Omnireviewer (week of May 21)

This is mostly Twin Peaks, honestly. But I’m gradually starting to catch up with podcasts as well because my cold is nearing its end, as is the general malaise that comes with that illness. More chores are thus being completed and pretty soon, universe willing, I might even go for a run! Prepare for a cavalcade of podcast reviews next week, as I once again begin adulting. In the meantime, here are this week’s 19 reviews.

Television

American Gods: “Git Gone” — Either the best or second-best episode so far. Since episode one, my favourite things about the show have been the ways in which it diverges from the book. As satisfying as it is to see Ian McShane play Wednesday pretty much exactly as I’d envisioned him and Gillian Anderson play Media pretty much exactly as I’d envisioned her, it’s been particularly gratifying to see the updates made to the Technical Boy, Anansi (!), and to a certain extent Shadow, though the latter seems more a result of Ricky Whittle’s magnetic performance than of the writing. But this reimagining of Laura is probably the best adaptive decision the show has made so far (though Anansi could still emerge as the show’s ace in the hole when he finds his way into the main story). In the book, Laura doesn’t really come into her own as a character until near the end. And even then, her story is basically about atoning for her infidelity. I don’t think this reinvented Laura is going to feel the need to do that. At least, not out of any traditional sense of remorse or reciprocity. This Laura’s entire inner life is different from the one in the book, because her actions are underpinned by a current of depression. And her relationship to Shadow is different from in the book because she doesn’t really love him. Or, she didn’t when she was alive. I love this dynamic. It’s a relationship that’s going to end up making both characters more interesting. This is our proper introduction to Emily Browning’s performance, which is fantastic. She’s got all of the acerbic wit that Whittle’s Shadow doesn’t. And I really love that her decomposition is being played for laughs, because she’s very funny. The decision to let Audrey in on Laura’s plotline is worth it for the bathroom scene alone. Betty Gilpin’s performance is hilarious for the extent to which she manages to still be really wrathful in spite of the fact that there’s an animated corpse sitting on her toilet. The gallows humour in American Gods is more farcical than Hannibal’s was, but it’s good to see that same sensibility out in full force. It’s not really a tone that Neil Gaiman goes in for much in the book, and it’s yet another welcome addition. To be clear, I really like the book. But this show would have to screw up pretty badly at this point to dissuade me from the view that it’s a substantial improvement on its source material.

Twin Peaks: “Traces to Nowhere” & “Zen, or the Skill to Catch a Killer” — Twin Peaks starts to pick up steam in “Traces to Nowhere,” which doesn’t have the benefit of David Lynch behind the camera, but which is our first full episode featuring Agent Cooper. Suddenly, now that our high school-aged characters are peripheral figures in a murder mystery and not just characters in a dodgy teen drama, they’re watchable. Bobby Briggs still stretches credulity at times, but the more I get back into this, the more his truculence seems like an exaggerated expression of the town’s id. The same applies, albeit with conditions, to Leo. The conditions are mostly that Eric Da Re is absolutely awful. But I’m finding him less obtrusively bad this time through than I did the first time. Can’t say why. Also. There was a fish in Jack Nance’s percolator. Let’s move on to the main event. “Zen, or the Skill to Catch a Killer” is the essential Twin Peaks episode. I daresay it is the first, and highest, of the show’s two peaks. (I’ll decide what the other one is later.) Obviously this is remembered best for the Red Room scene, which is straightforwardly the best scene in the show, and one of the best things David Lynch has ever done, up there with several scenes from Eraserhead, the “In Dreams” segment of Blue Velvet and the Club Silencio scene in Mulholland Drive. (Okay, that last one’s pushing it. Nothing’s as good as the Club Silencio.) The Red Room is really the first incursion of a particular kind of paranoia into Twin Peaks: the kind where you’re not only suspicious of everybody in town for their possible involvement in Laura Palmer’s death, but you’re also suspicious of the show itself for containing hidden meanings that you can glean by reading into it. And more than that, it’s just deeply, deeply creepy. The backwards dialogue is the real masterstroke: you can understand what they’re saying, but it sounds wrong and uncanny. I love that. I love the whole Red Room sequence. But it’s easy to forget the rest of the episode leading up to it. The scene where Coop throws rocks at a milk bottle is maybe his quintessential scene. Sure, his character is established effectively in his very first scene, monologuing to Diane on the road. But this is our first real introduction to what makes him such an idiosyncratic FBI agent, and such a good fit for this particularly strange case. The episode’s opening, where the Horne family’s joyless dinner is disturbed by the arrival of Uncle Larry with his baguettes, is hysterical. And it comes to be deeply disturbing when we realize what these two bigwigs like to do with their time. One-Eyed Jack’s makes its first appearance. I recall this being a somewhat troubling element of the plotline. We’ll see how well it holds up. I could keep this going for virtually every scene in this episode. (And I will give a quick mention to Ray Wise dancing with Laura’s picture to the not at all delicate strains of “Pennsylvania 6-5000.”) Twin Peaks is flawed and frustrating, but “Zen” is not. If Twin Peaks could live up to the caliber of “Zen,” or even hover just below it, for the bulk of its duration, it would be one of television’s four or five greatest masterpieces. But I need not use this episode as a stick with which to beat the rest of the series. “Zen, or the Skill to Catch a Killer,” when taken on its own, is unique in television history, and one of that medium’s finest moments.

Better Call Saul: “Expenses” — One of the most wonderful, heartbreaking things about Better Call Saul is the way it shows people who are destined to be criminals whose lives end badly in situations where they could almost get out. It shows that these characters can function in non-crime settings. Jimmy is the most obvious example, with his elder law practice and his relationship with Kim conjuring a bucolic might-have-been scenario that we know won’t come to pass. But the tentative glimpses we get of Michael Ehrmantraut: quiet family man and community volunteer might be even more heartbreaking. I really want him to just keep building playgrounds and fixing things and handing out parking passes and maybe he could even ask that nice widow out for coffee, because then he wouldn’t end up getting murdered by Walter White. This is another way in which Better Call Saul differentiates itself from its esteemed predecessor: it is basically telling the opposite story. Walt could easily have kept out of the criminal underworld altogether. That would have been the path of least resistance for him. But Breaking Bad is essentially the story of how Walter White discovers and indulges his baser nature, his villainous side, in spite of already having the middle-class existence that many people aspire to. Better Call Saul flips this: it’s the story of two basically gentle and well-meaning characters who want to stay on the straight and narrow but keep getting jerked away — by their social conditioning, their sense of their roles in the world, and their circumstances. When Better Call Saul wraps, the two series together will account for an impressively broad swathe of human motivation, by way of only a few excellent characters. And that final scene is one of Bob Odenkirk’s best moments. I’m reminded of the way that Walt lied by telling the truth when his doctor recognised that his fugue state was fake. Normally I manage to review this show without too much reference to Breaking Bad. Or, if I do reference Breaking Bad, it’s only to mention how well I feel Better Call Saul is doing at distancing itself from that show. But these days I’m finding them to be interesting mirror images of each other. And that speaks well of both of them.

Doctor Who: “The Pyramid at the End of the World” — Firstly, it’s great to see the doctor emerge from the TARDIS into an unfamiliar space. That’s a fun reversal. Secondly, I think this is either my favourite or second favourite episode of this series so far, its only competition being “Thin Ice.” The Doctor’s blindness finally pays off, in a way that recalls Ten’s regeneration, and we see Bill finally have to make an important decision on a cosmic level. (I really hope she gets a second date with Penny when all of this is done. This has not been going well for Bill, or her simulation. Gotta feel for her.) I suppose Peter Harness has been slotted into the role of “geopolitical drama guy.” This really feels more like his episode than Steven Moffat’s, and he’s one of the few writers I can say that about where it isn’t a dig. I’m not entirely convinced by the way that three individuals are called in to speak for their respective militaries, with no involvement from their respective governments. But if you interpret those three characters as synecdoches, then it kind of works. Also, I’m not sure what they were getting at by making consent such a big thing in this episode. Clearly the situation with the Monks taking over the world doesn’t easily map onto the conversation about sexual consent. But given that the word “consent” is primarily heard in the context of that very prevalent conversation, it’s hard not to try and relate the two. Given that, the notion “love is consent” is dubious at best. But I’m pretty sure this is an analytical road that Harness and Moffat never actually meant for us to go down. So why tempt us? Hmm, I’m having more trouble coming up with good things to say about this than I thought I would, given that I started this review by saying this is either my favourite or second-favourite episode of the series. I must say I’m starting to lose enthusiasm. I gave high scores to early episodes like “The Pilot” and “Smile” with the understanding that the show would pick up once the proper season arc got underway in “Oxygen.” But I found both that episode and “Extremis” (the latter especially) a bit disappointing, so I’ve found myself starting to sour even on the episodes that I initially liked. This week marks a step in the right direction, but I’m not sure I relish the idea that Toby Whithouse has been entrusted with a big, seemingly arc-heavy episode with Missy next week. I’m still holding out hope for the last two episodes and the Christmas special, though. Because three straight episodes written by Moffat and directed by Rachel Talalay (easily my favourite Doctor Who director these days) is reason for excitement even in the midst of a slightly meh series.

Twin Peaks: Season 1, episodes 4-7 — Diane, this marks the point in my renewed investigation of Twin Peaks where I’ve decided to expand my original purview of watching only the Lynch-written/directed episodes to just watching the whole thing again until it goes off the rails and then skipping ahead to the finale. My reasons for making this change are twofold. One: I’ve heard that the premiere of the new series was very promising. I had my doubts, but if there is some truly excellent new television ahead of me, then I want to be as prepared as possible to follow its inevitable swerves and cycles. And two: since my tepid response to the pilot episode last week, I’ve started rather enjoying this show again and the thought of skipping episodes while it’s still in its prime now feels needlessly austere of me. So, onwards. My favourite part of “Rest in Pain” is the opening, in which Coop attempts to analyse his own dream in front of a bemused Truman and Lucy. It strikes me that this episode makes the Red Room sequence from the previous episode unique among Lynch’s surreal mystery sequences in that it becomes a mystery for the characters within the narrative to crack as well. The characters in Eraserhead don’t try to explain what’s going on in the movie to each other. And maybe this is what distinguishes Lynch as a member of a television production team from Lynch as a film auteur: on Twin Peaks, there are other people around to try and fit his more unhinged, free-associative moments into a straightforward narrative. This isn’t a value judgement. I’m not saying this makes Twin Peaks better than Eraserhead (I believe the opposite). But it’s a necessity for television, and it’s interesting to see the medium expanding and rationalizing like crazy to encompass Lynch’s weird vision. This is the first episode not to have a David Lynch writing or directing credit, and you can almost feel the rest of the crew, led by Mark Frost, saying “Okay, so David left us with a dancing dwarf and a non-sequitur about gum. How do we deal with that?” The rest of the season sort of feels like that, and it does a great job fleshing out the quirks and foibles of the supporting cast. I adore Jack Nance’s performance as Pete Martell. Nance is the sort of actor you suspect could have had a bigger (and longer) career under different circumstances, but it’s nice that his two most iconic roles, here and in Eraserhead, are so drastically different. The Bookhouse Boys represent another welcome character expansion. The reveal that Sheriff Truman heads up a generations-old secret society dedicated to keeping an ill-defined evil that lurks in the woods at bay is a welcome twist. Prior to that moment, it’s possible to look at the way that local law enforcement straightforwardly accepts Cooper’s unorthodoxy as them being credulous yokels. But here you get a sense for the first time that certain locals in Twin Peaks are aware of something uncanny in their midst, and so Cooper’s approach doesn’t seem so odd. Of course, Josie Packard’s plotline undermines that a bit. I had forgotten how many cliffhangers were packed into the last episode of this. Suppose it goes to show the extent to which Mark Frost is the “television” half of this creative partnership. Still, for all that some of it seems a bit forced, I’m genuinely back into this now. And I’m kind of happy that I don’t remember how the cliffhangers work out. Onwards to the good bit of season two. Nobody spoil me on the new episodes.

