Sunday, November 19, 2017

Taylor Swift did something bad on "Reputation." So why does it feel so good?



Taylor Swift made a wise choice for most of 2017.  Following her being outed in 2016 by Kim Kardashian as at least having partially lied about not giving Kanye West permission to name-check her on "Famous," she laid low for the better part of this year, doing the best she could to stay out of the public eye.  It seemed like a perfect example of being able to read the room.  After all, people were sick of her in the wake witnessing her take a continuous stream of losses: her seemingly fake relationship with Tom Hiddleston, her embarrassing assumption that Nicki Minaj was attacking her on Twitter, and her public branding as a living snake emoji.  Even I, one of the biggest fans of her music, was starting to get awfully sick of her.  The only person whose approval rating was lower than hers this year was the frothing orange man she refuses to denounce.

Well, whatever the opposite of reading the room is, then that's her latest album Reputation.  She was completely on the wrong foot from the beginning, releasing the garish, unapologetic "Look What You Made Do" as a first single.  Any hope for a Taylor Swift who learned and grew from her time away was gone -- instead, she took all the wrong lessons away from it.  On Reputation, she steers straight into the skid of her heel status.  The Swift of old prided herself on being the underdog, but on this album she finally acknowledges that she's the biggest entity in the world.  She's the one who wields power on most of the songs, constantly breaking hearts, enacting revenge, and getting wild and drunk.  The titles are even given winking, antagonistic names like "I Did Something Bad," "Don't Blame Me" and "This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things."

Which is to say, this is probably the album that reflects Taylor Swift's personality the most -- the inner mean girl hiding under the "America's Sweetheart" veneer.  But somehow, Reputation feels like it's the most fake record in her discography.  The snake-adorned promotion, the Disney villain way she coos her lyrics, the self-righteous anger; it all just feels like empty posturing.  The trouble is she tries to have her cake and eat it too, playing the villain and the victim.  She puts on the evil witch persona, but then whines that "they're burning all the witches, even if you aren't one."  It makes the whole angle of the album feel muddled.

Sonically, this is a real hodgepodge too.  What's interesting about Taylor Swift's music is that it has always seemed to be just off-center of whatever landscape she was inhabiting.  Even her "big pop move" on 1989 sounded like the radio three decades ago as opposed to now.  This time around, she does take square aim at the mainstream pop music of today.  Many of the songs -- the stormy mid-tempo number "Don't Blame Me," for instance -- have that same mechanical churn as the rest of the Top 40 charts.  The result is something that feels a little less special than the rest of her music simply because, well, it sounds like you could hear it from anybody.

Of course, you can't do a complete survey of today's trends without tackling what is arguably the most popular genre of 2017: rap music.  So with little interest in whether it's a good idea or not, she takes on a cadence resembling rap on opener "...Ready For It?"  Even worse is that she subjects us to Ed Sheeran rapping a song later on "End Game."  Trap beats with skittering hi-hats and big snares litter the record, and Swift navigates them with all the swagger of a white girl jamming with her sorority friends in the car.  Needless to say, this album sounds like it has all the makings of a miscalculated disaster.

And yet...

Reputation is one of the most compelling listens of the year.  It's a fascinating carnival of sounds, ideas, and emotions, and even when a moment misses the mark, the songs as a whole land in the exact pleasure center of your brain that requires very little processing.  It speaks to her preternatural abilities that she's able to cannibalize all kinds of genres and spit out stainless steel melodies and hooks the way she does here.  The aforementioned "...Ready For It?" seems like a bad idea on paper, but in execution it's one of the best songs on the album, a lurching stadium-crunch banger that's endlessly catchy.

Then there are moments that find Swift truly in her element, where the album completely soars.  I'm thinking particularly about "Getaway Car," the clear highlight of the album.  It's an airy retro-pop song that sounds like it would fit right in on 1989, and it features all of the signifiers that make her style sparkle.  There's the proof that she can still turn a phrase with the best of them, as she sets the scene with the lines "The ties were black, the lies were white / In shades of grey in candlelight."  And she toys with the classic lovers-on-the-run framework in the chorus: "You were driving the getaway car / We were flying, but we never got far / Don't pretend it's such a mystery / Think about the place where you first met me."  That leads right back into her singing the words "riding in a getaway car," as if answering the last line in a circular manner.  It's clever songwriting all around.

There are so many more moments that make Reputation crackle: "Delicate," a lithe tropical breeze that finds her comfortably toying with a vocoder, is probably her most successful bit of genre tourism on the album.  On "Gorgeous," she sings "You should think about the consequence of you touching my hand in a darkened room," the kind of diamond-cut come-on she's been sharpening over the last decade of her career.  Then there's the way the emo theatricality of the "I Did Something Bad" chorus careens into that pitched-down demonic robot sputtering that she does afterward.  From the almost synesthetic detail of certain lyrics to all of the breathy ad-libs sprinkled everywhere, there are little nuggets that I like more and more with each listen.  Even a song like "Look What You Made Me Do" makes some kind of perverse sense if you play it while driving at just the right speed on the highway.

So much of the pop landscape is founded on an anonymity that drives the catchy tunes.  I can't say I know much about who The Chainsmokers really are after hearing a few of their songs, nor do I really get much of a distinct flavor from the music of someone like Katy Perry.  That's fine, conveying personality isn't the central goal of the genre.  But what has always added to Taylor Swift's music is that you can get a sense of her worldview through her songs, a clear psychology driving all of her work.  There's a moment on this album where she says "Love made me crazy / if it doesn't, you ain't doing it right."  That's a thesis that comes up over and over on her albums, the idea that "nothing safe is worth drive," as she once put it on "Treacherous."  Reputation plays host to all of Swift's favorite motifs, from her love of playing with archetypes and classic iconography -- "Burton to this Taylor," Bonnie & Clyde, parties from The Great Gatsby -- to the concept of finding a sanctuary, be it literal or figurative, in order to sustain love in the face of celebrity.  It makes this record serve not just as a new collection of songs, but a fascination expansion upon an existing universe.

In that sense, the thing that Reputation resembles most is, of all things, Kanye West's The Life of Pablo.  Like that album, it's a snapshot of an artist's headspace during a time of extreme turmoil.  West went through his trying time in a very public way while Swift retreated from hers, but both works reckon with alot of the same ideas.  And just as Pablo was greeted with an initial "this is a mess" reaction, only to be acknowledged later as having some pretty stirring musical ideas, the same is likely to happen with Reputation once the thinkpiece fog clears.

It's funny, then, that Kanye West and Taylor Swift have been embroiled in a decade-long feud, because they're the same artist in many ways.  Both are top-tier songwriters, the best and worst of both their work can be attributed to the fact that nobody can really say no to them, and they both may end up being destroyed by the psychic damage of fame.  And with Reputation, Taylor Swift has channeled all of that into an album that's weird and wild and worrisome.  But with all its evidence that she might have officially gone off the deep end, this is another worthwhile entry in a shimmering oeuvre.  Maybe her nemesis said it best: Name one genius that ain't crazy.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Favorites: October 2017



Favorites is a monthly feature that offers up quick thoughts on media, both new and old, that I've recently enjoyed.

Movies
The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
Netflix now puts out so many original films at this point that I've given up on trying to keep up with them almost completely, but I'll always make time for a new Noah Baumbach movie.  And you won't regret investing your time in The Meyerowitz Stories, which immediately ranks up there with his best work.  I tend to prefer Baumbach's collaborations with Greta Gerwig, but this feels like a synthesis of all that he's done before, both with and without her.  The terrain that Meyerowitz covers -- strained relationships amongst a prickly Jewish family in New York -- has been well-excavated, but this film spins itself in all manner of truthful and empathetic directions that justify its existence.  It's a modest film that feels so full -- you'll lose count of all of the dazzling threads, tiny motifs, amusing tossed-off moments, and poignant stuff of life.


