Posts Tagged ‘TV’

Wonderland Episode 107: Tropes and Traps in Culture

November 15, 2017

I’m a guest on episode 7 of Wonderland, a new podcast series about popular culture as a potential vehicle for political change. I spoke with hosts Bridgit Antoinette Evans & Tracy Van Slyke and my fellow guest Nayantara Sen about the storytelling pitfalls television falls into, and how climbing out of them is an opportunity to both tell better stories and do better political work within them. The conversation is a lot of fun, and the whole series is up all at once, so if you like what you hear, binge the whole thing!

10 Top TV Critics Share the Difference Between a Good TV Show and a Great One

November 13, 2017
Great TV is characterized by the same thing present in all great art: a sense that you’re reading an open text, with parts you can’t pin down but which nevertheless add up to a greater whole. The best shows are all challenging and, for want of a better word, “weird” — that is, there’s stuff going on that a plot summary or a recitation of the dialogue can’t capture. I don’t want to come away feeling comforted, reassured, or satisfied that I’ve solved what I just saw. I don’t want to be let off the hook.
Me and Alyssa Rosenberg and a whole bunch of critics talked about what separates good TV from great TV for Candivan. This may be the key question these days!

“Mr. Robot” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Five: “eps3.4_runtime-err0r.r00”

November 13, 2017

Over the course of its commercial-free runtime, “eps3.4_runtime-err0r.r00” hits a quartet of long-running narrative climaxes: Elliot learns that Darlene has betrayed him to the FBI and Angela has betrayed him to his Mr. Robot persona, while the Dark Army clears a path for its lethal “Stage 2” plan as its scheme for China to annex the Congo achieves success.

And it does so, as becomes increasingly obvious with each passing minute, in a single uninterrupted take. Whether gliding along with Elliot via steadicam as he tries to avoid being ejected by E Corp security in the episode’s first half or jittering around with Angela via a handheld camera as she races to install hack the conglomerate’s backup facility in the second half — the transition marked by the start of a Dark Army–instigated activist riot inside E Corp’s stately Manhattan headquarters — the action flows continuously from start to finish.

But don’t get so sucked into the technique that you simply coast on conventional wisdom about what long takes, or even “oners” like Rope, Birdman, and that one X-Filesepisode, are supposed to do. Sure, there are the usual peek-around-corners, cat-and-mouse thrills you associate with long takes from time to time, whether it’s Elliot doing a oner version of the Neo-in-The-Matrix routine, dodging security guards through a sea of cubicles and goldfish bowls, or Angela on that Clive Owen tip, fighting her way through the chaos of battle. But the thing is, there aren’t really any bravura, standout segments of the take — nothing on the level of Children of Men’s backwards car chase, True Detective’s shootout, Better Call Saul’s smuggler truck route, Game of Thrones’s 360-degree battle at Castle Black, or (the holiest of holies) GoodFellas’s Copacabana entrance, where you sit back and marvel at how they could keep it going so far for so long. Indeed, with the exception of the visceral thrill you (or at least I) get when Dark Army agents in activist drag first storm the building like an anticapitalist fever dream, the most memorable moments don’t involve motion at all. By employing a long take, the show is paradoxically even better able to emphasize the times when nothing is happening and no one is going anywhere.

I reviewed last week’s much-hyped (both positively and negatively) single-take episode of Mr. Robot for Decider. I really don’t think it does what long takes usually do, which makes it more compelling than the “wow how’d they do it” takes would suggest and belies the “ugh empty film-geek gimmickry” criticism too.

A spoilery complaint about Twin Peaks discourse

November 9, 2017

this concerns the final episode. after the jump

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“Mr. Robot” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Four: “eps3.3_m3tadata.chk”

November 3, 2017

It’s all gussied up in cyberthriller drag, but what Mr. Robot is now really forcing us to confront is whether or not bringing down the hypercapitalist backers of American hegemony — ending its endless death dance of credit-card debt and drone strikes — is worth the risk, and the cost. Who is the hero of this story? Elliot, with his humane reluctance to kill? Or Mr. Robot and those conspiring with him to keep Elliot down, with their insistence that in this case, killing is humane? Placing Elliot’s good-hearted, if broken-spirited, friend Angela on the side of the sociopaths is an indication that Mr. Robot sees this question as harder to answer than it looks.