Literature, etc.

Carina Chocano: “From Wells Fargo to Fyre Festival, the Scam Economy Is Entering Its Baroque Phase” — When we look back on the years from 2015-20?? in several decades time, I think the phrase “everything is fake” will be seen as this period’s equivalent of “tune in, turn on, drop out.” Except I think the former is much more penetrating. This feature is a wonderful distillation of the thing that I find most hilarious and most horrifying about the world today. It’s a more pointed, much shorter rendition of the basic argument that Adam Curtis makes in HyperNormalisation. Here is the insight I particularly enjoyed: “Reality-TV and social-media figures train us to treat them like stars merely for acting like stars.” Funny and weird and sad. Would have been nice if Chocano had included something about Magic Leap, the obviously fake tech company that is somehow valued at $8 billion. But that’s a whole thing in itself.

Dave Eggers: “Sufjan Stevens talks to Dave Eggers: ‘I was recording songs as a means of grieving’” — This lends a bit of clarity to the story that led to the recording of Carrie & Lowell: namely Sufjan Stevens’ traumatizing childhood. But it also lends clarity to the difference between the studio recording and the live performances.

Sue Halpern: “How He Used Facebook To Win” — A beyond distressing feature on how Donald Trump — a seemingly untenable candidate to a majority of Americans, who won nonetheless — was hoisted to the top by a team that understood how to read and leverage social media in a way that nobody else did. Hold out for the bit about Facebook “dark posts.” Fairly chilling.

Music

Sufjan Stevens: Illinois — It’s a funny thing coming back to an artist’s defining work after having heard something more recent first. Illinois is clearly brilliant and I love it, and I’ve been listening to a few tracks from it semi-obsessively since I finished my first full spin of it. (It took a couple sittings. I love an artist who’s willing to really commit to a long running time.) But it seems obvious to me that Carrie & Lowell is a better album than this. I know I’m not alone in this assertion. Pitchfork agreed, for one. But this seems like a good example of how we tend to put musicians in temporal boxes. Sufjan Stevens is a defining musician of the early-mid ‘aughts. And he did some really great work at that time, so maybe some fans aren’t willing to entertain the notion of that not being his peak. But to me, Illinois feels like Beethoven’s Eroica, whereas Carrie & Lowell is one of the late string quartets. Maybe opus 132. To be clear, this comparison speaks well of both of these albums. The Eroica is one of the most influential pieces of music ever written. But to me, and I think to a lot of devoted Beethoven fans, it pales in comparison to the unwavering sincerity of his later music. Mind you, Stevens was a fair bit younger writing Carrie & Lowell than Beethoven was when he wrote the opus 132 quartet. But 21st-century pop geniuses are classical composers in fast-forward. So I think the metaphor stands. Illinois is an exciting and ambitious album full of great tunes. “Chicago” is irresistible. “Come On Feel the Illinoise” will swallow you whole. “They Are Night Zombies” will stick with you for the entire day. But there’s nothing here that’ll break your heart like “Death With Dignity,” “Fourth of July” or “Blue Bucket of Gold.” Not everything has to be like that, but I have my priorities. And I think in the long run that we’ll see both of these albums as equal peaks (he writes, in a forced attempt not to needlessly namecheck the show he’s currently obsessed with) and Carrie & Lowell will look like as much of a highlight of 2015 as Illinois did in 2005, regardless of when Sufjan Stevens’ historical moment is eventually considered to be.

Sufjan Stevens: Carrie & Lowell Live — This concert film doesn’t feel so much like an adaptation of Carrie & Lowell into a live medium as a second chapter of Carrie & Lowell. Where the studio album is a delicate, intimate reflection on a personal tragedy, the concert film is a huge catharsis: a healing ritual that finds Stevens trying to move on from the tragedy. It’s hard not to play the which one’s better game, but that’s not the way to think about this at all. If you loved Carrie & Lowell, you need to watch Carrie & Lowell Live. Parts of the film maintain the water-damaged photo album feel of the original album and its packaging: the screens behind Stevens play fragments of old home videos and the cameras pull in and out of focus, like they’re watching the show through tear-stained mechanical eyes. But Stevens knows that catharsis doesn’t live in quiet places. The incursion of Pink Floydian grandiosity into these intimate songs changes their meaning entirely. And like Roger Waters’ reimagined, 21st-century production of The Wall, you come away from Carrie & Lowell Live with the impression that you’ve seen something beautiful as opposed to just something terribly sad. Nowhere is that more obvious than in “The Only Thing,” the darkest track on the studio album, in which Stevens is barely able to convince himself to keep living. Here, the same lyrics, and the same basic musical material is interrupted by a huge synth rock climax. Suddenly, a manifestly bleak song toes the inexplicable fine line between abject depression and euphoria. This is straight from the Roger Waters playbook, but it’s a complicated maneuver that can’t really be described in words. Stevens makes it entirely his own. Even more astonishing is the 18-minute noise performance that follows “Blue Bucket of Gold.” This hits me in the lizard brain the same way that William Basinski does, which is to say that it’s indescribable and I’m wasting my time even trying. But, unlike The Disintegration Loops, it leaves me feeling better than I did at the start of it. After something as gorgeous and inexplicable as that, it really only makes sense to follow it with a cover of “Hotline Bling,” complete with the dance and big projections of Drake. From the sublime to the ridiculous, as the cliché goes. But considering that many members of Stevens’ audience may respond differently from me to the darkness of the show as a whole, this finale feels like a public service, sending the crowd off feeling like they’ve actually had fun. This is brilliant. I wish I’d come to the album sooner so I might have known to look out for the show if it came near me. This is effectively new music, and treated as such, it’s among the best new music of the year so far. Pick of the week.

Neil Young: Sugar Mountain – Live at Canterbury House 1968 — “I used to play lead guitar,” he says. Oh, would that he knew. This is an interesting album as much for the slightly awkward but often funny stage banter as for the actual musical performances. Neil’s solo show wouldn’t really take flight until a couple years later when he’d written all of the songs on After the Gold Rush and a few from Harvest. At this point, with only Buffalo Springfield-era stuff and tracks from the first solo album, he doesn’t really have the material for a solid acoustic set. And he also doesn’t have a piano. So, this is truly a release of primarily archival interest.

Podcasts

Chapo Trap House: “The Roctober Revolution feat. China Miéville” — A bit of an earnest instalment of Chapo, but it’s the only interview with Miéville that’s cropped up in my podcast feed since his 1917 book came out, which is ludicrous. Why is everybody not interviewing this guy? Actually, I don’t need an answer to that. It’s because Marxists make liberals uneasy. It’s interesting to hear Miéville talk about why he thinks this book was important to write. Aside from that, this served as a nice preview of what I’ve got ahead of me in the book. I’m about halfway through chapter three. It’s riveting. This is a good interview, but really you should just go out and get the book.

This American Life: “Fermi’s Paradox” — Ah, this is what I come to this show for. Big feelings. Feelings like an unfaithful husband realizing for the first time the pain that he put his wife through. Feelings like a lonely kid wanting to connect with her dad. Feelings like David Kestenbaum’s acute sadness at the prospect that there might be no aliens. The fact that the last one of those can co-exist with the first to is really what’s great about TAL. Pick of the week.

Home of the Brave: “Trump’s Wall, Part Two” — The best moment of this is when Scott Carrier finds himself A Racist and interviews him at the site of the proposed border wall. It’s actually the exact opposite of that thing that reporters sometimes do where they look for somebody with the most extreme views possible and then coax them into saying the shitty things they believe. This guy straight up just offers his unsolicited opinion that anybody caught crossing the border illegally should be shot on sight, and Carrier actually goes “no you don’t believe that actually” and this motherfucker’s like “yeah I do don’t put words in my mouth.” Also, “Thomas Jefferson said people should assimilate into our society.” Yeah, and everything that Thomas Jefferson believed definitely applies to modern life. I can think of no obvious exceptions to that rule.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Alien: Covenant & Veep” — I will definitely be seeing Alien: Covenant even though it is probably not good. And I’ve been trying to make time for Veep for years, but I don’t think I’m going to get to it for a while yet. So, I’m basically taking the opposite of the suggested takeaway from this episode.

Code Switch: “We’re Still Talking about ‘My Family’s Slave’” — “My Family’s Slave” is one of the most troubling things written in recent times, so I’m happy this podcast is around to wade into it. I kind of still don’t know what to think about it.

All Songs Considered: “Fleet Foxes, The National, Harry Styles Of One Direction, More” — I share Robin Hilton’s appreciation for Harry Styles’ bold approach to going solo in the abstract, but I definitely don’t think that song is good. I won’t be listening to his album, but I also won’t write him off out of hand. Nothing’s jumping out at me in this. The track by Dr. Danny is musically promising, but has some regrettable lyrics. I wish I liked the National better. I’ve never been able to connect with this band, in spite of everything about them being something I should seemingly love. But I do love the guitar riff in this. Maybe there’s hope.

Judge John Hodgman: “New Schemes to Violate the Social Contract” — Highlight: Jesse Thorn talking about clothes in a different context from usual.

The Gist: “Roger Ailes Created This Mess” — I’m late to the party on this, but yeah, Roger Ailes was a piece of work. And this episode’s spiel about three leaders, including most memorably the king of the Netherlands who is an airplane pilot, features some of Mike Pesca’s funniest writing in a while. (I’m assuming, perhaps stupidly, that Pesca mostly writes his spiels. Certainly, they are of a piece with each other.)

Omnireviewer (week of May 14, 2017)

25 reviews. Seems like these are getting longer. Got to do something about that. Maybe? Nah.

