television, catching up

It’s probably a combination of the lessening of my obsession to post as this blog approaches its 15th birthday, and the different ways television is consumed now, but I don’t post on TV as often as I used to. My pattern was generally to write about a show at the beginning of a season and at the end, but now, we’re all in different places with various shows. There are still shows with regular weekly schedules, but even there, I sense that some people prefer to wait for a season to end so they can binge-watch. And there are the streaming series that are usually released as an entire season, so a show might be released on a Friday and by Monday, people have already watched the entire season. So I don’t know when to start writing. I have no problem writing about old movies, but TV seems more immediate somehow.

Anyway, here are some of the things I’ve been watching, in alphabetical order:

Agents of SHIELD (not the exact title, but tough ... Season 4, ABC). I’m neither here nor there with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and I preferred the now-cancelled Agent Carter to this one. But I like the cast, especially Clark Gregg, and if it often feels like a poor step-sibling to the big Marvel movies, perhaps that’s a point in its favor.

Ash vs Evil Dead (Season 2, Starz). Perhaps the easiest TV series in history to evaluate. If you like the Evil Dead movies, you will like this show. If not, you won’t. And I suppose if you’ve never even heard of the Evil Dead movies, you won’t like this either. This is possibly the goriest show we’ve ever seen on TV, which is right in line with the movies (if for some reason you aren’t up to date, this show is part of the Evil Dead universe, taking place after the events of Army of Darkness). The entire show is over the top, including the gore, which can’t be taken on a serious level ... the inspiration for all of this is the Three Stooges. No one tries to make a case for the Evil Dead universe as meaningful ... it’s just a silly gorefest that has the honesty to know what it is about. Plus, Bruce Campbell and Lucy Lawless. One of my favorite shows, but if ever the cliché “Your Mileage May Vary” was appropriate, it’s here.

Atlanta (One season, FX). Might be the best new show in recent times, although it’s erratic. Donald Glover created and stars in it, and he offers a small world that feels real (whether or not it actually is), with characters (and actors) to fill their roles perfectly. This show might get so good in future seasons that we’ll look back on Season One as a mere warm-up, but it stands on its own.

Better Things, Fleabag, Insecure, Lady Dynamite (you can find them if you’re interested). I’m sticking these all together because they are all half-hour comedy/dramas with women at the center. Beyond that, they aren’t really alike, but they do run together in my mind. Fleabag is the only one I’ve finished ... Phoebe Waller-Bridge should be a star ... but I wouldn’t say it’s better than the others, at least not yet. I recommend all of them.

Black Mirror (Season 3, Netflix). Not sure this makes sense, but I like this show enough that I don’t feel the need to binge. Each episode is a stand-alone, which is probably the main reason ... I can sit down for an hour, and feel I’ve gotten enough for one day. So I am not caught up with this season, but I’ve liked what I’ve seen.

Designated Survivor (Season 1, ABC). Kiefer Sutherland’s new show, as a man who becomes president after everyone else in the federal government is killed. Obviously, we’re reminded of 24, even though in fairness the show doesn’t play that game too much. More detrimental to its potential is that it reminds me of Battlestar Galactica, which also begins with a minor governmental official falling into the presidency. BSG was one of the best shows ever; Designated Survivor isn’t really trying to be that good. So I may not make it much longer with this one, when I could just watch BSG again.

The Fall (Season 3, Netflix). This is a British series starring Gillian Anderson as a British police detective and Jamie Dornan as the “Belfast Strangler”. If you are interested in binging, there are a total of 17 episodes. The two leads do great jobs, and the show does well at showing the strangler’s humanity as well as his crimes. The relationship between the two gets more complicated over time. Overall, it’s nothing too special, perhaps a bit like SVU if Mariska Hargitay was the lead figure from the start. Especially good for fans of Gillian Anderson.

Jane the Virgin (Season 3, CW). Remains one of the most inventive, enjoyable shows on the air. Gina Rodriguez, Jaime Camil, and Anthony Mendez are all great, the entire cast is good, and the meta approach to the telenovela is well-done. Plus, they have managed to deal with the “Virgin” aspect of the show with intelligence and believability.

