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Bud Light’s Dilly Dilly “Banquet” Commercial: A Beer Commercial for the Age of Trump

20 Oct

Bud Light recently put out a commercial entitled “Banquet,” airing non-stop during sports programs and whatever other television Budweiser suspects young men might be watching. The commercial is set in the court of a faux medieval king and its most memorable element is the nonsense catch phrase “dilly dilly.” A couple of my friends are obsessed with this commercial, finding it to be a harmless, innocent laugh. But they’re wrong. Under the hood, “Banquet” is a subversive and insidious advertisement that tells the story of America under the Trump administration, one light beer offering at a time.

The setting is the aforementioned court of a medieval king. The king sits behind a dais, next to a young woman, who sits next to a relatively older woman. The court is filled with subjects sitting on a chairs and a line of supplicants waiting to make offerings to the king.

First up at the head of the line is Sir Jeremy. Jeremy says nothing but lowers a six-pack of Bud Light onto the dais (we know his name because the king refers to him as such). The king anoints him (none of the women speak, of course, over the entire course of the commercial and we never learn their positions or roles) a true friend of the crown. He then offers up a toast of “Dilly Dilly” which the subjects repeat in unison.

A woman, Madam Susan, approaches next and lowers a case of Bud Light on to the dais. She is saluted as an even truer friend of the crown, presumably in reference to her presenting a greater quantity of the much valued Bud Light. She is then sent away with another round of “Dilly Dilly.”

An unnamed man follows next. Instead of Bud Light, he brings an unlabeled larger glass bottle with what appears to be a red wax seal forward and onto the dais. When the king inquires as to his offering, seemingly confused by it being anything other than Bud Light, the man explains that it is a “spiced honey mead wine” that he has really been into lately.

The king stares vacantly, as if he’s so shocked by the choice of gift that he needs a moment to decide the man’s fate. Rather than accept the gift, anoint the man a friend of the crown, and leave him with a “Dilly Dilly,” the king instead sends him off to follow “Sir Brad.” Sir Brad, the king recites with unabashed glee, will give him a private tour of the “pit of misery.” For bringing a product other than Bud Light to the King, not only is he not appreciated, he is detained for torture. The unnamed man bleats out a quick “I’m sorry. What?” before being led away. He appears understandably stunned that a seemingly generous offering to the crown is not only disdained but that he is actually penalized for it with an unspecified amount of torture.

A subject then calls out, “To the misery! Dilly Dilly,” which is, predictably, followed by a chant of “Dilly Dilly” in unison from the crowd. Yes, everybody in the room is celebrating a poor civilian getting tortured for having the nerve to bring something other than Bud Light to the king.

“Here’s to the friends you can always count on,” the narrator says.

The lessons of this commercial are manifest and hardly limited to advising the consumption of a disgusting alcoholic beverage.

The commercial teaches us to follow authoritarian leadership without question. The king declares “dilly dilly,” and everyone else follows in unison. The king sends a man off to be tortured, and everyone cheers. There’s something to be said about even merely repeating nonsensical slogans simply because an authoritarian figure is whipping the crowd into a frenzy. Cries of “dilly dilly” might as well have been “lock her up.”

The commercial encourages intolerance to anything and anyone different than yourself. There is only one acceptable gift to the king, Bud light, and anything other doesn’t merely not meet with disappointment or negotiation but rather warrants extreme punishment. Here’s the friends you can always count on; friends who think the same as you.

Falling in line is cherished. Those who don’t should be punished severely. Bud Light has truly created a commercial that could only feel at home in the era of Trump.

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A Brief Word to Hollywood Famous Person Gavin Polone on Whitewashing

25 Sep

Producer extraordinaire Gavin Polone penned a column for The Hollywood Reporter this week that espoused some views on the practice of whitewashing. He attempted to take the side of those who deplore the practice, praising Hollywood for gradually phasing out its decades-long policy of casting white actors to play non-white roles. He also warned, however, against the growing trend by whitewashing opponents of protesting any role re-written to be white, for ostensibly creative or business reasons, exemplified by Ed Skrein’s decision to take his name out of consideration for a role in the new Hellboy movie in which his character was a Japanese-American in the comic on which the movie is based. Unfortunately, the primary point Polone’s take underscores is that he doesn’t really understand entirely what the problem is with this type of whitewashing to begin with.

To break out the exact problem with Polone’s argument in a logical fashion,  let’s start at the beginning.

There are, very broadly,  three major possible applications for the term whitewashing, from narrowest to broadest.