Television

American Gods: “Head Full of Snow” — Wonder if Scott Thompson begrudged Bryan Fuller for not giving him a gruesome death in Hannibal? Anyway, this episode finds the main plot in “taking care of business” mode, so we get a bit more than usual of the shorter vignettes about gods in the supporting cast. The sequence about the Djinn who drives a cab is a particular highlight, and I was struck by how closely they kept to the way it plays out in the book. Nice to know that this show, while always willing to riff on Gaiman’s central premise, is also willing to adapt him straightforwardly. The newly-invented sequence introducing Jacquel/Anubis highlights the other side of that coin. Also, wow, they left it later than I thought they would to introduce Dead Laura. I was really starting to wonder if they’d completely written her plotline out of the show and relegated her to dreams and flashbacks. Glad they didn’t. I also want to highlight one of my favourite lines in the show so far: “Delusions feel real, okay? That’s why it’s a delusion. None of this feels real. It feels like a dream.” What a magnificent observation, Shadow! If only Will Graham had been so insightful, he might have saved himself some serious psychosis. My favourite way to describe the tone of Hannibal is that it took place in a viscous jelly. At least, when it got really good it did. The police procedural elements of that show look like a police procedural, but as soon as Hannibal starts messing with Will’s head, the show goes gothic and the air gets thick. Fuller’s (and Green’s) approach here is becoming similar. Everything moves weirdly in American Gods and the light doesn’t work like it should. Shadow’s journey into the world of the gods is depicted in a similar way to Will’s dissociative states. It’s working. Also, the top-hatted shadow figure in the security footage is maybe the creepiest thing this show has done so far.

The Office (UK): “Interview” — I go back to this episode from time to time to remind myself why this is my favourite television comedy ever and that Ricky Gervais wasn’t always insufferable. I always come back to this primarily for the slow build to the “don’t make me redundant” scene, which is still Gervais’s best onscreen moment. I’m not sure any actor has even had a more intuitive understanding of a character than Ricky Gervais had of David Brent. Initially, anyway. When he revived the character on YouTube years later it really didn’t ring true. But that’s doesn’t reduce his achievement in the initial series. Throughout the whole series, David Brent is a man who is trying to hide his complete desperation and he’s only succeeding in hiding it from himself. The thing that makes his last few scenes in this episode so extraordinary (starting with the one where he doesn’t get the job as a motivational speaker, moving onto the silent one where he lashes out at his office furniture, and culminating in “don’t make me redundant”) is that we get to see the moment where he finally fails to fool himself. It is maybe the saddest thing ever shown on television. And it is so brilliant that it makes me forget about the other amazing element of this episode, which is Martin Freeman as Tim. Freeman’s performance as the only guy in the office who recognizes that he’s playing a role in a farce comes to a head here in a scene I had entirely forgotten about, where he tries to convince his boss’s boss to hire Gareth as acting manager instead of him — while Gareth’s Dirtie Bertie doll is making lewd noises in the background. It’s perfect. Tim’s arc in this episode is so flawless. We see him act like a normal human in an office full of insufferable people, reminding us why we root for him. We see him make the decision to stay where he is in life, and not “roll the dice” hoping to upgrade his three to a six at the risk of rolling a one. The complacency sets in mid-episode, and just as he’s explaining it direct to the camera with his dice metaphor, we see him change his mind. That whole sequence where Tim stands up from his mockumentary interview to finally tell Dawn how he feels, breaking the format of the show in the process, is such a thrill. And it makes the moment when he turns his lapel mike back on to say “she said no” into another of the saddest moments ever on television. This is a staggeringly sad, beautiful, wonderful masterpiece of television. I should really watch the whole series again. Pick of the week.

Better Call Saul: “Off Brand” — The most satisfying part of Better Call Saul is going to be when Jimmy quits his job at the Cinnabon and gets reunited with Kim, putting an end to two television series’ worth of misfortune. Too optimistic? Okay. Well, the most gutting part of Better Call Saul is going to be when Jimmy parts ways with Kim. It’s going to be even more gutting than when more conventional fictional couples are torn asunder, because their relationship is so complex and with so much unspoken. I mean what even are they???? Anyway, this is necessarily a come down after last week. But it has a bunch of smaller moments in it that make it still a lot of fun. Howard Hamlin continues to be my second favourite person in the Sauliverse, next to Kim Wexler. The moment where he sits down on Chuck’s doorstep and waits for him to open up is one of the most straightforwardly decent things anybody has ever done on this show. I love that he was originally made out to be the villain and now we’re seeing this side of him. And I love how Bob Odenkirk plays Jimmy’s refusal to help Rebecca rouse Chuck from his despondency. This is exactly how the last straw is supposed to look. And Rhea Seehorn plays Kim as admirably non-judgemental of Jimmy in that moment. It’s those moments that make this episode, though I’m sure many will remember it for the moments that carry the weight of continuity — most notably the first invocation of the name “Saul Goodman,” but also Gus’s investigation of the familiar laundromat that will come to be Walter White and Jesse Pinkman’s torture chamber. This is fun in the “ooh look!” way that continuity is always fun. But I continue to appreciate that this show isn’t primarily about that. I’m toying with the idea that Better Call Saul is the best prequel ever made. And if I decide that’s true, then it will largely be because it managed to avoid leaning too heavily on Breaking Bad’s canon of stories and imagery. Future prequel makers take note.

Twin Peaks: “Pilot — Northwest Passage”  — (This one’s so long I actually employed paragraph breaks over on Tumblr. But not here. Never here.) I’m both excited and apprehensive about the imminent return of Twin Peaks. Excited because the entire new series is being co-written and directed by David Lynch, who we haven’t seen any substantial screen-based output from since Inland Empire in 2006. Apprehensive because my recollection of Twin Peaks from when I watched it a few years ago is that it’s a massively innovative, intermittently brilliant, but deeply flawed and often infuriating piece of television that doesn’t quite live up to its reputation. And I don’t really understand how Twin Peaks in 2017 is going to work. Because Twin Peaks is very much a thing from 1990. But I’m definitely going to watch it. So I’d best refamiliarize myself with the gigantically convoluted and inconsistent canon of the original show. I’m not going to commit to rewatching the full series because frankly Twin Peaks tries my patience even before it gets to the inarguably terrible second half of season two. The AV Club was decent enough to provide a recommended five-episode crash course for those who need a refresher. I’ve decided to do as they recommend, but I’m going to add every other episode that has either a writing or directing credit for David Lynch. It was always the Lynchian element that I most appreciated in this show, so that’s what I’m going to return to. I recall that the year I watched Twin Peaks was also the year that I watched Lynch’s entire filmography. I like them all. Even Dune. The stuff that pisses me off about Twin Peaks isn’t the David Lynchiness of it — the creamed corn/garmonbozia free associative stuff that lots of people stumble on. Nor is it the staginess of some of the writing and the performances. (I recall actually quite liking Fire Walk With Me, if that tells you anything, though we’ll see whether I agree with my younger self on that soon enough.) What I can’t get into is the soap opera that those classic Lynchian elements are stuck in. I don’t care half as much about the inhabitants of Twin Peaks and the ins and outs of their daily lives as I do about Agent Dale Cooper (still one of television’s greatest protagonists) and his unorthodox investigation into the occult secrets that the townsfolk aren’t aware of. This pilot, for all its virtues and idiosyncrasies — and they are numerous on both counts — only begins to hint at the elements of this show that I love. At times it’s hard to decide whether the inauthenticity of some of the performances here is the result of bad acting or if it’s just David Lynch casting and directing this show for maximum alienation. On one hand, early 90s television wasn’t a utopia of acting competency. On the other, sometimes Lynch’s stories and themes require deliberately inauthentic performances (this is why Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive is one of my very favourite screen performances). But here, it’s hard to say whether that’s what he’s going for or not. Bobby Briggs, for instance does not work at all for most of this episode’s duration. But when he starts barking maniacally like a dog in his prison cell, he’s suddenly compelling and the rest of that actor’s performance makes more sense. And in the cases where the actors clearly know what they’re doing (for instance, Ray Wise and Grace Zabriskie), they’re often undermined by Angelo Badalamenti’s score. Badalamenti’s music is still praised as one of the show’s major accomplishments, but it has aged very poorly, and not just because of the bad synth sounds. The music almost never stops, it’s made up of three or four recognizable cues used over and over, and it’s enormously overbearing. The theme music in particular tends to crop up in especially emotional scenes, and it doesn’t allow the performances to speak for themselves. Badalamenti is back for the new season, and I really don’t know whether to be happy about that or not. This is probably one of my more heretical opinions about Twin Peaks, but I really think Badalamenti’s score is horrible. On the other hand, like the acting, it’s sometimes hard to discern whether the score, too, is trying to keep us at arm’s length. So I’ll give Badalamenti the benefit of a doubt and see if I feel the same after hearing what he does with (I hope, oh god I hope) access to an orchestra, or at least a more modern set of electronic instruments. But for everything here that doesn’t work or hasn’t held up over time, there’s something staggeringly brilliant and unique, that couldn’t happen on any other show. Some of these are subtle things, like the way in the first episode that everybody close to Laura seems to intuit that she’s died before they’re even told. It happens first with her parents — note that Sheriff Truman never actually tells Leland what happened to Laura in that scene at the Great Northern. He just knows. Same with Sarah Palmer, and with James and Donna in the scene at the school. Bobby, not so much. That’s super Lynchy. Remember, this is a man who is known to intuit screenplays, rather than actually thinking them through. Stands to reason that his most sympathetic characters would demonstrate that same trait. Speaking of which, we should talk about Cooper. First off, we don’t actually meet him until 34 minutes in, which is an interesting choice. Agent Cooper is the outsider in this show: the first and always the most significant character we meet who doesn’t actually reside in Twin Peaks. Most storytellers’ instinct would be to introduce this character at the start and use him as an audience surrogate: he learns about the town along with the viewer. But Twin Peaks shows us the town’s response to Laura Palmer’s death without the benefit of a surrogate. We get to see the citizens of the town acting like they do when they’re among their own and nobody’s watching. And while my interest in this show is really tied up with the element of weirdness that Cooper introduces (and unearths) in the town, I appreciate the languid, contemplative pacing of this. Nobody’s willing to take their time like this today. Still, it’s hard to deny that things really take off when Coop arrives. Lynch and Frost immediately knew how to write for this character. “Gotta find out what kind of trees these are.” Also, this is maybe a personal connection that most people wouldn’t make, but I can’t help seeing in Coop a prototype for the way that modern showrunners have characterized Doctor Who — especially the Eleventh Doctor. The juxtaposition of his outsiderness and esotericism with his friendliness and enthusiasm for the mundane is something that I can’t think of a precedent for, but which Matt Smith seems to have channelled as surely as he did Patrick Troughton. We won’t really get to know Coop until the next couple of episodes. But Lynch has other ways of pointing out the strangeness of Twin Peaks without diving straight into the lore about Bob and the Black Lodge and the Man From Another Place. A kid in high school dances away from his locker, out of frame. He isn’t even with anybody. The hotel concierge will not stop shouting “the Norwegians are leaving! The Norwegians are leaving! The Norwegians are leaving!” The lights in the morgue flicker creepily: “I think it’s a bad transformer.” There’s a deer head sitting on the table: “Oh, it fell down.” There’s a lady who carries a log: “We call her the log lady.” These are the moments where Twin Peaks really anticipates modern television: small moments, derived as much from the framing of shots and direction of performances as from the script, that convey a distinct mood and sense of place. There are many things about Twin Peaks that are not good. But it’s worth a watch for that alone. Lovely to be back to a place both wonderful and strange.

