Parks and Recreation

Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. on NBC. Twenty episodes into the second season.

So The Office has gone downhill. It isn’t anyone’s fault, really, but after nearly six full seasons, the show seems to have run its course. The characters aren’t surprising anymore (or when they are, it’s because they’re acting out of character), and some have calcified into one-dimensional creatures. The comedy simply isn’t as sharp or as funny as it used to be.

So it’s great that Parks and Recreation has risen in quality to take its place (at least in my affections—I’m just about over The Office). When the Office creators started Parks last year, it was little more than a cheap knock-off of The Office (which, of course, was itself adapted from Ricky Gervais’s UK original). But since those first tentative episodes, the Parks writers and actors have come into their own. The established mockumentary structure is still there, but Parks now has its own rhythms, its own themes, and its own oddball running gags. It might not surpass the American Office at that show’s height, but it certainly surpasses it now.

Time Stands Still

Now playing at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on Broadway.

Playwright Donald Margulies has a knack for dialogue and an evenhanded way with his characters, which makes Time Stands Still both enjoyable and exasperating. The four characters—and the relationships among them—feel very true to life, but they can be tiresome, too, with the principled becoming self-righteous, the optimistic blinkered. They have their soapboxes, their pet issues and obsessions—all very human, all quite recognizable—but damn, if I didn’t want to shake each of them at one point or another!

But the performances are shaded and compelling, the character arcs gracefully rendered, and the strained, sad love story at the play’s heart is beautifully told. As frustrating as I found Time Stands Still at times, I warmed to it in spite of myself. Margulies knows what he’s doing.

Beach Birds, Duo, and Grosse Fugue

Lyon Opera Ballet at the Joyce Theater on Saturday, March 14.

One of the best-known classical ballets is Swan Lake, so there’s something kind of funny about a modern dance troupe performing a work titled “Beach Birds.” They have little in common, of course—just a shared tendency to adapt avian mannerisms into the syntax of their own movement. The ballerinas glide across the stage, gently raising and lowering their arms like swans alighting on the water, and the modern dancers cock their heads and dart headlong this way and that like gulls racing across the sand. In a way, the swan and the gull embody the different styles: one graceful above all else; the other less elegant, perhaps, but energetic and spirited and free.

“Beach Birds” was choreographed by Merce Cunningham, who died last year and is remembered as one of the giants of modern dance. The other two works on the program—“Duo,” choreographed by William Forsythe, and “Grosse Fugue,” choreographed by Maguy Marin—felt slight, overshadowed by comparison, but still interesting. All three made me wish I knew more about modern dance.

In a Perfect World

By Laura Kasischke. Published in 2009.

Laura Kasischke is first and foremost an award-winning poet, and you can feel that in her prose. Unlike most novelists, she seems less interested in dialogue or plot or even character than in imagery and mood. Her evocative language wraps its tendrils around you, drawing you into its own dark dreaminess. You keep reading not because you’re desperate to learn what happens next (in fact, not much happens at all) but because the language has cast a spell you can’t bear to break.

That eerie quality is particularly well suited for In a Perfect World, Kasischke’s seventh novel, which draws unabashedly on fairy tales, lingering on such redolent items as a lost shoe, a white goose, a lonely house in the woods; the residue of magic in the prose seems only appropriate. But not all fairy tales involve princesses and starry happily-ever-afters. Kasischke’s fairy tale allusions knit together with oblique references to the medieval bubonic plague and contemporary fears about epidemics and economic instability. The result is a hushed, endearingly domestic post-apocalyptic tale with an unexpected love story, not romantic but maternal, the mythical evil stepmother redeemed.

The Secret of Kells

In theaters.

The story isn’t much—an ungainly little hero tale about an orphaned boy on a quest—but The Secret of Kells isn’t about the story. Nor is it just about the undeniably gorgeous hand-drawn animation inspired by the medieval art of its subject matter. No, what makes the movie so striking and lovely is the way that animation arouses the emotion of its story. The raw plot might be awkward and poorly paced, but the evocative imagery makes it work in spite of itself. One can’t help but feel the joyful freedom of a walk in the woods, the giddy excitement of artistic inspiration, the gnawing fear of a community under siege. The animation gives the story resonance, and the story, slight though it may be, gives the animation meaning. The result is an engaging, wondrous little gem.


Fridays at 9 p.m. on Syfy. Five episodes into the first season.

Only novels rival TV shows in terms of the depth and breadth of the worlds they can create. That’s what makes the classic luddite sneer “I don’t even own a TV” so profoundly stupid: It betrays the fact that the sneering luddites are just as blind to the medium’s potential as the TV hacks at which they direct their derision. Because sure, most TV is disposable (just as most books and music and movies are ultimately disposable), but the shows that understand the possibilities in literally hours of story time can become epics, not necessarily in style (I’m thinking of shows like Arrested Development in addition to such obvious examples as The Sopranos and Buffy the Vampire Slayer) but in scope.

Time will tell whether Caprica can ascend to that echelon—it’s still early, and it’s walking a staggeringly high tightrope—but it has the potential because it has the ambition, with an enormous cast of complex characters, intricate plotting, and truly intriguing ideas about technology and religion and terrorism and the nature of humanity and a host of other weighty themes. The tone is a bit uneven, wobbling from humor to melodrama to genuine tragedy, and then there’s the fact that as a prequel to the revamped Battlestar Galactica (which ended its four-season run last spring), it is, by definition, heading toward apocalypse: the vast majority of the characters (not to mention their entire civilization) are doomed, which is, you know, kind of depressing. And yet Caprica is too interesting and immersive to be a downer. I haven’t gotten over my fears that it’s going to collapse into an incoherent mess (always a danger when you aim high), and I don’t have much idea where it’s going with the many narrative threads, but my bewilderment isn’t a strike against it. That, in fact, is what make it so fascinating.

Lou Donaldson Organ Quartet

At Birdland on Friday, February 26.

Of all musical genres, jazz is perhaps the farthest out of my comfort zone, the one that leaves me feeling most adrift—which is why it’s great that Sean and I have friends who expand my horizons, getting me to attend concerts I wouldn’t otherwise. Friday night’s performance at Birdland was particularly good for me because it motivated me to drag my winter-weary butt out of the apartment this past weekend, something that otherwise might not have happened. (Please, o weather gods, enough with the goddamn snow! The novelty has worn off. I am done.)

Anyway, now I’m stuck writing about jazz—always a daunting challenge. The problem, I think, is that jazz is near enough to musical styles that I do know well to make it easy for me to listen to it and understand it through that prism, yet far enough away to make that prism a problematic one. I definitely have my opinion, but I’m uncharacteristically insecure about it, which is a lousy position to write from. But this is my blog, and no one cares, so enough hedging: I didn’t like the use of the organ in Lou Donaldson’s Organ Quartet. So there.