How should we see it, though? How do we see it? Who’s seeing it at all? Normally I don’t pay much attention to how a given show I care about is going over with the general viewing public, mostly because I don’t give a shit. In a world where we can get four miraculous seasons of Halt and Catch Fire despite an audience size not much larger than the cast, how much does it really matter? I’m much more concerned about shows I dislike (the empty Reaganite culture recycling of Stranger Things, the fascism of The Walking Dead) getting more attention than they deserve than shows I like getting less.

But I am curious about how this season of Mr. Robot is playing with the people who are watching it, and the people who watched the first two seasons (in varying quantities) as well. There’s a bleak, enervated energy to this year’s run so far that resonates so closely with the relentless awfulness of life under the Trump regime that I wonder if it’s hard for some viewers to take — like two notes nearly identical in pitch but off just slightly enough to become discordant and abrasive.

Though this season has been both stylistically and narratively straightforward compared to the previous outings, it’s no less challenging a viewing experience. Watching it so far, this episode included, feels like wandering around a big empty room, where the walls are gray and your voice falls flat and the light is an eye-clouding haze and rising up from the floor is the faint but unmistakable smell of death. Tonight’s episode ended to the tune of Elliott (ahem) Smith’s grindingly grim “Everything Means Nothing to Me,” a song he wrote while blood from a self-inflicted injury was literally dripping on to the keys of the piano he was playing, from the final album he released before he is believed to have stabbed himself to death. If you’re of a certain mindset that values the catharsis of hopelessness, this can be a nice place to visit. Mr. Robot is asking you to live there.

I wrote about death, hopelessness, and the most recent episode of Mr. Robot for Decider.

“The Deuce” thoughts, Season One, Episode Eight: “My Name Is Ruby”

November 3, 2017

The Deuce saved its best, and its worst, for last.

The final episode of the show’s first season is called “My Name Is Ruby” – a title that serves as an assertion of humanity, a prophecy of doom and famous last words all at once. Written by series co-creators David Simon and George Pelecanos and directed by Michelle MacLaren, it’s technically about the moment that the selling of sex became part of the American mainstream. But more importantly, it’s about the people left behind as surplus to the transition. As such, it contains two of the show’s most powerful and upsetting scenes.

I reviewed the strong season finale of The Deuce for Rolling Stone. Your basic B-grade prestige drama overall, with hints of greater promise in the final two episodes.

who watches the watchmen

November 3, 2017

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I know it shouldn’t, but it shocks me how people who devote time to criticizing arts criticism can understand so little about arts criticism.

BTW, not that you should go by letter grades, but my averaged-out grade for the show I tried really hard not to like for some reason? B.

(PS: That’s not really Nev from Catfish)

BLACK FRIDAY II: HALLOWEEN MIX 2017

October 27, 2017

a new Halloween mix for 2017

plus a revised edition of the original Black Friday mix from 2014

Download links:

2014 / 2017

Tracklisting in the lyrics medatada

Let it surprise you

“Mr. Robot” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Three: “eps3.2_1egacy.so”

October 27, 2017

Aside from the unusual time-jumping, it’s one of the most narratively straightforward episodes of Mr. Robot since Season One. It just gets you from point A to point B, is all, even if it had to backtrack a bit to do so. It satisfies a narrative itch, nothing more.

Primarily, it’s a showcase for Martin Wallström as Tyrell Wellick. The character and performance alike have their diehard partisans and their dismissive detractors. For my money, when you add Tyrell’s mental, moral, and professional collapse to his fixation on doing right by both his family and the man of his dreams, you get a whole different sort of sociopath from either the Patrick Bateman one-percenter murderers or the Phillip Price/Whiterose puppetmasters. Wallström lacks the golfball-sized convex eyes of his castmates Rami Malek, Portia Doubleday, and Carly Chaikin, but man those things are blue, and the person behind them seems to be in almost agonizing psychological pain at all times.