Doctor Who: “Extremis” — These are the sorts of Doctor Who episodes I usually love: Steven Moffat complicated clockwork stories. In my view, the following stories belong to this subgenre: “The Girl in the Fireplace,” “Blink,” “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead,” “The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang,” “A Christmas Carol,” “The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon,” “Listen,” “Heaven Sent/Hell Bent,” and now “Extremis.” Of the previous, “Extremis” is the only one not to blow my mind. The other eight stories I listed are basically the reason I love Doctor Who. Episodes like “Blink “ and “The Big Bang” are why I’m willing to sit through episodes like “Fear Her” and “Knock Knock.” So it’s not a good sign that this episode by the Doctor Who writer I love most, in which he does the thing I love him best for, didn’t work for me. The premise of “Extremis,” that an alien civilization has created a perfect simulation of Earth to practice conquering it, and that the versions of our main characters we see after the title card are AIs in that simulation, is not anywhere close to as imaginative as the premise of “Heaven Sent” — to pick one of many possible excellent examples — when you consider that this episode’s plot is something that Elon Musk actually believes. I kept waiting for the other thing to happen. Waiting for another twist that never came. When “we’ve been in a simulation this whole episode” turned out to be the extent of it, I was more disappointed in Moffat than I’ve been since series seven. But this is a broad critique. There’s much to love in the details, here. Firstly, the Veritas and the way that the drunk CERN employee explains it to Bill and Nardole is brilliant and fairly chilling. The actual mechanics of the simulation, with projectors arranged in a circle, projecting a whole reality out onto a wall, is magnificent. The simulation-Doctor’s resolution of the problem — sending the real Doctor an email — is a properly great way to finish the story. And the bit with the Pope in Bill’s bedroom is one of the funniest scenes Moffat has ever written. So, this definitely did what Doctor Who almost never fails to do: entertain me. But given Moffat’s legacy, I don’t think I was wrong to expect more from this episode. And it didn’t deliver. Still, it’s a promising setup for next week, when Moffat teams up with Peter Harness who, along with Sarah Dollard, is maybe my second-favourite person writing for Doctor Who right now.

Literature, etc.

Alex Tizon: “My Family’s Slave” — This is the story of how the author’s family kept a woman as a slave in America for decades. It is the most appalling, viscerally upsetting thing I’ve read in some time. Tizon (who died recently, it seems) outlines how Lola came to be his mother’s slave, how he grew up not entirely understanding what that relationship was, and the rift that grew in the family when he finally realized it was an atrocity. It’s a quick read and an incredible story. Also worth taking note of: the backlash against Tizon’s actions in this story and the backlash against that backlash. This is not simple.

Games

This War of Mine — I had a sudden recollection that I’d never actually beaten this, and with it came the urge to play it again. It speaks volumes that such an urge can exist, given that this is a mighty dark game. It’s dark to the point of almost not being fun. But it is dramatic, and that offers its own kind of satisfaction. If I describe this as The Sims in wartime, it’ll probably sound like I’m being glib. But I actually think that’s a pretty damn promising premise, and This War of Mine delivers on it. It’s punishingly hard, as it should be, because it is a simulation of civilian life during civil war. Your characters can become hungry, tired, sick, wounded or, perhaps most dangerously, depressed depending on the choices that you make on their behalf and your efficiency and proactivity in managing their resources. I did in fact make it to the “good” ceasefire ending on this playthrough, and it felt like an accomplishment. I was busy being proud of myself for the way I’d managed the late phase of the game, with my two remaining characters cruising past the finish line with a surplus of scavenged food and valuable medicine, and a profitable cigarette manufacturing operation going on in the basement of the shelter. But in the epilogue, I was reminded of some of the things that had happened throughout the 40-odd days of the war: the neighbors in need that my characters decided not to help, the characters who died from wounds they had no bandages for, and the one character who committed suicide after a brief period of grief-stricken catatonia. It’s a rare thing for a successful game ending to be so sobering. This belongs alongside Papers, Please in the ranks of games that make you understand things better. Play this.

Music

Buffalo Springfield: Buffalo Springfield Again — I really wasn’t expecting to love any of these Buffalo Springfield albums, but this was a pleasant surprise. First off, and most relevant for our purposes, this album features the first great songs by Neil Young. None of them were new to me, since they’re all on the Decade comp. But they’re more fun in context, since Stephen Stills is also quickly maturing into the musician who’d bring us “Carry On.” His acoustic guitar performance on “Bluebird” is properly astonishing. Richie Furay’s contributions are less effective, but they do rise to the level of the lesser Stills tracks on the previous album. (Except “Good Time Boy,” which is unintentionally hilarious enough that I love it anyway.) I’m not sure if this has actually aged better than the first Buffalo Springfield album or if it’s just more straightforwardly in my musical wheelhouse, i.e. it’s waaaay more psychedelic. Fantastic record. “Mr. Soul” is an enduring Neil Young classic. “Expecting to Fly” and “Broken Arrow” point the way towards the sort of maximalism he would embrace on his debut solo album and immediately abandon. But they’re a bit weirder and thus better than most of that album. “Bluebird” and “Everydays” mark a material progression forward from “For What it’s Worth” for Stills. (Though I prefer the version of the latter on the second Yes album.)

Buffalo Springfield: Last Time Around — Ooh, just listen to that contractual obligation! The weakest Buffalo Springfield album by a country-rock mile, this contains the most tepid Neil Young contributions out of any of them — one’s a collaboration with Richie Furay, one’s credited solely to Neil but sung by Furay and the other is “I Am A Child,” which is the first in a long line of gentle, liltingly country-tinged Neil Young songs that most fans like but I don’t. And considering that Furay has never been a major songwriting asset to the band, we’re left relying on Stephen Stills. And he’s not sounding quite as inspired on balance as he was on the last record. “Uno Mundo,” in particular, might be the worst track on any of the three Buffalo Springfield studio albums. It’s interesting to hear the seeds of “Carry On” in “Questions,” though. The relationship between those two songs demonstrates the extent to which Stills matured in the time between Buffalo Springfield and Déjà Vu. This isn’t a great way to go out. I’ll save my final appraisal of this band for after I’ve heard all of the outtakes, which, yes I am going to do. We’re aiming for completion, remember. Total completion. Accept no compromises.

Buffalo Springfield: Odds and sods from various compilations — Specifically, everything previously unreleased on the four-disc Buffalo Springfield box set and the long version of “Bluebird” on the Buffalo Springfield two-record set from 1973. The latter really proves that Stephen Stills was the real deal on guitar. Hearing him play with such precision and Neil Young play with such abandon makes me wish we had more tape of them playing together in a more instrumental-focussed setting than CSNY. Here’s something interesting: this band’s demos and outtakes make for better listening than two of their actual albums. This highlights two things that are I think are crucial to note about Buffalo Springfield. One, that they never really give a solid impression of being a band so much as a petri dish for three nascent songwriting talents to mix stuff into. And two, that Buffalo Springfield is first and foremost of archival interest. Given that Neil Young is rock and roll’s most compulsive self-archivist, it makes sense that he compiled this set. I really enjoyed the Buffalo Springfield box set. It’s like a document of a scene as much as a document of a band. Having heard the entire Buffalo Springfield corpus now, I feel like the first Neil Young album (which I listened to for the first time a couple weeks ago) makes more sense. Neil started off as Buffalo Springfield’s resident maximalist. It’s fascinating to hear different versions of “Down, Down, Down,” which would eventually morph into the extremely complex, multi-part soundscape “Broken Arrow.” What’s really interesting is that the early, stripped-down versions are way more satisfying. The same applies to the early acoustic rendition of “The Old Laughing Lady” that’s featured here. I feel like I understand the moment of clarity that Neil must have had between his debut and Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere now. Maybe it wasn’t that he radically changed his musical goals, but that he just realized his songs were becoming less rather than more effective the more he fussed with them. The Buffalo Springfield demos are a document of that. Marvellous listening. This might be the first collection of demos that I actively return to.

Soundgarden: Superunknown — I hate being that guy who checks out an artist for the first time right when they die but I’ve got a couple of friends who are distressed enough about Chris Cornell’s death, which is objectively heartbreaking given the circumstances, that I figured I should try and learn something about why he was such a beloved figure. I went into this knowing next to nothing about Cornell’s music or Soundgarden. I think maybe “Black Hole Sun” was the only song of theirs that I knew. But it is a really fantastic song. I’m a sucker for the sound of a guitar run through a Leslie speaker. (Check out the Stones’ “Let It Loose” for maybe the archetypal example.) And the way the song transitions in and out of the solo is really smart. Given the ingenious construction of “Black Hole Sun,” I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised by how elaborate Superunknown is. I was expecting something that sounds kind of like Nirvana, and what I got was halfway between that and Tool. Check out “My Wave,” which starts off in four, transitions ostentatiously to five when the band comes in, and somehow ends up in three. And Cornell’s voice has many more facets to it than “Black Hole Sun” can accommodate. “Like Suicide” is an unsettling track to listen to this week, clearly, but it’s the best demonstration of Cornell’s vocal virtuosity on this record. Hard to say whether I’ll check out more Soundgarden, or maybe look into Audioslave, but listening to this makes it clearer why Cornell’s death is such a devastating loss.

Sufjan Stevens: Carrie & Lowell — It strikes me that I’m only now discovering the artists I should have been listening to when I was in high school. In the last month or two alone, I’ve discovered the Mountain Goats, the huge bulk of the Decemberists catalogue that I hadn’t heard before, and now Sufjan Stevens. Illinois came out when I was 15, but I was too suspicious of anything new (let alone anything bearing the label “indie”) to actually listen to it. I have a physical copy here in my apartment. It’s one of the rare ones with Superman on it, because it was a promo copy sent to a radio network into whose employ I came some ten years later. When they were ditching their physical music library I made off with some choice selections. But I still haven’t listened to it. I’m glad I didn’t listen to it before I heard Carrie & Lowell. This album is two years old, as opposed to twelve. Its recent live release came up in my YouTube suggestions and reminded me I had meant to check this out ever since being gobsmacked by “Fourth of July” and “Blue Bucket of Gold” on All Songs Considered. “Blue Bucket of Gold” has actually become one of my go-to songs when I sit down at the piano in the evening, and still I hadn’t heard the whole album. If I’m regretting abstractly that my 15-year-old self didn’t hear Illinois, I am very glad that my 26-year-old self heard this. Carrie & Lowell finds Sufjan Stevens looking back, semi-woundedly, at a childhood that sounds far worse than mine ever was. It’s a delicate, raw album, but not a haphazard one. Parts of it were recorded on an iPhone, but those tracks are layered with gossamer ambience and close-miked multi-tracked vocals. It feels like flipping through a water-damaged old photo album. The album is at times desperately sad: Stevens’ mother was devastatingly afflicted with a number of mental illnesses. But there’s something about the conversion of past trauma into present beauty that makes art like this cathartic rather than oppressive. In any case, it must be good. I’m writing like I’m drunk and I haven’t been drinking at all. Next stop, Illinois.

Podcasts

99% Invisible: “The Modern Necropolis” — There is a city in the United States that is primarily full of cemeteries. More than one, I would imagine. This is the sort of thing you’d think you’d know. The town that this episode focusses on has the most darkly self-aware town motto ever: “It’s great to be alive in Colma!” I LOVE that.