Music
Bully - Losing
Bully's debut album from a few years ago took me by complete surprise.  Unlike so many of their peers whose sound feels like a loving nod to 90s alternative rock through a modern lens, Feels Like sounded like it was genuinely unearthed from 1995, at once harsh and sugary sweet in the way so many records from that period were.  This time around, the band loses some of its overt hookiness for an album that's a little more jagged and introspective.  The result makes Losing less immediate than its predecessor, but its pleasures reveal themselves upon repeated listens.  Songs like "Kills to Be Resistant," "You Could Be Wrong," and "Hate and Control" can stand right along with the best tracks from their debut.

The War on Drugs - A Deeper Understanding
For the last few years, The War on Drugs have been my number one "I just don't get it" band.  I listened to Lost in the Dream a few times when everyone was freaking out over it in 2014, but I stood with Mark Kozelek when he dismissively called it "beer commercial rock."  The songs were solid, yet it felt like the band was being elevated by older critics who grew up on Dire Straits and similar influences.  What converted me was being able to see what makes them special with my own eyes in their KEXP performance a couple of months ago (their one around the time their previous album came out is also worth checking out).  In a live context, the space and subtlety of their sound truly shone, and it primed me to enjoy A Deeper Understanding.  I still may not be as high on The War on Drugs as everyone else, but this album has some of the most transcendent musical moments I've heard all year.


Television
Mindhunter
What I said up top about being unable to keep up with Netflix's release of original films goes tenfold for their television series, to the point where I might not be able to catch up with all of their newest offerings in time for end of the year list-making season.  I'm glad I decided to prioritize Mindhunter, whose first season I just finished and ended up loving.  The biggest draw of this show about two investigators in the 70s who led the charge in studying and classifying serial killers, is that the first and last two episodes of the series are directed by David Fincher.  He proves how much visual language can enhance a story as he brings an electrifying energy to the proceedings with his careful, precise arrangement of shots.  That kind of cinematic rhythm is needed, given that the show is entirely comprised of people in rooms having long, methodical conversations.  But it's not just a strong visual hand that's necessary for a show like this to work, so thankfully the writing (from a staff that contains Mad Men greats like Erin Levy and Carly Wray) is just as skillful and exacting.  Mindhunter is a show that's interested in the long game, where even elements that seem off in the beginning -- a flat female character here, a miscast lead there -- prove to be deliberate choices with intelligent motivation.  Even if you're not hooked by the first hour or two, stick with the show.  It's something that's ultimately rewarding enough to deserve the goodwill.


Miscellaneous
Prozac in My Apple Juice (Essay)
I'm a big fan of when writer/Youtuber Allison Raskin writes about mental health, and her Medium post for Wednesday Books was no different.  She's able to write her lifelong struggle with OCD with such wisdom and humor.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Favorites: September 2017



Favorites is a monthly feature that offers up quick thoughts on media, both new and old, that I've recently enjoyed.

Movies
Raw
I don't think Raw came to theaters in my area -- and if it did, it was only here for a week -- so I was finally able to catch this horror-meets-coming-of-age film on Blu-Ray this month.  Garance Miller is terrific as Justine, a girl who starts experiencing cannibalistic urges during her first year at a high-pressure veterinary school.  And while I don't necessarily think we needed another film where a monstrous transformation serves as a metaphor for coming of age, some assured direction from Julia Ducournau (making her debut) is more than enough to make it worthwhile.  Just don't watch it on a full stomach.


Music
The National - Sleep Well Beast 
2017 has been branded as the return of mid-2000s indie rock, given that we've gotten new albums from stalwarts like Grizzly Bear, Fleet Foxes, Dirty Projectors, and The New Pornographers.  The National added to the deluge in September with the release of their seventh album, Sleep Well Beast, another set of perfectly cut jewels of songs.  Their previous album was a little more sedate, so I was worried that they would continue down that road, but Sleep Well is the most they've sounded like a rock band in while.  The guitars have been pushed to the front of the mix, the drums sound more propulsive than before, and they incorporate some electronic splashes to beef up their sound.  The result is their best album since Boxer came out 10 years ago.


Television
The Good Wife
I finally finished my yearlong journey through all 156 episodes of The Good Wife, CBS' recently completed legal drama.  At its best (which I consider to be the show's fifth season), The Good Wife was just as thrilling as its prestige competitors on cable, offering surprisingly complex arcs and a deep world from which any corner could be pulled for conflict.  And though the creators' boasting about the high bar of difficulty they were required to clear at 22 episodes per season, the length of each season did allow for some risk-taking and experimentation that a shorter model wouldn't allow for.  Great network dramas are becoming rarer by the day, so it felt nice watch this show and remember what the format is capable of.  Don't let preconceived notions stop you from giving this a spin.

Wet Hot American Summer: 10 Years Later
I loved First Day of Camp, the prequel to cult classic Wet Hot American Summer, when it came out a couple of years ago.  The gang came together again for a sequel this time with 10 Years Later, another season of gentle, goofy comedy antics and I couldn't be happier.  While not as top-to-bottom excellent as First Day of Camp, 10 Years Later has some big laughs in it that make the whole endeavor worth it.  I wouldn't mind little expansions on this world every few years until the end of time.


Miscellaneous
I Hate Everyone But You (Novel)
I've written before about my love of Gaby Dunn and Allison Raskin's hilarious YouTube channel, so I would've supported their debut YA novel regardless.  But I Hate Everyone But You benefits from being genuinely enjoyable as well.  Told in epistolary form, the novel follows Ava and Gen, two best friends who go to two different colleges and must deal with the trials and tribulations of long-distance friendship.  It's a funny and emotional tale about the work it takes to maintain any meaningful relationship, which is a valuable lesson for a culture that prioritizes romantic pairings over everything else.  I managed to read it in only two sittings, that's how good it is.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Favorites: August 2017



Favorites is a monthly feature that offers up quick thoughts on media, both new and old, that I've recently enjoyed.

Movies
Detroit
Kathryn Bigelow made her return to theaters this month with Detroit, her first film since 2012's Zero Dark Thirty.  Like her previous work, Detroit is another collaboration with screenwriter Mark Boal, and the two of them bring the same journalistic grittiness to this story about an instance of racially motivated police brutality at the titular city's Algiers hotel in 1967.  That style doesn't lend well to storytelling angles other than fly-on-the-wall observations, which has led to people questioning the benefit of showing such brutality.  However, I think that criticism comes from the mindset of people who are fully aware of the fact that things like this can happen.  For most of America though, this supremely crafted film is necessary and vital.


