Fawlty Towers, the much-venerated BBC sitcom that first aired more than 40 years ago, is essentially a vehicle for John Cleese to careen about the set in a near-constant state of seething, impotent rage. Each of the episodes that I've seen begins with a simple comedic misunderstanding of sorts that rapidly spirals out of control until Cleese is almost ready to murder someone; at one point, he actually smothered a hotel guest into a state of unconsciousness. It can be a lot of fun to watch, but it can also be exhausting. And having a supporting character whose main shtick is having a funny accent and struggling to understand English is... well, it was made 40 years ago, I suppose.
Earlier this year, I was won over by the low-key sincerity of The Great British Baking Show, and while RuPaul's Drag Race is punchier and chock-full of sassy one-liners, there's a similar undercurrent of positivity here that elevates the proceedings. In the season 9 premiere, no one was sent home, and all of the contestants were ecstatic when it was revealed that Lady Gaga had arrived as a guest judge. Even the contestant who was throwing the most shade at everyone else broke into tears upon seeing her and thanked her for being a source of inspiration when he was in a rough place. Drag means a lot to everyone here and they want to do right by it.
Personally speaking, I'm more interested in, say, baking than I am in drag, and I probably won't become a regular viewer of RuPaul's Drag Race, but this show is a lot of fun and I'm encouraged by how successful it has become. It wasn't too long ago that television network executives were whispering "we can't do drag," and while the show is not a show about political and social issues, its continued presence on television helps to include people that are normally left out. Also, there are some great one liners. Really great one liners.
As someone watching it long after it initially aired, I could spend all day lobbing criticisms at The West Wing (of both the "significant" and "nitpick" varieties). The soundtrack is overbearing, with "serious time music" needlessly calling attention to dramatic moments. After her grating, over-the-top introduction, Mandy* isn't given much to do other than scold some people occasionally. Why did CJ decide to go out on a date with Danny directly after he expressed his disinterest in fighting against hate crimes? The ubiquitous walk and talk scenes are really silly! And so on.
Having said that, the show's wit and warmth break through all of its flaws in a way that has me completely hooked. The extent to which these characters care about their jobs and each other is palpable and, damnit, I want them to succeed! It's easy to look pastall of the cheese and the sanctimonious slant of the show - did the conservative antagonists from the pilot really need to be antisemitic as well? - when the its core is a group of smart, quippy people doing everything they can to make the world a better place. This show, which was often called a "liberal fantasy" as it aired alongside the Bush administration, still serves as wish fulfillment nearly 20 years later as I seek refuge from stories like this.
*Note: Apparently, Mandy is later disappeared from the show without anyone really noticing or caring. I can see why, even if it the blame lies more with the writing than with Moira Kelly.
What a mundane show this is! Each hour-long episode consists of people completing three baking challenges in a kitchen-y tent thing and... that's it. I mean, sure, there's some sort of prestigious title at stake, but there's no real tension or conflict to speak of. The contestants' emotional states run the gamut from mild disappointment to humble satisfaction, and the show is scored to the sound of people waiting quietly for their ovens' timers to go off.
The show's leisurely pace and gentle tone, however, are unexpectedly intoxicating. Instead of berating the contestants, the show's hosts are content to drop in occasionally, fire off some terrible puns, and then slip out of view for long periods of time. There are multiple long, uninterrupted shots of people standing still while one of the two "fussy" judges takes a bite out of a Swiss roll. How could there possibly be any poverty or civil strife in the world when something like this is on the air? I want to wrap this show around myself like a blanket before falling asleep every night.
"Mega Blaziken, thanks for everything!" - Ash Ketchum, a 10-year-old boy who is probably really 29 by now.
Pokémon sure is strange. The whimsical air of the kid-friendly franchise and all of its adorable little creatures belie the sinister nature of the stories that it tells. In every game, you run away from home as a preteen in order to enslave wild monsters and have them fight other enslaved monsters for money. But HEY, it's all okay, because your ability to fight well is derived from the friendships that you've forged with your enslaved monsters, and their ability to hurt other monsters is simply a reflection of... your love? God, I don't know.