  1. White people portraying another people of another race or ethnicity (example: Yul Brenner playing the King of Siam in The King and I, Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s).
  2. Parts originally intended as parts for one ethnicity in source material being adopted or rewritten to be played by white people (example Tilda Swinton as the originally Tibetan Ancient One in Dr. Strange, Ed Skrein in Hellboy, before he pulled out).
  3. White people cast in a role which is not rewritten or adopted but feels like it should more naturally be played by an actor of another race or ethnicity and/or shows the white person as superior to the non-white people around him or her at their own games (Matt Damon in The Great Wall, Finn Jones in Iron Fist)

The first definition is generally agreed upon by consensus in modern Hollywood, including Polone, even though there are still examples of it occurring in modern TV and movies, like Emma Stone in Aloha and Joe Fiennes as Michael Jackson in an episode of Urban Myths.  There are certainly lots of very thorny specifics on the edges of this broad definition, that Polone brings up, even though he tries to use that otherwise well-made point to distract from the errors in his logic regarding the second definition. What are the range of races and ethnicities that can play other specific races and ethnicities and when exactly it is okay? We can all agree that Joe Fiennes shouldn’t be playing Michael Jackson; but is it okay for, as Polone mentions, Randall Park to be playing a Taiwanese-American on Fresh Off the Boat? There are very complicated non-obvious questions on which thousands of words can be written, and which likely depend on the specifics of roles, but it’s mostly the second definition which troubles Polone in his post and which I want to spend time talking about. His point about the complications of that first definition is accurate but a smokescreen to the weaknesses in his larger point.

This second definition is where I think the battle in Hollywood currently really lies and where Polone shows he doesn’t really understand the reasons why whitewashing is so problematic, of which there are, very broadly, three.

  1. White actors portraying characters of other races or ethnicities perpetrates racist stereotypes and offensively represents the races and ethnicities being depicted.
  2. Actors of certain races and ethnic groups are underrepresented relative to their general population, and whitewashing makes it more difficult for people of those races and ethnicities to get work
  3. Casting contributes to a white-as-default mentality, reinforcing a notion that whites are more important, and makes it more difficult for people of underrepresented races and ethnicities to see more varied and better portrayals of their own race and ethnicity on screen.

Polone understands the first rationale well, and makes his argument against the first definition to whitewashing above using his understanding of that point. He doesn’t obviously understand how important the second point is.

Polone uses a set of arguments gradualists have used for years in every similar civil rights struggle. They all essentially agree with the cruasers’ righteous goals, they say, but they have to practical about it. No one can expect the people who make these decisions to change overnight, and the radicals are in fact hurting the cause by advocating too strongly and not letting Hollywood advance at its own pace, which might cause an accidental backlash.

He uses a couple of examples of when perceived second definition white washing should be acceptable and why, primarily because of understandable, in his mind, box office concerns. The reasons, however contradict one another.

We shouldn’t get riled because Marvel changed the Ancient One, because it’s merely a supporting character. Well, on the other hand, we should understand why Marvel had to change the main character in Ghost in the Shell, they needed a star.  Polone tries to have it both ways, that we both shouldn’t get upset about losing a supporting character, but can’t realistically hope for an Asian star. Polone tries to excuse the Ancient One decision due to a very specific set of concerns regarding the politics between China and Tibet, but looking at the second rationale above why white washing is bad, could have led to casting of a different Asian nationality aside from Tibetan if that was an unsolvable issue. Not to mention, the self-perpetuating logic that if we need a star, we have to choose from the existing pool of largely white stars – if Asian-Americans don’t have a chance to star in movies, they’ll never thus be considered stars worthy of that star billing.

We should understand why Hollywood makes certain decisions for financial reasons, Polone says, but by replacing Ed Skrein with Daniel Dae Kim, he think in that particular case helps Hellboy from a marketing perspective. The only reason for him to make that caveat that I can think of is to attempt to turn the argument of anti-whitewashers on its head; the writers and directors behind Hellboy are just trying to make the best movie creatively, and Ed Skrein was their choice to do that, and they should be granted that creative freedom.

That argument doesn’t wash though because it gets at exactly what Polone doesn’t get about the problem with whitewashing.  Even if not for ostensible box office reasons, even if subconsciously, predominantly white producers, directors, writers, and lots of otherwise well-meaning people behind the scenes, tend to be more likely to cast white people, for psychological reasons that are above my pay grade. By forcing their hand, at the very least to stick with characters that aren’t white in their original incarnation, we’re forcing them to look outside of their narrow view and give actors chances to play parts they aren’t gifted with nearly as often. I like Ed Skrein as an actor but I hardly think Polone could or would make an argument that Skrein was simply the only actor who could do justice to that part. There are many many actors the movie could choose from, whether we wanted to limit it to Japanese-Americans, or other Asian-Americans or not, which again is a far different and more complicated question, and those are actors that are not getting chances in a predominantly white industry.