The Heart: “The Real Tom Banks” — Listening to this ABC production from a few years back (which The Heart played as part of its off-season), it’s hard to believe this was made by somebody other than The Heart’s team. The resemblance to their aesthetic and subject matter is uncanny. It’s a lovely story about a guy with cerebral palsy trying to get a date on Grindr. It’s sad, hopeful, and beautifully produced, with several voice actors being used to make Tom’s speech more intelligible — and more crucially, to convey the multiple identities he can inhabit online that he’s cut off from in real life.

You Must Remember This: “Dorothy Stratten (Dead Blondes Part 13)” — I can’t shake the feeling that Karina Longworth never quite managed to connect her narratives to her themes in this season. “Dead Blondes” started off with a discussion of what blondeness represents in American culture. That discussion basically only paid off in that first episode, the one about Barbara Payton, and this final one. But Longworth does manage to do something subtler here, which is to demonstrate how the long shadow cast by Marilyn Monroe (and earlier movie blondes like Carole Landis, but Monroe is significant enough to justify three episodes) brought Hollywood to a point where it ate up and spat out women who looked something like her at an alarming rate. And Longworth does this just by telling their stories. This episode brings that narrative to its logical conclusion by introducing the infuriating, self-righteous, toxic masculinity of Hugh Hefner into the mix. Hefner is ostensibly the secondary villain in this story, given that it was Stratten’s shitsack ex-husband who actually murdered her. But Hefner’s the one who got to go on being a shitsack afterwards. This episode is fantastic; this series as a whole has been good.

The Heart: “Advance” — The new season of The Heart is not what I expected it to be: it’s a mini-series that is specifically autobiographical. It’s Kaitlin Prest’s coming-of-age story. Like every story that promises to involve consent in some way, this has dark moments. But this episode basically tells the story of high school-aged Prest learning how to say no — as in, what’s actually involved in doing that. I wonder where this is going.

Crimetown: “The Prince of Providence” — This season of Crimetown has been frustrating and unfocused most of the time. But it when it has managed to stick with Buddy Cianci, it has been completely transfixing. This final episode brings that story together with a tidy little thematic bow that makes Cianci a synecdoche for Providence in general. I daresay it’s the best episode Crimetown has done, though its impact is dulled slightly by how far afield the show went between Cianci episodes. This is still amazing radio in itself.

Radiolab: “Henrietta Lacks” — This is classic Radiolab. It’s Jad Abumrad before he learned restraint. Sometimes I like him better that way. The story of Henrietta Lacks and the impact that her immortalized cell line had on her family is an incredible one, and I’d bank on this being a better way to experience it than the upcoming HBO movie.  

The Gist: “Chasing the Bauble With Brooke Gladstone” — I am dying to read Gladstone’s new book, and I will do that as soon as the ebook is available in Canada. Meanwhile, it provided an excuse for her to go on The Gist and talk to maybe the only radio presenter who thinks as fast as she does. I remember hearing her refer to Mike Pesca as the smartest person she ever worked with (or something close to that) on her Longform interview. Nice to hear this mentor/mentee pair reunited for some ruminative radio magin.

Radiolab: “Funky Hand Jive” — If the Henrietta Lacks rerun was classic Radiolab, this new episode is vintage Radiolab. It seems different from other recent episodes because it stems from Robert Krulwich’s childlike curiosity, which isn’t as much in evidence as it once was. The question he poses is whether it’s possible that he still has some bacteria on his hand from the time he shook hands with J.F.K. as a kid. And he takes part in an experiment to try and determine whether it’s possible. In the process, he wins the award for “most gratuitous use of Neil Degrasse Tyson’s time.” This is a lot of fun.

On the Media: “Shiny Objects” — This is particularly worthwhile for a fantastic interview with NYT White House reporter Glenn Thrush. It’s a follow-up to an interview with Jay Rosen, who cleverly and somewhat mischievously (one suspects) suggested that certain basic phrases used in federal politics reporting don’t apply in the Trump era. Like, for instance “the White House” as a synecdoche for the executive branch. Thrush agrees on that point, saying that in every story written about federal politics, “the subject is the proper noun Donald Trump.” But he diverges with Rosen on other points, and is open about his uncertainty about how to reach people who don’t consider factual reporting on Trump credible. It’s really compelling radio, and also helps make sense of the world. OTM at its best. Pick of the week.

Radiolab: “Null and Void” — Here we are in Jad Abumrad’s legal period. (I.e. like Picasso’s blue period.) While I’ve been generally dissatisfied with the direction Radiolab has taken in the last couple of years, because it now sounds basically the same as many other public radio shows and podcasts (some of which predate it), I actually think that legal stories are a good way for Abumrad to channel his ability to unpack very complicated concepts without resorting to the sorts of sound design gimmicks that he used to do, which I liked so much. This listens like More Perfect, except without explicit involvement of the SCOTUS. It’s great. These days, I like More Perfect better than Radiolab.

Theory of Everything: “Droning for Dollars” — I love these conspiracy theory episodes of TOE. This episode manages to, within fifteen minutes, shoehorn in two of Benjamen Walker’s greatest anxieties (the gig economy, Trumpism) and one of his favourite satire targets (“the deep state”). Very nice.

On the Media: “The Trouble With Reality” — Oh god I need to read this book. It’s short, so I might put aside October for it, once the ebook is out. I read physical books slower. That won’t do.

Reply All: “What Kind of Idiot Gets Phished?” — In which Phia Bennin decides to phish the entire staff of Reply All, plus Alex Blumberg. And in which, when Alex Blumberg subsequently gets very mad, she phishes Matt Lieber. This is glorious, though I wonder if Blumberg’s mounting discomfort with being portrayed as credulous and tech-unsavvy will lead to the end of Yes Yes No. But maybe he’s just had a bad week. Did you see that ABC trailer where he’s played by Zach Braff? Good LORD I’d die of shame.

Omnireviewer (week of May 7, 2017)

23 reviews. My most frequently-occurring number of reviews, I’d wager. I don’t know why that is. I just seem to do 23 reviews a lot.

Television, etc.

American Gods: “The Secret of Spoons” — Wow, it got better. This episode is, on balance, less flashy than the first. Though it has its moments of visual splendor, such as the way Chicago’s dot on the map of America crossfades to Zorya’s padlock, the tumblers of which are then juxtaposed with a slot machine (foreshadowing of the coming fateful checkers game). But by and large, this is a less cinematic, more theatrical episode of television than “The Bone Orchard.” They always used to say television was a writers’ medium, but in a post-Breaking Bad — and indeed, post-Hannibal — world, that’s becoming a more dubious claim. David Slade has directed both of those shows, and his style is abundantly evident here. Still, the measure of this second episode comes from the writing and acting, much more so than the first. And that starts in the opening scene, which introduces a radically different, much more interesting version of Anansi than the one readers will know from the novel. (I loved the version of Anansi in the novel, but he’s too nice for 2017. Better by far to have him be angry, sardonic and powerful.) Orlando Jones may be my favourite thing about this show so far, which is not nothing when the show also has Ian McShane in it. Everything about this scene is perfect, from the writing for Anansi to the prayer that his supplicant speaks to summon him, to THE SUIT OH GOD THE SUIT. What’s amazing about this scene is that Anansi, without saying a single untrue thing, tricks his followers. He tricks them into sacrificing themselves so that he could find his way ashore to America. (And how great is that shot of the spider — whose colouring is as flamboyant as its human form’s wardrobe — creeping off of the floating plank and onto the shore?) But he’s also not wrong that the sacrifice is potentially more meaningful than what many of the captives on the boat had ahead of them. This is not only a better version of Anansi than in the book, it’s also more thoughtful and up-to-date take on the Middle Passage than the one in the book. This scene would be an effective short film in itself, with absolutely no other context from American Gods. And it basically functions as one in this episode, since Anansi doesn’t enter the main story until later. Still, its themes resonate with the aftermath of Shadow’s lynching (an unexpected valence to add to the image of Odin hanging from the world tree; yet another addition on the part of the show) and the extremely uncomfortable conversations he has with Czernobog. Oh, yes, can we talk about Czernobog? Peter Stormare is third of three perfect casting choices for this show’s main trio of Old Gods. Given that I am primarily familiar with him from his famously taciturn performance opposite the famously verbose Steve Buscemi in Fargo, it’s nice to hear him get some dialogue to wrap his mouth around. And they’ve really made him look disgusting. His grubby, blood-soaked wife-beater is as brilliant a costume choice as Anansi’s suit (OH GOD THE SUIT). I am very much looking forward to the part of the story where we get to see Czernobog, Anansi and Wednesday together, because these actors are everything I love about television. I’m also extremely fond of Cloris Leachman’s performance as Zorya, and I hope the show contrives to give her more to do than in the book. And as if this isn’t enough, we’ve got Gillian Anderson doing “sinister Lucille Ball,” which is the role she was born to play. What I’m trying to get at here is that sure, American Gods is proving itself to be a televisual feast worthy of the creator of Hannibal. But this episode proves that the basics are so solid you could just take these actors and this script and play it out on a stage and it would still work. Easily my favourite episode of TV I’ve seen so far this year. Pick of the week.  

Better Call Saul: “Chicanery” — My wish for the Jimmy/Chuck/Kim plotline to move forward was granted. This is the side of the show that I’m usually close to 100% confident in. Jimmy’s transformation into Saul was always the impetus for this show’s existence, story-wise. I sometimes feel as though the presence of Mike, and now Gus, is only to maintain Better Call Saul’s connection to the violent, shocking world of Breaking Bad, where crime is right in front of you and not a matter of courtroom litigation. But this show has always been good at making a comparatively everyday story into something with equal dramatic weight to the sordid tale of Walter White. This week’s episode is maybe the best the show has ever done, and it’s basically a straightforward courtroom drama. What’s most satisfying here is seeing the two drastically different legal strategies of Jimmy and Kim employed in tandem. Kim’s meticulous and strategic in her cross-examination and Jimmy employs a pickpocket. (Huell!!!) The moment when Chuck realizes that he’s genuinely betrayed himself at the end of the episode is one of his best character beats in the show so far. Like courtroom dramas often do, this offers an opportunity to put this story’s conflict in the starkest relief it’ll probably ever get. Jimmy: the compassionate grifter. Chuck: the ruthless champion of justice. Outstanding stuff.

Doctor Who: “Oxygen” — Not bad. I always like the feel of Doctor Who episodes that take place on a spaceship/station with plenty of emphasis on the void of space. (“Kill the Moon” comes to mind in particular.) I dunno what I find intrinsically compelling about the void of space, but I to tend to like stories that take place there. I also like critiques of capitalism. And I love the note tacked onto the end of this that indicates the events of this episode were the impetus for some sort of space communist revolution. But I can’t help the feeling that the monster-based horror of this episode is awfully familiar from last season’s (awful) “Before the Flood.” This show is contriving more and more ways to do zombies without doing zombies these days. Fun to have Nardole actually on a TARDIS trip. I like him in limited doses. I’m curious about how the Doctor’s blindness will factor into the series’ main plot arc, which I”m hoping will start in earnest next week. But that final line, “I’m still blind!” was a bit much, wasn’t it? May as well have been followed by a huge DUN DUN DUUUUUUHHH. This was alright. Better than “Knock Knock.” Much better, in fact. But not a destined classic.