Like seemingly every other kid in the 1990's, I was swept up by the Pokémon craze, devouring every lazy rehash of the core games and pestering my parents to drop tons of cash into flimsy trading cards. More than 15 years later, Pokémon has transcended from its initial fad status into an eternal cultural fixture. New games, which are released on an almost annual basis, continue to sell into the millions. Hundreds of new monsters and constant, subtle iterations to its ruleset have pushed what is marketed as kid's-first-roleplaying-game into feeling almost as complex and deep as chess. One number is particularly staggering: the Pokémon anime has had over nine hundred episodes.
Because I have a job and I occasionally go outside, I did not watch all 900+ episodes for this post. Instead, I decided to watch the first couple of episodes of the XY series. Like many cartoons with children as the intended audience, this show's creative impetus is "let's get these kids to beg their parents to buy them things until the parents finally acquiesce just to get them to shut up for a second." In this case, Ash Ketchum's billionth adventure is designed to show the viewer just how many cool new features the region of "Kalos," the setting for Pokémon X and Y, has.
While I'm a dork who still plays Pokémon as an adult, I was taken aback by how obtuse and nonsensical this show must now be for someone who doesn't already know what's going on here. Characters continuously say absurd things in a matter-of-fact way, like "When Pokémon cry, you'll find that people cry as well" and "Bunnelby's ears can do lots of great things." Large chunks of this show's dialogue may as well consist of people reading video game strategy guides aloud. At one point, the show's writers attempt to wring pathos out of "that attack must have really hurt him because it's super effective against water types!"
Ash Ketchum, who to my knowledge has never taken a break from protagonist duty over the course of 900+ episodes, has become an individual of indefatigable nobility. Everyone that he meets is instantly impressed by him, to the point of becoming inspired to be the best possible versions of themselves. His two other character traits are "he wants to beat everyone else in battle" and "he's sort of a wacky clutz, how droll." New characters are introduced at a rapid pace, and they all want to either abandon their current lives to follow Ash around or give him a bunch of free shit.
Outside of Ash having become our infallible hope for the future, very little seems different from my vague memories of what this show was like in the late 90's. The show's overall look is drenched in soft lighting, and since most people watching this are already hundreds of episodes deep into the series, they don't bother to develop characters any more. It is a little heartwarming to know that this show is likely to connect with a new generation of kids, though. If I'm not buying those trading cards anymore, someone has to!
Not since Breaking Bad has a television show pushed the color purple this heavily. This show's opening credits sequence is awash in it, it shades the background in many of Jessica Jones' traumatic flashbacks, and the central villain is even referred to at times as "The Purple Man." In addition to the color purple, the main draw of this show is its unflinching portrayal of abuse and one woman's resolve to fight back. Many scenes in this show are downright harrowing and it's largely due to the sorts of power dynamics that are tragically grounded in reality.
Most superhero stories fail to make much of an impact on me because it rarely feels like much of anything is really at stake. I mean, if you rattle off the plot synopsis for a given Marvel movie, it sounds like a lot is at stake. The whole planet is going to be destroyed by aliens! Or robots! Or that elf guy with the macguffin! But when you're watching these movies, there's often a sense that everything is pretty much going to be fine. Thor and Hulk and company are going to punch a lot of bad guys really hard until they're gone and, more tellingly, they don't have to make many difficult choices or personal sacrifices along the way.
Jones, meanwhile, is haunted by her memories of Kilgrave's abuse. A powerful mind controller who can will anyone into carrying out his bidding, Kilgrave doesn't simply hurt or kill people; he strips them of their agency. Unlike other Marvel villains, Kilgrave seems uninterested in world domination or even amassing personal wealth. Instead, he derives a sick sort of pleasure from turning people into his puppets, unchecked by any internal moral struggles and singularly focused on satisfying his own short-term desires. Jessica Jones, who Kilgrave found to be particularly enticing due to her powers, was forced to mindlessly follow him around as his lover and personal bodyguard for months on end.
