Tag Archives: Netflix

Knights of Sidonia Season 2 Review – Don’t Mecha Around

Knights of Sidonia

While the first season of Knights of Sidonia managed to blend realism with robots and aliens into a decent drama, the second season stumbles just as much as it flies off into the great beyond. It often fails to deliver its narrative with any appreciable pacing and occasionally dips into unfortunate cliché territory, but it still crafts a worthwhile, character-driven story.

Picking up right where the first season left off as a streaming Netflix Original, we find Nagate Tanikaze in the throws of fame following the spectacular battle with the Crimson Hawk Moth. But of course, the Gauna once again are at the doorstep of Sidonia, but with an interesting twist: they’ve developed countermeasures to the previous silver bullet armaments of core-piercing rounds.

This is where we’re introduced to the big impetus for the season in Tsumugi Shiraui, a Gauna/human hybrid “piloted” by “Norio Kunato.” Now let me explain the scare quotes. First off, as a hybrid, Tsumugi doesn’t actually need a pilot. Instead, she is a fully conscious being that can simply be directed how to act in battle. Second, Kunato isn’t actually Kunato. He’s been taken over by a parasite and now is under Ochiai’s control.

On her own, Tsumugi is a pretty interesting creation. Standing at the same height as a mechanical Garde with a Gauna-like complexion, she is as unsettling as the things that have been ravaging what remains of humanity for the past millennium. However, she only bears the awareness of a newborn, though her intelligence seems to be fully developed.

Tsumugi, much like everyone aboard Sidonia, doesn’t quite understand what she is. Her first formal introduction to the Garde pilots is disastrous as she causes what is basically an earthquake with her gentle swaying, rekindling the fears of those present for the previous hybrid debacle a hundred years prior.

It’s fascinating to watch her meander around the trust and admiration of those aboard Sidonia, just as she delves more personally into the lives of Tanikaze and Izana Shinatose. Despite being part Gauna and bearing the voice of his mostly dead girlfriend Shizuka Hoshijiro, Tanikaze is immediately engrossed by Tsugumi’s existence. This happens simultaneously while Izana, a middlesex friend and fellow pilot, nurtures feelings for Tanikaze that emerged last season.

Knights of Sidonia – Season 2

This makes for a strange but entirely interesting love triangle that informs a great deal of the drama in the season. It makes for each character’s arcs and resolutions and actions all the more weighty and believable. (Well, as believable as a space opera about mechs and aliens can get.) You mix in Tanikaze’s lingering memories of Hoshijiro and Tsugumi’s rapid and tumultuous integration into human society and you have a delectable story.

It would be a lot more digestible, however, if the pacing was simply better. It’s incredible how much of each episode is incredibly pointless in both the overall plot as well as character development. If you wanted, you could get away with just watching the little recaps at the beginning of each episode and nothing else.

The show seems to mire itself in frivolity while giving the viewer an incredibly compressed retelling of major events. It’s not that all of the side dishes are fluff, but they seem to come up at the immense sacrifice of providing any meat. For example, the aforementioned Ochiai parasite controlling Kunato? It played like an everyday event. So did the sudden acceptance of Tsugumi with the vast majority of Sidonia. Weren’t these people angry at her existence just, like, five minutes ago?

Knights of Sidonia – Season 2

There seems to be some additional transformation into a stereotypical anime as well. While the first season seemed to relish the idea of only wearing an anime’s skin and steeping itself in the rigors of a Battlestar Galactica, this go-round falls for far too many traps of the genre.

The drama of going into a Garde seems to have all but evaporated as the constant worry over space logistics has disappeared and the suits have reached Gundam-levels of durability. Tsumugi starts out and never leaves the realm of a deus ex machina with a voice, basically bending previously established rules to her will.

And then there’s the thick smattering of anime-style sexuality and the jokes that derive therefrom. The number of times Tanikaze stumbles across a set of barely covered breasts or visually vulnerable upskirt even in the first few episodes is laughable, eye roll-inducing, and generally off-putting. Then the predictable recourse manifests: punched in the face, kicked into a wall, girly scream while cutting to an exterior shot.

Knights of Sidonia – Season 2

Perhaps it won’t bother many other viewers (if you are part of a genre, sometimes you just have to embrace it), but it came across mostly as childish in terms of both craft and content. And when you throw in the talking penis with tentacles that is the extremely mobile, expressive, and handsy appendage of Tsumugi’s, it only serves to remove you from the previously compelling and well-developed world of the show.

There are so many problems with the second season of Knights of Sidonia, but with a quality story involving a handful of complex characters, it’s hard to see them as much more than quibbles. Once it’s all over, though, you can’t help but look back and see them all piled up in the corner and wonder how it is you managed to look past it all. It’s still a good show, but not as good as you’d like it to be.