The argument that the protests aren’t practical doesn’t hold water either. I’m all for practical, and often the problems I have with politics on my liberal side of the aisle that I disagree with are due to their relative practicality, but opponents of that second type of whitewashing on being very practical. They’re attempting to change the calculus for both actors taking whitewashed parts by both punishing actors who take them with public shaming, and rewarding them, as seen with Ed Skrein for declining them. Supporters believe that movies that are less whitewashed will, if released, do perfectly well at the box office, and Polone didn’t provide any evidence otherwise – not to claim this is any type of meaningful sample, but Ghost in the Shell, Polone’s choice of a movie that needed an established star, was a flop regardless, and does he really think Dr. Strange would not have succeeded without Swinton? He contends Hollywood simply won’t make these movies, and there’s realistic concern that will happen, but will it happen with every single movie – will Hollywood never make another movie with a non-white character again? I doubt it; this is a long run gambit, and I would argue the price of losing a few likely mediocre adaptions due to public pressure in the meantime is worth the progress towards an end goal of more representative casting.

End of Series Report: Twin Peaks: The Return

20 Sep

I don’t have anything particularly illuminating to say about the particulars of the final Twin Peaks episodes, or the season as a whole, but I merely want to say a few works more generally about the critical and cult phenomenon that surrounds the show, and David Lynch in general, and how I feel as a visitor, rather than a resident, in Lynch-world, eager to absorb and learn but occasionally skeptical and unwilling to always drink the kool-aid.

I can’t compete with the level of nuance and observation from the many Lynch disciples on the internet who have trained their eyes to look for the most minute reference or symbolism that relates to earlier in the season, to previous Twin Peaks incarnations, or to other projects in the Lynch oeuvre. There’s plenty to speculate on, but in this case I’m not the person to do it. I’ve greatly appreciated their work throughout the internet which has helped me enjoy the season on a much wider level than I would have on my own.

As should be obvious at this point, I’m not a Twin Peaks diehard. I didn’t watch the original series until a couple of years ago, somehow managing not to spoil the reveal of Laura Palmer’s killer for myself (I still don’t know how I managed that), largely enjoying the show until that point and having a little harder of a time pushing through the second half of the second season slog (I still keep forgetting Heather Graham was in the show). Overall, I enjoyed the show but I didn’t think it was a breakthrough TV or one of the best shows of all time. What I did think was that it was incredibly bizarre, particularly for the time, and still today, and that it had the most insane ending of any show I’ve seen, and both those qualities are what built up what excitement I had for the new season.

I had absolutely no idea what to expect from this new season, and that was exciting. There’s always a temptation make a reboot feel warm and cozy, to reintroduce viewers to all the characters they missed in the interim, but David Lynch has little taste for the sentimental. The more accurate question in this case was to what limited extent the show would bring back its familiar elements and characters, and to what extent it could be just as weird now, relatively, as it must have been then. Without the burden of expectation of a bigger fan, I was less likely to be disappointed if it didn’t live up to expectations, or maybe lived up too closely to expectations for my liking.

I watched episodes often without having any idea what was going on at certain parts. I guess that’s part of the whole idea, and there’s both a thrill and a frustration that comes along with it. I appreciate the instinct not to pander to the audience, but at the other end of the spectrum, sometimes there’s just nothing really to understand. For about half the segments I was confused by, other more dedicated and astute viewers seemed to understand and shed some helpful light on, whether literally or symbolically, and for the other half it seemed like nobody had any idea, occasionally grasping at straws for deeper meaning, but still liked or disliked based on how much they enjoyed the general Lynch-ness of it.