There are plenty of parallels to be drawn between the stories this show is telling and the non-mind-control related struggles that women face on a daily basis. Kilgrave is white male privilege personified, having little trouble getting his way and lashing out at anyone who challenges him. When Jones accurately describes what Kilgrave did to her as "rape" in a later episode, he balks at the term, and attempts to play semantics and paint himself as the victim in a way that resolves himself of any actual guilt (Emily Asher-Perrin goes into further detail about this sort of "gaslighting" tactic that perpetrators of abuse use). Even in lighter stretches of the show, Jones and her friend Trish will find themselves rolling their eyes as a well-meaning male friend of their's attempts to mansplain to them what needs to be done.
I haven't finished this show yet, and when I do, it's highly likely that Jones will have "won." Most superheroes win, after all, and this is especially likely when lucrative franchises can be built around them. What will make her win feel deserved, however, isn't the degree to which she can punch dudes. She's great at that and all, but Thor and Hulk can punch dudes harder. What makes me root for Jones is that she isn't willing for a second to let Kilgrave's toxic sense of entitlement be seen as anything other than what it really is.
Would leveling any criticisms at this show just demonstrate that I'm missing the point of it? This is a superhero show on The CW, so why wouldn't it be silly? I mean, of course there is a love triangle that is established in less than twenty minutes, of course someone says "can you say that in English?" the first time that someone utters science-y sounding sentence, and obviously there are references to muffin tops and twerking. Everything that was said about the "particle accelerator" was the dialogue equivalent of white noise.
But hey, I have to say that the goofiness became kind of endearing as the show continued to pile it on. Not every superhero has to be a brooding anti-hero or even remotely plausible. Basing an entire television series around a person who runs really quickly is an inherently hilarious concept to me, and I almost want to keep watching solely to see the wacky obstacles that the writers can come up with that must inevitably be solved by having Barry run faster.
In the pilot episode of this show, the climax of the villain-of-the-week story involves Barry struggling to run quickly enough around a guy who became a tornado. When he is just about to give up on running quickly enough, he receives a radio transmission from a discredited physicist who tells Barry to believe in himself or something. After that motivational pep talk, Barry squints a little bit more and finds the motivation from within that's necessary to run slightly faster. Now that he's running faster, he forces tornado man to stop being inside a tornado. This is amazing.
God, and the close-ups on Barry's face when he runs! They're so great! There is one close-up shot in particular that depicts a Barry on the brink of tears and in the throes of a recurring horrible memory from his youth. While his face is right up against the camera, the angst is accompanied by a bunch of blurry motion lines. Just look at this:
Also, there is a completely gratuitous cameo from the guy from Arrow towards the end. If you weren't already aware of the fact that this guy is from his own television series on The CW, there is no information in the pilot here that would give you any idea as to who he is or why Barry cares about him. Whatever, this is probably the best show that's ever been made. 10/10
Transparent, a part-comedy, part-drama that follows the misadventures of a Los Angeles family whose father (played by Jeffrey Tambor) is in the early phases of transitioning to a woman, isn't exactly what I expected it to be. The show has garnered a great deal of critical acclaim, especially for Tambor's performance as Maura, and I figured that the bulk of the show would be dealing with Maura's story. Instead, the first three episodes are largely about those aforementioned misadventures.
Maura directly refers to her three children as being "selfish" and she isn't off with that description. By the end of the third episode, each of them is deep within a crisis of their own making. Sarah, the eldest daughter, is basically scrambling to leave behind her married life while in the throes of passion with her old college girlfriend. Josh, meanwhile, is a predatory music producer that comes across as a bro-y Don Draper in his inability to maintain healthy relationships with the opposite sex. Finally, there's Ali, the intelligent but apparently always unemployed daughter that brings out the show's zanier side with drug trip sequences and dramatic showdowns with geese.
I'm not really sure if the show's creators intend for the audience to sympathize with the self-destructive tendencies of the children. Sarah, in particular, seems pretty cavalier about dissolving her marriage to chase after the fleeting highs of an affair. Josh is clearly yearning to find something more fulfilling than his current lifestyle, but throwing chairs at windows and leveraging his position of power as a producer to sleep with musicians isn't going to get him anywhere. Ali basically passed out in a fountain in the last episode.
