Pamela Adlon created a miracle. Semi-autobiographical, which is no guarantee of success. She had to deal with the flak from the early involvement of Louis C.K., which mostly just meant she threw herself into the show even more than before, directing everything, while of course also starring and often writing. She gave us a believable family of mom, three daughters, and grandmother where each character was distinctive. She blended funny and dramatic seamlessly.
I think one example of how well Adlon made the show work is the three daughters. They don't really look related, nor do they look related to Adlon. Yet, thanks to the writing and the acting, they are exactly what you'd expect three sisters to be like. There are no false moments with those three. It's easy to just cast actors that look alike, but to build characters that are real and, to say that word again, believable is v.hard. Adlon did it episode after episode, season after season.
At the end, she said something important: don't feel sad that the show is finished, feel glad that now you can watch every episode on Hulu whenever you want.
Been watching more TV lately. The new seasons of Outlander and Better Things have finally arrived, with Atlanta soon to follow. But the primary reason for my expanded viewing is that the great Tim Goodman is back, with a Substack that I love. Goodman was the TV critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, and then for the Hollywood Reporter, before taking a sabbatical of sorts (details here). The fun thing about Tim's Substack is that he doesn't just post his thoughts on various things (TV included, of course), but he leads the virtual equivalent of discussion groups, with "assignments" and everything (his background in teaching comes through strong). The "assignments" are called "Box Sets" (details here), where he selects a show and we all watch, two episodes a week, and then contribute to a commentary thread. Some really brilliant people are involved, and the discussions are illuminating while creating the kind of online community that is still possible today.
The shows we have watched are Station Eleven and Collateral, which we have finished, and Counterpart and The End of the F***ing World, which we are in the middle of. Collateral was a brief British mini-series from David Hare that aired in 2018, starring Carey Mulligan as a Detective Inspector. I'll cheat here and quote from some of my comments:
I feel silly complaining about how solid and good it is. Lots of great casting, intriguing narrative. Reminiscent of so many excellent British crime/police dramas. But ... and I wonder if it felt this way in 2018 ... so much television today has a kind of flash, both visual and narrative. Collateral felt accomplished, but my viewing habits seem to have changed, so I wanted something more. Something like Happy Valley was so remarkably vicious that I couldn't take my eyes off of the screen. Carey Mulligan does wonders with a rather minimalist acting style.
You can catch this on Netflix.
Station Eleven was an odd one, a recent series from HBO Max based on a novel about a post-apocalypse world (caused by a pandemic ... yes, it was creepy to watch at times). I'd seen a couple of episodes when it came out. Again, some comments:
I confess that when I first watched, I was completely confused, so much so that I was ready to give up on the series. Then my wife explained things, and I decided to give it another chance, and I'm glad I did. My problem with Station Eleven is that I was too confused to get much intellectually, and perhaps because of that, I didn't often connect on an emotional level.
Earlier this month, Google News paired two headlines in my feed. The first, from The Guardian, read "Coming down: why has shock teen show Euphoria become such a drag?" The second, from Variety, said "'Euphoria' Season 2 Viewership Is Up Nearly 100% From Season 1". You might see this as evidence that audiences are getting dumber, but since I don't agree with the Guardian's take, I'm inclined to think viewership is up because people have caught on to the show. Not sure why this would be ... Season One was what we once called a "water cooler show" that everyone wanted to talk about. I don't know where those 100% more viewers came from. I know that I am pretty much the only person I know who watches Euphoria. I haven't convinced any of my friends to tune in. But the virtual water cooler is on fire over the series.
Creator Sam Levinson wrote and directed every episode this season, so you know who to praise or blame. Euphoria is so erratic ... let's just say it, the show is a mess ... that you find yourself praising and blaming simultaneously. Levinson is fearless about showing off, and that over-the-top feeling is one of the best parts of Euphoria, except when it's the worst. You won't be bored watching the show ... Levinson won't allow it.
Unsurprisingly, some people criticize the show for glamorizing drug addiction, to which I say, what show are they watching? Yes, there is plenty of glitz and glam, but it's largely external. The addicts in the show are essentially miserable, and you'd have to be an idiot to want to live their lives. Rue, the central character played by Zendaya, is even worse off for most of Season Two. There is nothing about her life that would make you think "I want to do drugs". Even the fact that she is played by Zendaya, a fashionable, popular, beautiful actress, doesn't make Rue's life appealing, because Zendaya, who deserved becoming the youngest-ever winner of a Best Drama Actress Emmy, is remarkable at turning down the glam. In fact, this is often an easy way to awards recognition: be glamourous, but play an unglamorous part, and people will mistake it for acting. Except that Zendaya truly is amazing. As if to ensure she gets Emmy consideration again, an entire episode of Season Two is devoted to Rue scraping bottom (and Zendaya delivers).