Reading recaps for Twin Peaks: The Return, which were for me a requirement, compared to a supplement for just about any other show I’ve ever seen, felt like a combination of enthusiasm, illumination, and rationalization. Twin Peaks had less of a traditional narrative than just about any television show that has ever aired. There’s something to be said for a show being a tone poem; for there not being a whole lot of narrative meaning, and for the picture and shape and feel to mean as much as a typical story. There’s also a likelihood that the fact that qualities sometimes came at the expense of an often muddled and unfocused structure would not be excused so easily were it not both Twin Peaks and David Lynch; fans, I think, are  little bit pre-baked to accept whatever Lynch wants to throw out there (in some respect, it’s the nature of fandom; I’ve excused my favorites for lazy or inferior content on occasion). Some characters seem to exist for no reason. Most notably, never returning to Audrey after we see waking up in a hospital-like room feels particularly mystifying; I’ve seen many rationalizations for it, but they all feel like rationalizations; there are a lot of shows could look a lot better in the right light if they had bloggers in their corner finding the absolute best defense for any potential wrong step. Some writing about Twin Peaks  reads a lot like Lost defenders talking about how the constant cop outs, unanswered questions, and deus ex machinas on that show were all part of larger story that is actually brilliant and that you, reader, just don’t get and appreciate it.

By no means are these structures and odd peripheral characters and plotlines without merit. Lynch has generally thought these things through; Twin Peaks: The Return, as insane as it gets (and it gets way out there) never feels as silly or confused as Lost. When Lynch makes a bad choice, for what it’s worth, it feels like there’s more of an intentionality to those bad choices, rather than scrambling and appearing made up as it went along. Everything is in there for a reason, at least in Lynch’s mind; as a one-shot miniseries (albeit a very long one) he knows there’s no next season to follow (though never say never) and doesn’t have to worry about where his characters end up.

I would love to somehow apply a double blind test to some of Lynch’s biggest fans and see whether something similarly brilliant but messy and uncfocused without the Lynch brand associated with it would garner as much universal acclaim. Maybe it would; it’s entirely possible. But it’s hard to not feel like occasionally, because Lynch did it, its’ brilliant, rather than the other way round.

I’m glad I watched it. I’m glad I got to be part of a moment in time, where people were so feverishly into it, and their enthusiasm caused me to be way more into it that I might have been otherwise, which is a good thing. I’m glad I got a piece of the general excitement surrounding the property. The show was a fascinating journey where there was absolutely no way to predict what was coming next, and most importantly, it was like absolutely nothing else on TV and that’s worth a hell of a lot.  I suspect it won’t be like anything else on TV for a very long time; it didn’t feel the need to reckon with its viewership at all and was content to leave viewers with infinite questions wanting more, for better and worse. It was an achievement. I’m just convinced when I rank my favorite shows at year’s end, for me, all of the difference doesn’t make it a better show than The Americans or BoJack Horseman.

 

End of Season Report: Horace and Pete

13 Sep

It took me a year and a half, and even though I bought a couple of the episodes when they were first available, I didn’t watch any until the show moved over to Hulu, but I finally made it through Louis CK’s self-produced one-man vision Horace and Pete.

One could call Horace and Pete an experimental project, in that it’s unlike anything on TV, though what makes it “experimental” is what makes its look and feel much simpler and bare bones than modern TV, hearkening back in many ways to earlier eras. Distribution-wise however, it was unquestionably experimental – being completely funded by CK without the backing or approval of any network or website. Shot like a play, that’s what it feels like, more than a television show, with an extremely limited number of sets, primarily the titular bar and the upstairs apartment, and only one or two scenes outside the bar that I can remember (at a restaurant and a doctor’s office) and no exteriors. Like a play as well, the dialogue is enunciated very clearly, is a bit exaggerated and and has the distinct cadences and pauses of a stage production, breathing more than typical faster-paced Peak TV.  Episodes very greatly in length, and though this should be no surprise to Louie viewers, Horace and Pete is no comedy; there are comedic moments but it’s not a particularly funny show nor is it attempting to be.

There are a lot of successes and a number of flaws, but it’s worth watching, particularly for fans of Louie, because it’s so different and for the things that it does well. Most days of the week, I’d rather watch a flawed original show than a technically better-executed second-rate prestige drama, and Horace and Pete is very much the former.

Horace and Pete seems to think it’s profound all of the time – about half the time it is and half of the time it isn’t. The show is at its worst when it’s being political, which it largely does in the context of discussion amongst patrons at the bar of different political persuasions. Admittedly, there may be some bias from watching this a year and a half later, and a big year and a half later, after Donald Trump’s unexpected victory, and my undoubted coastal liberal elite status makes it particularly my bias particularly acute. But the material, most of it involving regular barfly Kurt Meltzer, often working around the theme that both parties are kind of screwed up, and no one is listening to each other, may have had roots in truth but feels oddly stale in an America where a Republican president is calling white nationalists fine men.