Bill Wurtz: history of the entire world i guess — I guess there is a point to YouTube. The cosmic stuff at the beginning of this is the highlight. Wurtz is funny, obviously. But he also manages to convey the inconceivable weirdness and complexity of the universe having at some point been empty and timeless. The closer we get to society, the easier a job he has. But he doesn’t hue too closely to the usual narratives and makes sure to not just do European history. I already feel like I’m taking this too seriously. I’m going to stop now.

Movies

The Darjeeling Limited — Hmm. Well, it’s got some really good stuff in it. Adrian Brody, Jason Schwartzman and Owen Wilson are three actors who are wont to give excellent Wes Anderson performances. This is a very particular kind of performance. You have to be really good at listlessly staying in the same place. You can’t move your face too much. All three leads do this very well. Also, the movie is very distinctly not in these characters’ camp. Not entirely, anyway. The film is set in India, and is a Western portrayal of India, but doesn’t convey India as a fountain of exoticism for its white protagonists to dip into. The protagonists themselves certainly see it that way, which is the source of much of the movie’s humour. Still, I retain some suspicions about whether the more sincere moments in the movie (especially the young boy’s funeral) are accurate. If not, then I think this film is making some assumptions about its audience that it probably shouldn’t. Still, I don’t have the information to make the final judgement. Dramatically, I liked this as much as The Royal Tenenbaums (which I very much wanted to enjoy more than I did), but not quite as much as The Life Aquatic, and certainly not as much as my two favourite Anderson movies: Moonrise Kingdom and the spectacular masterpiece that is The Grand Budapest Hotel. But I’m a sucker for Anderson’s brand of intensely mannered filmmaking and this fits that bill.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 — Basically, I enjoyed this. I like these actors, these characters, and the general tone of these movies. But this isn’t quite as fleet-footed as its predecessor. The issue isn’t just repetition; it’s that this movie doesn’t execute its jokes as thoughtfully as the first Guardians did. There’s nothing here that rivals that movie’s most iconic shot: the slow-motion corridor walk where instead of stoically staring ahead, they’re yawning and crotch-scratching and whatever. The joke being, they’re doing a thing that people only do in movies, except they’re all acting like they’re not in a movie. This has ideas that come close to that, but it doesn’t really follow through on them. The opening credits have a similarly promising premise: the Guardians fight a giant space monster, out of focus in the background while Baby Groot dances adorably in the foreground. But that’s the whole of the joke, basically. There aren’t really any beats to the scene except for the other characters getting thrown towards the camera one at a time. If we could actually follow the battle and watch it get progressively more disastrous as Groot dances, that would have been funny throughout its duration, instead of just at the start. The monster should be dead by the end of the credits. Then we should see the Guardians up close for the first time, exhausted and covered in goo. And somebody should snark about how Groot used to be helpful. Or something. I’m not a screenwriter. I’m just saying, that’s the definitive way that scene should have worked. The rest of the action-comedy in the movie is often fun, but I couldn’t shake the feeling after a while that in its action sequences, this movie only has one joke, and it’s basically “terrible violence is wrought upon villains to a sunny, 80s soundtrack.” Contrast with the master, who has scores of specific, bespoke jokes in every fight. Other problems! Chris Pratt can’t do feelings! Chris Pratt can do banter. That’s what you’re supposed to hire Chris Pratt to do. The story makes no sense! Why did Kurt Russell give Chris Pratt’s mom brain cancer? He didn’t have to do that! And at what point was it explained that Chris Pratt would lose his short-lived god powers if he killed his dad? How does that even work?!? Also, the characters are all split up so we don’t get to see any of the relationships between them! This is an observation I semi-nicked from Pop Culture Happy Hour, but the panelists there are definitely right about it. We don’t really get to see the dynamic between the members of the team we got to know in the first movie, because every one of them gets paired with a minor character instead. This hurts Zoe Saldana the most, because she gets lumped in with the not-reliably-brilliant Karen Gillan. But it doesn’t really do Pratt any favours either because he gets stuck in an emotional arc with a Kurt Russell character who does not crack wise, thank you very much. Rocket and Drax fare better with Yondu and Mantis, respectively. (Evidently, the less humanoid you look, the more likely I am to refer to you by your character’s name.) But I miss the Rocket/Pratt dynamic from the first movie a lot. Also! There are platitudes o’plenty in the screenplay, and not all of them get comedically undercut by Drax! They should. “I control the arrow with my heart” is one of the most unforgivably shitty sentiments ever to be allowed into a Marvel shooting script. And if I see one more genre film where the entire resolution rests on the intrinsic nobility of humanity I will lose my mind! Ahem. But it’s not all bad! Dave Bautista is consistently hilarious as Drax, and steals this movie to a much larger extent than he did the first one. Baby Groot is adorable! But they would do well to retire that version of the character now (as it appears they will), since his entire characterization is based on a single gag in the first movie’s post-credits scene. That cannot hold for long. There are a number of very funny jokes! That is much appreciated. There is a spaceship with lasers that roll around its exterior on tracks! It’s hard to describe, but it’s a lovely bit of design that spices up the huge space battles substantially. There is a certified dank special effect where their faces go weird from doing too many hyperspace jumps! I love that. There is Cat Stevens! I love Cat Stevens. So basically, there are many problems with this. But the Guardians of the Galaxy remain a pretty solid second place among my favourite properties in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (next to Captain America). I’ll watch Vol. 3, and I won’t even complain about it, probably.

Comedy

Maria Bamford: The Special Special Special — This is distinctly less excellent than her more recent special that I watched last week, but I think I’m pretty much always on board for Maria Bamford at this point. This is the special that she shot for an audience of only her parents. I confess that while I appreciate this choice as a joke in itself (and I certainly appreciate Bamford’s ability to talk openly about the darkest elements of her inner life right in front of her parents) I’m not sure it shows her material in its best light. I do generally prefer comedy specials to be as verité and sketch-light as possible — incursions of surreal sketch comedy mar specials that I otherwise love by Chelsea Peretti and Zach Galifianakis, for example. And to a certain extent, this entire special is a sketch with standup in it. Old Baby also has elements of this, but for the bulk of its running time, Bamford is at least telling jokes to a crowd large enough to have a homogenous reaction to those jokes. No such luck with the ‘rents. The material’s still awesome, though. The bits about Paula Deen and the double standard that applies to mental vs. physical illnesses are both perfect demonstrations of what’s great about Maria Bamford. But on balance, I think she stepped it up for this year’s special. It’s actually nice to find that an artist you’ve recently discovered is on an upwards trajectory rather than a downwards one. It doesn’t usually work that way for me because I’m wilfully late to every pop culture party. But yeah, this cements Maria Bamford among my top three or four comics, probably.

Chris Gethard: Career Suicide — I really like listening to somebody just tell a story. That’s ultimately why I like Mike Birbiglia so much, even though I generally think his jokes don’t rise to the level of some of my other favourite comics. Neither do Chris Gethard’s. But that doesn’t stop this from being wildly compelling viewing. This is a 90-minute (!) account of Gethard’s lifelong journey through intense mental illness. Gethard’s gift is that he can see how the following two things can both be true: depression is awful and has taken him to some truly dark places, and the experience of being depressed has provided him with some objectively funny stories. This is also a really excellent corrective to certain specious narratives about mental illness, especially the one about antidepressants taking your creativity away. I’ve watched three new comedy specials so far in 2017. It speaks to the caliber of the first two that I would rank them as follows: Maria Bamford, Chris Gethard, Louis C.K.

Literature, etc.

China Miéville: October — China Miéville’s self-admittedly partisan history of the Russian Revolution is off to a good start. That said, as a fan of his fiction, it is almost offputtingly straightforward. Aside from a few words necessitating a quick Google (ogee?) Miéville has basically put aside his most obscurantist tendencies here. And I confess, I always kind of loved him for those. I’ve read the first chapter of this book, and so far, Miéville’s introductory portraits of Lenin and Trotsky are the most promising elements. Though, the best single moment in this opening chapter is Miéville’s marvellous, withering depiction of Nicholas Romanov: “Absence defines him: absence of expression, imagination, intelligence, insight, drive, determination, élan. Description after bemused description turns on the ‘otherworldliness’ of a man adrift in history. He is a well-educated vacuity stuffed with the prejudices of his milieu — including pro-pogramist antisemitism, aimed particularly at revolutionary zhidy, ‘yids’. Averse to change of any kind at all, he is wholeheartedly wedded to autocracy. Uttering the word ‘intelligentsia’, he makes the same disgusted face as when he says ‘syphilis’.” So, yeah. He doesn’t hold back. And even in a comparatively simple idiom, Miéville’s use of English is still impressive. This bodes well.

Games

Fallen London — With last week’s encomium to Sunless Sea, I inspired myself to go back to the original. I found Fallen London a few years ago when I was really into interactive fiction in general — Twine, parser-based stuff, the whole works. Fallen London stuck out to me for all of the reasons I’ve already praised Sunless Sea, i.e. the prose is incredible. But it’s been a while. I can’t remember where I was at in the game and it’s taking me awhile to figure it out. But that’s fine! Because everything you do in Fallen London is a delight. It’s clear to me that a huge amount of the mythology that underlies Fallen London is still a mystery to me. (What the hell even is the Bazaar???) At first, I thought that the aura of mystery was the whole of the game and that you’re never really meant to get past the protective coating that sits on top of all of the lore. Certainly, most of the characters walking around seem to have just as incomplete an understanding of what the hell is going on as I do as a player. But playing a bunch of Sunless Sea made me realize that there are answers to the questions. Some of them, anyway. I’m looking forward to learning them. Also! There’s an app now! And it’s really pretty. Way prettier than the browser game. Now this feels like a bespoke product the same way Sunless Sea does. It’s a cosmetic thing, but cosmetics are important.

Music

Buffalo Springfield: Buffalo Springfield — Ah, fuck it. If I’m doing a Neil Young binge, I’m going to do it properly. From here on out, we’re going for completion. I’m defining that as “everything that’s been officially released by Neil Young or an act he was a member of.” This includes official and archival lives, and rarities on odds and sods collections. This is going to be taxing, but I’m experiencing a severe compulsion that I don’t think I’m going to best. Buffalo Springfield is not a bad album by any means, but it is first and foremost a period piece. It is interesting primarily for being an early work by Neil Young and Stephen Stills, both of whom would go on to do work that has aged much better than this. (The former in particular, obviously.) But I am always in favour of listening to things that are of primarily historical interest. In general, Neil’s songs are more adventurous and interesting than Stephen Stills’, but Stills penned the obvious standout, “For What it’s Worth.” It was tacked on in the second pressing after it became a hit. It would be a far poorer album without it, honestly. That’s how much better and more iconic it is than anything else on here. And the track it replaced, “Baby Don’t Scold Me,” is about as good as its title promises it will be. Neil’s songs don’t quite sound like Neil Young songs except for when he sings them. (Everything sounds like a Neil Young song if he’s singing it. Even if it’s a Beatles song.) And he only sings two of his own songs here. “Burned” is the stronger of the two, but I know from the Decade compilation that Neil’s best contributions to the Buffalo Springfield oeuvre will come later. Strangely, this record’s most notable “oh, Neil Young’s here!” moment isn’t on a track that he wrote. His guitar playing on “Leave” is remarkably similar to the way it’ll sound four years later in the outro of “Woodstock” with CSNY, or on “Southern Man.” A really interesting and intermittently good album.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and W. Kamau Bell” — Sounds like Guardians 2 is basically what everybody expected it to be. (He says, having written this before he saw the movie, which he reviewed above.) I’m in. (He says, not knowing he’d see the movie within the same week as this review, and that this would later read really weirdly because of my structural choice to always put podcasts last.) W. Kamau Bell is very funny.