Music
Amine - Good For You
It feels like now more than ever, all of the up-and-coming rappers sound similar, incorporating a mumbly flow over gooey bass-heavy beats from Metro Boomin or one of his many imitators.  There are some who aggressively go in a contrasting direction, opting for a traditionally bars heavy style that ends up feeling the same as everyone else is doing it too.  A rapper like Amine stands out then, simply by virtue of not sounding like either archetype.  That's not to say that he's wholly original -- his debut album Good For You recalls the bright, playful music of D.R.A.M. and Chance the Rapper -- but it's path unbeaten enough to feel fresh.  He's not the most skilled rapper, but that's almost besides the point.  The entire album is so fun and vibrant, it doesn't even need to be technically proficient.

milo - who told you to think??!!?!?!?!
Milo is another rapper who seems to exists on a completely different trend cycle, maybe even a different plane of reality altogether.  Nothing about his verbose, unconventional style should work in 2017.  He constantly quotes Nietzsche and name checks Nabokov, he rhymes "diaphanous gossamer" with "blasphemous philosopher," and he makes a call to "the last real MCs" at one point.  It's enough to make you recall the days of calculator rap, where underground rappers were overly concerned with how smart and authentic they sounded, but only came off as corny.  But despite that, his new album does work.  He's a gifted rapper, riding warm but sparse beats with an exacting precision.  And all of the philosophical talk is a gateway to some incisive observations about being black and the crushing weight of simply existing.  I was mostly unaware of milo beforehand, but this album has turned me into a total fan.


Television
The Deuce
This series doesn't officially premiere until September 10th, but HBO put the pilot online early, so this is as good of a time as ever to get in some advance stumping for it.  For those not in the know, David Simon is one of the most reliable television creators out there.  The Wire is his unanimous magnum opus, but Treme, Generation Kill, and Show Me a Hero are all excellent across the board as well.  He's back, along with frequent collaborator George Pelecanos, for The Deuce, which tells the story of the birth of the porn industry in 1970s New York.  The pilot itself didn't get anywhere close to that though, instead providing a 90-minute introductory course into the ecosystem that existed beforehand.  Usually, it would be frustrating for a show to take so long before getting to the actual premise, but Simon and Pelecanos are two of the best world-builders in the game.  Together with gorgeous direction from Michelle McLaren, they've given us a heavily textured, fully detailed world already.  I'm beyond excited to see where they go from here.


Miscellaneous
Drama Chameleon: Won't the Real Taylor Swift Please Stand Up? (article)
Let's get this out of the way: I, one of the biggest Taylor Swift fans in the world, hate her new song.  It sucks, the video sucks, the album title and cover sucks, the whole album rollout sucks.  But I read this Stereogum article from Michael Nelson that recontextualizes this whole situation today and I loved it.  I'm not sure I agree with every point it makes, but it made me think.  So few thinkpieces these days actually do that.

John Early dancing
You may know actor/comedian John Early from his appearances on 30 Rock, Broad City, High Maintenance, Search Party, or Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp.  But you should know him for his amazing videos posts on Twitter of himself dancing in public.  I don't know why he does it, but I watch them over and over and never stop laughing.  Here's one.  Here's another.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Logan Lucky is one of the most entertaining films of the year



It has become so hacky to review a work of art and tie it to today's political climate.  Every publication is littered with takes about how a piece of pop culture speaks to what's going on in the world, and everyone's getting a little sick of it.  But sometimes those connections just call out and beg you to write that take nobody wants to hear.  That's the feeling garnered from Logan Lucky, Steven Soderbergh's latest film about a pair of brothers who formulate a plan to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway during one of the biggest NASCAR races of the season.  The driving force behind this decision is when Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum), a blue collar construction worker at the speedway, gets laid off for concealing an injury that deems him a risk on the job.  He quickly enlists his brother Clyde (Adam Driver), a veteran-turned-bartender who lost his hand during the Iraq War, into the plan.  It's hard not to think about post-election America with that setup, where these likely Trump voters are driven to desperation after getting screwed over by Republican ideals.  (The term "pre-existing condition" is even used as a reason for Jimmy's firing.)

It's an especially easy connection to make in a Soderbergh film, given that he's stretched his political filmmaking muscles before, in films that were secretly about the recession (Magic Mike) and not-so-secretly about the recession (The Girlfriend Experience).  And just because he has his eye turned to the opposition this time around doesn't mean he's gazing downward.  He's much too sly to resort to simple hick-gawking.  Throughout Logan Lucky, Deep South traditions like NASCAR races, child beauty pageants, county fairs, and John Denver songs are treated lovingly.  There is humor drawn from the character's bucolic idiosyncrasies, sure, but it's all done with a gentle, laconic vibe.  One could draw comparisons to the work of the Coen brothers, but Soderbergh's offbeat comedic style is one that's all his own.

If there's one thing to draw from Logan Lucky, it's Steven Soderbergh's singularity.  At all times, it feels like a film that only he could pull off successfully.  Watching this caper that's simultaneously peculiar and crowd-pleasing is a reminder that Soderbergh is one of the true master filmmakers.  His visual style doesn't just trade in beautiful images -- though this is one of the most gorgeous films of the year -- his choices always tell you more about the story, these characters and how they relate to one another.  Take the introduction of explosives expert Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), where his "thing of legend" status is emphasized through the decision to shoot him from behind for as long as possible.

The script is able to keep pace with the film's stylistic bravura too.  There's some question about whether first-time screenwriter Rebecca Blunt is an actual person or just one of Soderbergh's many pseudonyms, but whoever is responsible has crafted a classic caper.  The actual heist is constructed with Swiss watch precision, full of twists, obstacles, and a last-minute rug pull.  Yet it still finds space for quiet, odd little detours.  This willingness to stretch in all directions makes for some of the most memorable scenes of the year.  That ambling nature also almost becomes its undoing eventually, but the film is smart enough to end at the right time.

This is Steven Soderbergh's first film since his "retirement" a few years ago.  Nobody ever believed it was real or permanent, so it can hardly be considered a comeback.  Regardless of what we call it, it's still nice have him making films again, especially ones as entertaining and sneakily incisive as this one is.  With Logan Lucky, he's made the red state Ocean's Eleven that we didn't know we wanted or needed.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Degrassi: Next Class provides fun and farewells in its best season yet



I always worry about a new season of Degrassi: Next Class, because I constantly wonder whether this will be the one where its streak of quality ends and it slides into teen soap mediocrity, but I was especially worried about season four going into it.  After all, this was going to be the last season for the seniors (or Grade 12s, to use Canadian parlance) -- the first time Next Class has had to send off graduating characters.  Is the show, in its current 10-episodes-per-season incarnation, capable of sustaining this kind of arc?  Will storylines for the non-graduating characters fall by the wayside in service of wrapping things up for those who are?  How will they lay the groundwork for the show's future after parting with half the cast?  These were the questions on my mind as I queued up the premiere episode.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

A postmortem on The Americans' divisive fifth season



From looking at the building adulation around The Americans, FX's simmering Cold War character drama, over the course of its first four seasons, one would think that it was essentially bulletproof.  But season five, which concluded a few weeks ago, proved that such a thing wasn't the case.  You can see the reaction to this season as evidence of just how thin a tightrope the show had been walking all along, as many took issues with this year's sense of pace and purpose, two things it always seemed to excel at.  In many ways, these grumblings are just part and parcel for series that decide on their endpoint more than a season in advance. By announcing last year that the show had been renewed for two final years, it effectively turned them into one season split into two parts.  That makes season five of The Americans similar to the first part of final seasons of shows like The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad -- all of which received similar misgivings.

After such a propulsive and sweat-inducing fourth season, The Americans almost had no choice but to follow it up with a bit of a comedown season.  But season five seemed to take that to its extreme.  It was a season littered with anti-climaxes and half-storylines, starting from the very beginning.  First, we're introduced to a new project Philip and Elizabeth are working on to uncover America's effort to contaminate the Soviet Union's wheat supply, only for it to eventually be revealed that America is actually trying to create a strain of wheat that can withstand any infestation.  Then there was the whole Mischa business, a plot that seemed to be steadily building for a while and then petered out once he had to turn back to Russia without meeting Philip.  Not to mention the little Martha cameos or the quiet place the finale ends at.  Throughout the season, viewers were often left to wonder how all the pieces showrunners Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg were throwing out fit into the larger puzzle of the overall narrative, especially so close to the end.