The acting is wonderful, particularly Edie Falco as Horace and Pete’s sister Sylvia,who is fighting cancer, and Steve Buscemi as the tragic Pete, who learns that the medicine which is the only thing separating him from the debilitating mental illness he suffers from and which kept him in a mental hospital for years, is going off the market. Generally, I enjoyed the bits focusing on the family more than the random conversations of the barflies, which felt closer to attempts at humor which never quite worked. Horace is a frustrating bumbling every man who can never seem to put the right words together that the situation calls for, trying to do the right thing, but often failing. Sylvia and Pete are both more sympathetic and compelling, and as for Alan Alda’s Uncle Pete, I was surprised but happy to see him go. To no fault of Alda’s, I didn’t have a lot of interest in this bigoted horrible old man who everyone but Sylvia seems to put up with and even like for some reason.

The strongest segments are the non sequiturs; the stories, told, in a monologue from one character to another, or the snippets of idle conversation about life, when it doesn’t feel as if Louis CK is trying to make an explicit point. The shining example of this and the one episode of the series that everyone should watch, regardless if they ever plan on tuning in again is the third episode, “Episode Three” (creatively titled), featuring Laurie Metcalf as Horace’s ex-wife, Sarah. In nearly entirely a monologue format, Sarah tells the story of how she came to be cheating on her current husband with her husband’s father, and how that experience grants her some understanding of how Horace could have cheated on her with her sister years ago, leading to the dissolution of their marriage, even while knowing what a disaster it would be when they were inevitably caught. I just described the gist, but that’s peripheral to watching the story being told by an acclaimed theater actress like Melcalf, who is obviously a master of this format, using dramatic pauses and facial tics to emphasize individual moments of the story, with brilliant specifics details inserted by Louie throughout. Right there in those scenes is what makes Horace and Pete interesting and worthy and justifies the investment.

End of Season Report: Orange is the New Black – Season 5

23 Aug

The fifth season of Orange is the New Black was, well, pretty good. It’s not in the absolute highest of Peak TV but it’s a pretty good, very entertaining show, but it’s a show that should definitely still be part of the year viewing regimen of any serious TV fans, a lot better than you’d hear from those friends who we all have that tells you they just gave up on Orange is the New Black a couple seasons ago, because. The show has had it’s ups and downs (the third season in particular, which somewhat fairly drove people away) and it’s not perfect, but Orange is the New Black earns its place in pantheon. It’s still a worthwhile show for many reasons, and the condensed time period of this season, taking place entirely in the span of a couple days while the riot reigns, which has both positives and negatives in terms of story telling, helps this season standing out.

The best attributes of Orange is the New Black are both the fact that it is a true ensemble and of course that ensemble itself. There are few true ensembles on television these days, and besides the fact that it’s my favorite format and that it’s underutilized on television, what makes it work particularly well here is that there are a couple dozen ensemble members at this point well developed enough to allow the show to pivot and spotlight new and different characters and character combinations in ways that shows with more limited ensembles are unable to do. Every season, some characters are introduced, some are brought from the background to the fore, and some are provided small chances to show off which set them up for increased roles in future seasons.

The choice to have the whole season take place during the three-day period of the riot, while the inmates ran the prison, was a compelling change up from the previous seasons from a narrative perspective but limited the number of characters that got deep, well-developed arcs. It’s more difficult (though far from impossible) to write strong complex arcs that occur over the course of just a couple of days. During this season, we see more inmates on screen with less screen time each. The sheer number of characters is a strength; the prison feels like a full world, and a couple dozen smaller characters feel distinctive and at least minimally memorable only given a few lines in a few episodes. As a method of examining the season, let’s breeze through how some of the characters fared this season.

More than ever a disproportionate number of the characters served as comic relief, often in groups. Martiza and Flaca, who have served this role for a while now, are the best at it, their chemistry shines through. There were also the two meth heads, Leanne and Angie, who we’ve seen before but also the white nationals Kasey, Helen, and Brandy, and Ruiz’s henchwomen, Zirconia, Pidge and Ouija, . The comedy’s great, and the balance of genuine drama and comedy in another quality that has made Orange is the New Black so successful. Howeve,r this season, the preponderance of otherwise relatively shallow purely comical characters probably swung the ratio a bit too far from dramatic character arcs.