Reply All: “The Silence in the Sky” — Nice to hear something where P.J. Vogt did the reporting. Seems to me that’s rarer than Alex Goldman-reported segments, but I don’t have the stats in front of me. I agree with Vogt that “Across the Universe” is not the best Beatles song.

The Media Show: “Secrecy and whistleblowing, Times Literary Supplement editor Stig Abell, Radio style guides” — Ah, good, there’s an excellent media-focussed show on BBC Radio 4. I love BBC Radio 4. I got linked to this from I can’t remember where and listened to it to hear the segment on the Times Literary Supplement. Maybe I’ll subscribe to a literary magazine. I could see myself doing something like that.

WTF with Marc Maron: “John Michael Higgins / Maria Bamford” — Too bad the Maria Bamford spot is so short. I need to go back into the archives and listen to previous Maron/Bamford conversations. These two understand each other. John Michael Higgins is not a person I know (the only Christopher Guest movie I’ve seen is, wait for it… Waiting for Guffman) but he’s super interesting and Maron’s good at getting him to tell the story of his crazy road through showbiz. Fine listening.

Every Little Thing: “Rapture Chasers” — Not bad, but not as substantially different from Surprisingly Awesome as I’d hoped it would be. If your premise is basically “things are great when you look into them,” you’d better have some serious personality in your show. Because that is essentially the premise of all journalism that isn’t hard news. This is the sort of show that I think will likely produce a lot of great episodes, but I’m having the same sort of hard time figuring out why it exists as I had with Undone, and we all remember how that worked out.

Beef and Dairy Network: “A Tribute to Paul Kitesworthy” — A segment based around a slightly predictable joke: the dead guy isn’t really dead; he just owes everybody money. Still funny and well-made. If I wasn’t so behind on my subscriptions, I’m sure I would have gulped this whole thing down.

Code Switch catch-up — Wow, I just listened to six episodes of Code Switch. (The most recent six.) I am sad and confused! Highlights include a segment in the mailbag episode where the problems with the Native American hunting rights episode get addressed (thank god), Audie Cornish talking about writer/comic John Leguizamo, and the entire episode about the L.A. unrest (as relevant a topic as ever). But the real standout episode is the most recent one, co-hosted by Shereen Marisol Meraji and Kat Chow, about Miss Saigon. This is the musical where, the first time around, a bunch of the characters were played in yellowface makeup, but now they’re not, but it’s still an intrinsically problematic piece because of “fragile Asian woman” stereotypes, etc. Maybe this is only the standout to me because this comes up frequently in the opera world (Miss Saigon is based on the same text as Madame Butterfly) except it’s even worse in the opera world. Yellowface is still considered acceptable at many (most?) opera houses and the drama of Madame Butterfly is so wrapped up in shitty racism of the century-old variety that it is actually not a good opera anymore. (Well, I mean, it never was. But I can understand why an early 20th-century audience in Italy might have thought it was.) I’m not sure if this applies to Miss Saigon or not, but Madame Butterfly has a protagonist that we’re expected to sympathize with and feel bad for in spite of the fact that she has absolutely no strength of character. We’re expected to feel gutted at her fate because she can’t help being the sort of person she is, because of her race. If Butterfly had been a white character and acted the same way, nobody in the opera’s original audience would have believed it. And yet, here we are today, still believing it. I really hate Madam Butterfly. And I think I hate Miss Saigon by extension now.

The Memory Palace: “Met Residency #5: Temple” — Fun to hear Nate DiMeo do one of these Met episodes that’s a little bit critical of the Met. Basically he follows a timeline posted in the Met’s reconstruction of an Egyptian temple and points out the interesting bits (and the boring bits). Not one of my favourites of these stories, certainly. The one about Prince Demah Barnes is still the best one, followed closely by the one about John Vanderlyn’s panorama. But this is probably number three.

The Memory Palace: “Notes on a Plaque, Still Imagined” — This was one of the first Memory Palace episodes I heard, back before I was completely sold on it. Listening again, I don’t know what I was thinking. This is a beautifully written proposal to affix a big, gaudy plaque to a statue commemorating the military record of a racist. And not just any racist: the first Grand Wizard of the KKK. Nate DiMeo muses about how the plaque should be designed and what it should say to convey the message that this statue of this man is a product of its time, and of a morally inexcusable value system. Beautiful stuff.

The Memory Palace: “The Year Hank Greenberg Hit 58 Home Runs” — Outstanding. This is that rare thing: a story about American Nazism in the years prior to Pearl Harbour. Which was very much a thing and quite a popular one, though it’s been conveniently scrubbed from American history. Nate DiMeo finds his way in through two sports figures: the Jewish baseball virtuoso Hank Greenberg and the Jewish strongman Joseph Greenstein (“The Mighty Atom”). Most satisfyingly, it features said strongman beating up some Nazis with a baseball bat. What kind of baseball bat? Listen to the episode. It’s a more satisfying revel than you might think. Also, on the show’s website, DiMeo tagged this episode “Richard Spencer sucks,” just in case the subtext wasn’t clear. Pick of the week.

99% Invisible: “Sounds Natural” — Way to be buzzkills, 99pi staff. Honestly, I’ve always wondered how nature documentaries get such clear sound. But I never looked into it because I feared that the answer would be “it’s all fake,” which it is. I don’t really mind, but I’m going to be conscious of it now.

99% Invisible: “Reversing the Grid” — A strangely compelling policy story about how governments should deal with the phenomenon that power meters are reversible: i.e. they go backwards when you put power back into the grid. Like with solar panels.

Omnireviewer (week of April 30, 2017)

Hey, remember last week when my post only had seven reviews in it and was super short? Prepare yourself. This one’s 6000 words. Also, I decided to allocate my two picks of the week to non-podcasts, because podcasts aren’t making up such a staggering preponderance of these reviews, these days. Never fear, this will likely be a temporary state of affairs. Incidentally, this was another week when I would gladly have given out more than two picks of the week, but I failed to exercise restraint last week and I’m not making it a trend. No sir.

29 reviews.

Games

Sunless Sea — It is with intense satisfaction that I would like to report that after 130 hours of playing this over the course of two years (and seven dead captains, to boot) I have completed the main story of Sunless Sea! By “main story,” I mean the ambition called “Your Father’s Bones,” which you can choose at the start of a game. (This ambition has a narrative hook: you’re looking for the final resting place of your departed father. Whereas the other starting ambitions are essentially opportunities to explore freely while amassing fictional money or items that will eventually allow you to end your game with a win if you choose. So, the Father’s Bones option seems like a “main story” to me.) I confess that playing through this ambition was very much a “journey not the destination” sort of experience. The ending of the story is entirely fine, and beautifully written. But the true appeal of this storyline is in the subplots you have to follow while collecting a series of rare items. True, a fair chunk of the quest falls under the category of that hoary old video game trope “find X things.” But seldom does a quest to find things result in such rich storytelling. I got to know my ship’s gunnery officer a bit, and realized he’d built munitions for some truly shady people. I aided in my chef’s training and watched as he prepared a meal for a retinue of the living drowned. I hunted a ship crewed entirely by spiders. And it was all expressed through, bar none, the best written prose in the industry. I say this every time I write about this game, but Sunless Sea and its sister title Fallen London are the only games I’ve played with a distinctive and sure-handed approach to language that rivals literature. The humour, terror, characterization and poignancy of the various stories contained within this game all arise from the writers’ ingenious and idiosyncratic use of English. It’s a thing to behold. I will likely put aside Sunless Sea for a while now (and perhaps take up Fallen London in a more serious way), but I’m sure I’ll return to it at some point. I still feel as though I’ve only made a cursory survey of many of its moving parts. I don’t understand the full significance of the island of mute exiles in the north. I don’t understand why the locals at Mutton Island, just off the coast of London, suddenly started acting so weird. And I definitely don’t understand where the terrifying artificial sun in the corner of the map came from. Plus, I haven’t really dove into (excuse the pun) the excellent Zubmariner expansion, which has a starting ambition of its own. I think I’ll make it my goal to finish at least one more ambition in Sunless Sea before the sequel, Sunless Skies comes out. I never tire of this game, and I increasingly love the parts of it that annoyed me at first — namely the long, slow trips from port to port — best of all. While these moments can become extremely stressful under certain circumstances, they are usually fairly placid. This lends a contemplative element to a game that otherwise serves up plot pretty swiftly. Like baseball, I suppose. For a game that is so concerned with (and so effective at simulating the experience of) abject terror, it can feel curiously therapeutic to play. Sunless Sea is for me the most magnificent escape into an alternate universe that gaming has ever offered. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Pick of the week.

Television

Bill Nye Saves the World: Season 1, episodes 1-3 — It was Bill Nye who first made me want to be a scientist. It is crucial to note at this juncture that I am not a scientist, and in fact have a tenuous understanding at best of many very basic scientific concepts. However, when I was about eight or nine, when Bill Nye the Science Guy was nearing the end of its run, I wanted nothing more than to be a madly gesticulating, eccentric, bowtied fellow in a lab full of Tesla coils and beakers of colourful fluid. It was only partially the whimsical aesthetic of the show that pulled me in: it was just as much the spirit of joyful curiosity about the way the world works. The Nye Labs point-and-click adventure Stop the Rock! likely had an even more formative influence. That game let you actually explore Nye Labs. The wonder! The part of me that got sucked into early Radiolab is a part that was probably put there by Bill Nye. So I feel a tremendous amount of goodwill towards this guy. And basically, I think his new show is good. Certainly it’s noble. But by focussing specifically on the controversial global issues that require us all to have a better understanding of science that we do, he gives up something really crucial about the science communication work he’s done in the past: he loses sight of the sheer mad joy of understanding as an end in itself. Yes, it’s true that science is crucial to helping us navigate the biggest challenges we face. But that’s only one side of it, as far as I’m concerned. The other is that it’s just better by definition to know more about the world than you do. And that experience of joy in knowledge is essential to winning people over onto the side of science. I’d like to see Nye do a show that is similarly aimed at adults, but which balances topics of substantial-to-massive contemporary importance (alternative medicine, climate change) with scientific topics that are complex but maybe not quite so tied into the nightly news. When I was a kid, Bill Nye taught me about things I’d never heard of before, from underwater life to plate tectonics. I kind of still want him to do that. And also talk about climate change! We should never shut up about climate change. But… also fun new science facts. And the celebrity guest appearances can go. The not-famously-charismatic Steve Aoki’s guest spot is so arbitrary I kind of enjoyed it in spite of myself. But why Zach Braff is in the first episode, I’ll never understand.