So the problems that people had with season five could be boiled down to two main things: nothing happened and it was hard to discern what the point of all it was.  I take some issue with the complaint that nothing happened over the course of these 13 episodes though.  Actually, this season had quite a bit of movement, but if there was any problem with it, it was that the progression of the plot only seemed to serve to set up the show's endgame, as opposed to having meaning of its own.  That extends to the second issue as well.  I don't necessarily mind not knowing where everything is going while it happens.  The Americans has always been known to play its cards close to its chest, showing how everything comes together at the last possible moment.  It's just that this year, something like Oleg's arc in Russia wasn't really compelling from week to week.

Still, it's hard not to admire the wonderful interiority of the series, something it doubled down on even further this year.  This was a ruminative season that marinated on a variety of hefty themes, most notably the idea of family.  Whether real, surrogate, or manufactured, the family unit was seen as something that must be maintained, for its fracturing could cause the whole world to crack open.  And who can blame everyone for feeling that way?  More so than ever, The Americans is soaked in a sense of grim fatalism as characters concern themselves less with "how can we prevent this?" and more with "how long can we prolong the inevitable?"  The weariness from the grind is setting in.  It's no wonder the idea of steeling one's self was such a strong motif, from the indestructible wheat strain to the finger technique Philip and Elizabeth teach Paige to help her maintain her composure and shut out the pain.

The show is allowed to retreat inward like it did because it's still the best show around at building scenes and episodes.  The Americans lives on suggestion, calculating the perfect amount of time to let things linger, the optimal moment to shoot a meaningful glance.  The tiniest moments give you so much to chew on through the use of framing, blocking, and body language.  Even when the momentum wasn't there in season five, the craft always was.

Lately I've been thinking about how critics and the overall TV community approaches seasons like this.  There has been so much talk this year about how much prestige TV has become ossified, stuck using the same old trappings as a shorthand for quality.  And yet, there's grumbling whenever we get something that attempts to paint outside of the established lines.  It happened last year with Mr. Robot's oblique second season, it's happening a little bit with the gonzo return of Twin Peaks, and it happened with this perversely muted season of The Americans.  Television like this shouldn't automatically be celebrated.  But we would do well not to reject it as quickly as many have.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Favorites: June 2017



Favorites is a monthly feature that offers up quick thoughts on media, both new and old, that I've recently enjoyed for the first time.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Favorites: May 2017



Favorites is a monthly feature that offers up quick thoughts on media, both new and old, that I've recently enjoyed for the first time.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Falling down the strange, brilliant Poppy rabbit hole



Remember lonelygirl15?  If you're around my age, you're probably old enough to be aware of it even if you didn't actively follow it.  For the uninitiated, lonelygirl15 was a popular YouTube channel that started around 2006 as a series of vlogs by a girl named Bree that slowly began to reveal itself to be weirder and weirder, as it gave hints of her family belonging to a cult and fans began noticing some inconsistencies in her videos.  After a few months, the channel was exposed as a hoax, but those months in the dark were a landmark of mid-period internet history, as it was one of the first examples of people collectively obsessing over something the way that we seem to with every TV show and meme that pops up today. Of course, that also represented a pivot for internet culture, the point at which we all became too savvy to ever fall for something like that again.  But we've been graced with what the modern version of that would look like in the form of Poppy.

Here's the rundown for those who aren't aware of this phenomenon: Poppy is the face of the YouTube channel That Poppy, where she posts short videos (usually between 20 and 90 seconds) that feature her doing and saying a collection of bizarre and unsettling things.  In one video, she starts off by saying that she has so many ideas, and begins to list a bunch of random and unconnected phrases.  In another, she wishes she could just disappear and then proceeds to do just that.  These little videos started in late 2014 and many were just weird in a funny and goofy way, but as time has gone on they've gotten darker and are being released at an increasingly frequent rate.  Nobody thinks this is real, but that hasn't stopped people from getting invested in where it's going anyway.

If you were to stumble on one of these videos in isolation, it just feels like a strange piece of internet detritus, the product of some odd girl who has too much time on her hands.  But when taken as a whole, you can see the channel for what it really is: a brilliant, complex satire of social media and celebrity culture.  Though it's never explicitly stated, after a while you can catch what she and co-creator/director Titanic Sinclair are going for.  (Sinclair was also a part of Mars Argo, a less successful pre-Poppy music/video project that was aimed at parodying the same things.  But that's a rabbit hole for another time.)  Many of Poppy's videos are ridiculous spins on what celebrities and Youtubers do: she shills for products, she posts clickbait, she tries to be relatable, she apologizes for making a video in her pajamas even though she still looks glamorous.

But the most common satirical theme of That Poppy is her excessive need for validation, masked by her love of her fans.  The artist-patron relationship is something we usually see as pure and beautiful.  Poppy reimagines that dynamic as something more hollow and sinister, two engines fueling each other but never truly getting anything out of it.  Through her videos, we're allowed a glimpse into "her world," but there's always a computer screen that stands between us.  And though she constantly talks about how much she loves her fans, it's usually paired with the reminder to like and subscribe.  Her channel is a portrait of a young woman trapped, not just by the confines of her monochrome set but in the Sisyphean quest for a satisfying amount of adoration and recognition.

None of what is being said is particularly unique, sure.  Go to any college and you'll find some freshman with a Fight Club poster on his dorm room wall decrying the falseness of fame.  But the style in which Poppy's videos are delivered is what makes them so special.  Like David Lynch meets Dadaism meets terrifying ASMR, the videos often code their real points so deeply that it allows for another layer of just taking in the odd, off-kilter experience.  Their formal techniques include recurring phrases, a spooky organ score, audio that disorients you by being slightly off-sync, and Poppy eerily facing something unknown off to the side of the camera.  Over the course of its run, the channel has built upon that style too, progressing from the pastel colors that characterized the early videos to the washed out white of the more recent ones.  And through those minor shifts, they've been able to tap into so many emotions from such strange angles.  It's weird, funny, disturbing, but most of all, there's a deep underlying sadness to it.

Because of their abstract nature, the videos have become party to an intense amount of fan speculation.  If you look at the comment section of each one, you'll see numerous threads trying to parse what's going on in the video, what it could be trying to say, and how it fits into the larger narrative of the project.  People have theorized that she's a robot, a member of a cult (which she hilariously denied in her most cultish video), and even being controlled by the Illuminati.

Perhaps, then, Poppy is also commenting on the kind of Lost and Westworld wormhole of fan engagement that dominates a large part of the internet.  After all, the pacing of the "narrative" almost seems like a troll itself.  There are times when things feel like they're coming to a head and everything is finally going to go bugnuts insane, only for it to press on the brakes and recede back to its baseline level of disturbing, like last year when she began glitching out and having nosebleeds, only for that thread to seemingly get dropped after a while.  It leaves you to wonder, "Is there any endgame?  Will we be strung along forever"?

It's so fascinating and enticing the lengths to which the project goes to enshroud itself in mystery.  We know almost nothing about Poppy herself -- her real name and life are never discussed, her age is unknown ("Poppy does not identify with an age," she replies when asked), and in all of her interviews and public footage she performs in character.  If you really want to find out her real identity, you can do so through some minor sleuthing, but revealing it here would ruin the fun a little bit.  Poppy is best when she's just Poppy.