Final Score: 6 out of 10

Tagged , , , , , ,

Sense8 Review: All for One


Sense8 is a befuddled web of narratives that’s just as hard to watch as it is to stop thinking about. In its grand ambition of a premise, it actually fails to go much farther than the idea stage and calls it quits just after qualifying as a show. But it weaves in such interesting and engaging moments and characters that you can’t quite dismiss it completely.

Coming from the Wachowskis of The Matrix fame and the infamy of just about everything else they’ve done, it’s safe to say that the announcement of this Netflix original garnered a tepid response at best. Just as they’ve always done, though, they cook up one hell of a pitch.

In Sense8, eight strangers from around the world are mysteriously tied together by seemingly supernatural means. Slowly their past and present merge together to form their futures, taking their experiences and emotions and skills and blending them all together. They are “sensates,” people born into their own respective network of other sensates that share their, well, everything.

It is fascinating, to be sure. Through each character, wholly different cultures and identities and struggles are represented. They are each thoroughly and impressively fleshed out with entire backstories that could span individual features just as well as they fill in their slots in the show.

For instance, there’s Nomi Marks (Jamie Clayton), a trans woman and former hacker and current political blogger. Not only is her current predicament lovingly crafted and intricate (perhaps informed by Lana Wachowski and Clayton’s own lives?) but you then get insight on her troubling past, all of which is simultaneously built alongside the overarching plot.

And there’s Riley Blue (Tuppence Middleton), an Icelandic DJ residing in London as she attempts to evade her past. Wolfgang Bogdanow (Max Riemelt) reveals his layers of loyalty and latent romanticism amidst his strangely dissociative behavior. Each main character is a deep and necessarily real one.


The problem is that they don’t do much besides that. With eight individuals to tend to across the 12 episodes, very often it feels like the narrative thread that ties them together is far too thin. (And we’ve already seen the “strangers connected” trope before.) Their individual stories offer a remarkable amount of depth but then when it comes to the season-wide antagonist and set of complications, it all come crumbling apart.

We don’t find out much about the villain other than he/they exist, nor do we learn much about why the sensates exist, much less the reason the bad guys want them dead. All the treachery is instead imbued into the isolated character stories which tend to tie in the other characters through happenstance and deus ex machina. It almost becomes a game during viewing of wondering how situations can be carefully constructed to require sensate intervention.

As real as the characters themselves are, the situations they find themselves in become all too predictable. Lito Rodriguez (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) is thrown into an especially trite arc despite being one of the more compelling sensates as a closeted movie star. And then the ones that fail to find maturity in their own stories are just confusing, like Will Gorski (Brian J. Smith) and a presumably unsolved murder form his past that doesn’t seem to involve him enough to matter.


This could be a problem of the writing. It seems like the show is more interested in telling you that it is poignant rather than being just that, almost as if in the writers room, they kept chopping out words until it felt mysterious enough to count as cerebral. And then too many oddly crafted sentences were left untouched. Especially when it comes to Nomi, it’s hard to not sigh and think to yourself that no one talks like that, like they’re constantly trying to impress James Lipton.

Many of the bits surrounding the core of the show, however, are rather impressive. The logistics, for example, of filming all these parallel scenes on location and effectively cutting them all together is awe-inspiring. And each scene is beautifully shot with clear framing and digestible movement. All that practice with the action of the Matrix movies has paid off.

The editing is simply admirable as well. The story (and stories) move so slow and meander between nowhere and the middle of it but with the cuts moving between locations and characters with slick transitions makes it all look and feel like a much faster show. It’s almost enough to keep you awake for all of it.


Perhaps they fell into a trap of making a play of the word “sensate.” At times, the attempts for resonance is far more laughable than potent. There is an—ahem—”origin” montage that starts out relevant and points toward emotional but by the fourth sensate and what feels like its tenth minute, it’s hard not to roll your eyes and laugh.

It’s obvious the Wachowskis have a lot of stories to tell, each one seemingly more interesting and gripping than the last. They certainly have the sense of grandeur to do so. I just can’t wait for when they finally finish one.

Final Score: 6 out of 10

Tagged , , , ,

Marvel’s Daredevil Season 1 Review: Hellishly Good

Marvel's Daredevil

How can anything good happen in a place called Hell’s Kitchen? It’s a real location, named after the brutality that seems to overflow from its residents and onto its dirty streets. It’s also where Marvel’s Daredevil takes place, Netflix’s latest original series and the next entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and it’s one hell of a trip.

This first season covers he origins of lawyer Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) as well as the origins of his alter superhero ego Daredevil. It actually follows the serial format for comic television: we track the present day hero as he develops his chops for taking down bad guys while visiting the past through flashbacks for the foundational backstory.

In Murdock’s case, he saved a man from being hit by a truck back when he was a child, but some of the dangerous substances on the truck burned away his ability to see with his eyes. But through some ways the show explains, he further develops the ability to see a different way—to see a “world on fire”—and uses his remaining heightened senses to fight crime.