Rectify (4th and final season, Sundance). The best show currently on TV (The Americans is between seasons). Its glacial pace turns away most viewers ... it’s a gift that creator Ray McKinnon has been given the chance to tell the story in full, given the poor ratings. Recently, I decided the show reminded me of soap operas, where it takes months to resolve anything. Except I don’t expect things to be resolved on Rectify. I can only hope that sometime in the future, people catch up with it on streaming, and kick themselves for missing out in the first place. Aden Young, the unknown-to-me star, is as good as anyone, week after week. And this is what Abigail Spencer did before Timeless. If you actually want to take my advice, this is the show to start with.

Shameless (Season 7, Showtime). Showtime always lets their shows run for too long. That would seem to be a problem here, but somehow, Shameless is still very good. The changes in the characters over the years are believable (at least within the cockeyed world of the show), Emmy Rossum deserved more than one of those awards named after her, and I’m glad it’s still on. Oddly, the least-interesting character is the one played by William H. Macy, the de facto star. Macy is excellent, his character is not.

The Strain (Three seasons, with one more to go, FX). Another zombie show, this one doesn’t try for overarching significance, which for me means it’s better than The Walking Dead. I care about the characters, and there’s some good acting here, but this isn’t a classic.

Supergirl (Season 2, CW). Mostly harmless, with a fresh performance by Melissa Benoist in the title role. I think it’s mostly froth, although some find more depth. The kind of show where, if I get behind, I’ll probably forget to watch it any more, but so far, I’ve kept up.

Timeless (Season 1, NBC). The first few episodes show a decent time-travel drama with a decent cast and decent recreations of the past. Co-showrunner Shawn Ryan’s work is always worth a look, and if you like time-travel stories, this will be right up your alley. Plus, it’s nice to see Abigail Spencer getting work after Rectify. Nothing special, but I’m still watching.

Transparent (Season 3, Amazon). I mention this because most people have at least heard of it. I like it, yet I don’t binge-gobble ... Season 3 was released in September, and I’m still 6 episodes behind. Which must say something, no matter how much I like the show.

The Walking Dead (Season 7, AMC). As of this writing, I’m only one episode behind, but I’m not sure I’ll continue watching. Six seasons is enough, I guess. I always thought this was a good zombie show that was tarted up with character stories, but it’s true, a few of those characters grew on me over time. But starting last season, the creators starting fucking with the audience, and I don’t feel like being fucked with anymore. Plus, at some point, it’s just ridiculous that this show gets away with so much killing (because the victims are already dead). I’m all for TV violence, but don’t be coy (see Ash vs Evil Dead, above).

Westworld (Season 1, HBO). Gorgeous to look at, with a stellar cast, a bit like Timeless with a budget. The producers are trying for something big, but they are also big fans of keeping viewers in the dark about the ultimate scenario for the show. This is trickier than it used to be, since the Internet allows for hive-mind break downs of every detail. I have a feeling this is a less-than-meets-the-eye show, but it definitely pleases the eye.

I’m leaving out some shows that will be returning, hopefully soon. The Americans (FX) is the best show on TV ... I highly recommend catching up with it during its off-season. The 100 (CW) became quite problematic in its third season, yet I may be looking forward to next season more than any other show on this list, and it’s another I recommend you catch up on (be aware it takes a few episodes before it reaches its potential). There are the usuals: Broad City, The Leftovers, Orphan Black, Outlander, Sense8. A special shout out to Outlander, because it is a special show. As usual, I haven’t said much about plots or concepts here ... if you’re interested in any of these but can’t quite figure out what they are about, well, that’s why we have the Internet. And apologies for all the shows I’ve forgotten here ... the pitfalls of Peak TV.


ash, the evil dead, s. clay wilson, and my wife

My wife doesn’t have a birthday. She has a Birthday Month. So I have to be on my toes all through October, not just on the 4th (which is what the rest of us would call her birthday).

Last night we settled in to watch TV. She wanted to start with Designated Survivor, the new, so-so- Kiefer Sutherland show. I was feeling a bit sad ... silly, really, but I wished we liked more of the same TV shows and movies. Designated Survivor may turn out to be a show we watch together, but it kind of gives “common ground” a bad name.

After that, we watched the season opener of Ash vs Evil Dead. This is more like it, I thought, I like this show a lot, which reveals my real definition of “shows we watch together”: something I like that she tolerates. Except she doesn’t tolerate Ash vs Evil Dead, she likes it, too. And she occasionally laughs, which if you know Robin, you know laughing at TV isn’t a regular occurrence. But it’s one of the reasons I love her so ... she’ll sit quietly as a comedy plays, then laugh at arguably the goriest show in TV history (gore isn’t inherently funny, but ridiculous, over-the-top gore is).