One bit of information I buried the lede on -- which just makes all of this even more brain-melting -- is that Poppy has a genuine pop career as an artist signed to Island Records.  And here's the thing...her music is pretty great.  There's nothing particularly innovative about something like her biggest song, "Lowlife", which has the reggae-inflected pop vibe that you'd hear from Gwen Stefani back when she was a thing, but it's the best possible version of that.  And lest you think her talent is just a product of studio processing, there's the video of her singing an acoustic version of her song "Everybody Wants to Be Poppy," which displays just how forceful and magnetic her natural voice is.  But my favorite work of hers is a cover of Mac Demarco's "My Kind of Woman."  It's everything great about Poppy in a nutshell, as she transforms the original version into something that's deeply melancholic and enigmatic.

Does the fact that she's an actual pop artist undercut her YouTube persona, which is all about digging at celebrity culture?  Maybe, but there's evidence that her music is just another arm of this labyrinthine artistic statement.  On the surface this is just your standard catchy pop, but some of the lyrics could be read as a subversive commentary on this type of music as well.  In a certain light, her song "Everybody Wants to Be Poppy" could be about our gradual descent into monogenre, as bands and artists of all creeds bend towards a pop sound.  Then there's "American Kids," which you can see as slyly making fun of people who try to gain cred by showing disdain for and distancing themselves from their own generation.  In many ways, she's reminiscent of how Das Racist made rap exciting in a new way for me around the turn of the decade, as she makes fun of the tropes of pop music while still having enough winking respect for it to churn out a terrific example of the genre.

In fact, Poppy's actual music might be the most brilliant part of this whole endeavor.  She's got the talent and the look to be a bonafide star, but if she didn't have the gimmick of her outre YouTube channel, hardly anybody would even be aware of her (and knowledge of the real person's background lends credence to that theory).  On top of the myriad layers of her existence is the idea that cuts the most: that our culture today often values narrative and so many other distractions over genuine quality.  Are her YouTube videos just an empty viral plot to boost her music career?  If you look at it cynically, you could arrive at this conclusion.  But that doesn't take away from the ideas that it makes us think about.  In the form of That Poppy, she and Titanic Sinclair have created something that could mean everything and nothing at the same time, that could be an important statement or just more fodder for the content disposal machine.  I can't think of anything more 2017 than that.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Favorites: April 2017



Welcome to the debut of this new feature: monthly favorites!  I watch alot of YouTube channels, where the concept of making a video about one's favorite things from the previous month has become ubiquitous, and yet I never thought to apply that concept to this blog until my friend Sarah did a "What I'm Enjoying" post on her blog the other day.  (Shout out to Sarah, who has had to listen to my dumb pop culture thoughts for over a decade.)  So because I'm very unoriginal, I'm copying the rest of the world and hopping on the favorites train.  There is so much art that I've never been able to talk about on this blog because I just don't have enough time, or I can't think up a piece that's expansive enough to post here.  This will be a nice way to get out some quick thoughts about things I like.  Plus, I sometimes find the serious, analytical voice that I apply to this blog a little suffocating, so these will be a pleasant respite where I get to be slightly looser.

Will I be able to do these every month?  We'll see!

Saturday, April 29, 2017

A few parting words for Sweet/Vicious



The cancellation of Bunheads in 2013 ruined my ability to get upset about shows being cancelled.  Before then, it felt like I was always plagued by the untimely ending of some beloved but underwatched show, from Pushing Daisies to Dollhouse to Ben & Kate.  But since the network formerly known as ABC Family snuffed out Amy Sherman-Palladino's ballet-infused small-town dramedy, there hasn't been a single show whose cancellation has stirred me in any way.  Emotional calcification plays a role in this, but part of it is also because the television landscape has changed so much in the last few years that not as many cult shows face the network guillotine.  Take something like The CW's excellent Crazy Ex-Girlfriend for example.  Just a few years ago, its abysmal ratings would've been a surefire cause for cancellation, but the network executives have even stated that the critical acclaim it received brought a level prestige to The CW that factored into its ability to live on.

So it came as a bit of a shocking blow last night when Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, creator of MTV's terrific Sweet/Vicious, tweeted to announce that the show had been cancelled after one season.  It had low-ratings, sure, but the last few years of being a TV fanatic have trained me to believe that quality would win out more often than not.  Discovering the news on my timeline, I felt a twinge of something I used to know all too well, that anger and sadness that comes from something you love being shuffled off this televisual coil long before its time.

Sweet/Vicious aimed to tell a story about sexual assault from a unique angle.  Spurred by the mishandling of her rape case in the prior semester, college student Jules (Eliza Bennett) used her self-defense training to try to fight back and help prevent further assaults among the student body.  Once stoner-hacker extraordinaire Ophelia (Taylor Dearden) finds out her secret, she's brought into the fold and the two of them become campus vigilantes.  It's a premise that sounds a little silly on paper, but the show itself was a stylish mashup of adored genre shows like Veronica Mars and Buffy.  Much like its progenitors, Sweet/Vicious was full of funny characters and sharp, witty dialogue.  But it also weaved in a very serious examination of rape culture, what it's like to never truly feel safe or to have to face your abuser on a daily basis.  And over the course of its 10-episode season, it builds a complex and beautiful relationship between Jules and Ophelia, always taking their emotions seriously and allowing them to come together through organic connection.

MTV is not generally a network that gets alot of critical eyes towards it, but Sweet/Vicious was a show that resonated with critics and those who read TV coverage voraciously.  In fact, I wouldn't have been encouraged to check it out if it wasn't for the consistently rapturous tweets I saw from people whose opinion I trust over the course of the show's first few weeks.  It's for that reason why the network deciding to cancel it seems like such a shortsighted choice.  Like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend did for The CW, Sweet/Vicious brought a modicum of legitimacy to a network that's seen as containing frivolous programming.  It was a show that was full of potential, from a perspective of a growing audience as well as the possibility of it creatively flourishing, but now we'll never know what it was capable of.  I guess there's no justice in this world after all.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Maximizing the potential of Drake's "More Life"



Last year, I introduced the world to Views: The Antonio Whitehead Cut.  It was an effort to pare down Drake's misunderstood sad-rap opus into a version that emphasized just how many gems it contained once you part through the bloat.  After long and intense anticipation prior to its release, Views was met with a lukewarm response, and despite some positive reappraisals, the prevailing narrative has largely remained the same since then.  Despite the critical consensus, Views was a commercial success though, gaming the new Billboard chart rating system to maximize Spotify streaming counts due to its endless tracklist.

Drake repeated that trick again with his don't-call-it-an-album album More Life, a 22-song "playlist" that chronicles his obsession with the UK rappers, Caribbean music, and not taking naps.  This time around it was considered a success.  The reviews surrounding More Life have been much more positive, with many dubbing it a return to form after Views.  But even the praise was tempered with the idea that this collection of songs, while breezier than its predecessor, was still bloated.  An 80 minute album seems to be something we've just come to expect from Aubrey Graham.

