The 10 Best Musical TV Moments of 2016

Vinyl: “Wild Safari” by Barrabás
“Think back to the first time you heard a song that made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up,” Richie Finestra bellows at his record-label employees. “Made you want to dance, or fuck, or go out and kick somebody’s ass! That’s what I want!” Vinyl showrunner Terence Winter had similar goals, but virtually none of the musical elements of his period drama clicked. This despite the imprimatur of co-creators Mick Jagger and Martin Scorsese, who know a thing or two about making magic with music, and supervisors Randall Poster and Meghan Currier, whose previous collaborations with Winter and Scorsese on Boardwalk Empire and The Wolf of Wall Street were all killer, no filler.

There was one grand and glorious exception, and it had nothing to do with Jagger swagger. Rather, it was the result of an unlikely alliance between demoted A&R doofus Clark Morelle (Jack Quaid) and his mail-room buddy Jorge (Christian Navarro). When the latter takes Clark to an underground dance club, they enter in slow motion to the ecstatic sounds of the 1972 proto-disco song “Wild Safari” by Barrabás. The killer clothes, the fabulous dancing, the beatific smiles on the faces of beautiful people, the irresistible rhythm, the rapturous “WHOA-OH-OH” of the chorus, the sense that an entire world of incredible music has existed right under his nose — you can feel it all hit Clark right in the serotonin receptors, and damn if it doesn’t hit you, too. Perhaps my favorite two minutes of TV this year, this sequence demonstrates the life-affirming power and pleasure of music.

I wrote about major musical moments in The Americans, Atlanta, Better Call Saul, Game of Thrones, Halt and Catch Fire, Horace and Pete, Luke Cage, Mr. Robot, The People v. O.J. Simpson, and (yes) Vinyl in my list of 2016′s 10 Best Musical TV Moments for Vulture.

Why ‘Rogue One’ Is a Better ‘Star Wars’ Movie Than ‘The Force Awakens’

Think back to Force‘s major settings and story beats. The three planets on which the bulk of the action take place – Jakku, Takodana and Starkiller Base – evoke the desert, forest, and arctic landscapes of the original trilogy’s Tattooine, Endor and Hoth, respectively. The story centers on a young adult stranded in a sandy world, awakening to their Force-dictated potential in the face of opposition from a black-masked wielder of the Dark Side, with Rey and Kylo Ren taking the place of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. Tentacled menaces threaten our heroes, with Han Solo’s captured Rathtars standing in for A New Hope‘s dianoga and Return of the Jedi‘s Sarlacc. Dangerous dogfights and narrow escapes dominate the action sequences, as they did in The Empire Strikes Back and A New Hope. Good guys attempt to blow up a superweapon by finding its secret weakness, a plot point so familiar that Solo himself cracks a joke about it. The hugely entertaining performances of relative newcomers Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, best-of-their-generation contenders Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver, and even lions-in-winter Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher may disguise it, but in artistic terms, this is a very conservative film.

By contrast, Rogue One looks like an alien life form. No snow. No forest. Some sand, but mostly as the surroundings for Jedha, as teeming a city as the series has shown us since the prequels’ skyscraping metropolis of Coruscant. No edge-of-your-seat dogfights and “yahoo!” escape sequences – the only thing these characters escape is death, and then only briefly. There’s a tentacled monster, but it’s used as a method of “enhanced interrogation” rather than presented as an apex predator. The goal of the final fleet-on-fleet battle isn’t to destroy a superweapon, but simply to run interference so the method to destroy said superweapon can be smuggled out of storage and preserved until the time comes. Most importantly, none of the major new characters – whether they are one with the Force or in the service of its Dark Side – are men and women of destiny … because none of them, literally none of them, survive the end of the film. As far as survival and celebration are concerned, this thing makes Empire look like Jedi. It’s doing something no other Star Wars film has ever done: depicting the life and death of everyone who sacrificed so the Skywalkers, their friends and their foes could decide the fate of the galaxy.

Rogue One crammed in so much Star Wars fanservice—how did it still feel fresher than The Force Awakens? I tried to answer this question for Rolling Stone. I note in the piece that this is not to argue Rogue One is necessarily a successful film, just that it’s its own film in a way The Force Awakens isn’t.