One problem with Season Two is that some popular characters are largely abandoned for no apparent reason. Hunter Schafer, who plays trans character Jules, a sometimes-love partner of Rue, isn't around nearly enough for me in Season Two, and other fans can say the same about their own favorite actors/characters. A few characters are given more to do, and the actors gobble up the opportunity. Best is Sydney Sweeney as Cassie, the girl with big boobs and a slut reputation. Sweeney does great work with a character that could be a stereotype.
The season climaxes with a two-episode combo where Cassie's sister Lexi puts on a school play about the lives of her, her family, and her friends. There are plenty of outrageous scenes, as Levinson blends the characters in the play with their "real life" counterparts ... it gets confusing at times, but it mostly works, and after almost two seasons of listening to Rue's narration (and her subsequent unreliable point of view), it's interesting to see these people from the perspective of a different character.
Levinson also did something unusual during the long COVID break. He shot two episodes that were shown between the two seasons. Both episodes were basically two characters in a simple setting (perfect for COVID filming), and they completely avoided the overkill that usually makes Euphoria such an extravagant mess.
A few words about As We See It, an engaging 8-episode series now on Amazon Prime. To be honest, I watched it because our friend Arthur Keng has a small supporting role, but I'm glad I did. It's about some young adults on the autism spectrum, three of whom live together with the help of an aide (I never figured out if she lived with them). The cast is mostly unknown to me, although Sosie Bacon, daughter of Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwich, plays the aide and is terrific. Joe Mantegna turns up as the father of one of the young adults. It was created by Jason Katims, who has made many television series, including Friday Night Lights.
For people who like to binge, you can get through As We See It in about 4 hours. It feels honest to the lives of people on the spectrum ... admittedly, I probably wouldn't know if the show got it all wrong, but the main characters are finely-drawn, and the actors who play the three central people are all on the spectrum, themselves. It's all something of a breakthrough, and the show is fine, if not great. And while some of the characters hit a bit close to home, there are rewards, like when one man says "I'll practice empathy".
I have created almost 50 categories for the posts on this blog, which at one point indicated what I hoped was some breadth to my posts. Nowadays, it's movie, movies, movies, music Friday. And the movie stuff is cross-posted to Letterboxd, where it gets more views. There are more than a dozen categories that haven't seen a post since 2020. OK, my interests change. But it seems as I get older, my writing has narrowed.
Television has always been a frequent topic for me, but that has faded in recent years, as I watch more movies than ever and ... well, I'm not sure why, to be honest. I'm still watching TV, but I'm not writing about it as often. Recently, I've been watching As We See It, Station Eleven, Yellowjackets, Squid Game, The White Lotus, Loki, and Euphoria. A few of these are ripe for a post or two, especially Euphoria, but I've gotten lazy.
Things may be changing. The great Tim Goodman is back, after a longish hiatus from TV reviewing. He has a Substack, Tim Goodman/Bastard Machine, and not only is he offering some of his writing, he also has a couple of community projects, including something he calls "The Box Set", which involves everyone watching episodes of a series, one a week, and commenting on what we've seen. The first two are Station Eleven, and Collateral (which is a few years ago).
What does this have to do with Yellowjackets, which finished its first season just before Tim's Substack started? Well, taking part in the Box Set comments has me thinking again about writing about television. And during the discussion of the first episode of Collateral, I noted that "so much television today has a kind of flash, both visual and narrative" that Collateral, a BBC series of high quality but seemingly less flash, may be unfairly underestimated because it doesn't beat you over the head like, say, Euphoria. (Underestimated by me, that is.) I wondered if shows like Euphoria and Yellowjackets are training me to expect something different from TV now.
Yellowjackets isn't overly flashy, by the way. Most of the structural complexity comes from its two timelines, within which it shifts regularly. In 1996, a high-school girls soccer team, traveling to a big competition, sees their plane crash in the wilderness. In 2021, we follow the lives of the survivors of the crash and its aftermath. Kudos to casting directors Libby Goldstein and Junie Lowry-Johnson for getting perhaps the most important thing out of the way: casting the characters as teenagers and as adults. The matches are very good, even uncanny at times. Melanie Lynskey (Shauna) and Sophie Nélisse (teen Shauna) ... not sure what's going on, Nélisse does faintly resemble Lynskey, but she also is excellent at making us believe they are the same character. The same goes for Juliette Lewis and Sophie Thatcher, although here the writing helps ... the roots of adult Natalie are found in what we see of Teen Natalie. Maybe the easiest match is Christina Ricci and Sammi Hanratty as adult/teen Misty ... Misty has curly blonde hair and wears glasses, so a wig and a prop connects the two actresses. (They are great, in any event.)