I almost wonder if the show is spending the majority of its time on the kids as a sort of meta commentary on how people can take significant news - like being told by their father that he never felt comfortable going through life as a man - and then immediately make it about themselves. Sarah was already in the process of cheating on her husband when she first found out that "Mort" had become Maura, but it's easy to see how she could use Maura's story of embracing her true self as a way to justify her own adultery. At this point in the show, Josh and Ali don't know anything yet, but they will probably make it about themselves as well.
After looking back on the preceding paragraphs, I sound like a bit of a downer regarding this show, don't I? For what it's worth, I was actually pretty interested in everything that was happening. These highly flawed characters all have smart shading to them that make them seem somewhat believable. When he's not trying to push a member of one of his acts to keep his baby against her will, Josh is given a lovely moment where he is entertaining his niece. Ali and Josh have a funny sister-brother rapport that feels very lived-in and comfortable. I also liked the small touch of Sarah reaching out with a napkin to wipe food off of Maura's face during a dinner. Generally speaking, nudity is handled fairly tastefully in this show, with it being presented as something that's just not that big of a deal (as opposed to Game of Thrones styled titillation).
A lot of what the family is going through at the moment feels like slight variations of well-worn sitcom tropes, though, and I'm hoping that the remaining episodes will spend more time with Maura. Transgender people aren't well represented in television and film, so centering a series around a character like Maura who is in the process of transitioning will open up some relatively new stories to explore. I understand where some people are coming from when they express disappointment with Maura being portrayed by a cis male (as opposed to someone that is actually transgender), but Tambor is handling the material with a deft touch. It's impressive to see the subtle differences in personality that Tambor brings out between "Mort" and Maura. I'm going to keep watching this to see where it goes.
As mentioned before on this site, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart was a central piece of my media consumption as I grew up, keeping me entertained while also making me far more skeptical of politicians and the press. Over time, my brain has processed over a decade's worth of broadcasts into an unrepresentative sample of highlights and profound moments, including Stewart's stellar guest appearance on CNN's Crossfire and his manic Glenn Beck impression. On a day to day basis, however, The Daily Show was "just" an entertaining and well-written comedy with the occasional insightful point or pointed jab.
Trevor Noah's first two episodes at the helm of a rebooted The Daily Show bare this out. I think it's completely unreasonable for anyone to expect Noah to do something wildly daring, impactful, or inventive from the word go. He could very well rise to the occasion and act as the powerful voice of reason that Stewart so often was during difficult moments that our country faced. For now, it's impressive that he (along with The Daily Show's talented writers, correspondents, and production staff) has been able to handle the transition so smoothly.
With an infectious smile and a palpable sense of confidence, Noah easily rattled off witty one-liners about the Pope's recent visit to the United States, John Boener's surprise resignation announcement, and more. A couple of jokes landed poorly (including an "aids or aides" groaner that even the audience winced at), but even in those cases, he shrugged it off and wasted no time getting to the next bit. While the interviews that he conducted in these first two episodes were a little dull and too short to really go anywhere, this also happened to be the case for the vast majority of Stewart's interviews.
Honestly, the biggest weakness of The Daily Show at this point has nothing to do with the host. Under Stewart, the show was so incredibly successful at generating new talent in this space that several previous correspondents have gone on to create shows that are arguably better. John Oliver, for example, takes advantage of HBO's commercial-free format by allowing individual stories to run for 12+ minutes, giving him ample time to explore complex topics and bring in original research and investigative reporting carried out by his own staff. Stephen Colbert, meanwhile, has access to a much wider pool of guests and greater resources over at The Late Show, and he has already demonstrated his talent as an interviewer.
The Daily Show will, somewhat ironically, need to figure out what its niche will be in this new late-night landscape that it helped to create. Noah is clearly having a lot of fun on stage, and this energy is a welcome departure from Stewart's (completely understandable) exasperation and world-weariness, and he seems up to the challenge. For now, I'll likely consume this show in the same way that I already have been for a couple of years now: catching up on segments that breakthrough and generate a lot of discussion, but not tuning in on a nightly basis.
This shit is TERRIFYING.