The *57* Greatest Star Wars Moments, Ranked

57. Dude, where’s my theme music? (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story)
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away … nothing! Just a wide-vista shot of an unknown planet’s rim, a slightly off-brand variant of the first few notes of John Williams’s classic score by Lost composer Michael Giacchino, the words “ROGUE ONE,” and that’s it. Disney honchos had already indicated that director Gareth Edwards’s stand-alone “Star Wars Story” would jettison the traditional opening sequence as a way to set it apart from films set within the main saga’s trilogy framework, but hearing about it and witnessing it firsthand are two different things. After a lifetime of watching Star Wars movies, what didn’t happen in Rogue One’s opening seconds was nearly as striking as anything that did happen afteward.

I gave my list of the Greatest Star Wars Moments for Vulture a post–Rogue One update. Check it out!

“Horace and Pete” thoughts, Episode Seven

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Remember the drunk cancer fetishist who tries to pick up Sylvia? When she blows him off, he delivers a monologue in a halting half-stutter about how he’s used to being treated like he doesn’t exist. “I’m a person,” he insists. “I have a story.” His story is that he was forced to raise his kid brother, just two years his junior, when his parents left one night and never came back. Now his brother doesn’t even talk to him. “I struggle, so I appear weak,” the man says. “People don’t wanna look at the weak because it reminds them of their own weakness. But they don’t get is that when you see someone who’s struggling, they’re strong. Because the weak don’t struggle—they just die. Whatever you think of me, I’m alive. I’m alive.” I’m sorry, but this is fucking beautiful, beautiful writing, humane and empathetic like nothing else on the show save the Metcalf episode, and it cuts to the heart of Horace and Pete‘s alcoholic demimonde like nothing else has. Comedian Rick Shapiro’s brief, brilliant performance here is one of the things I’ll take from this show alongside Metcalf’s star turn and  Paul Simon’s theme song, and I don’t expect to take much else.

Episode 7 of Horace and Pete wasn’t bad. I reviewed it for Decider.

“Horace and Pete” thoughts, Episode Six

The episode, and arguably the series thus far, reaches its nadir during its second half. (Once again, no “Intermission” title card marks the obvious separation; apparently consistency is the hobgoblin of better TV shows.) For some unfathomable reason, Pete invites Jenny to dinner a family with Horace and Sylvia in the apartment they now share above the bar. Despite the psychosis for which he takes daily medication, Pete has nonetheless been shown to be a better judge, and exemplar, of character than either of his siblings (or as Sylvia would insist, “siblings”); he and Jenny are both well aware of their relationship’s problematic optics under the best of circumstances. Why on earth would he subject this woman to these two irredeemably unpleasant people, other than lousy writing forcing his hand?

I reviewed the worst episode of Horace and Pete yet for Decider. Poor Steve Buscemi.

The 20 Best TV Characters of 2016

Dr. Robert Ford, ‘Westworld’

Smile, and smile, and be a villain. As the co-founder and chief narrative architect of the Westworld theme park, Dr. Robert Ford is not unfamiliar with Shakespeare; he’d recognize Hamlet’s description of evil every time he looked in the mirror. Or would he? As played by Anthony Hopkins, who taps the quiet menace he mined so effectively decades ago as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, Ford spends the bulk of the HBO hit’s first season manipulating and murdering everyone, human or android, who threatens his control. But late-game twists hint at an even more disturbing truth behind Ford’s highly erudite villainy, this time one out of Nietzsche: To fight monsters, is it necessary to become a monster yourself?

I wrote about Cottonmouth, the Punisher, Agent Dom DiPierro, Sarah Wittel, Detective Dennis Box, and Dr. Robert Ford for Rolling Stone’s list of the 20 best new TV characters of the year.

“Horace and Pete” thoughts, Episode Five

The rest of the wake is characterized by needless cruelty. Marsha is mean to everyone. Everyone is, in turn, mean to Marsha, who no longer has any real tie to the family, but sticks around long enough for a story about the history of her alcoholism and tweenage promiscuity, because no one on this show has ever had a happy moment in their lives. Sylvia, whose zeal to sell the bar derives at least in part from a desire to drive a stake through the heart of the intra-family misery it’s caused, is almost abusively vicious to her distraught daughter Brenda, who’s terrified of the cancer afflicting her mother. Horace’s daughter follows her cousin out the door, basically kissing the family goodbye until the next funeral. In an argument about selling the bar, Sylvia talks about splitting its likely $6 million sale price two ways, between her and Horace, instead of three ways, between her and Horace and Pete, despite having spent literally her entire life until a few weeks ago believing Pete was her brother. (Even if you’re willing to accept anyone being so shitty a person that they’d use the shock revelation of his true paternity as an excuse to cut him out of his life’s legacy, keep in mind the show already had Sylvia talking about a two-way split before said revelation. That’s plain bad writing.) “Anyone who gets through their forties without at least ten people hating them is an asshole,” Sylvia says to Horace while she convalesces from chemo in his apartment later on. “People hating you means you look out for yourself.” Whatever you say!