The first thing that’s interesting is that this world is canonical to the MCU, taking place roughly 18 months after the events of 2012’s The Avengers. Most of New York is still recovering from “the event,” a softer colloquialism for a mass alien invasion from a floating portal in the sky. In fact, this is how we believably eschew the modern upscale aesthetics of Hell’s Kitchen to the crime-ridden one of the show. The Avengers left a hole in New York, and the filth of drugs and human trafficking have flowed forth to fill it.

It’s fascinating, though, that outside of a few oblique references and Easter Eggs to the films and some potential future developments, Murdock’s escapades are almost wholly self-contained, and for good reason. For all the grandiose explosions and world-ending consequences of the theatrical entries into the canon, Daredevil is infinitely more personal. This is the hearty, intimate endeavor of one man to save his city.

Truthfully, it’s two men trying to save their city. Opposite Cox’s Daredevil is Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk, better known as The Kingpin, and he is going about a different tack for redeeming his hometown. Working hand in hand with Russian mobsters, Yukuza, and Chinese gangsters, he is trying to do good through the warped filter of his past.

Marvel's Daredevil

This is one of the highlights of the show. D’Onofrio is an extremely potent Kingpin. Fisk, as a child, was terribly troubled by his father and further his relationship with his mother, and whenever his actions come to a head as an adult, you can see his history in his eyes. You can see his regret and his conflict constantly percolating just behind those big doughy peepers.

That is until he loses it. And boy does he lose it, and it feels dangerous. Some of his vocal gurglings are questionable, but his explosions of emotion—be it rage or sadness or whatever—are the perfect foil to Cox as Murdock. While Murdock struggles inwardly with his desires to fix the city and his desires to remain a good man, Fisk exposes his inner turmoil rather outwardly.

This makes Cox’s performance as important to the tone and direction of the show as D’Onofrio’s, which you would expect since it’s a series named after his character. And he handles the responsibility with aplomb. Besides capably executing on the physicality of the role (fighting and blindness included), Cox holds a necessary tenderness behind his steely demeanor as both an attorney and a crime fighter.

Marvel's Daredevil

Most of the supporting cast does just as well including Deborah Ann Woll as Karen Page and Rosario Dawson as Claire Temple and Vondie Curtis-Hall as Ben Urich, each one with considerable depth and pesonality. And whether you count James Wesley (Toby Leonard Moore), Fisk’s righthand man, as a supporting role or the primary villain for nearly the first third of the season, he is a commensurate intimidator with Fisk. It’s a solid one-two of villainy, especially when you throw in Vanessa Marianna (Ayelet Zurer) emergent psychosis.

Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) is fairly problematic, though. The childhood friend and lawfully employed partner to Murdock, he is right there alongside Daredevil and Kingpin all the way through the season, blissfully unaware of his friend’s nighttime activities. But Henson’s acting is more like constant overacting and the character itself tends to flipflop between being moral and being money-hungry without any consideration. Most of the time he’s annoying and confusing. Other times he’s just taking up space.

There is, however, an admirable and impressive amount of grit to the show. It’s a stark contrast to the rest of Marvel’s offerings, where things only ever get as dark as classic apocalyptic scenarios, but this is about taking the dirt off the streets and rubbing it in your face.

Marvel's Daredevil

This is exemplified through the excellent production and meaningful directing of the season. There’s a lot to the visual impact of each episode. It’s not just about showing you one talking head after another (though it does indulge in that inevitable trap often) but it’s about filling your head with the idea and suggestions of what is important and what isn’t but showing you some things and simply implying others.

There’s one particular scene early on that features a five-minute, one-take fight scene where Daredevil is trying to rescue a kidnapped child. It is a tiring battle for both him and the audience. This isn’t where Captain American punches a bad guy and proceeds; this is a true slugfest. You can see the methodical nature of Murdock’s combat, assessing and reassessing the tight confines of the hallway while utilizing his abilities to monitor the things beyond sight.

But towards the end, he is worn and exhausted. It’s not even fighting after that long. It’s just desire, and his desire is outmatching the several men he’s dismantling. This culminates in a shot that excludes us from the payoff of the crucible, forcing us to realize this is indeed Murdock’s journey and not ours.

Marvel's Daredevil

Speaking of the fighting, though, there is a lot of it, and it’s pretty fantastic. Very rarely do you see Daredevil get through encounters as if they were mere scuffles. These are full-on battles, each and every time. Sure, he manages to accomplish some superhuman things, but you feel like he earns each and every victory. And that’s not to mention the moves he does are pretty cool.

The story, unfortunately, isn’t nearly as consistent. The personal threads hold tight and intimate throughout, but the intrigue of the procedural elements involving a menagerie of crime organizations, lessons on the dangers of truth-seeking/journalism, and incontrovertible good Samaritanism waver in and out and all over impotent romances. It’s too many dishes stacked up and almost all tip over and break across the singular goal of taking down Fisk.