And if Season One was the Goriest Show of All Time, Season Two had an early scene that easily topped anything we’d seen before. And we laughed. I can’t find the scene on YouTube, which is probably just as well. The best I can do is this Season Two trailer, which was apparently too gory for Comic Con:

Later in the evening, we spent a few minutes chuckling over a couple of S. Clay Wilson drawings.

Now I ask you: what kind of moron would think he and his wife had few shared tastes, when she laughed at Evil Dead and S. Clay Wilson?

Yep, I’m a moron.

And my wife is the greatest.

stevenrobin


fleabag

There are a lot of woman-centered half-hour series on television these days, which is a welcome trend. Besides the ensemble productions like Girls and Orange Is the New Black (which actually runs for an hour), there’s Broad City and Lady Dynamite and One Mississippi and Better Things, and the subject of this post, the wonderful Fleabag. These shows don’t just feature women, they are created by women. Many of them seem at least partly autobiographical, although I don’t know how far down that road I’d want to go. Broad City is my favorite, but after a six-episode first season, Fleabag is running a close second.

Creator/writer/star Phoebe Waller-Bridge is the key to what makes Fleabag great, which given her multiple duties might seem obvious. I’m inclined to hail a new star, and ask where she has been all of our lives, but of course, she’s been around for a long time (she’s 31, and has been at this for a decade), even appearing in things I’ve seen, even if I don’t remember her (the second season of Broadchurch, Albert Nobbs). It’s her face that does it. Her unnamed character regularly breaks the fourth wall, which is a cliché by this point, but she makes it work because 1) she gives herself great dialogue, and most importantly 2) because of the wordless times when she stares at the camera and tells us everything we need by facial expressions. She sucks us in from the very first scene ... she is so engaging in a recognizably human way that we don’t just want to root for her, we want to be her.

That first scene also establishes the sexual frankness that is a running component of Fleabag:

Her eyes are fabulous, far more than mere windows into her soul. I want to give her eyes an Emmy.

This may all seem run of the mill in 2016, half Bridget Jones, half Sex and the City. Waller-Bridge’s character is like a blend of Abby and Ilana in Broad City, sexually adventurous but always thinking about what she is about to do. It’s a unique take, no matter how much you think you’ve seen it already.

While many of the half-hour shows today are mostly dramas that get labeled comedies because once in awhile you laugh, Fleabag is more obviously a comedy. Here, it’s not the jokes that sneak up on you, but instead the raw emotions. The final episode does not come out of nowhere ... looking back, you can easily see how it was set up. But when we see Waller-Bridge’s character deal with the consequences of her actions, it’s heartbreaking. And again, it’s Waller-Bridge who gets the lion’s share of the credit. She wrote the prize-winning one-woman play on which the series is based, she wrote all of the episodes of the series, she plays the lead role (I can’t remember, but she may be on screen for the entire six episodes). It’s one of the best accomplishments of this television season. A BBC Three show that ran during the summer, it can now be binged in its entirety on Amazon. A.


mr. robot season two

Mr. Robot sneaks up on you. Last season, I got about halfway through and then it fell into the bottomless, always full pit of DVR hell. It was interesting, and Rami Malek was great, but there was always something else to watch.

Eventually, I caught up, inspired just before Season Two began, to see what all the fuss was about. I’m not sure what happened, except that maybe I just wasn’t ready for it during my first attempt. But by the time I finished binging Season One, I couldn’t wait for the new season to begin. And Mr. Robot became one of the few shows that I had to watch when it was aired.

In the season finale, a character recites the William Carlos Williams poem “The Red Wheelbarrow”. This poem is ever present in high school and college English classes, where students grapple with the deep meanings said to reside inside the poem’s sixteen words. I am not here to explicate the poem, nor am I here to specifically place it in the context of Mr. Robot. But one thing seems crucial to me: the meanings that reside inside Mr. Robot are often just as hard for viewers to ascertain as Williams’ meanings are for students.

Or maybe it’s something as simple as writer Sam Esmail wanting to give his character something short to recite.