Dystopian fiction is very en vogue these days, what with all of those spunky teenage heroes and heroines out there running around in mazes and firing off arrows and such. There are also a lot of grittier takes on the end of civilization as we know it, often involving our good friends the zombies. Many of these stories offer interesting commentary on modern societal issues, but very little of them have actually frightened me. None of the specifics of those stories seem remotely plausible.
"15 Million Merits", however, is terrifying because so much of it is plausible. Black Mirror is a horror-tinged science fiction series that is reminiscent of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, with each episode presenting standalone stories. In "15 Million Merits," there are no aliens, monsters, or young adult Olympiads to contend with. Instead, a set of unexplained circumstances (likely a severe energy shortage of some kind) has resulted in the world's population spending all of their time living in sterile, claustrophobic environments and sweating away on exercise bikes (likely to generate power).
In order to placate the masses during what are essentially lives of enslavement, a nightmarish set of social-media and smartphone app inspired incentives and penalties have been erected. Riding an exercise bike rewards everyone with "merit points," which accumulate much like one's score in an older video game, and doing almost anything at all outside of riding a bike will drain merit points. From the moment that this episode's protagonist, Bing (played wonderfully by Daniel Kaluuya), had to spend merit points in order to use toothpaste, I was unnerved.
In addition to the necessities of life, merit points are also used to buy pointless digital goods and other minor conveniences. Almost everyone aspires to earn enough points to adorn their virtual avatars with new gear, with a particular character getting unreasonably excited about selecting a new hairstyle. In each person's small sleeping quarters, they have to spend these points in order to not listen to obnoxious commercials for even more obnoxious television shows (including one that mostly entails a group of hosts humiliating overweight people and spraying them with things). If one tries to ignore the commercial without paying for that privilege, strident sirens begin to blare and the entirety of the room will admonish that person until they start watching again. It's like the worst possible conception of a real-life banner ad.
Without spoiling the direction that this story ultimately takes, the most biting commentary that this show has to offer is that even overt criticism of a reality like this can be commodified and turned into another distraction for the masses and another revenue stream for the powerful. Listening to someone rant about how terrible everything is while also not taking any actual actions to make a difference doesn't get anything done, of course. In fact, listening to such rants and then doing nothing on a regular basis can reduce people to smugly agreeing, feeling superior about their worldview, and then hypocritically engaging in the sorts of behaviors that they're supposed to be against.
The aesthetics of this episode is great. The acting in this episode is great. The premise is both clever and, again, too plausible. This episode has a *lot* to say. I could talk about it forever.
The original Heroes became a wonderful show to hate-watch toward the end of its run. Most works of fiction require one to adopt a reasonable suspension of disbelief, but Heroes asked for more. It asked you to be okay with pretty much every major character inexplicably surviving and showing up time and time again. Any individual with an ability strong enough to easily resolve tricky situations, like Hiro and his ability to freeze time, became profoundly stupid in order to prevent the plot from moving forward at a less-than-glacial pace. I think that the last season was about emo carnival people trying to feel something again.
According to game theory, however, it behooves people to give things second chances, so I decided to watch this reboot. It is going to be in the form of a condensed 13-episode miniseries, any material that Tim Kring and his friends dream up will not have to be stretched out with as much padding. Most of the old cast has been thrown out or reduced to minor cameo roles, too, which means that we wont have to watch Matt Parkman squint intently at things every week now.
So, how was the premiere for Heroes Reborn? It was alright, if you don't stop to think about any of it too much. The central theme of "evos" (them folks what have those powers) being persecuted and hunted down by governments and other nefarious corporations isn't too original, but it's simple to understand and gets things rolling without an excessive amount of setup work. There are also a few related mysteries that were set up that at least have me curious as to how they will unfold, like "how is aurora borealis supposed to kill everyone?"
Unfortunately, this show is already displaying a lot its previous incarnation's flaws. Episodes juggle too many stories with too many characters that don't connect together in any meaningful way. The tonal shifts that pop up when the show cuts from a murderous couple thirsting for vengeance to two teenagers running around in a particularly silly rendition of cyberspace are beyond jarring. Characters and concepts that have only previously made appearances in miniature "webisodes" that no one is watching show up and not much is being done to reintroduce them. Oh, and there is a baffling scene that involves one of the central characters directly trying to sell a Cadillac to someone (that's somehow worse than all of that Sprint product integration from the old show).