I reviewed the fifth episode of Horace and Pete, which is by no means a good show, for Decider.

The 50 Greatest Star Wars Moments, Ranked

4. The Yub-Nub Song (Episode VI: Return of the Jedi)
Accept no substitutions: The original Ewok song of celebration that ends the first trilogy is the only Ewok song that matters. For reasons beyond comprehension, George Lucas and John Williams replaced this charming, percussive, gibberish-based hoedown with corny pan-flute New Age–isms when Lucas re-released the trilogy decades later. But no viewing of Jedi in my house was complete without dancing around the living room to those gleeful “yub-nubs,” the xylophone made of captured Imperial helmets, and that final choral sweep into the closing theme. For me, this was Star Wars.

With Rogue One hitting theaters, I ranked the 50 greatest moments in first seven Star Wars films for Vulture. I had a lot of fun, boy oh boy.

The 10 Best Horror Movies of 2016

A shape-shifter, a baby-killer, a forest predator who communes with the Devil himself – the title character of Robert Eggers’ Puritan “folk tale” is a Satanic hag of the first order. And when this monster gets her claws into a 17th-century New England family excommunicated by their righteous religious neighbors, it feels less like a cathartic comeuppance for old-world bible-thumpers and more like a vicious assault on people trying their best to live and love in an unforgiving world.

I tag-teamed with my aptly named editor David Fear on a write-up for The Witch in Rolling Stone’s list of the year’s 10 Best Horror Movies.

“Horace and Pete” thoughts, Episode Four

It was fun while it lasted. After the unexpected marvel of its Laurie Metcalf–anchored third episode, Horace and Pete returns to its strident and unfunny form, as if the stupid sexist joke with which that previous episode was needlessly wrapped up was where its heart was all along.

Oh well: I reviewed the once-again-bad fourth episode of Horace and Pete for Decider.

“Horace and Pete” thoughts, Episode Three

I won’t mince words: With the exception of a single, pivotal line (stay tuned), Horace and Pete‘s third episode is brilliant. Much—but surprisingly, not all—of the credit goes to Laurie Metcalf, guest starring as Horace’s ex-wife Sarah. Her presence here is fitting, in a way, as Roseanne, the blue-collar sitcom in which she co-starred as the title character’s singleton sister Jackie, is one of Horace and Pete‘s obvious tonal antecedents; her dual background in television comedy and down-and-dirty theater (she’s a Steppenwolf alum) makes her a natural choice for this hybrid project. And good God, she is quite simply brilliant. Indeed, the episode begins with a continuous nine-minute closeup on the actor as she tells a then-unseen interlocutor who turns out to be Horace the story of her second marriage to a younger widower and its slow crumbling in the face of her sexual desire for the man’s 84-year-old father. Honestly, there’s almost no amount of superlatives you can heap on her work here that would overstate the case. In an episode that’s (almost—again, stay tuned) a two-hander, her presence and power elevate the proceedings to a level I couldn’t see coming.

Yeah. I reviewed episode three of Horace and Pete for Decider.

“Empire” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Nine: “Furnace for Your Foe”

The phrase “midseason finale” is television’s most egregious neologism. Essentially marketing-speak for “the last episode of the year before we take a few weeks off around the holidays, because we’re not just airing the whole season in a row the way cable shows do,” it carries with it an oxymoronic promise of finality. But this week’s “Empire” is the rare (sigh) midseason finale that lives up to the moniker. An effective wrap-up of a half season’s worth of story lines, it sets up the show to start anew next year, bigger and better.

I’m pleased to say Empire appears to have sidestepped the soap doldrums with its last few episodes; I reviewed this week’s, the last of the year, for the New York Times.