Taystee got a big juicy arc as she stood up after Poussey’s death as a reluctant leader fighting for justice. She was the absolute star of this season and she was great. Even if there was nothing else to salvage (and there was), the season was excellent just for her role, and if there had been three other characters that got as meaty roles as she did, the season would be absolutely great instead of pretty good. She reckoned with the loss of Poussey throughout, along with her position in the world and in the jail and her responsibilities to herself and her fellow inmates. Her flashback was entirely unnecessary to feel the loss and neglect of her entire life. I don’t quite hate the flasbhacks in this show because they’re well-crafted but they often reinforce characteristics we already know or learn in prison and take up valuable screen time that could be used in the present.  In that present, Taystee’s willingness to fight so hard for the inmates and put everything on the line in admirable, while her stubbornness and unwillingness to compromise on the final demand is heroic but impractical, unrealistic and without meaning to be, selfish. That Taystee’s behavior makes her both the prison’s savior and possibly ultimate failure is tragic and an example of what makes this show so good at its peaks.

Black Cindy and Watson, who flank posse Taystee throughout the season, both got much smaller arcs. Watson has all the makings of a fantastic character from the little glimpses we get; if Cindy is the more carefree member of Taystee’s posse, Watson is the potentially more militant. Unfortunately, she’s never had much of an individual arc to to build on; she’d be a great candidate for more to do in a future season. Black Cindy is still primarily a comic relief character, but we see a new side of her when she rashly gives Crazy Eyes lithium to keep her quiet, only to sincerely regret it later when Crazy Eyes won’t wake up.

Otherwise unrelated characters Red, Brook Soso, Gloria, and Ruiz had the next best season-long storylines, none nearly as broad and powerful as Taystee’s, but each building on a favorite character in Red’s case, or showing us new sides less developed characters, as Brooke, Gloria, and Ruiz all get to show off more than they had in previous seasons. Red’s desperate need for revenge, to show her own value as protector, and to take it to any length, like Taystee, beyond the practically instructive is both admirable and foolish.

Brook, who doesn’t fit in with many at the prison, both due to her ethnicity, her education, and her personality, has to deal with the loss of her girlfriend Poussey, and how she managed that both alone, and in conjunction and conflict with others, like Tasytee and Watson mourning Poussey was fascinating.

Gloria’s sense of failed responsibility for Daya and her own family runs deep; she’s a better mother to some of the prison inmates than to her own son, but with Daya’s mistake, she can’t even seem to do that right. Ruiz is the fiery relatively militant leader of the riot until it dawns on her that her extra years might not have been added yet, after which she immediately switches sides. Gloria and Ruiz’s dual decisions to trade in their loyalty to their fellow inmates and friends within prison to be with their children were both heart-wrenching and showed the difficulties decisions foisted on inmates and the many claims on their loyalty.

The guards didn’t get much to do, kind of the product of being kept under lock and key all season, outside of, yes, again, some comic relief. Caputo, who may have been the protagonist of the fourth season, was a little bit more involved than the rest of the guards, but far less than in previous seasons.

I don’t hate either character individually, but I’m so done with Alex and Piper’s on-again-off again love-hate relationship., Their plot this season was all about their relationship and I could not care less whether they get married or not.

I’m also about done with Lorna. While I enjoyed Lorna’s schtick for the first few seasons, the character has serious limitations and is seeming more and more one note, which particularly stands out next to other characters who have been around for seasons but still feel like they have plenty more to give. More importantly, involvement with her is holding Nikki, a far more interesting character back. I’d love to see way more Nikki, separate from Lorna.

As the mentally ill characters go, I prefer Crazy Eyes to Lorna, and in her relatively small amount of screen time, her struggle for routine and normalcy as the riot throws off everything she’s become used to her around her, and her own unique sense of moral outrage are moving even in doses.

Pennsyltucky has continued to grow – unlike Lorna, the writers smartly took her in a new direction a couple seasons ago, moving her from the crazy big bad to best friends with Big Boo as a chance to have her develop. The two characters have great chemistry and Pennsyltucky has had one of the most interesting continuous journeys in the entire course of the series.

I’m getting long on words here, but there’s more characters; that’s how big a cast there is. There’s the older women hanging out in Frieda’s sweet basement apartment. There’s Daya’s mom Aleida actually remaining out of jail and getting to appear on TV thanks to the riot. There’s Blanca hanging out with Red. But that at least covers most of the major players this season.

To sum up, the fifth season pretty good but not great. Thanks to the short period of time the season took place over, it was notably different in a way that was welcome simply for the change up in provided but caused a breadth for depth imbalance that led to what shortfalls the season had. I love that the main characters switch from season to season like no other show this side of the Wire and I love how there are so many diverse characters who all get their chance to shine. My primary concern is that too many of them got stuck in place and I hope next season allow for a few more of the inmates we already know and love to get the kind of arcs Taystee got this season.