Despite that, this is still a good show. Whether you’ve watched the other bits and pieces of the MCU or you’ve read every Marvel comic under the sun, Marel’s Daredevil is a compact, forceful, and dramatic season of television. It is well worth your time.

Marvel's Daredevil

+ Intimate and personal foils between Fisk and Murdock
+ Plenty of great performances that fit this darker facet of the MCU
+ Directing that has meaning
+ Fighting that feels real and has consequences
– Wavering and confused threads in the last third of the season

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Tagged , , , , , ,

The Binge

The Binge

It’s the new paradigm. That’s what they say, anyways. The pundits and critics that talk about the success of Netflix’s original programming, that is. They praise Arrested Development‘s comeback season built around the idea of binge-watching, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like.

Each episode was never made to be consumed on its own and left to stand apart. No individual slice of the online-only season was structured to be something you would watch on its own on a weekly basis, talked about around a water cooler, and then mulled over in the hours leading up to the next piece.

Instead, they were always made to be slammed down the throat all at once, or at least as rapidly and mercilessly as possible. It needed a pace where the complex layers would be retained all at once so the jokes were set up and capitalized across episodes. It’s a format that could only exist and succeed in this future of online streaming.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

It’s something that is also worth considering as Netflix’s original programming only picks up. Just two weeks ago we saw the much hyped premiere of the third season of House of Cards and last week was the series premiere of the Tina Fey-led, Ellie Kemper-starring Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

This includes five other wholly original series, a handful of continuations, and a nigh deluge of comedy specials, though that’s necessarily material to this particular discussion. And that’s not including the 34 upcoming series (among which are Daredevil, The Legend of Zelda, and Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp).

And you can absolutely bet that all of those shows are going to buy into the flowing narrative and comedic and dramatic styles of the binge-watch. While not necessarily easier to write out such things in a protracted fashion, it is much more attractive to the writer. The idea of encapsulating self-contained stories in bottles while stacking them against other cohesive tales is, at times, restricting.

House of Cards

But the why is quite so important right now, if not just because the reasons can take many forms for many different creators and writers. (House of Cards creator Beau Willimon even advises against it for season three.) It’s far more interesting to look at what it does to both the show and the viewer, the most obvious of which is ditch a universal timetable for everyone that actively working on the program.

When you were “caught up” with a show on TV like The Office or Parks and Recreation, you could guarantee that no one except Amy Poehler and Miss Cleo knew more about it than you. And if you weren’t quite there, you could exist on a very obvious gradient. One week back? Two weeks back? Now, there is only done and not done.

The dichotomy is tricky because you don’t make temporal associations with plot lines. Instead, now it’s a singular flow, a dripping tap of story and characters that you can’t turn off until it’s over. You don’t make ongoing analyses of individual episodes or confer with others about theories and speculation but instead you wrap up at the end to talk big picture.

Arrested Development

Nuance is lost in criticism. It’s an odd turn because nuance is much more manageable in this binge structure, but only from one end of the road. The small details and big swings go into your brain but come out only as a compacted, abstracted representation of the overall arc.

This also means that one of the bigger contributions an entirely connected culture has made is thrown out the window. Instead of writers responding to rising and falling ratings and maybe some fans willing to send letters and emails, they would get immediate feedback on a weekly basis of each episode through Twitter and Facebook and whatnot.

They can integrate this massively distributed and normalized system of show notes quickly. This can be dangerous, but it’s also nice to know feedback is valued. But this very obviously isn’t how Netflix operates when it throws up an entire season’s order up on a single day. (It’s even interesting that we still call them seasons when it’s more like a switch being flipped.) Its showrunners don’t even get a midseason break to reassess the current state of the show.

Orange is the New Black

Filmmakers might find this structure more familiar than their television counterparts. They create their movies in a vacuum, betting against their own and their trusted circle’s opinions on their product before letting it fly free. And whether it keeps flying or crashes into the ground is mostly a singularly celebratory or catastrophic event: opening weekend.

If you remember, a whopping two percent binged all 649 minutes of season two of House of Cards last year in the first 72 hours of its release. That would have been 668,000 people back then at 33.4 millions subscribers. Then, five months later, they hit 50 million and topped off at 57.4 million by the end of the year.

Assuming that two percent figure merely held strong and didn’t increase (which it most likely did), that would mean 1,148,000 people binge-watched House of Cards this season. There is only a growing contingent of people who buy into the binge-watching strategy. It’s a discussion held many times before with even compelling and psychological arguments for it, but it’s something still worth thinking about. Are the things we lose worth the things we gain?

Tagged , , ,

House of Cards Season 3 Review: Bang and Whimper

House of Cards Season 3

Ignoring the 10-episode leak early last month, Netflix dumped the entirety of the third season of what is becoming their flagship creation House of Cards. Picking up directly after the confusingly happy/sad conclusion to the second season, we catch up with the Underwoods in the White House. Over the course of 13 episodes, though, the dramatic value of their success is proving problematic.