But what if we didn't have to accept that?  Where Views was underrated and I trimmed it down to expose its many high points, I think More Life is slightly overrated, so I've made a condensed version to show the world how much better it could be.  I call it More Life, Less Songs, and here's how it looks:

1. Free Smoke
2. No Long Talk
3. Passionfruit
4. Jorja Interlude
5. Get It Together
6. Madiba Riddim
7. Blem
8. Gyalchester
9. Skepta Interlude
10. Portland
11. Sacrifices
12. KMT
13. Lose You
14. Can't Have Everything
15. Ice Melts
16. Do Not Disturb

This streamlined version comes in at 16 tracks, so let's talk about the cuts made to get it down from the original 22: People seem to love Sampha, but I remain skeptical so I'm casting off "4422" to his own album where it belongs.  "Nothings Into Somethings" is so slight it will hardly be missed, so that gets nixed too.  The only thing "Teenage Fever" has going for it is the Jennifer Lopez sample, so just listen to the original song if you want to hear that.  I didn't think Drake and Kanye West could collaborate on anything worse than the non-album version of "Pop Style," but they admirably proved me wrong with the turgid, grating "Glow."  "Since Way Back" is six minutes long...I don't think I need to explain why it has to go.  And last to be dropped is "Fake Love," which is good but we've all heard it a million times, and there's no need to hear it again, especially near the end of a long album.  With all those exclusions, the album length has been reduced from an interminable 81 minutes to a tighter 59.

One extra thing I did last year with Views: The Antonio Whitehead Cut was switch up the sequencing to change the order of a few songs.  I wasn't able to do the same on More Life, Less Songs because its tracks tend to connect and bleed into one another.  That's a shame too, because I do think there's some opportunity to switch things up, seeing as the first half is heavily weighted towards the R&B leaning songs while the back half is more rap-centric, and it would be nice to integrate things more.  Overall, though, the sequencing is less of an issue here than it was with Views.  I like to think that Drake read my post last year and realized I was right about starting that album with "Weston Road Flows," because he starts off More Life with the straight rap assault of "Free Smoke."

So that's More Life, Less Songs.  It still has both Giggs verses, so it's not a perfect album, but it goes down much easier than the original incarnation.  Feel free to see for yourselves, as I've added a Spotify version of my playlist below.  And Drake: if you're reading this, it's not too late to re-release the album with just these songs.


Friday, March 31, 2017

The Magicians: TV's most improved show



Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which just celebrated the 20 year anniversary of its series premiere a few weeks ago, is one of my favorite shows of all time.  It's a show that I don't make comparisons to lightly, but it doesn't seem like everyone else is on the same page in that regard.  Any show that's supernatural or fantastical, has a relatively large ensemble, and quippy dialogue -- even if it just has one of those elements -- gets slapped with the "Buffy-esque" tag.  Because I know how much evoking Buffy means to me, I treat it as a sacred cow, so as to not have anyone who go into a show expecting it to give them the same feelings that Buffy did, only to be disappointed when it doesn't live up to those claims.  So it is with great consideration that I make the claim that The Magicians, which is currently nearing the end of its second season on Syfy, is one of the closest shows to capturing Buffy's spirit since it ended in 2003.

The show has overcome the adaptation issues that plagued season one
The Magicians is based on Lev Grossman's bestselling trilogy of novels that were released between 2009 and 2014.  Equal parts Narnia and Harry Potter, the series told the tale of Quentin Coldwater, a high school graduate who gets inducted into a secret and prestigious magic school named Brakebills to learn to become a magician.  Along the way, he and the cast of characters he meets at Brakebills learn that magic is both more difficult and depressing than fantasy stories make it seem, as they're opened up to a whole manner of hardships.  It's a quintessential look at what would happen if kids series tropes were deconstructed through a harsh, adult lens.

Though it's a more grounded version of classic fantasy novels, The Magicians trilogy still has its fair share of the supernatural, so a TV adaptation was always going to make some concessions for budgetary reasons.  The issue with season one of the show, however, was that many of the adaptation choices were simple story and character decisions, very few of which were for the better.  Aging up the protagonists from college to post-graduate age felt arbitrary and completely at odds with many of the coming-of-age themes that were integral to the book series.  And while some of the plot reworking made sense -- taking a character's story from the second book and making it run in parallel with the rest of the throughlines of season one was wise and necessary for contract reasons -- others made the season feel rather disjointed and rushed.

Part of the reason why season two has been so wonderful is that it has been smarter about the way it adapts Grossman's novels.  At this point, it's pretty much past following the storyline of the books, crafting its own narrative that works but still feels in the spirit of the source material.  And yet it also manages to lightly hop back to little details of the books in refreshing and thoughtful ways.  Creators John McNamara and Sera Gamble have proven themselves to be smart adapters, and this season I've found myself consistently surprised by how they're able to weave elements from the source material into the deviated path they've gone on with the story.

It understands what made Buffy great -- the characters
Even in the lesser moments of season one, the show was buoyed by the strength of its ensemble, but that sense of its characters has gotten even stronger in the second season.  Like Buffy, though it has a serialized narrative, The Magicians is basically a hangout show, and an excellent one at that.  Every member of the ensemble is a fleshed-out character with a distinct function in the group, and so much of the joy of each episode is derived from watching them bounce off of each other.

Here's an experiment for you: Think of a TV show, and imagine any two characters on the show being paired off for a storyline.  If every combination is an idea that makes you excited, that's the sign of a great series that has put tremendous thought into sketching out its characters and their dynamics.  Buffy was one of the shining examples of that concept, and The Magicians passes the test as well. The show knows it too, as this season has had more instances of shaking up its usual subgroups and letting unexpected matches play out for a few scenes.  It has even added to the fun by boosting its cast of supporting characters to interact with the core members of the ensemble, which was already at an enjoyably high amount of seven.

What's great is that there's also an understanding that tension within the group is important to the strength of the show.  Though there are external conflicts driving the season, most of the compelling material of the season comes from internecine drama within the gang, where it feels like they're likely to rip each other apart at any moment.  There is so much history and animosity between various characters -- Alice and Quentin, Penny and Kady, Quentin and Penny, almost everybody and Julia -- and this season has had many of those plates spinning at the same time, to great effect.  That's why the best episode of the season so far was the seventh episode, "Plan B," where everybody was forced to come together to plan out a bank heist that would benefit each one of them in different ways.  Not only was it a fun little episodic caper, but it cashed in on the intricate web of infighting that had been weaved over the course of the season.

There's a deft balance of comedy and tragedy
One of the other things that made Buffy so wonderful was its mixture of playfulness and truly devastating emotional content, and The Magicians has followed suit.  It's one of the most fun to watch shows on TV this year, full of quippy banter and oddball fantastical touches.  But it can quickly turn on a dime, forcing characters to make tough decisions in high stakes scenarios that have lasting consequences.  The proportion of laughs and drama never feels improperly weighed in one direction either.  Sometimes it can blend both in at the same time -- villains, gods, and powerful beings have a sense of silliness while still seeming formidable.  It's that difficult balancing act that makes the show so exciting to watch week to week.

In this current age of television, there's so much to watch on a weekly basis that my watchlist tends to pile up quickly.  Much can be gleaned from how I choose to prioritize shows.  And here's what I'll say about The Magicians: it's always the first show I want to watch whenever I have the time.  If the unassailable "how quickly do I want to watch it?" test doesn't convince you of this show's merits, I don't know what will.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Personal Shopper is another alluring puzzle from Olivier Assayas



Grief is full of confusing oxymorons.  It takes something away from you, leaving only a hole in its place.  Yet it also exists as this solid, heavy entity that weighs you down.  It haunts and hounds and surrounds you, while also causing feelings of deep loneliness.  It's a feeling that we are united by, in the sense that we will all feel it someday, and yet each instance is so unique that it still feels like a singular experience.  Grief is tough, and when you're in the thick of it, it can feel like an all-consuming horror show.