There is a second level to the structure, in that both timelines contain the kind of mysteries that invite speculation. There's the question of what really happened to the girls in the wilderness, and there's the question of who might be blackmailing the adults in 2021. The very first scene shows an unidentified girl running away from some unknown danger ... she falls into a pit that has been set with stakes that kill her. We want to know who she is ... we want to know why she was running ... we want to know if there is any specific connection to what we see in 2021. Most of the speculation surrounds Jackie (a fine Ella Purnell), the only main teen who doesn't seem to have an adult presence in 2021. We can figure that she doesn't get out alive, and it's easy to imagine that's her running in the first scene.
Yellowjackets does a little bait-and-switch on the audience. We do learn what happened to Jackie, we do find out who the possible blackmailer is, but each answer leads to more questions, which of course means Season Two already has us in its clutches before it's even been made. If you are only watching Yellowjackets for the mysteries, you might be let down, even though the setup for Season Two is intriguing.
But ultimately, the core of the show lies in its characters (and the acting of those characters), and it rewards viewers throughout. I'm not as interested in What Next than I am in the characters. Either way, I'm looking forward to another season.
It's been slim pickings for me and television this year, not because there was nothing good to watch, but because I didn't watch much of it, good or bad. I've tried to figure out why this is true, and I have no clue, to be honest. I watch a LOT more movies than I used to (far more than 300 over the last two years), which takes up a lot of screen time. I checked my TV 2020 post, and none of the shows I mentioned have been on during the past year, some because they were cancelled, others because the pandemic has slowed production. I look forward to the return of such shows as Gentleman Jack, Atlanta, and Outlander. But the show I am most excited about is the second season of Euphoria.
The pattern nowadays is that I watch and episode or two, get behind, and forget to catch up. This is true of some shows I have been watching for years, like Curb Your Enthusiasm. More often, I check out new shows, like them, and forget to keep watching: Mare of Easttown, PEN15, Reservation Dogs, Blindspotting, Hacks, Gangs of London. We just started watching Station Eleven, and we might stick with it. A series I caught up on was La Casa de las Flores.
Four 2021 series did stick out for me. Two were mini-series of a sort. Get Back, Peter Jackson's extension of Let It Be, was wonderful for Beatles fans, and McCartney 3,2,1 could have been appreciated by all music fans. The White Lotus was an imperfect but intriguing show from HBO. And the Korean series Squid Game was an international phenomenon that I watched when we were in Spain. I'd recommend all four of those shows, although Squid Game requires a tolerance for violence.
The White Lotus had a great cast, and Alexandra Daddario gave her best performance yet.
I finished Get Back on Sunday, when the final episode turned up. It's a treasure trove for Beatles fans. I'm not sure how much it would appeal to non-fans ... it's better than the average "behind the scenes" documentary, but I'm still not a big fan of the genre (I've always thought Don't Look Back was overrated). If I were to introduce someone to The Beatles today, I'd play the music and show A Hard Day's Night. Then I'd get to Peter Jackson's project. I don't mean this as a knock ... I am a Beatles fan, I gobbled up the entire thing and wouldn't mind doing it again.
Jackson deserves our thanks for showing the joy that was always part of the Let It Be sessions, along with the downsides. I've always thought the rooftop concert was odd, because they were having such a good time, and that didn't match the reputation of the sessions. Jackson shows us that it all made sense.
The highlight of the rooftop concert: the joy of seeing Maureen Starkey, Ringo’s wife, bop her head to “Get Back.” Nobody on the roof is a bigger fan than Mo. She was a screaming girl back at the Cavern Club — she’s the only person here who ever stood in line and paid money to hear this band. (The first time she met Ringo, she was asking for his autograph.) She’s waited years for this gig. At the end, Paul looks over and says, “Thanks, Mo” — a beautiful moment that sums up what the Beatles were all about, but also sums up what they are about, even now, which is why this story refuses to fade into the past.
I also enjoyed the comments from my friend Tomás Summers Sandoval, not only because I enjoy his writing, but also because he watched with his kid. Since I wonder how the Beatles continue to be relevant to later generations, I found his family-based viewings particularly interesting.
Peter Jackson's revision of Let It Be, called Get Back, has finally arrived as a three-part mini-series on Disney+. I've seen Part One, and am enjoying it. As advertised, it's a friendlier Beatles than we had seen in the past. And try as he might, George was never going to break through the long-lasting partnership of John and Paul.