That’s the key to Tyrell Wellick, really. Despite being one of the ostensible archvillains of the piece, he’s more emotionally open and expressive than any of the fsociety “good guys”—Elliot, Angela, Darlene, Cisco, even Mr. Robot himself. He’s the only one who embodies the sense of dislocation and terror on a permanent basis that characters like Elliot and Darlene can only access during acute breakdowns. In a weird way, he’s the heart of the show, and that heart is warped as hell. In that light, the standard-issue storytelling of the episode can be forgiven, even if you suspect it’s part of a slight creative retrenchment in the face of the vituperative reaction to the show’s fearless fuck-you of a second season. A character this peculiar can take all the time to fill in the blanks he needs.

I reviewed this week’s backtracking episode of Mr. Robot for Decider. 

“Mindhunter” thoughts, Season One, Episode Ten

October 25, 2017

Holden’s meeting with Ed Kemper, who attempts suicide and names Ford as his medical proxy in order to force another meeting, is the first time any of his conversations with murderers has felt like something out of a serial-killer-as-supervillain movie. It’s not actor Cameron Britton’s fault—he plays Kemper with the same unnervingly conversational affect as ever. Rather, it’s the mechanics of the meeting: revealing the stitches from his suicide attempt like he’s a breath away from one of the Joker’s “Do you wanna know how I got these scars?” speeches, leaping from his hospital bed with cat-like reflexes, threatening to murder Holden and make him akin to the “spirit wives” he gained when he killed his previous victims, then reversing course and hugging Holden, thanking him for his honesty. When Holden says he doesn’t know why he came, it turns Kemper into a criminal mastermind, luring the FBI’s best and brightest into a potential deathtrap just to show he could. I’m sure it’s supposed to say something about Holden’s increasingly agitated state of mind, but it just makes him look dumb and indecisive, two things he’s never been.

The follow-up is even more of a misfire. The instant Holden hits the door out of Kemper’s hospital room, Led Zeppelin’s “In the Light” kicks in. The song’s creepy-cool John Paul Jones synthesizer opening had been used to great effect during Holden’s flight to California, but this time the track is fast-forwarded to Jimmy Page’s triumphant, upward-climbing riff. The transition is so abrupt, the musical sentiment so poorly matched to the moment, that I actually laughed out loud—yet that’s not even the half of it. Holden staggers down the hallway and collapses, in the grips of a full-fledged panic attack so severe he thinks he’s dying. As the hospital staff frantically tries to aid him, he hears the voices of other characters in his head, reliving times they called him on his bullshit and warned him about his behavior: Bill, Shepard, Wendy, Kemper, even Principal Wade. “Wait,” you may be thinking, “you mean like the ‘I made my family disappear’ scene in Home Alone?” Yes, exactly like the “I made my family disappear” scene in Home Alone. Add a few floating-head visions and a “You’re what the French call les incompétents” and not even David Fincher and Chris Columbus could tell the difference. The device is so hackneyed it comes across like a joke from a children’s comedy.

Worse, it’s unnecessary. Did we really need to hear people telling Holden he fucked up for us to understand, while watching him have a panic attack brought on by a serial killer who took advantage of him and could easily have murdered him, that Holden fucked up? I can’t remember the last time I saw a season finale swing and miss this hard.

I reviewed the season finale of Mindhunter, which I did not care for, for the A.V. Club.

30 Movies to Watch If You Like ‘Stranger Things’ [or Don’t!]

October 25, 2017

The Last Unicorn (1982)

One of the most beautiful, melancholy, magical, and genuinely adult animated features in American film history. This adaptation of fantasist Peter S. Beagle’s novel comes to us courtesy of Rankin/Bass Productions and Japanese animation studio Topcraft — the former responsible for the stop-motion Christmas classics Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town, the latter eventually evolving into Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli. Together, they produced the J.R.R. Tolkien cartoons The Hobbit and The Return of the King, plus this gut-punch of a film, about a unicorn who becomes trapped in the body of a young human woman. With a body-horror subtext worthy of Cronenberg and a ridiculously impressive voice cast (Mia Farrow, Jeff Bridges, Christopher Lee, Angela Lansbury, and Alan Arkin), it’s like a cross between Stranger Things and a story from the Dungeons & Dragons game its characters play.