Mr. Robot got a lot of acclaim for its first season, in particular the ways in which the show, which was unlike other series on the USA Network, expanded that network's possibilities. (In truth, Mr. Robot is unlike most series on most networks.) Whatever constraints USA might have placed on Esmail for Season One seemed to disappear for Season Two, perhaps hiding under all the acclaim. Remarkably, Esmail rarely resorted to self-indulgence, and when he did (the “Alf” episode), it was often so fun no one cared about indulgence. But Esmail walked a thin line with what seemed to me to be conscious obfuscation. While some obsessive viewers correctly anticipated some of the more startling plot moments, others (i.e. me) were simultaneously intrigued by the mystery and frustrated by the lack of revelation. Yes, Mr. Robot specializes in big, grand revelations, and they are part of what makes the series compelling. But they are satisfying in part because Esmail has been leading us along for long stretches. (Again, for me ... others claimed to know everything before it happened.)

We haven’t yet fallen into Lost territory yet, but the potential is there.

Meanwhile, Rami Malek’s Emmy was well-deserved, and the casting in general effectively matches actors and characters. Carly Chaikin looks like Malek/Elliot’s sister, and she does great work as a bad-ass who is vulnerable on the inside (but not as much as that cliché might suggest). I don’t think Michael Cristofer has ever given a bad performance. Best of all is B.D. Wong as a mysterious character (are there any other kinds on this show?) who is both a transgender head of the “Dark Army” and the Minister of State Security for China.

Like I say, there’s nothing else like this out there right now. That novelty won’t carry the show forever, although Rami Malek might be able to pull it off. Suffice to say that, at the end of an erratic finale to an erratic season, I can’t wait for Season Three to begin.


stranger things, season one

This Netflix series comes from The Duffer Brothers, whose previous work I haven’t seen. In fact, I’m not familiar with too many of the people connected to the show, including the many child actors who play prominent roles. Cara Buono, who featured in a season of Mad Men, has a fairly minor role, and Matthew Modine’s character is important even though he doesn’t make too many appearances. Yet Stranger Things feels quite familiar nonetheless, despite the title suggesting otherwise, because it wears its influences on its sleeves, in plain sight. The series, which takes place in a Midwestern town in the 1980s, borrows from Spielberg’s suburban movies and plays homage to many other movie and TV artifacts of that era. Someone even made a half-hour video noting what they claim is every single reference in the entire season:

Appropriately, the one actor who is easily recognizable is Winona Ryder, who in the 80s starred in films like Beetlejuice and Heathers. Ryder was a point of contention in our house ... while my wife and I are both fans of the actor, she thought Ryder was unconvincing as a mom on the edge after her son disappears. I felt that Ryder’s quirky performance fit the character, and it is the kind of role that invites awards, for what that’s worth.

Like the best Spielberg movies with kids, Stranger Things does a wonderful job of presenting life from a kid’s perspective. There is no condescension, just an acceptance that kids see things their own way. The kids are far from perfect ... their silly squabbles are there for all to see ... but their loyalty is there, as well. It’s not just the kids whose perspective we get ... Winona Ryder’s mom, creeping into near madness, has her own definite way of seeing, and it is among the strongest parts of the show (my wife would probably not agree). My favorite part of the entire series is the Ouija-board she makes out of lights that she puts on her wall. You see, she is convinced her missing son is somehow inside her walls, trying to communicate with her:

Stranger Things is full of ominous paranoia and a hearty nostalgia for the period it recreates. It has its ups and down, but then, I never expect cheesy sci-fi horror to be perfect ... I just expect it to be fun. Stranger Things is fun.


the night of

Great television series can be found everywhere these days, including some surprising places like Lifetime and USA, not to mention all of the streaming possibilities. Still, when HBO offers a prestige mini-series event, it gets our attention. HBO still represents quality for most people. So The Night Of has a lot going for it from the start, and it must be said, for the most part, it delivers on its promise. The first of eight episodes is as good as TV gets, and if the rest of the series can’t live up to that introduction, it’s still plenty good. The story of a Pakistani-American college student who is the prime suspect in a brutal murder case, The Night Of casts a wide net as it examines the effects of institutions on people, not just victims but the people working within those institutions.