End of Season Report: The Magicians, Seasons 1 and 2

16 Aug

I just caught up on both seasons of the Magicians in a fairly short period of time, so I’ll speak on both seasons here.

The Magicians is an enjoyable, extremely bingeable show, in which eons of plot are squeezed into twenty episodes, running through several different storylines, wrapping them up, and moving on to related storylines which opened up (almost magically) as others were expiring. That breakneck pace is both the show’s strength and its weakness. So much is happening that it’s easy to both get wrapped up in the plot and at the same time not worry about the internal logic, but it does also rush character moments that don’t respond as well to the speed.

The first couple of episodes start as you’d imagine a show like this might, introducing the world of magic, a magical adult Hogwarts-like school (Brakebills), a potentially real fantastical Narnia-like realm (Fillory) and our primary cast of character while gradually showing off some of the facets about magic in this world. And then, about halfway through the season, things really start to move.

The magic babble (babble about magic, rather than the babble being magical itself) and deus ex machinas keep rattling one after another, making the internal logic of the story absolutely impossible to follow.  The show is written with the same escapist flair the show’s characters themselves demonstrate over and over – every situation is impossible to extricate themselves from until it isn’t. Several times in the show a character mentions that some piece of magic had only been performed once before and someone was killed that time before proceeding, without thinking twice, to perform it with a couple of the relative magic novices that serve as our main characters. There’s absolutely no way to keep up, and there’s absolutely no attempt at carefully celebrated set ups and pay offs over the long course of a season. When an evil god shows up, in turns out there’s no way to kill a god, until suddenly there is. Two characters have already signed lifetime contracts with magic realms that would appear to limit their movement, but The Magicians is the kind of show that can just make up some magical mumbo jumbo as it needs it to get them out of it.

There are frustrations to this approach, in that there’s no real foreshadowing, or classic slow build suspense elements, the kind that make us hold our breaths between episodes and seasons of shows like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones. On the other hand, there’s an excitement within the moment; repeating any of the magical names aloud sounds absolutely foolish, but the writers are skilled at making it all feel like it makes utter sense as you’re watching and they’re bringing you along.

The Magicians reminds me of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (granted there have not been any vampires, yet) in that there’s a hidden world of magic and demons everywhere you look that those in the know have access to, and that magic underlies every piece of society in ways that we normies don’t know. Plus, there are constant scenes of the main characters poring through the library for magical solutions and researching whatever new demons and unforeseen creatures and worlds and dimensions they face.

In the Magicians, like in Buffy, and something I prefer about both to Harry Potter, is the lack of a sense of exclusiveness. Those accepted to magical post-grad at Brakebills are the only academically qualified magicians, but there’s nothing other than lack of awareness to prevent a regular human on the outside from performing – it’s a matter of skill as much as genetic ability (it is that too, though the show doesn’t focus so much on any characters that can’t do magic, and the show makes up rules as they go, so it’s hard to tell exactly what’s what).

Something Buffy did particularly well was use the wacky demon-related hijinks its characters get up to as cauldrons through which to strain and catalyze their personal relationships and internal insecurities. The Magicians tries to do this too, but it rushes the job; it’s easy to get absorbed in an insane plot pretty quickly, but it’s a lot harder to build a genuine attachment to characters without some serious time and work put into them. That has to move at a little bit of a slower pace. For example, Eliot meets Mike and within an episode, he’s a committed man who is totally in love. This puts a strain on his best friendship with Margot and when Mike turns out to have been possessed and enchanted into trying to kill Quentin, and Eliot eventually has to kill him, it tears up Eliot for entire season, not just because he has to kill someone, but because he had to kill someone he loved. Unfortunately, because this essentially entirely occurs within one episode, there’s absolutely no time to make us really feel the truth of this relationship. This happens over and over in the Magicians; the show is asking us to believe invest deeply in relationship changes that happen within minutes. Alice and Quentin fall in love in seemingly in moments, just about as long as it takes Julia and Cady to become best friends.

After using a magic bottle to store their emotions, Quentin, Margot, and Eliot feast on some sort of intense magic dopamine high after restoring their emotions; and they have a druggy three-way, which destroys Quentin’s relationship with Alice. This comes out of absolute nowhere; there’s never been any indication Quentin was close in fact, or in his mind, to cheating on Alice, or had any sexual interest in Margot or Eliot. In Buffy, a similar situation would build up to the brink without the use of magic or monsters, and the situation would just push the already existing situation up past the breaking point. Here it just comes invented out of whole cloth.