I no longer remember when it was ... it was when VHS still ruled the roost, and Pierce Brosnan was 007 ... my wife and I decided to watch all the James Bond movies up to that point, timing it so we finished just as the new one came out in theaters. This wasn't the easiest task. On Demand barely existed in those days, so we had to work hard to gain access to the movies, and it didn't help that we watched them in order of their release. We had seen most of them already, but not in a binge, not together. It took awhile, but we pulled it off, even working in the non-canonical 1967 version of Casino Royale and the Sean Connery return of Never Say Never Again. Of course, once we accomplished this feat, we had to keep it up, so we've seen every Bond movie since, when they came out. No Time to Die came out when we were in Europe, so we had to wait a few weeks, but we saw it Tuesday and we're caught up again.
Except ... there has always been a hole in our project, for in 1954, in an episode of a TV series called Climax!, James Bond made his first appearance on the screen, in a presentation of Casino Royale. It was a stripped-down version ... Climax! was an hour-long show with commercials ... in many ways, it's barely recognizable, given what 007 has become as a pop culture artifact. But we finally decided to watch it, so we could really catch up with our monumental binge. You can find the entire thing on YouTube:
It doesn't stink, and it's fun to see James Bond before the routine set in. But it's not really much good. It was filmed live, the budget was small, and while everyone does their best, it wouldn't be worth watching if it wasn't for its historical status. Barry Nelson plays Bond ... yes, Nelson is American, so is Bond in this production, sometimes they call him "Jimmy". Peter Lorre plays Le Chiffre, and Peter Lorre is always good. Felix Leiter becomes Clarence Leiter, and to balance out the Americanness of Bond, here he is British. Given the norms of the time, the famous torture scene makes it past the censors, although it all happens off-screen and all Le Chiffre does is take a pair of pliers to Bond's feet. An interesting curio, and no more. But hey, it's better than A View to a Kill ... it's even better than the 1967 Casino Royale.
In my search for things to watch that were accessible via streaming from Europe, I decided I would join the rest of the world and watch Squid Game.
Squid Game, which was released a little over a month ago, is the most-watched series (from its launch) in the history of Netflix as I write this. It reached #1 on the Netflix TV charts in 90 countries, including Spain ... when I logged onto the service from Nerja, the website said "#1 in Spain!"
With all of this, I admit that while I knew of the cultural explosion around the show, I had no idea what it was about. Nor did my wife, about which more in a bit. I settled in for Episode One, expecting some excess, in line with some of the Korean horror films I'd seen. For the first 40 minutes or so, I saw an interesting setup about some people suffering from immense debt, who agreed to play a large-scale game for a chance to win a lot of money.
What follows here includes necessary spoilers for that first episode. A total of 456 players are taken to a hidden compound. They will play a series of six games, with a big payout for anyone who finishes. The first game is "Red Light, Green Light", a variation on the children's game. They have five minutes to reach a finish line, but they can only move at certain moments; anyone who moves during the stay-still periods is eliminated.
The game begins, the players move forward towards the finish line, the call to stop comes, the players stop, and the ones who move are eliminated from the game. Their elimination results in their being shot down and killed. By the time the five minutes are up, more than half of the 456 are dead.
There are underlying themes about class and money, reminiscent perhaps of Parasite. But I've only watched two episodes so far, and I can't really comment on those themes. In fact, this post isn't really about analysis at all, but rather at the fascinating (and rather sad) reaction of my wife when I explained the first episode.
My wife watches a lot of TV while she knits, often shows from other countries. She chooses shows by browsing, sometimes selecting something Netflix or other services recommend based on her past viewing. She is mostly uninterested in stuff that goes viral, so while she had heard of Squid Game, she knew even less than I did about the series, and didn't have any interest in watching it. I made what I see in retrospect was an insufficient description of the show's concept, so that she didn't know the show is fictional. To her, I am describing a Survivor-like reality show, so when I got to the part where half of the people died, she was disgusted. Not just with the show, but with her husband, who seemed to look forward to Episode Two. She didn't think I was the kind of person to watch actual killing for entertainment purposes, and while she couldn't really believe such a show existed, times are bizarre, and so when I kept insisting that the game's losers really died, saying "it's Korean!" in reference to Korean horror films, she thought I meant there was a show from Korea where people were being murdered.
I admit I was, and am, a bit frightened that she would think I would continue to watch the show she thought I was describing. But then, based on the look on her face. she was just as frightened that her husband of 48 years was the kind of person who would indeed want to watch more.
It's safe to say we were both relieved when I did a better job of explaining that the show was fiction. I went on to watch the second episode, but I don't think she will be putting it on her Netflix queue anytime soon.