Personal Shopper, the latest film from French auteur Olivier Assayas, aims to tackle that idea in the form of a ghost story for the digital age.  We follow Maureen (Kristen Stewart), a personal shopper for a famous model, as she wrestles with the recent loss of her twin brother Lewis, who died of a congenital heart defect.  Her and her brother were also spiritual mediums, and when they were younger they promised each other that whoever died first would contact the sibling left behind.  Because of this, Maureen spends her nights alone in his creaky old house, hoping for some sign that a part of him still exists there.  Things do go bump in the night, but she never receives anything clear enough to conclude that it's him.  And on top of that, she starts receiving strange messages from an unknown party who won't confirm their identity, which only makes her more dogged in her pursuit for answers.

If that premise doesn't make it clear enough, Personal Shopper asks you to accept a fair amount of silliness.  The dialogue in the text message thread between Maureen and unknown is silly.  Any time the movie shows a ghost or specter is very silly (and cheap-looking).  And there are many more moments that, when taken in isolation, come off as bizarre and amateurish as the featherweight story spins in all manner of directions.  But if you're somehow able to move past that, you'll find something that's fascinating and strangely affecting.

This film is an enigma.  More accurately, it's a Rorschach Test: it doesn't provide any concrete answers, you just see what you want to see in it.  To me, it's a meditation on the ways grief and loss leave you searching for something you'll never truly find.  Maureen is desperate for a sign from her dead brother, some sort of comfort to put her at ease, but she's never satisfied with what she gets.  Though she does see a ghost in his house, it's not him.  She thinks the texts from Unknown might be him, but it remains inconclusive.  There's a figure resembling a human that we see near the end -- though Maureen never does, as her back is turned the entire time -- but even we can't be sure it's him, because we never see a picture of him throughout the film.  Maureen can't seem to fill the hole that her loss has left, not even in the feeling of a new identity that trying on her boss' clothes briefly provides.

At one point, Maureen is asked what she will do after she makes contact with Lewis, and there's a pained pause until she lands on the answer: "Go on with the rest of my life."  Her grief leaves her stuck, but it almost feels like a state she wants to remain in while others, like Lewis' girlfriend who quickly finds a new boyfriend, move on.  In a way, relinquishing her grief feels like relinquishing her brother.

The conflicts and pains Maureen experiences are largely internal, but it works because of Kristen Stewart's incredible performance.  She's got her detractors -- partially based on lingering animosity from the Twilight series and partially based on her idiosyncratic acting style -- but much like her work in Assayas' previous film, Clouds of Sils Maria, she is completely captivating here.  It's true that Stewart has a limited range, but she finds an infinite space within that range.  Her level of naturalism allows for layers of nuance, which is necessary in a film that spends so much time on her alone in the frame.

Along with Stewart's absorbing performance, the film is carried along by Assayas' quiet control of the pacing and direction, as it changes on a dime from being laconic at one point then eerie and thrilling at the next.  Like all of his films, there are moments of odd and clunky writing.  In Clouds of Sils Maria, there was the overwrought Maloja Snake play; here, it's mostly contained to the text message from Unknown, who speaks in a way that no human being would naturally speak.  But Assayas works on a thematic level that focuses on raw feeling, not on a pure plot or logical level.  For some that's bothersome, but the ideas and images he tends to conjure up transcend any flaws in the writing.

Personal Shopper is a film that leaves you with many questions: Who was responsible for the murder of Maureen's boss Kyra?  Who was Unknown?  Was Maureen's brother there at the end or is it all in her imagination?  Does she receive closure?  I'd be lying if I said that there weren't aspects beyond those questions that left me puzzled, but it's the kind of movie where I'm okay with not knowing it all.  What matters more is I can't shake the emotions it implanted in me, and the more I try to untangle its threads the more I like it.  Like the ghosts that haunt the corners of its story,  Personal Shopper isn't a corporeal being that can be grasped and held down.  It's a wispy work of art that always exists frustratingly, fascinatingly just out of our grip.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Pilot Talk 2017: The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel



Part of Amazon's latest Pilot Season

Amazon's Pilot Season has been around for a few years now and it has proven itself to be a fun new way to conduct the series development process, allowing viewers to have a say in what pilots will be able to become a full series.  (Though it's unclear just how much of a role the user voting has on these matters.)  It can be a frustrating system too.  If you watch a pilot and like it, there's a possibility that it won't get picked up.  And even if it does get picked up, you're bound to wait at least a year to see the rest of the season.  In fact, I'm still waiting for the rest of Whit Stillman's Cosmopolitans, which was picked up in 2014 and still hasn't seen the light of day.  For that reason, I've largely stopped participating in the Pilot Season, preferring to wait for shows to actually get picked up and release a full season before I commit to checking them out.

Of course, I'm willing to make exceptions if a pilot calls for it and one of the biggest exceptions of all appeared this past weekend in the form of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the latest series from Amy Sherman-Palladino.  I'm a huge fan of Palladino's previous series, Gilmore Girls and Bunheads, so I've been eagerly anticipating Maisel since it was first announced.  The show is set in 1950s New York and follows Miriam "Midge" Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan), a plucky woman settled into married life with her husband who pursues his passion for stand-up comedy on the side.  It very quickly establishes itself as slightly different from the rest of Palladino's previous work, deviating from many of the traits that made them so beloved.  There is no small town charm, the character quirks are dialed down, and its time period sets it before many of the items in her usual arsenal of pop culture references.

And yet, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel still feels unmistakably like an Amy Sherman-Palladino show.  One of the qualities it retains from her previous shows is the rapid-fire dialogue, which feels right at home in this setting.  It's always a joy to hear Palladino's signature repartee ping pong between characters, and this pilot has no shortage of witty, sharp, and character-defining banter.  Additionally, the show continues her love of brassy brunettes.  Like Lorelai Gilmore and Michelle Simms before her, Midge feels like a dame straight out of a Howard Hawks screwball comedy.  Rachel Brosnahan has some big shoes to fill after Lauren Graham and Sutton Foster, and she rises to the occasion, imbuing her character with a verve that makes her pop immediately.  Brosnahan has been good enough in past roles, but here she feels like a revelation.  While she may not display the vulnerability of a Graham or Foster yet, she's able to completely nail the timing and delivery of the show's difficult dialogue, which is a promising start.

Some viewers might be a little impatient with this episode in the early stages, but I would advise them to wait it out.  Like Bunheads, the pilot involves a great deal of setup before it really gets to the meat of the show.  Once it does, however, it absolutely sings.  Last year's A Year in the Life revival of Gilmore Girls reminded the world of how wonderful Amy Sherman-Palladino's unique style can be, but The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel takes it a step further, showing us how joyous it is to see that style applied to a totally new setting and array of characters.  This one's a winner; let's see if Amazon agrees too.

Grade: B+

Friday, March 17, 2017

I hate that I hate Legion



This blog is generally built on positivity.  When I first started it, I would occasionally write a negative piece, but I've gradually moved away from them, to the point that the only time I will write about a show I don't like is in the Pilot Talk series where I review the first episode of new shows.  For me, it's much easier to write from a place of enthusiasm than from one of hatred.  If you asked me to explain why I like a piece of art, I'd easily be able to rattle off multiple points to back up my argument.  My reasons for disliking something are a little tougher to nail down.  It's more of an ineffable feeling with dislike, in my opinion.  And ultimately it boils down to the fact that it takes me so much time to write that I'd rather devote my energy to the many things I actually enjoy.

Which brings us to Legion.  Everybody seems to love FX's new Noah Hawley drama about a lesser known corner of the X-Men universe.  The praise has been off the charts and it's only getting more effusive. I was fully ready to embrace this show -- I love FX, I love X-Men, I love shows that aren't afraid to be different.  I should love Legion.

But here's thing...I just don't.