I can't think of a decent way to end this post, so enjoy this absurd Matt Parkman tribute video that somehow exists.
Why are they all slurping up those two milkshakes while ignoring those sundaes? Those sundaes look perfectly edible, and yet they're clearly going to waste here. This country needs to wake up to our collective prejudices and learn how to accept non-liquified ice cream on its own terms. #NotAllConfections #SundaeBloodySundae
Somehow, I had never seen a single episode of this show before today. This has more to do with me not watching anything other than reruns of The Simpsons on the local Fox affiliate while growing up and less to do with any intentional evasive maneuvers. Friendship is a concept that anyone can get behind, so heck, this show should be great!
Based on how conversations about this show tend to go, I think that I'm supposed to rank the characters against each other, including which ones are my "faves" and which ones are "hot." So, after watching only the first three episodes, here we go!
Joey: He's a good looking dude! He's also really boring, so not a fave. He got his own spinoff, though, so maybe I'm missing something here.
Rachel: Yep, Jennifer Aniston is attractive. The whole running-from-the-wedding and moving in with a friend that she hasn't seen in a long time thing seemed like an unnecessary amount of setup work for a sitcom that's about people living in apartments in New York, but whatever. Mid-tier fave.
Chandler: Stop talking, you're the worst. Really just mugging it in every scene. No one even seems to acknowledge that he's in the room after he smirks out his wisecracks. Not hot, least fave.
Phoebe: Probably the funniest so far, and somewhat hot. I appreciate her surprisingly dark backstory and various non sequiturs. Her "I wish I could help, but I don't want to" line from the pilot was great. Let's go with "most fave-est."
Monica: I guess that she's supposed to be the "responsible" one, with a bit of a neat-freak vibe going on? Eh. Her reactions to how her parents tread her in the second episode were solid, at least. Low-tier fave, mid-tier hot.
Ross: He's a paleontologist, which is a really cool job. The show seems to be giving him all of its emotional beats so far, too. Knowing how sitcoms work, I guess he'll be trying to woo Rachel for the rest of time. I also don't actually know if that's what will happen. Chaotic-neutral fave, pretty hot.
Watching these episodes also reminded me that things were different in the 90's compared to how things are now. Some examples of this include the computers being older and the clothes being baggier. This is SUCH a great blog post.
I don't think that I've ever been sold more quickly on a show than Show Me a Hero.
David Simon, creator of my favorite television show*, is once again diving into the complexities of local politics and institutions that almost seem optimized for dysfunction. As a work of historical fiction, Show Me a Hero explores the major local backlash (from relatively wealthy, white people) that took place in Yonkers, NY, against a federal court order to desegregate housing communities. Also, the abstract, broader political and social themes inherent to this material are effortlessly explored through well realized characters in a riveting fashion, because of course they are, it's a David Simon show.
To dwell on this point a bit further, I'm thoroughly impressed by the way in which even the most risible and wrongheaded characters are portrayed in a way where, if nothing else, you can understand the motivations that underlie their actions. Take, for example, Henry Spallone, a Yonkers City Council member who is stridently opposed to the court's order to integrate low-income housing into wealthier neighborhoods. On the one hand, he is representing a terrible cause, and is frequently shown smirking smugly while tossing red meat out to his bigoted constituents (who are only concerned about "declines in property values," oh and also how the judges are Jewish, but they're totally not bigots). On the other hand, it's easy to see the political upside in him acting like a martyr for this popular cause, and he even continues his grandstanding in private council meetings, indicating that he may actually believe everything he is saying.
Much like The Wire, Show Me a Hero manages to be riveting to watch while also providing sharp political and social commentary. I'm only two episodes in, so I don't have much else to say about this show for now, other than "Hey, this shit's pretty good."
*Note: No one else who writes about television on the internet has ever said this about The Wire. This is a wholly original thought that I thought of.