“Horace and Pete” thoughts, Episode Two

I’ll say this for Horace and Pete: It’s a show that has time for neither “Make America Great Again” nor “America Is Already Great.” This realization sunk in sometime around when Sylvia, Horace’s sister, began unsubtly guilting him into selling the family bar for the millions it could potentially net in the “air rights” to the vertical space above it in the skyscraping, skyrocketing Brooklyn real-estate market—all the better to offset the sky-high costs of the treatment she’ll have to undergo for her just-diagnosed breast cancer. “I feel like you’re using me,” he protests, and she agrees. “You’re my brother. Please let me use you, so that I don’t die, because cancer is fucking expensive.” America: land of the free, home of the people whose only hope to afford life-saving health care is gentrification and upward wealth redistribution. Horace and Pete theme-songwriter Paul Simon might have something to say about this, but perhaps his fellow New York Metro Area musician Lou Reed had it best: “Give me your hungry, your tired, your poor—I’ll piss on ’em.”

Unfortunately, the affection I have for this aspect of the show feels more like the result of my own personal fanfic remake of Roseanne with Edie Falco in the title role than something earned by the show itself.

[…]

Is the scene between a college kid and an “older” woman (she’s clearly south of 40) he swiped right on Tinder just to have emotionless sex with really strong enough to justify its incongruity and running time? Does a subplot involving Marsha and her GoodFellas extra of a beau, a successful tire-store magnate who blanches at her alcoholic attachment to this particular watering hole over all the other attractions Brooklyn has to offer, offer anything other than the same flavor of misery in a different regional accident? Does Pete’s Tourette’s-afflicted hospital acquaintance represent a serious attempt to empathetically portray this particular illness, or is it just an excuse to shout racial slurs and curse words? When Uncle Pete makes fun of Horace for wetting his pants as a kid, or his daughter (Aidy Bryant, making the best of a thankless role) for being overweight, is he doing anything other than indulging a thirst for “oh no he didn’t/oh yes he did” cruelty? When Horace has a long mental conversation with a fantasy version of Marsha in which he justifies his most outré masturbatory fantasies, is this more than an author with a dubious reputation’s attempt to let himself off the hook?

Horace and Pete Episode Two threw a whole lot at the wall; with one notable exception, none of it stuck and it sure made a mess. I reviewed it for Decider.

MIRROR MIRROR II

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This is the preview sample for MIRROR MIRROR II, edited by me and Julia Gfrörer, coming from 2dcloud next year.

Featuring new and unpublished comics and art by Lala Albert, Clive Barker, Heather Benjamin, Apolo Cacho, Sean Christensen, Nicole Claveloux, Al Columbia, Dame Darcy, Noel Freibert, Renee French, Meaghan Garvey, Julia Gfrörer (with Claude Paradin), Simon Hanselmann (with Sean T. Collins), Aidan Koch, Laura Lannes, Céline Loup, Uno Moralez, Mou, Jonny Negron, Chloe Piene, Josh Simmons, Carol Swain, and Trungles, with an introduction by Gretchen Alice Felker-Martin.

“A thought-provoking, richly entertaining collection from some of the most exciting comic artists working today. A must read for fans of the horrific and perverse.” —Bryan Cogman, co-executive producer/writer, Game of Thrones

“An impressive collection of beautiful depictions of grotesque things and grotesque depiction of beautiful things.”—Alan Resnick, writer-director, Adult Swim’s Unedited Footage of a Bear and This House Has People in It

Mirror Mirror II invites the most innovative creators working in the form today and proves just how expansive the pornographic and gothic can be, encapsulating the pop cultural, fantastical, and realistic in one fell swoop.” —Rachel Davies, Rookie Magazine

“Editors Sean T. Collins and Julia Gfrörer have assembled an exquisitely creepy and seductive new collection of comics with Mirror Mirror II. From Uno Moralez’s pixilated noir to Dame Darcy’s ornate Gothic ghost stories, the wide range of horror here is fantastic, as characters creep and fuck in the shadows of unimaginable darkness throughout. It’s certainly the perfect, freaky anthology for you, your lover, and all the demons in your mind.”—Hazel Cills, MTV News

The Fascism of ‘The Walking Dead’

“We can boil fascist ethics down to one word: Dominate,” says professor Stephen Olbrys Gencarella of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, who has taught about the show as well as written about it for the academic journal Horror Studies. “It’s true that fascist aesthetics anchor many shows and films, especially in the sci-fi and fantasy genres. And of course violence is nothing new; it’s the norm in American media. Other shows out there are hitting similar themes, and that shouldn’t surprise us given the anxieties of our times. But so many of those other shows demonstrate the consequences for violence or debate the ethical complexities of living with others who are different, or show the moral turmoil of people who enact or suffer violence. The Walking Dead is the only show that actively courts, rather than critiques, fascist ethics, and suggest that it’s the only viable solution to perceived threat.”