First off, there are spoilers for the first two seasons of the show contained in this review. Second, there are spoilers for the third season as well because you can’t very well talk critically about the end of it without talking about the beginning and everything else in between. Third, the first episode opens exactly how you’d want it to: Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood looking into the camera and being a supreme hardass.

Unfortunately, after that, it…slows. It doesn’t meander, necessarily, because it focuses very intently on one particular aspect of the show that has gone unmined thus far, which is to say we find out Michael Kelly’s Doug Stamper, Underwood’s fixer man, is still alive and has undergone physical rehab.

It’s an interesting subject to broach. For the past two seasons, all we’ve seen of Stamper is the fact he just makes problems go away. Despite his alcoholism and debilitating sense of professional loyalty at the expense of personal growth, he is (mostly) impervious to fault. Even his stumbles across the previous 26 episodes were quickly remedied through interesting and engaging complications.

Stamper, in fact, consumes roughly half of the entire third season, exploring what happens to a man who identifies himself by his job loses his drive. More than that, he loses the faculty to regain his place with an obvious physical handicap as well as a newly minted mental anguish. That, in itself, is a gripping concept to probe.

By the end, though, there fails to be any significance to this deviance from the Underwood narrative track. When the curtain falls on the third season, Stamper is back to where he was when we first met him. That complication is thrown out the window, which might very well be a commentary on innate individual nature but comes across as disappointing. We want that half of that season to mean something.

House of Cards

It’s kind of the problem with all of the third season. The dramatic impetus throughout is somewhat lacking, although for a variety of reasons. There’s no singular aspect or folly that drags the entire show down, but when you add it up, you have a stack of issues that certainly makes it a lesser season.

For instance, Frank and Robin Wright’s Claire Underwood have finally made it to the White House. They are the most powerful couple in the world. Their collective sociopathy has been vindicated. But now what? There are absolutely complications presented throughout, but none of it is as inherently interesting as their mad scramble to the top.

Moreover, the obstacles that crop up have a tendency to border on the insane. For the longest time, we clung on to this runaway train because it was a series of mad moves in a world of mad people. But now that we have perspective on the presidential proscenium, Frank’s decisions to basically rob FEMA or his encounters with a Bond-ian villain dressed up as the Russian president (played coolly and maniacally by Lars Mikkelsen) are much harder to swallow. The layers brought on by video game critic Thomas Yates (Paul Sparks), however, is rather compelling.

House of Cards

It’s a very strange framework presented in this season. It’s very much an effect of the Netflix binge format (I’ll have more to say on that in another piece), but given all the things that happen in this season, they feel justified as a batch of 13 episodes. On the other hand, the overall arc of intertwining plots and eventual cliffhanger feel like something that could have been easily been compacted into two or three episodes and greatly benefited from the truncation.

Such criticism, though, overshadows the greatest assets of the series, which are the actors. Spacey is still as deliciously dark as he’s ever been, effortlessly switching between the charming and affable President of the United States and the ruthless, bloodied, and insatiably hungry madman we’ve come to be terrifyingly enchanted with.

Then there’s Wright as Claire, an equally complex character, but presented in an infinitely more subtle light. Whereas Spacey’s is overwhelming and overbearing in his relentless pursuit, Wright’s subtlety and elegance betray her commensurate desires of not just getting it all but taking it all.

House of Cards

Part of their values as actors in presenting these delectable characters is their lines, and that can be most greatly attributed to show creator and head writer Beau Willimon. Consider this chilling line: “Do you know what I like about people? They stack so well.” Or this most perfectly assertive one: “The President is like a lone tree in an empty field. He leans whichever way the wind is blowing.”

Those are from Willimon, and you can almost tell without reading the credits when he is credited as the writer in any given episode. There is simply a more pervasive simple confidence and potency to his words that create and destroy characters in swift turns with an incredible economy of words.

And this is still a beautiful show (Wright even directed a few episodes), albeit with some overly on-the-nose visual metaphors. But the beauty and immediate engagement of saucy lines delivered by powerful actors can only do so much to patch up the cracks and holes of a troubled narrative. It’s still engaging but the physicality—the steely, crushing grip of past seasons—has faded. Worth watching, but do temper your expectations.

House of Cards

+ Topnotch acting all around
+ Compelling writing
+ Visually still a treat
– Mad dash feeling has evaporated
– Dramatic value has similarly diminished

Final Score: 7 out of 10

Tagged , , , , ,

Late to the Party: Black Mirror

Black Mirror

One slick trend that I approve of in modern television is smartly integrating technology into their narratives. BBC’s Sherlock, for instance, does a stellar job of showing how phones can be used to tell parallel stories and implicate heavier parts of them for drama. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. even kicks off the whole series with some timely references to how it disseminates information to the masses.