Paperhouse (1988)

Directed by Bernard Rose — who would later adapt Hellraiser writer-director Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden” into the acclaimed urban-horror film Candyman — this harrowing supernatural/surrealist film centers on an 11-year-old girl who discovers her dreams and drawings are coming to life and consuming her reality. She’s got to figure out how to take charge and reassert control. Paperhouse is what I think of when Stranger Things is at its best.

Let the Right One In (2008)

Recast the relationship between Eleven and Mike Wheeler as a tragedy instead of a heroic fantasy, and you might wind up with this morbid proto-romance between a bullied kid and the young vampire who simultaneously befriends, protects, and uses him. There’s stuff going on here about abuse and loneliness, for characters of all ages, that digs way deeper than anything Stranger Things has done; if Netflix’s series is a 101 entry-level course, this is graduate work.

What should you watch after (or instead of) Stranger Things and its obnoxiously titled second season Stranger Things 2? Whether you like or dislike the show, I think I’ve got you covered with the list of 30 movies I wrote for Vulture.

“Mindhunter” thoughts, Season One, Episode Nine

October 23, 2017

For the Behavioral Science Unit, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. The penultimate episode of Mindhunter Season 1 shows the team operating at the peak of their powers, working in in tandem to create the term for which they’ll go down in history: “serial killer.” It also depicts faultlines forming that could jeopardize the whole project (if this weren’t verifiable historical fiction, anyway). If you’ve been following along, it’s not hard to understand why the former aspect of “Episode 9” works much effectively than the latter. Mindhunter is always better when its characters are all on the same side.

The “serial killer” scene is the most satisfying example of this phenomenon yet—a conference-room scene between Holden Ford, Greg Smith, Bill Tench, and Wendy Carr that feels like watching a tight jazz quartet trade eights. Wendy tries to come up with a term for murderers who carefully prepare for their kills versus those who go on a spontaneous rampage. Smith asks if that isn’t simply organized versus disorganized killers. Wendy says, no, that refers to the process during the crime, not the pattern behind it. Killers like Charles Whitman or Richard Speck, she says, take random victims during rapid-fire rampages, so their existing term of art “sequence killer” doesn’t work. “Whitman was on a spree,” Holden says, with Wendy and Greg backing him up. Bill agrees too, but then expresses doubt about the “sequence killer” label for a killer like Ed Kemper: “It feels too…cadenced,” he explains, starting to actually sound like a musician. Debbie thinks he might be on to something. “It should feel like a long story,” Holden follows up, “continually updated.” “A series of killings,” Bill replies. “Serial?” Holden murmurs. “Serial murderer?” Greg suggests. “Serial killer?” Bill says, refining the concept, and you can see on everyone’s face that he’s hit the mark. “That’s better,” Wendy says, impressed. “Let’s see if it sticks.” Yeah, let’s see!

I reviewed the penultimate episode of Mindhunter Season 1, with David Fincher back in the director’s chair, for the A.V. Club.

“Mindhunter” thoughts, Season One, Episode Eight

October 23, 2017

For Mindhunter to succeed, its investigations have to be successful too. That doesn’t mean Holden, Bill, and Wendy need to solve every case or understand every unique pathology they encounter. It simply means that the temperament and technique that help them produce their best work — the blend of curiosity, cooperation, openness, and uncertainty I spelled out last time, during an episode where those traits were largely absent — help the show produce its best work as well. Given what came before, “Episode 8” makes the biggest leap in that direction since the series began, in what for my money is its most riveting and revealing interview with a serial killer to date.

I reviewed episode eight of Mindhunter, powered by <deep sigh> a great Jerry Burdos scene, for the A.V. Club.