What do those ethics entail? “In fascist mentalities, kindness, empathy, and sympathy are seen as weaknesses, critical self-reflection is seen as a danger to security, and discussion and negotiation is seen as failure,” Gencarella says. “Existence is a tragic struggle to be won or lost.” This mentality can be traced back to the fascist Ur-text, The Doctrine of Fascism, ghostwritten for Benito Mussolini by his Minister of Education Giovanni Gentile. “The Doctrine is clear that perpetual war is the preferred mode of existing with others who are different, and especially to crush the weak in order to demonstrate that one is strong,” Gencarella says. “Fascists want the apocalypse. And the history of actual fascist movements has always been cemented by the kind of storytelling that TWD valorizes and perpetuates.” It’s this perspective, and the political doctrines likely to be appealing to those who respond to it, that the Trump campaign seemingly recognized when targeting the show’s viewers. “Watching Trump and Negan on television at the same time makes perfect sense,” Gencarella says. “I don’t say that because I think all Trump supporters are fascists. But it’s also telling that the campaign thought The Walking Dead viewers would readily equate immigration with an apocalypse for which violence is the only solution.”

I wrote about the fascism of The Walking Dead for Vulture. This is a longstanding bugbear of mine as you know, and this is the first standalone piece I’ve written about it.

2dcloud Fall 2016

2dcloud, the publisher that will be putting out me and Julia Grörer’s MIRROR MIRROR II next year, is currently kickstarting its Fall 2016 collection. Pitch in some money and come away with comics that push against the boundaries of what comics can be.

The Mirror

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The makers of Unedited Footage of a Bear and This House Has People in It are back with a new project called The Mirror for IFC. I don’t want to give much away, but let’s just say that given my recent reading habits as discussed elsewhere on this blog, I was very, very excited by this. Perhaps you will be too.

Chapo Trap House/Laid Waste

Those nice boys of online at the Chapo Trap House podcast had some very kind words for Julia Gfrörer’s new graphic novel from Fantagraphics, Laid Waste, on this week’s episode. Oh yeah, they also interviewed some guy named Adam Curtis, I think he makes movies? Anyway please listen, and visit Julia’s webstore if you’d like to know more.

“Horace and Pete” thoughts, Episode One

And while this is a relatively minor problem, given how few of the dramatic fireworks it’s his responsibility to set off, Louis C.K.’s limitations as an actor are absolutely an obstacle. I know that he’s built up a formidable critical reputation with his all-but-DIY Louie, but try as I might, I’ve remained as immune to his charms as a performer as a woman in a hotel room. From where I’m sitting he has two facial expressions cum emotional poles, exhausted and bewildered; since every person and situation he encounters is exhausting and/or bewildering, he shuffles back and forth seemingly at random. C.K. is quite famously far from the first comedian-auteur to have a relatively restricted range of expression as an actor, but watching him here is like seeing Jerry Seinfeld try to write, direct, and star alongside the finest actors of his generation in Death of a Salesman. “What is the deal with despair?” My sinking suspicion is that a show this plodding and strident will not have the answer.

Now that it’s available on Hulu, I’m reviewing Louis C.K.’s Horace and Pete for Decider, beginning with the first episode. It’s not good.

“The Affair” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Four

Finally, not every difference between Alison and Cole’s perspectives is as nuanced as how their argument and their kiss is handled. And I’m not just talking about the fact that Joanie has a pony at her party during Cole’s half of the episode and a freaking bronco during Alison’s. During Cole’s POV, he holds Luisa off and lets Alison comfort Joanie after the kid falls off the pony. During Alison’s, Luisa tends to Joanie while Cole tends to Alison herself, in the throes of a PTSD hallucination in which the fall is potentially lethal. (This is itself an echo of two versions of the same playground scene, one in which Cole sees Alison freak out and demand Joanie get down off the monkey bars, the other in which Alison powers through and lets Joanie walk on top from end to end even though Cole never notices.) Who took care of a wounded kid is not the kind of thing simple coloration of memory can alter that dramatically — we’re in the same territory here as we were during the pilot, when Alison either did or didn’t save Noah’s daughter from choking, or during the confrontation at gunpoint later in that first season, when Cole was either suicidal or homicidal. These kinds of discrepancies are maybe the most compelling thing about The Affair as a work of storytelling. Walt Whitman contained multitudes; The Affair implies that people contain multiverses.

I reviewed this week’s episode of The Affair for Decider. I could talk about this show all day. Someone has to!