Those shows, though, rarely go beyond simply mirroring the functions of the real world. People text nowadays instead of sending emails and making calls, so that’s how it works in television. Granted, writers have learned to start using that sort of thing better and better (which Casey Johnston breaks down splendidly), but that’s very often where it stops. They just use it.

That’s where Black Mirror picks up, a British television series that dives into the minutiae of what makes technology’s twisted, symbiotic grasp on our lives so terrifying. Or at least what should make it terrifying if we ever stopped to think about it. And it’s very obvious creator Charlie Brooker, who also made Dead Set, has thought about it as he presents these self-contained short stories.

Black Mirror

As a satirist, Brooker takes our dependency and irrational love for technology to its horrifying logical conclusion. It’s not just that we use our phones at dinner or get our news from Twitter instead of actual news programs but that it has begun to infiltrate previously cordoned parts of our brain. It shows so spectacularly our collectively addled minds in the opening episode The National Anthem.

Spoiler Alert: from here on out, it’s very likely what I say will contain spoilers, major or not. The first two seasons of the show have just been added to Netflix, so if you have an account (and you are a human being, so I’m assuming you do), you should go watch it and then come back to finish reading so you can tell me how big of an idiot I am or whatever.

We have the “Facebook princess,” named so because she accepted a marriage proposal over Facebook, something that already happened way too many times to count as even news anymore. She’s also just a peach of a person, being a humanitarian and whatnot. But she’s been kidnapped, held ransom at the price of a Prime Minister’s dignity: he has to fuck a pig on live television.

Black Mirror

This introduction to Black Mirror is so intensely complex. There’s the whole idea that we, as a people, would be so perverse as to actually enjoy watching another person being forced to have sex with an animal to save another person’s life. But we also have an intimate look at the crumbling of a marriage as the Prime Minister’s wife simply can’t stand to look at him anymore, a tragedy that further encompasses a facade of happiness post-bestiality and the psychological trauma of the very act that did it.

And then there’s the bit about the journalistic hunt to pick up any news on the event in any way possible, which leads to a nearly botched rescue operation and a view at the withering integrity of both government and media. Brooker somehow turns an absolutely absurd and nearly comical situation into an incredibly sobering and realistic depiction of how we think and how we operate under the various guises of humanity being humane.

The second episode, Fifteen Million Merits, is perhaps the best of the first two seasons, and definitely bears a grotesque resemblance to our lives. (It bears mentioning that each episode has a completely different cast and setting with no overt sign that anything is connected.) In it, we find that nearly everyone in the world has been relegated to riding bikes to generate power to the world, an activity that also earns them the currency of Merits.

Black Mirror

Everything costs something. Toothpaste costs Merits. Food costs Merits. Skipping ads during a video game costs Merits. And boy are there ads. There are ads everywhere, and they are “tailored” to your habits. Our protagonist Bing Madsen, in fact, has a proclivity to watch a pornographic stream called “Wraith Babes,” so ads of women kissing each other will often plague his tiny, screen-covered square dorm room.

It is, actually, just screens. On every wall, you can see what they want you to see. Correction: you have to see what they want you to see, cutting off and warning and annoying you if you obstruct your view of the ads, a move eerily similar to how Spotify will pause ads if you mute or lower the sound.

Not everyone has this life, though. Some people escape by making it big on the talent show “Hot Shot,” an American Idol-type show where people try to make it onto a stream (read: channel) to escape the bike. It’s always either you take what they offer or you go back to the bike, a depressing existence of dark walls and petri dish food.

Black Mirror

Here, we have an exceptionally and disgustingly precise view of the world as we know it. The entire biking workforce has been subjected to gamification, earning Merits in nickels and dimes while walking past a giant leaderboard every morning. And then you spend it all back in nickels and dimes on digital hats and pants for you “Dopple,” a digital avatar not unlike the one on your Xbox Live account.

It is so striking because, as a person in the modern world, how likely is it that you will pick up your phone while you watch this show because it dings? And how often will it be an email asking you to sign up for a service? Or reminding you to log back in to something? Or just telling you that you can save %15 if you buy now?

It comments on something that is actively happening to you while you watch. Even the entirety of the arena for “Hot Shot” is formatted like that of 1 vs. 100 on Xbox 360, a memory hard to ignore as your Xbox One and Xbox 360 stare at you from your shelves and those Dopples wave back from your TV. The ad-driven economy of the workers, the inescapable necessity of grinding marketing, and a listless existence of snidely poking at everyone else’s decision to exist as well. It’s painful to accept that it’s all true.

Black Mirror

Even more piercing is the ending. The enumerating complaints that you nod along with as the episode goes on eventually gets spilled out in the way you’d hope: in the face of those most visible in the plight against those bikers. Yelling at the judges with a shard of glass at his neck, Bing erupts in articulate anger detailing how fucked up the framework of their lives is. And then, of course, he joins the corruption, choosing to host a weekly debasement of his fundamental beliefs so as to both not die and not go back to the bike.