That first episode takes us through a long night where college student Nasir “Naz” Khan (Riz Ahmed) meets a girl, has some wild times, wakes up to find she has been murdered, rather accidentally gets arrested, and spends time waiting in a police station before he is finally locked up. The dread is overwhelming ... it’s almost guaranteed they can’t keep this up for eight episodes, and they don’t, but at least the audience gets to breathe. Ahmed is the best thing about the series ... somehow, using only his eyes and the way he walks, he shows us Naz as a scared kid who gradually, in his time in jail, becomes harder. It is the most subtle kind of acting, and needs to be seen to be believed. John Turturro, perhaps the biggest name here, is fine in a role originally intended for James Gandolfini ... his defining visual characteristic is his eczema. There are a few other names I recognized in the cast, most notably the always great Micheal K. Williams, along with Jeannie Berlin, Glenne Headly, and Williams’ old Wire buddy J.D. Williams.

Richard Price and Steven Zaillian are trying to do at least two things here, a character study and a procedural. The procedural is what makes us wonder what will happen next, and of course, the inevitable whodunnit angle keeps our attention. There is no reason why these two can’t coexist, that we can learn about how the process affects the people it swallows while also learning what happened on the night of. But in the final episode, the procedural took over, and not for the better. Bill Camp plays a retiring cop, Dennis Box, who identifies a suspect on the first night (Naz) and doesn’t look at anyone else because the initial evidence is good, and, one assumes, he wants to go home with his new golf clubs. They needed to establish this about Box with more clarity, though, because in the final episode, feeling uncertain about the case, he finally applies his strong detective skills to the case, becoming convinced Naz was innocent. If Box was as good as he seems, he would have done this work sometime during Episode Two, but that wouldn’t make much of a mini-series. Meanwhile, several characters throughout the series act like morons, not because they are stupid but because it allows for an eight-episode mini-series. So Naz gets himself in a predicament, but he makes it infinitely worse by pocketing a bloody knife that turns out to be the murder weapon. One of his attorneys, who seems as bright as any other lawyer, kisses Naz in front of a jail camera ... dumb ... and later smuggles drugs to Naz in her vagina. The only reason she turns stupid is so Turturro, who has just sat at the defendant’s table the entire trial, can give the closing argument (he does fine, the speech is fine, but it’s like a movie about horse racing ... the ending is always great because horse races are exciting, and this works because closing arguments always work).

When you spend seven episodes with something as good as The Night Of, you won’t want to have stupid things turning up in the last episode just to make the mystery more entertaining. Zaillian and Price work hard to elevate The Night Of above the usual crime drama, then turn it into something far more ordinary at the end. It’s a shame, because much of that last episode is equal to what came before. The result is a series where the first episode was an A+, the next six episodes were A/A-, but the last episode fluctuated between A and C.


casual

There are television shows (and movies, for that matter) that my wife tends to avoid because they have no characters to “root for”. It’s not about a contest, it’s just that she likes to have a least one person who has some chance of becoming a good person, if they aren’t there already.

For this reason, I’ve told her that she should avoid Unreal, a series that takes us behind the scenes at the making of a reality dating show. Almost every character has ulterior motives (some actually wear their motives on their sleeves, so I guess those aren’t ulterior) ... almost every character is concerned almost entirely with their own personal agendas of advancement. Shiri Appleby is presented as the one person with a conscience ... when the series begins, she is returning to the dating show (called Everlasting) after having a nervous breakdown during the show’s previous season. She is very good at her job, which requires that she manipulate the women who appear as contestants trying to win the heart of the man of their dreams, doing what she can to get them (and that year’s Man of Dreams) to act in a way that will make for a good season of Everlasting. Over time, she abuses every one of the women she deals with, but because she has a conscience, she feels bad about what she does. Thus, we think she might become a good person.

Except, at least through Season One, she never makes it. She is still pulling shit as the season ends. And she is what passes for a likable character. (I haven’t yet watched Season Two. It has drawn some seriously negative reactions ... I threw out a query to some of the critics I trust most, whether I should continue watching Season Two, and the best I got was Mo Ryan saying the first two episodes were good, but that then it went downhill.)

The thing is, the people behind Unreal are quite aware of what they are doing with these characters. They are not meant to be likable. I don’t think the creators of Casual are in that place, however. Casual, a Hulu series which just finished its second season, is about a woman who is breaking up with her husband and moves, with their daughter, into her brother’s home. Once we meet the siblings’ parents, we understand why they are having such trouble as adults ... they had a rough childhood in a psychological sense. And over two seasons, the three main characters work gradually towards becoming better people. All three of them are extremely self-absorbed, but when they step outside of themselves we see some pretty decent people. The characters feel real, with all of their flaws, and we root for them.