“The Deuce” thoughts, Season One, Episode Nine: “Au Reservoir”

October 23, 2017

Let’s get this out of the way: What we have just witnessed was, hands down, the best episode of The Deuce yet. By a lot. Titled “Au Reservoir,” it’s funny, scary, sad, sexy and entertaining as hell from start to finish. How did this so-so show get so damned good so suddenly?

The answers may lie behind the scenes. This episode was directed by co-star James Franco, who previously helmed one of the series’ better installments. Judging from his two turns in the driver’s seat, he’s got a knack for finding the warmth and humor in the characters and their plights; you can see the kind of actor he is reflected in the work he gets out of others.

Screenwriter Megan Abbott likely deserves the lion’s share of the credit. Along with George Pelecanos, Richard Price and Lisa Lutz, she’s part of the murderers’ row of crime novelists who share the show’s scripting duties. But her writing delivers in ways even the best bits of previous episodes never did.

The Deuce Disliker has logged off and the Deuce Enjoyer has logged on: I reviewed tonight’s terrific episode for Rolling Stone.

Honestly? Watching shows written by the most acclaimed novelists in the crime genre hasn’t done much for me beyond make me wonder what the hell is going on in the crime genre. I guess pretty much the same thing that goes on in every genre. Patrick Rothfuss is well-reviewed, you know? But Abbott’s work on this episode redeems the field as far as I’m concerned.

“Mindhunter” thoughts, Season One, Episode Seven

October 21, 2017

To paraphrase the great Yakov Smirnov, on Mindhunter, case cracks you!

I reviewed episode 7 of Mindhunter, in which the team meets cartoonishly nasty serial killer Jerry Brudos and starts to lose their shit because of it, for the A.V. Club. I get why the show did what it did here—I just don’t enjoy it as much.

“Mr. Robot” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Two: “eps3.1_undo.gzh”

October 20, 2017

Now, however, Elliot’s mission is reform rather than revolution. In this new worldview, “Evil Corp” is “a necessary evil that just needs to be kept in check.” Get rid of “the corrupt, moronic managers” — “purge Evil Corp of all their shitbags” — and the company will “no longer be evil, because changing the world is never about tearing E Corp down — it’s about making them better.”  These could be Obama or Clinton campaign slogans. Meanwhile, of course, CEO Phillip Price is igniting a global currency war with China in order to make himself the supreme ruler of the world’s economy. Elliot’s reformist bromides are the kind of technocratic liberal bullshit we’ve been hearing for the better part of a decade as the entire planet goes to shit and billionaires fund fascist takeovers. The sequence is a savage own of empty centrism, just as Elliot’s dismissal of his previous motives as “dorm-room philosophizing” is a fuck you to critics who levied that charge at the show. Look around you, folks. The dorm-room philosophers were right.

I reviewed this week’s vicious episode of Mr. Robot for Decider.

“Suburra: Blood on Rome” thoughts, Season One, Episode Ten: “Call It Sleep”

October 20, 2017

Honestly, it’s a minor miracle that a finale so clearly designed to set up a second season, let alone lead to the feature film for which the whole affair serves as a prequel, is this rich and challenging. But Suburra has been punching above its weight class from the jump. With any luck, this gorgeous, big-hearted, marvelously acted gangster story will find the word-of-mouth audience it deserves. Take a bow, you crazy kids. You’ve earned it.

I reviewed the season finale of Suburra: Blood on Rome for Decider. Man was this thing a hoot!

“Suburra: Blood on Rome” thoughts, Season One, Episode Nine: “Pitch Black”

October 20, 2017

“Pitch Black,” the penultimate episode of the show’s first season, cements my already firm belief that this is the best crime show Netflix has done by a mile. When you see the kinds of emotional climaxes Suburra can deliver for its main characters despite the fact that nearly all of them are likeable, even lovable, you have to wonder if it’s working so well because nearly all of them are likeable, even lovable, and not despite it at all.