That whole episode feels like a punch to the gut. It is poignant and twisted in a rare combination that I can’t say I’ve seen in years. The third episode lacks that same effect, mostly resigning itself to a superficial parable on living in the past and accepting people for who they are. But even then, it’s packed with such masterful storytelling and potent acting (not to mention a delicious premise of wholly accurate, controllable, and sharable memory) that it’s hard not to find it a compelling anyways.

The same goes for the rest of the second season. (I know they’re called series, but just let it go, okay?) The acting is just superb and the settings for the episodes are unbelievably well realized bits of science fiction and horror. Be Right Back, the first of the season, is emotionally impactful and has delectable notes of Her while White Bear, the second of the season, packs a devilish twist and skews close to parts of The Purge.

Black Mirror

The Waldo Moment, the season closer, is the weakest, bringing about somewhat misaligned attempts at jabbing at our half-assed political engagement. It has, once again, an interesting premise but fails to follow through on anything more than where we can see it heading in the first third of the episode. The best it provides is an aching sensation as we witness something one man creates being misappropriated for another man’s greed. Significant in its existence but not substantially explored in the story.

As a series, Black Mirror definitely stumbles every so often. Its quality wavers here and there and even dips into some mediocre territory at the end of season two, but it starts of with two absolutely unbelievable entries and continues to provide engrossing propositions of what-if. With stellar acting and topnotch production value shacking up with Brooker’s precise and pessimistic satirical mind, you have no reason not to watch.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

‘Arrested Development’ Season 4: A Cynical Charm

Arrested Development

In sophomore year of college, I watched a lot of 30 Rock. In particular, I watched a lot of the first season of 30 Rock. Why? Because the disc drive on my PS3 broke and all I had on there were ripped episodes from the DivX Stage6 website, a high quality, official repository of unregulated video. I would watch it over and over again late at night when the options were go to sleep, watch Wildboyz on MTV, or go through another round of Liz Lemon shenanigans. The choice was obvious.

In total, I must have watched that entire season no less than 40 times. (There are still a few episodes I can recite in full.) Now compare that with the fact that I’ve seen the entire three-season run of Arrested Development almost as much—and that was an entirely voluntary exercise. I completed this quiz on Vulture in under a minute and got a perfect score. My lifetime track record of quotes goes 1) Star Wars, 2) Seinfeld, and 3) Arrested Development, impressive considering how much more time I’ve had to goose up the numbers with the other two.

What I’m trying to say is I know the series rather well, and even then it felt little more than a casual acquaintance with the new streaming season on Netflix. Through the 15 episodes of this fourth, belated season, it felt an awful lot like seeing a dear old friend you’d neglected to call or text or e-mail for the past seven years; there’s a sensation of talking with a stranger at first, but you slowly settle into accepting that you’ve both changed, though the core of relationship is still there. Somewhere.

Arrested Development

The first few episodes of this fourth season were not especially encouraging. They felt a bit too cynical and too hate-filled. Every other gag was an elbow to the side reminding you that they were canceled. “Hey, remember when they unceremoniously chucked us off the air? Remember? REMEMBER?!” Well, yes, of course I remember. People who haven’t even ever seen the show remember. It’s understandable to be sour about the situation, but the Showstealer Pro Trial Edition watermark felt a bit like not just preaching to the choir but also forcing the choir to preach.

This feeling that you were being talked down to was even found among the characters. Each episode is centered around a single Bluth as they weave in and out of an increasingly complex and absurd web of deceit, and the first one is all Michael. He never was the purest of heart, but he at least was never this much of an ignorant ass. He could be vindictive at times and rather passive aggressive (as shown in an excellent sequence of phone tag with George Michael), but he seems more a mirror for the attitudes and feelings of the show’s creators at being brought back after a protracted death than anything else.

Everything you experience at the front is loaded with cynicism: Ron Howard audibly clears his froggy throat, Netflix nudges you every time that it is a “semi-original” series, and half the time is spent reminding you what happened with a show you clearly spent days at a time watching back when that sort of thing was acceptable. And among the rather somber tone of realizing that everyone’s life had gone to shit either by choice or circumstance, there wasn’t a lot to laugh at or with. My one chuckle-out-loud moment was found with a Franklin-esque moment involving some rather, um, casual racism.

Arrested Development

But then the show picks up. Like, really picks up. It starts to find its footing just after episode three and hits its stride around episodes seven and eight. All that self-aware hatred for itself and its fate turns into the good ol’ Bluth charm we know and love. We get a lot less of characters acting like selfish sinkholes of pity and scorn and more like the dysfunctional band of blissfully ignorant doofuses (doofusi?) that we know and love. We gently fold in returning characters like Mae Whitman’s Ann Veal and George Sr.’s twin brother Oscar rather than dumping them all into the batter and turning the mixer on high like with Sally Sitwell and Lucille Austero.