Except ... the brother is the #1 amongst equals when it comes to self-absorption. He tramples on the lives of others, always thinking that he is the one who is suffering (in fairness, he often is). I know this kind of person ... I am this kind of person. And I try to do better, as does the character. But he is so horrible that, using my wife’s criteria, he is practically unwatchable. The writing is good, the acting is good, but I simply can’t stand that guy. I don’t even like when he gets a comeuppance, because I know it will lead to more scenes where he thinks only of himself and his traumas.

Let’s just say he hits too close to home for me. It’s a good show, but I can’t say I enjoy it much.

Everyone loves Leon, though:

 

(I wrote about the first half of Season One last year.)


triumph's summer election special 2016

Last night, as my wife was reading in bed, I joined her, opened up my Kindle, put in my ear phones, and turned on Triumph the Insult Comic Dog’s latest special on Hulu, Triumph’s Summer Election Special 2016. If you are unfamiliar with Triumph, imagine Don Rickles’ shtick coming out of the mouth of a hand puppet doggy operated by Robert Smigel. He made his name for his occasional appearances on Conan O’Brien’s various late-night shows, where he often got tossed out of events he was “covering” (most famously the Westminster Dog Show, more than once). Arguably his most famous sketch is his demolition of Star Wars fans waiting in line for the premiere of one of the movies. A favorite at our house is when, for some reason, a Hawaii TV station asked him to substitute for the local weather reporter.

The new Election Special comes on the heels of an earlier edition that has actually been nominated for an Emmy.

After I was done watching, I pulled out my ear phones, at which point, my wife said she had rarely, if ever, heard me laugh so much for an extended period of time. Oh, a minute or two here and there, but consistent, full-throated laughter for an hour? She was amazed.

I’m not going to try and analyze why this is. Suffice to say that I find Triumph to be hilarious at his best, and always worth watching even when he’s not as good. What interests me here is how Triumph has become a political comedian with these two specials. He’s been here before ... he did bits in both the 2004 and 2008 presidential campaigns ... but for the most part, he’s famous for those Star Wars fans, and Bon Jovi fans, and American Idol contestants, and the Tony Awards, etc. His act never really changes, which is one reason I’m surprised that I still find it funny. He works his way into situations where he can pepper people with questions that are either insulting, or lead to insults. You may feel a bit guilty for laughing at his victims, although apparently as his fame increases, he often gets asked by fans to be tormented on camera. Triumph is first and last a comedian ... there is no social commentary to his bits.

Except when he’s dealing with politicians. It’s one thing when he makes fun of Star Wars fans (confronted with a fan in a Darth Vader costume, he points to a box of buttons on the costume and asks which button calls up his parents to pick him up), but another when he applies the same basic techniques to politicians (and, more often, their representatives):

Triumph’s comedy is based on insults, but when he addresses politicians and their lackeys, he asks the questions “real” journalists would not. OK, there’s only so many jokes you can make about Bernie Sanders’ age, or Hillary Clinton’s hair, or Donald Trump’s anything. But when his insulting questions are directed at actual issues, you see how the need for politeness mutes even the most “hard-hitting” journalists.

Triumph is an equal opportunity insult artist ... in this special he takes on Democrats and Republicans alike. But Donald Trump is so easy that he gives Triumph his best material. At one point, Triumph says he has footage of Trump visiting neighborhoods with mostly minority residents. We imagine Donald pressing the flesh, but when we see the footage, Trump shows up in a tank, speaking through a megaphone about how he loves black people and Mexicans, showing nothing but his hand waving out of the top of the tank.

Most revealing, if perhaps too reminiscent of an old Daily Show sketch, is when Triumph sets up a legitimate focus group of Trump supporters and asks their opinions on various proposed ads for the campaign. The fake ads are ridiculous, but the supporters find something to like about all of them. After one ad, where Trump says during the time the wall is built, he will put up an electric fence and force all Mexicans to wear collars that will shock them if they try to cross over into the U.S., the focus group spends a bit of time not condemning the ads but analyzing the logistics to make the plan work better.