This runs counter to the approach of nearly every post–Breaking Bad crime thriller on television. The best ones, like Breaking Bad itself, work hard to make their characters empathetic on some level, but they want you to think “christ, what a fucking bastard” as often as possible. The mediocre-to-shitty ones don’t have the depth to do empathy, so you wind up with a lot of miserable assholes grimacing all the time between horrible murders. Aureliano, Spadino, and Lele have all done their fair share of frowning and yelling and crying, but any single one of them has visibly enjoyed themselves on screen — not sociopathically, at the expense of others, but simply delighting in one another’s company — more than the equivalent players on every other Netflix crime saga combined. That gives Suburra a leg up on even its relatively solid sister series, like Ozark or Narcos or even Daredevil. These people have a lust for life, dammit, which gives their life and death struggles an irresistible magnetic charge.

I reviewed episode nine of Suburra: Blood on Rome for Decider. I’m telling you folks, whatever other Netflix show you’re watching, you’ll have a better time watching this one, I promise.

“Mindhunter” thoughts, Season One, Episode Six

October 20, 2017

But once again, Mindhunter refrains from the mistake it made in its earliest episodes, where Tench and Ford’s boss was a mouthpiece for outdated and ignorant views—a convenient obstacle to be overcome by the real visionaires. It’s true that the D.A. doesn’t quite grasp the complex interplay of impulses and triggers that shaped Benjy, Frank, and Rose’s respective involvement in the murder and its aftermath. But it’s not that he can’t understand it, or doesn’t want to understand it. Wendy, Holden, and Bill simply haven’t figured out how to express it in a way that will get a guilty verdict out of a jury. When Wendy asks him “How do we translate this so you can use it?”, it’s neither a rhetorical question nor a passive-aggressive dig—she really wants to find a way to make their findings useful outside the laboratory conditions of their office.

And when the D.A. approaches them after allowing Frank to cop a plea, he’s sincere when he tells them why his hands were tied. It’s a utilitarian numbers game—“the lowest cost for the highest quality justice”—and he couldn’t take the risk of confusing a jury and letting justice of any kind slip away. Even when Holden and Bill grumpily reject his offer to take them out for dinner by way of an apology, they still shake his hand when he offers it. There are no hard feelings. How can there be? “What difference does any of this make if we can’t communicate it to the people who matter?” Holden asks Bill before they drive away. “I don’t know,” Bill sighs. Their own uncertainty about the trail they’re blazing makes them more forgiving when others demur from following.

I reviewed episode six of Mindhunter for the A.V. Club. Solid and thoughtful.

“Mindhunter” thoughts, Season One, Episode Five

October 20, 2017

The late great Halt And Catch Fire famously took a while to actually become great. It got there because its writers figured out a new way to create personal and professional dilemmas for its characters. Rather than present black-and-white choices in which someone was clearly in the right and someone else in the wrong, or follow the shades-of-gray antihero-drama approach where the interest lies in studying why people do the wrong thing to begin with, Halt took a third route: It constructed scenarios in which the protagonists faced two equally compelling options and had to choose between them with no clear-cut right answer at all. For example, should they gut the creative innards of their new computer, lowering the price tag and guaranteeing competitiveness in the marketplace at the expense of what made the product special? Or should they keep their innovative interface intact and take a shot at something great, risking not just their livelihoods but those of everyone who worked for them in the process? Each path had its partisans, each argument was persuasive, and in the end they had no more idea of what would be best than any of us do when we face turning points in our own real lives. The show’s total lack of hand-holding for either its characters or its audience made for riveting viewing.

I thought about this a lot while watching this episode of Mindhunter. Focused almost exclusively on the murder and mutilation case that Bill Tench, Holden Ford, and local cop Mark Ocasek started working in the previous installment, it’s the story of three investigators hashing things out as they go, testing competing theories of the crime with no slam dunks in sight. It’s not about winnowing out false leads until the one true answer is found—even though they make an arrest by the end of the hour, the exact circumstances of the killing remain a mystery. Rather, it’s about trying to figure things out in a field, and a world, where there are no sure things. It’s a very different way to write a procedural.

I reviewed episode five of Mindhunter for the A.V. Club. It’s become a much better show. There are still music-cue misfires and problems with Debbie galore, but it’s settled into a highly watchable groove, particularly if you’re a serial-killer buff and are interested in seeing how the conventional wisdom got hashed out conversation by conversation.