In general, I'm not a huge fan of Noah Hawley's style.  I liked season one of Fargo and liked season two less but still well enough, but my goodwill towards both were despite Hawley's idiosyncrasies, not because of them.  Part of the reason why I liked the second season less than the first was because it felt like the show was marked with an increased of being pleased with itself.  Again, this is something that's hard to quantify, but there was a smugness to season two of Fargo that left a bad taste in my mouth.  Not to mention the fact that it was met with "this is movie-level quality" and "this is by far the best show on television" hosannas.  Because Fargo was such a critical success, and because FX practices placing alot of trust in its creators, it seems like Hawley was given carte blanche with Legion.  That's the only way to explain the way his tics have been amplified thousandfold here.  The quirky and wry tone, the winking references (there's a character who's literally named "Syd Barrett"...ha ha?), the haphazard structure to the story -- it all melds together for an experience that makes me want to rip my hair out in annoyance.  And what's worse is that I'm almost completely on an island with this opinion.

For its entire run so far, Legion has proven that it's all style and no substance.  I don't necessarily mind a show that favors style over substance.  I love style!  But what is irksome about Legion is that it has the false pretense of containing substance.  The show purports to be a deeply psychological show, arguing that its obnoxious exploratory memory sequences are just a lens through which it examines mental illness and trauma.  All it really does, however, is use mental illness as a shorthand for depth.  What is the show really saying about these issues?  Not much, once you dig past its wacky flourishes.

Maybe I'm just being a hypocrite.  After all, I'm usually a big fan of these go-for-broke seasons where it seems like the creator is just doing whatever they want with no care for how it's received: the final season of The Sopranos, season five of Mad Men, season two of Girls.  The closest relative to this season of Legion is Mr. Robot's divisive second season, which I loved.  But for all its stylistic ostentatiousness, season two of Mr. Robot was deeply character-centric.  Perhaps main character Elliot got less examination than one would expect, but the season really dug into supporting characters like Dom, Angela, and Darlene.  Its machinations gave the audience a much deeper understanding of what makes them tick, increasing our ability to be invested in their stories.  There are two more episodes left of Legion this year and I don't feel like we've been given much reason to care about David or his flat "romance" with Syd.  All of the characters on the show are dull ornaments lost in the brush of its trippy larks, which makes it hard to care about anything that happens in the story.

There's nothing about the show's gonzo, psychedelic style that feels honest either.  The fourth episode garnered advanced praise for how out there is was, with critic Alan Sepinwall tweeting that it was the weirdest episode of TV he had seen since Twin Peaks aired in the early 90s.  So I approached the episode with optimism, hoping it would be the one that finally turned me around on the show.  Instead, I came away disliking it more than ever and was completely vexed by the David Lynch comparison.  When I watch Lynch's work its strangeness seems genuine, like the product of someone who is truly a weirdo.  In contrast, Legion's oddball sensibility feels artificial, like Noah Hawley is constantly bludgeoning us over the head with how much of an auteur he is.

So everybody's favorite show on television right now is currently my least favorite show I'm watching, by a very large margin.  I take no joy in hating it though.  I truly do want to like it!  There's a fun genre show in there under all of the masturbatory flights of fancy.  The worst part of it all is that this is a show so unconventional and outre that disliking it leaves you vulnerable to being accused of "not getting it."  I can assure you that I get Legion.  I just don't get why everyone else is putting up with it.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Pilot Talk 2017: Feud and The Arrangement



Every TV season, networks bring out a new crop of shows, in hopes that they'll be the next big hit.  Pilot Talk is devoted to figuring out whether these shows are worth your time based on the first episode.

The Arrangement (E!, Sundays at 10:00 PM)
The Arrangement is not based on the story of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes.  If any lawyers come knocking on E!'s door, that is what the network will tell them.  The show follows Megan (Christine Evangelista), a budding actor who is offered the opportunity to be in an arranged relationship with Kyle West (Josh Henderson), one of the biggest actors in Hollywood.  Kyle is a prominent member of a self-help organization called The Institute of the Higher Mind, and this relationship is proposed in order to maintain his own reputation as well as the organization's.  This proposal comes with a strict contract, one that includes details about how the relationship will progress, when the couple will have kids, and how Megan must conduct herself publicly and privately.

Okay, so The Arrangement is definitely based on the story of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes.  However, the pilot is at its most interesting when it's deviating away from those influences.  In personality and career status, Megan bears little similarity to Katie Holmes, but from the outset she's a pretty interesting character in her own right.  She's shown as a person who is charming and has a sense of humor about her struggling acting career, and when it's time for Kyle to point out that she's different from the rest of the actresses they're vetting to be his next wife, you can sort of believe him.  It helps that Christine Evangelista is the real deal, giving a bright and magnetic performance that shows she was being absolutely wasted on The Walking Dead.

Where it falters is where it explores the Hollywood fantasy life that's similar to what Tom Cruise must lead and the Institute of the Higher Mind, which is clearly modeled after Scientology.  I get why both of these elements are necessary -- the Hollywood fantasy aspect helps us understand why this offer would appeal to people and the Institute of the Higher Mind will be the central driver of conflict moving forward -- but neither is really compelling.  The glitzy celebrity fluff just feels like the rest of the stuff E! peddles, and it's not like Josh Henderson has the screen presence of a Tom Cruise.  And the Institute of the Higher Mind material feels like such a ripoff of Scientology that it's not all that interesting.

The Arrangement is not quite there enough to be weekly watching yet -- it needs to find a better balance of reality and trash.  Still, Evangelista has got major star power and they tease out an enough interesting mystery about her character that it could end up being a solid show in the future.
Grade: B-

Feud (FX, Sundays at 10:00 PM)
Who would have thought that Ryan Murphy, the guy behind Nip/Tuck and Glee, would eventually become the most powerful TV producer in the industry?  He seems to churn out a new anthology series every week now, and the latest one we've gotten is Feud, which will stay true to its title and focus on famous conflicts.  Season one finds him working in his wheelhouse, covering the rivalry between actors Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, which culminated during the production of the 1962 film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?  Like all Murphy affairs, one of the biggest joys is the cast he puts together.  This might be his impressive ensemble yet.  Alfred Molina!  Stanley Tucci!  Jessica Lange!  Susan Surandon!

The series clearly has a love and reverence for the golden age of Hollywood. Look no further than the incredible Saul Bass-inspired credits that start off each episode for evidence of that admiration.  People like myself who have less knowledge and the era in general will discover alot of enlightening information, but I wonder how far that interest goes.  Can this show do more than just appeal to people who have affection for this milieu?  The pilot leaves that question up in the air.  Feud promises to be about more than just the feud between Crawford and Davis but as of right now it isn't really.  And the rivalry isn't quite as interesting as the show would like to think.

Of the main duo, Joan Crawford is the one who gets more shading.  She's painted as someone who is a little vain and just wants to be respected by this woman who secretly (but clearly) admires.  Couple that with her issues with aging and Lange's committed performance, and it makes for a rich and compelling character.  Other Ryan Murphy shows tend to have a tough time finding the balance between camp and prestige, but this one has a good mix.  It's equal parts cheesy and catty.  If Feud can keep that balance, and flesh out more of the characters the way it has with Crawford, then it could live up to FX's reputation for high-quality content.
Grade: B

Sunday, February 26, 2017

2017 Academy Award Predictions



The 2017 Academy Awards are tonight and here are my predictions of how things will go down.  Last year, I didn't do as well as I have in the past, so I'm hoping to improve a little.  With the way La La Land is poised to perform, I have a good feeling.