Still, for me, it comes back to laughter. And so I preferred the segment when Triumph couldn’t get into the Republican convention. He turns up with a Roger Ailes lookalike. It works.


the man in the high castle (tv series)

I have a tendency to judge adaptations of the works of Philip K. Dick by how much I think they reflect the spirit and tone of his novels. I suppose we all do this, and it’s not like there’s an official stand on which everyone agrees. Dick is said to have loved Blade Runner, while I felt that movie left out the wrong parts from the novel. There is also the disorienting feeling his books bring on the reader. This is something that has rarely been captured on film ... one scene in Total Recall did it, and A Scanner Darkly got it for an entire movie.

Amazon’s TV series, The Man in the High Castle, doesn’t really get Dick, either, but that doesn’t matter as much as I thought it would. The novel is unlike his other books, so the “non-Dick” factor is built in. The premise of book and series is simple, an alternate history where the Axis wins World War II. The series does a beautiful job of world creation, especially with the sets and cinematography. Much of the world we see is dark and grimy (it takes place in 1962, with Japan in control of the West Coast and Germany controlling the East). While I wouldn’t say the tale is simple, it’s very controlled for a Phil Dick story. Once you set up the alternate history, everything else falls into place. I don’t want to overstate the ways the book differs from his other novels. The ways the characters interact with each other and with their environment are very Dickian. But the hallucinatory feel of his writing is mostly absent from The Man in the High Castle, which may be why it’s the one that won awards.

I usually attribute that psychedelic feel to drugs, both the ones Dick was taking as he wrote, and the ones that turn up in his books in the mid/late-60s. But this stuff was there, even before High Castle, even before drugs. Take this Wikipedia description of an early novel, Eye in the Sky:

The title refers to the gigantic, all-seeing eye of God; at least, that is, as a manifestation of one Arthur Silvester's personal worldview. He is an elderly schismatic Bábí World War II army veteran whose inner life is initially forcibly imposed on several other characters as the result of the involuntary formation of a gestalt consciousness after a nuclear accident.... While on a visit to the (fictional) Belmont Bevatron in then near-future 1957, eight people become stuck in a series of subtly unreal worlds, caused by the malfunction of the particle accelerator. These are later revealed to be solipsistic manifestations, bringing the story in line with Dick's penchant for subjective realities.

Or this, from another early novel, Time Out of Joint:

Ragle Gumm believes that he lives in the year 1959 in a quiet American suburb. His unusual profession consists of repeatedly winning the cash prize in a local newspaper competition called, "Where Will The Little Green Man Be Next?". Gumm's 1959 has some differences from ours: the Tucker car is in production, AM/FM radios are scarce to non-existent and Marilyn Monroe is a complete unknown. As the novel opens, strange things begin to happen to Gumm. A soft-drink stand disappears, replaced by a small slip of paper with the words "SOFT-DRINK STAND" printed on it in block letters. Intriguing little pieces of the real 1959 turn up: a magazine article on Marilyn Monroe, a telephone book with non-operational exchanges listed and radios hidden away in someone else's house.... A neighborhood woman, Mrs. Keitelbein, invites him to a Civil Defense class where he sees a model of a futuristic underground military factory. He has the unshakeable feeling he's been inside that building many times before.

Despite the enormous effect the alternate history in High Castle has on the reader, who knows what “really” happened, the characters live as if the world is “normal”. This is what makes the book different than most other PKD novels, and it’s why I think of it as simpler than his other books. Easier to take in, perhaps, but without the disorienting feel Dick is so good as portraying, The Man in the High Castle is a bit dull.

(I wrote a silly, I Ching-based post about the novel, which you can read here.)

All of this is a long-winded way of explaining why I don’t expect The Man in the High Castle television series to feel Dickian ... the novel doesn’t feel that way to me, either. It’s actually rather liberating, as the series can focus on the story and the characters, making great use of their creation of the alternate history, without worrying how close they are to Phil Dick.

When it is good, The Man in the High Castle is very good indeed. I can’t say enough about the great work of the people who put the vision of the creators on the screen. And there are a couple of excellent performances, Rufus Sewell as a Nazi bigwig, and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa as a Japanese trade minister. (Special shout out to Burn Gorman as a bounty hunter.) But one of the main characters, Joe Blake, is as boring as his name, and I can’t tell if the character is written poorly, the actor is too bland, or both, but it leaves a hole in the screen. Alexa Davalos is asked to carry much of the show, and she’s adequate, but in this case, she might be better suited to a supporting role.

Still, the world creation is remarkable, the plot moves along, and if it isn’t a great series, it at least has me looking forward to Season Two.