Credit to the Magicians for their unorthodox plot timing, which sees the primary initial villain of the show, The Beast, taken out halfway through the second season, rather than at the end of a season, but the result is also that the final episodes of the first, and first few episodes of the second are the best bloc of the show so far, as the the second half of the second season does lose some focus.

Overall, The Magicians isn’t a much-watch show, but it’s a fun viewing for anyone who has any interesting in fantasy, insane plot machinations, and a show that, while emo, all of the time, isn’t burdened down with either the seriousness or complexity of some of Peak TV’s more prominent dramas.

 

 

End of Season Report: GLOW, Season 1

24 Jul

There has been much complaint after much initial acclaim about the cascade of half hour television programs that masquerade as comedies (some more than others, some merely because they’re 30 minutes, a length that traditional denotes comedy) aren’t really comedies; and more than merely not making you laugh, these are usually pretty dramatic, lacking even the patina of comedy. Transparent, one of my favorite current shows, holds the banner for that movement; it’s by no means somber or humorless, like AMC’s The Walking Dead, but a classically designated “comedy” it is not either. The natural antecedent of these half-hours wrapping themselves in comedy’s clothing is the comedy that is designed to do what comedies were originally designed to do: elicit laughs. New Girl, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and Veep all fit well into this class, levels of storyline and feels and seriality aside.

There’s a third type of half hour program, though, that lives in between these two poles. There’s the half hour program that isn’t quite a comedy but isn’t quite a drama either. This type of program doesn’t have the laughs that you would normally expect from a comedy. There aren’t out and out jokes. But it has all of the underlying elements that generally support most comedies, laughs aside. If it doesn’t exist to make you live, it does live to make you smile. It’s not too heavy, there’s some drama, but it’s never too tragic, and at the end of the day you feel better after watching than you did before you started. GLOW lives in this third category.

GLOW isn’t really funny; there aren’t jokes, but it’s light on its feet. There are dramatic moments and some real pain but it’s not heavy in the way a Transparent or an Enlightened is. I never had anything less than full confidence that things would work out and that the season would for the most part end with lots of positive moments. The show makes it onto the air, Debbie participates and stands up against her somewhat bumbling husband, Carmen battles her stage fright, Sam makes peace with his newfound daughter. As a born pessimist, I’ve certainly enjoyed reveling in the depression and terrible people of a Transparent, but exactly because of that, it is nice to have a contract; a fun, clean, light-but-not-too-light respite like GLOW to actually kind of make you feel like the world’s going to be okay.

The low point for the main characters of GLOW actually comes right away, early in the first episode, when Ruth sleeps with her friend (her best and/or only friend as far as we see in the show) Debbie’s husband, for the second time as it turns out. It’s an awfully shitty thing to do, and she knows it, but she does it anyway, and Debbie chases Ruth down to the wrestling ring and confronts her. She ruins her friendship and her friend’s relationship, appreciates the magnitude of what a shitty thing she did and her season’s arc, besides trying to create the kind of meaty female part she’s been unable to find in traditional acting, is trying to make up for her misdeeds with Debbie. In fact, the only unresolved tension at the end of the season is Debbie’s pointed response to Ruth’s drink offer that they’re not there yet as friends, but the fact that they’re talking shows the amount of progress that has happened since Ruth did one of the worst things someone can do to a friend.

Wrestling started out as something silly on GLOW; nothing but a job for everyone involved (except for Carmen and maybe Bash who was funding it), but over the course of the show the characters began to take it seriously; for the career opportunities it offered, for the soap opera narratives, for its ability to tell a story and stoke an audience (not so much for the stereotypical foreign heels, but hey, it was the ‘80s, and they’re still doing that today).

There were pretty much three main characters, Ruth, Debbie, and Sam, but the whole ensemble were delightful in their interactions, some more limited than others. Over the course of the show, Carmen got a nice arc about being willing to break away from the wishes of her family for her hard-won personal fulfillment, and fighting her stage fright to succeed and eventually win the admiration of her family. Cherry, likewise, had an arc about winning Sam’s respect, taking control over her character and making it a success, and impressing enough to win a part outside of wrestling.  Both were smaller, more peripheral stories, than those of Ruth, Debbie, and Sam, but felt satisfying on their own merit.

At the end of the day, GLOW isn’t really super complicated or confusing or complex and there are no layers on layers on layers. It’s a warm, fun, show,with solid well-constructed characters that leaves you with a smile on its face. Bob’s Burgers has been my stand in for the type of show that I love to watch before I go to sleep, that leaves me happy, and hopefully leads to good dreams.  GLOW fulfills that promise, and that’s no small thing.