That is a tough balancing act, though. As much as we would like to consider this a fourth season of Arrested Development, it really does have to consider that for some, this is the first time they’ve seen these characters in seven years. Seven years! In that time, we’ve gotten four The Fast and the Furious movies and Michael Cera grew a mustache, so a slow reintroduction seems necessary, if counterproductive. Arrested Development was always about moving fast and packing in as much nonsense and humor and drama into a half-hour show as possible. If there is one word I can use to describe the first three seasons, it would be dense.

And that’s why the show begins to feel more familiar around the midpoint. Characters like Alan Tudyk’s Pastor Veal and Judy Greer’s Kitty Sanchez make meaningful appearances that go beyond cameos, but they do so within cameo-like time spans. And between bits of dialogue, in-jokes are injected in ways only Arrested Development can manage. The Banana Grabber franchise appears to be alive and well, and there is more than one subtle Mr. F reference for you to ferret out. Gob’s $3,000 suit stuttering reaches all new heights, and there is such a fantastic interpretation of the chicken dance that I felt like my smile was going to tear my head in half. Also, one character’s return is so staggering that I can’t bear to spoil it for you.

Arrested Development

There are, of course, new jokes, most of which take form in new and utterly delicious characters. The standout to me is Maria Bamford as DeBrie Bardeaux. She’s painfully adorable and acts most as a foil to the audience; she is subjected to interacting with the Bluths for real whereas we can simply watch and laugh. John Slattery is absurdly perfect as “disgraced anesthesiologist” Doctor Norman and Tommy Tune as Lucille 2’s brother Argyle Austero (who is decked in argyle) is ridiculous, graceful, and intimidating all at once. And of course there’s Mary Lynn Rajskub as Heartfire, a woman involved in one of George Sr.’s schemes who communicates by entirely thought. It is the quintessential well from which Arrested Development draws its jokes and results in one of the best gags of the season (maybe of the series) when she tries to order a drink.

Some of the new cast, however, is a bit mixed in their ability to hold their own against the Bluth onslaught. Isla Fisher’s Rebel Alley provides some fantastic fodder for Ron Howard Hollywood jokes, but she ultimately comes across as nothing more than a plot device (though a solid and convincing one, to be fair). P-Hound works well with George Michael but isn’t nearly unstable enough to fit in with the rest of the family. And Terry Crews as a very Herman Cain-ish Herbert Love just kind of falls flat as nothing more than an SNL-quality shell, though SNL alum Kristen Wiig eventually gets a hold of her Lucille Bluth impression (Seth Rogen as George Sr.? Not so much).

All of which are representative of the overarching problem with this season of the show; there’s not enough of the Bluths. For all the idiosyncrasies of having a bunch of inmates running a fiscally irresponsible asylum, they were still a family and were endearing in that respect. They stuck together and loved each other even when they didn’t love what they did to each other, and that allowed us a lot of time with them as a family.

Arrested Development

The narrative structure of the season was both a necessity due to everyone’s busy schedules and an interesting experiment in what was an experimental show for its time, but it doesn’t give us much time with everyone together. Played off of one another, everyone’s particular failings as decent people congeal to form a holistic view of a demented society. Do you know that trust exercise where everyone sits in a circle on another person’s knees? That’s what the underlying structure of the Bluths was, so when you take them out on solo adventures, it breaks down. Instead of seeing how this house of cards is held up with luck and happenstance, we just have a deranged piece of trash floating through the wind.

For all that, though, the green screening really only became an issue for me once with Tobias and Lindsay. It just could not have been more obvious that they were not on the same set at the same time. It probably would have been less distracting if they’d just left the green backdrop in.

But there’s enough there to keep the season going. Peppered with an increasingly maniacal Barry Zuckerkorn, an absolutely ridiculous interpretation of the maritime law infrastructure, and Tony Wonder and Gob’s ever worsening rivalry, we take a funny and dense (if bumpy) ride to the end. The reliance on the narrator to drop info dumps lessens (though the Next Time bumpers are a bit stilted the entire way) and the trademark absurdist escalation permeates the last third of the season. The Pulp Fiction-style timeline begins to dovetail (the owner of a pair of feet we see in the first episode, for example, is revealed) and you realize that though everything takes place in the same handful of scenes, the information we get with each visit builds on the aforementioned escalation until we get the meltdown we’ve been waiting for.

Arrested Development

What we’re left with something…strange. To appreciate most of the fun in this season, you must be well-versed in the previous three. And to get to the good stuff, you have to slog through what appears to be made for those green to the series. This creates an odd balance of appealing to the wrong people at the worst times. Either you hate the beginning and love the end or build a relationship at the front only to be confused at the back. But what this season attempts and accomplishes is what I wholeheartedly believe can only be achieved by Arrested Development after three past masterful seasons. So while this is not what I was expecting, it was also exactly what I needed it to be.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,