its own reputation as it heads into its second season.

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Glee – “Wheels”

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“Wheels”

November 11th, 2009

There’s a moment in “Wheels” where we fear the worst of Sue Sylvester, testing our ability to see past what we expect her character to do (something offensive and mean-spirited) to what she could potentially do (something transformative). And, in some ways, “Wheels” is very much the same sort of proposition. Ever since I learned ahead of time that “Wheels” was written by Ryan Murphy (as the writers appear to be cycling the scripts between the three of them), I have been fearful of when his worst habits (like his penchant for Terri and the more outlandish storylines) would emerge.

So, I spent most of the episode waiting for the episode to take some sort of turn, to go from being charming and funny and resonant to become outlandish and overbearing. I kept thinking that any scene which felt the least bit emotional would suddenly become undercut by something mean or cruel, and that this was all some sort of Sue Sylvester-like trick.

However, it appears that Murphy has been inspired by his fellow writers, because “Wheels” works in ways that Murphy’s previous episodes simply have not. The episode isn’t perfect, trying to do a few too many things at once, but each and every one of those elements manage to connect at som level. It is an episode that more than any other thus far feels as if it works because of, rather than in spite of, the show’s recurring storylines.

This isn’t to say that everything’s rosy, but it is to say that “Wheels” was certainly a watermark for Murphy’s work on the series, and easily the most starkly dramatic hour yet.

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Glee – “Acafellas”

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Acafellas

September 16th, 2009

“Acafellas,” by and large, is like an answer to my prayers (or, if not prayers, then at least requests). Last week, I noted that I enjoyed the show as a whole but felt that they were moving too quickly with the main storylines and not giving us any time with the supporting characters. And, by and large, this episode managed to move at a pretty quick pace (the show certainly didn’t become slow) while spending plenty of time with pretty much everyone. The show is a large ensemble, and this episode felt like an effort to both address ongoing storylines (including the main ones covered last week) in small scenes while spending time with entirely new settings and character pairings.

This is not to say that I think the episode was flawless by any means, but I think it’s an example of the show’s particular brand of humour and musical performance proving capable of expanding into other areas outside of the “core” storylines. While I still have some issues with the way the show tends to pace itself with individual storylines, this episode managed to handle a lot of material in a single hour, covering various bases with a fairly high degree of success.

But, be warned that I’ve still got some issues with the way the show likes to rush to the good parts, so to speak.

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Series Premiere: Glee – “Pilot”

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“Pilot”

May 19th, 2009

As always, as a less than official TV critic, I haven’t been amongst those lucky enough to have seen FOX’s new series, Glee, ahead of time. This is not usually an issue, as I’m able to avoid any spoilers or any really strong opinions on these shows, but ignoring Glee has been nearly impossible. Between the constant deluge of ads that FOX has been deploying, and between every TV critic under the sun having extremely polarizing reactions to the series, ignoring Glee has been fundamentally impossible. People either love the show or, well, they agree that there’s other people other than themselves who will probably love it.

Amazingly, however, I managed to keep myself from seeing a single clip, or more than a few images, from the series: sure, I’ve seen the criticism, but this unique musical television “event” (premiering after American Idol despite not truly debuting until the Fall) remains entirely unspoiled in terms of its tone and in terms of its execution (although I’ve obviously listened to the critics enough to know some things to look out for). As a result, I can honestly say that I went into Glee with, primarily, no real expectations one way or the other. The result?

I’m a little bit in love.

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Season Premiere: Heroes – “The Butterfly Effect”

“The Butterfly Effect”

Season Premiere, Part 2

[For my thoughts on “The Second Coming,” the first part of the premiere, click here]

When a butterfly flaps its wings, Heroes finally seems to emerge from a season-long cocoon.

“The Butterfly Effect” is not close to capturing the wonder that got the show’s weak writing and poor balancing of the ensemble cast through its first season, but what it represents is a show that is trying to expand its world without flailing about wildly. The show isn’t introducing any new heroes who require long periods of repetitive exposition, or trying to bring in whole new conspiracies and the like; instead, the show is letting its existing characters travel on new trajectories that all relate to a central theme of morality as opposed to a central theme of the end of the world.

If the first half of the finale was about starting to introduce these ideas, the second half puts most of them into motion: Peter’s storyline takes form, Noah Bennett finally returns to his kick-ass self, Kristen Bell is given (at the very least) something interesting to potentially expand upon, and Ali Larter’s new role certainly still raises intriguing questions.

At the same time, though, there’s a feeling that certain storylines are already repetitive, already derivative of past storylines and now dangerously going through the same motions in two straight episodes. If the show can iron out some of those difficulties, I think that the positive can outweigh the negative – if this can happen, Heroes might become enjoyable without qualifications again.

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