Addendum: Tim Goodman wrote a piece today about what he calls “Amazon’s baffling TV strategy”, which seems to amount to getting people to buy Amazon Prime where they can get free shipping for that pair of socks they purchased, and oh, we have movies and TV shows too, and oh, a few of those TV shows are ours.


she saved the world. a lot

This starts out being about sports, but it wanders, so here’s a spoiler warning for Penny Dreadful.

The Warriors lost their title to the Cavs. I didn’t like it while it was happening ... as I said at one point on Facebook, I didn’t want a good game, I wanted a Warrior victory, the bigger the better. And so it was a good game, even a great game, and LeBron James is the best player of his era, and his team accomplished something great. I am happy for the fans in Cleveland who have waited so long. Actually, I’m not happy, but one day I will be. It helps that 1) we got to celebrate just last year, and 2) the entire season up until these last games was such a joy.

Another thing that helps is being a fan of more than one sport. So while the Warriors lost, the Giants have won 8 in a row, and 27 of their last 35 (a record for the San Francisco team). They are for the moment comfortably in first place.

And the U.S. men’s national soccer team has made it to the semi-finals of the Copa América Centenario, where Argentina awaits them on Tuesday. That gives us 40+ hours to imagine what it might be like for the USA to beat Messi and company.

So it’s not bad being a Bay Area sports fan right now, even if the Warriors game hurts.

The NBA season is over, but it will return. And tonight, after the sadness of the basketball game, there was the Season Three finale of Penny Dreadful. Showtime claimed it was two hours long, but it was just two episodes shown back to back. While the first episode, and half of the second, featured interesting stories about the show’s many characters, along with the usual excellent acting, Eva Green’s Vanessa Ives was noticeable by her absence. And since we knew everything was headed for a showdown with Vanessa, Dracula, and our intrepid heroes, it felt like a bit of stalling ... come on, I kept thinking, get down to it. When Green finally showed up, we were reminded why Penny Dreadful has, above all, always been her series. There were all the great fictional characters thrown together: Dr. Frankenstein, his monster, and the Bride ... Dorian Gray ... Dr. Jekyll ... The Wolfman ... Dracula and Dr. Seward and Mina Harker and Van Helsing and Renfield ... I half expected Abbott and Costello to show up. But in all of this, Eva Green rose above the rest. She was the best thing about a very good show.

And yes, here come the spoilers, and yes, I was speaking in the past tense in that last sentence. For Vanessa Ives died to save the world from evil, rather like Buffy in “The Gift”. Buffy was resurrected, of course, and hey, Penny Dreadful features Dr. Frankenstein, so I suppose Vanessa could come back. But it was her death that finally ended Dracula’s reign of darkness, and it was explicitly Christian ... her last words were that she could see “our Lord”, whose battle she had fought her entire life.

Much has been made of late about how frequently television series use “surprise” deaths of important characters these days, but even in that context, Vanessa’s death snuck up on us, even as it seemed inevitable. More surprising were the words that appeared on the screen at the end of the episode, after we’d spent a few minutes trying to imagine Penny Dreadful without Eva Green. “The End”. Surprise, surprise. Showtime managed to keep that under wraps. I hadn’t even noticed that Penny Dreadful had yet to be extended for a fourth season. I just assumed it would happen, given that Showtime has a well-deserved reputation for letting their best shows run long past their sell-by date. But it turns out that Penny Dreadful is expensive, and it doesn’t get many viewers in the right demographics. I love Eva Green, but she’s 35 years old, and the other main characters included the likes of Timothy Dalton (in his 70s), and Patti LuPone and Wes Studi (both in their late-60s). It felt like Josh Hartnett was there to appeal to the younger crowd, but heck, he’s older than Eva Green. Add the fact that most of the characters came from turn-of-the-last-century literature, and I suppose it would be asking too much for young people to take a shine to it.

I mean, I went to Twitter to find fellow fans to mourn with, and everyone was talking about Game of Thrones. Truth is, I barely know anyone who watched Penny Dreadful.

So it’s gone, an A- series that flirted with an A. And the Warriors are gone, at least until next season, an A+ team that slipped to a B+ at just the wrong time. But there are still the Giants, and the U.S. national team. And Game of Thrones, and Outlander. And hey, Orange Is the New Black is back! Mourn for a day, but then see what joys await us.

Saved image from Tweetium (8)