American Gods: “The Bone Orchard” — Hugely, enormously promising. Like, “maybe this will be better than the book” promising. There are so many blazingly good sequences in this first episode that it almost seems ostentatious. The casting is flawless, with Ian McShane being a particularly obvious but magnificent choice for Mr. Wednesday and Ricky Whittle offering a harder, colder Shadow than the one in the book. A good choice, since it gives him a direction to move in. The look of the show is much more similar to Hannibal than I’d expected. Clearly Bryan Fuller is in the habit of bringing his own aesthetic to stories originated by others. Shadow’s dreamworld is rich and hallucinatory. I’m particularly fond of the way the ceiling of his cell breaks open to reveal Laura. And the entire ending sequence with the Technical Boy is brilliantly creepy in a way that only tech-based horror can be. The way that the Technical Boy forms out of weird claymation is the sort of bizarre, entrancing choice that is making me feel like this might actually kick the book up a notch. It’s really trying to be its own thing. But there are standout segments straight from the book as well. Shadow’s first conversation with Wednesday on the plane is a delight, and gives McShane the opportunity to be as gruff as we Deadwood fans are used to seeing him, but with an unfamiliar note of whimsy. Likewise, the bar fight with Mad Sweeney plays out almost exactly as in the book, and the gradual escalation from coin tricks to full-on brawling is as satisfying in this medium as that one. But the appeal of this so far is definitely not the basic joy of seeing a familiar work of fiction play out onscreen. It’s the much more complicated thing of seeing a familiar work of fiction get filtered through another auteur’s sensibility. I didn’t expect so much stylized gore, nor so many scenes with the dialogue almost entirely re-written. These are indications that Bryan Fuller (and, I suppose Michael Green, who is ostensibly an equal partner in this) will be making this his own. This is going to be so great.

Doctor Who: “Knock Knock” — Again, the best thing about this episode is the riffing on Doctor Who as a cultural force. “Oh, you’re the Doctor?” “Yes.” “Cool!” So, that’s a theme that’s continuing. But man, this was pretty blah. I enjoyed it in the sense that it was good performers filmed well while saying witty lines. But as horror stories rooted in the confused dynamic between a parent and child go, it’s sure not “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances.” I like seeing Bill just go about her life outside the TARDIS, but we don’t get much of that before the generic haunted house story starts up. Competent. Not great. The weakest of the season so far, by a substantial distance.

Better Call Saul: “Sabrosito” — I should have mentioned last week how satisfying it is to see Patrick Fabian’s Howard Hamlin gradually transition into a really wonderful comic performance. His fence-climbing antics last time around were a highlight, but this week all he has to do to get a laugh is say “well that is a shame” in the most transparently ingratiating tone of voice possible. I really like this character. Fring’s plotline in this is notable mostly for his final speech to his employees at Los Pollos, which is a terrible speech. Intentionally so, obviously. It really drives home the point that Fring is intensely cynical: he knows he can anticipate a certain amount of critical thinking on the part of the people he associates with in the drug business. And certainly on the part of the cops. But employees at a fast food restaurant? Nah, they’ll buy anything. I’m not sure we’ve seen this from him before. It’s the only time he’s been less than completely convincing in his cover, but he knows he only has to be convincing enough. And he is. Jimmy’s plotline only surfaces halfway through the episode, once we’re through with Fring and Hector Salamanca. (Mark Margolis is continuing to add depth to this character, which both makes him fun to watch in this show, and deepens the tragedy of his barnstorming mute, wheelchair-bound performance in Breaking Bad.) I do wish that this story would move a little faster. I’m enjoying the Mike/Gus side of this season, but I feel as though the emphasis on that is slowing down progress on the story that has always fascinated me the most, which is anything involving Jimmy and Kim. Still, this is great.

Comedy

Maria Bamford: Old Baby — This is the best comedy special I’ve seen since about three Louis C.K. specials ago. I will repeat none of the bits, because the trailer for this proves that they are not funny out of context. I will say that Bamford has the perfect mix of three characteristics I like in a comic: jokes that frame the familiar in a new way, a delivery that complicates and deepens the writing itself, and uncommon life experiences to draw on. Regarding the second-last one of those, Bamford’s characters are hilarious, particularly when they’re her parents. And regarding the last, Bamford’s experience with mental illness is (silver linings) a fruitful source of material for her. I’m underselling this by making it tediously abstract. But I’m not about to explain comedy, here. This is on Netflix. Go watch it now. Pick of the week.

Movies

The Road Forward — The opening film of this year’s DOXA festival, this is a musical semi-documentary by Marie Clements, one of our local visionaries. It uses a gigantic storytelling toolbox including songwriting, music video, interviewing, visual symbolism and archival footage to tell a vast, nuanced story. The story is about the untold history of First Nations activism on the West coast of Canada. And it would be a hell of a story, even told straightforwardly. There are stories here, like the origins of the Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood and the Indian Constitution Express movement, that are the sorts of incredible tales that inevitably prompt white people such as myself to say things like “how was I never taught this?” (Which is a sentiment that the film pokes fun at once or twice.) It’s moving, important and enormously ambitious. Its flaws are flaws it shares with virtually all movie musicals and some music videos: a certain ostentatious theatricality keeps it slightly at arm’s length (this started life as a theatre piece). But it’s still something I think every Canadian should see, not out of a sense of duty, but because it features contributions from a huge number of really great artists, with Clements at the top of the pile.

Literature, etc.

Jorge Luis Borges: “Ibn-Hakam al-Bokhari, Murdered in his Labyrinth” — I’ve decided not to read this Borges collection in order, but rather to skim through and read the ones whose titles or first sentences jump out at me. The first sentence of this story is as follows: “‘This,’ said Dunraven with a vast gesture that did not blench at the cloudy stars, and that took in the black moors, the sea, and a majestic, tumbledown edifice that looked much like a stable fallen upon hard times, ‘is my ancestral land.’” I’m in. This is a fairly restrained application of Borges’s genius, but it’s definitely Borges. (One thing I recall from my long-ago reading of “The Garden of Forking Paths” is that it’s about a labyrinth. Sounds like this will be a theme.) Again I’m curiously reminded of Neil Gaiman. A cursory Google (and the slightest bit of common sense) reveals that Gaiman is a fan of Borges. And this story about stories feels like the sort of thing that wouldn’t be out of place in Sandman. Basically, one man tells a friend a story about a man who hid away in a labyrinth. And another man ponders the story, finds it insufficient and tells another version that’s more convincing based on the same facts. Simple, direct, ingenious. And also fable-like. Borges’s recurring motifs of labyrinths and libraries appeal to me on an aesthetic level as well as a thematic one. This is going well.

Jorge Luis Borges: “Borges and I” — An extremely short, vaguely troubling autobiographical sketch that finds Borges negotiating the difference between his public and private personas. This is part of The Maker (AKA Dreamtigers), and I think I’ll probably hold off on reading any more of that until I get a copy of the complete text. (My complete fictions collection dogmatically refuses to include the poems in The Maker, which are apparently crucial to its flow.) But this is a lovely little observation. If it’s any indication of what The Maker is like in general, it seems like the sort of thing I’ll enjoy more once I’ve got a better sense of what made Borges into the public figure he describes here. Perhaps I’ll focus on the earlier stories.

Jorge Luis Borges: “The Garden of Forking Paths” — You know, it’s possible that I hadn’t actually read this like I’ve been saying I have this whole time. Having read it now, it’s clear to me that the reason I was familiar with it is primarily because of the extraordinary way that Borges poses a thought experiment that prefigures hypertext literature decades before its actual invention. This is definitely something I’d read about this story. But the story itself seems unfamiliar to me. Maybe I just read it in a different translation? I dunno. I can’t imagine it would have made such a weak impression. This is deservedly a classic. Not as mindbending as “The Library of Babel,” but it’s also spinning more plates. It’s got a narrator with a motivation, a framing device, and an espionage plot all surrounding the main event, which is clearly the conversation about the labyrinthine novel that is effectively hypertext. One of the things I love most about the Borges stories I’ve read so far is they’re very short, and thus make rereading a completely non-daunting proposition. Future rereads of this will likely find me trying to decide why Borges decided to place this idea in this particular story. What difference does it make that the narrator learned the secret of his ancestor’s novel during the course of an act of espionage? How does the detective story connect with the metafiction? I’m sure somebody could explain this to me, but I’m just as happy to figure it out at my own damn pace.

Jorge Luis Borges: “The Circular Ruins” — This is the one Neil Gaiman cited as a favourite. It’s a good one, with a fantastic premise and a twist ending that renders this much better upon re-reading, or at least re-considering. The premise is that there’s a place with gods who will allow you to imagine a person into existence. The detail with which Borges describes this process makes this a good read on the first time through. But really it’s about the ending.

Jorge Luis Borges: “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” — This is second only to “The Library of Babel” in my survey of Borges thus far. This is ingenious for so many reasons: 1) Its form, which is a sort of academic memorandum complete with all of the resentfulness and spite for one’s rivals that those can often contain. 2) Its premise, which is that a 20th-century author made it his life’s goal to write Don Quixote (i.e. writing the exact same novel as Cervantes, word for word, but arriving at it independently and centuries after Cervantes already wrote it). This is wonderfully absurd and highlights a side of Borges that I don’t hear talked about that much, namely that he’s really funny. 3) The way that Borges chases this premise down several compelling rabbit holes. (This is a similar approach to the one he takes in “The Library of Babel,” which is perhaps why I like it so much.) Borges’s narrator analyses the content of Menard’s Quixote alongside the content of Cervantes’ original (which, remember, is exactly the same) and finds them to be entirely different works by virtue of their authors’ differing contexts and intents. Borges manages to be both instructive on how context is crucial to criticism (and the nature of criticism is explicitly discussed in the text) and he also satirizes this very same approach by way of reductio ad absurdum. This is outstanding. So far, reading Borges has felt like coming home.

Jorge Luis Borges: “Deutsches Requiem” — A slightly less effective Borges story, though that might be an unfair judgement on my part, because it just doesn’t have the specific things I’ve loved about the few Borges stories I’ve read so far. It’s not a premise-driven story, it’s a character-driven story. And the character is, apparently, the ultimate Nazi. I’m not going to lie, I picked this one out because I love the Brahms piece it’s named after. Not a highlight of my Borges reading thus far. But here’s a miscellaneous note I haven’t been able to work into any of my previous Borges reviews: I’m really reminded of China Miéville in a few of these stories. Neil Gaiman has been the modern reference point I’ve gone back to again and again when discussing Borges, but Miéville shares Borges’s gift for the mindblowing premise. Some of the stories from Three Moments of an Explosion could practically be Borges stories. I’m thinking particularly of “A Second Slice Manifesto,” in which Miéville describes an art movement that exposes new sides to classic works of representational painting by imagining a “slice” down a certain point in the image, revealing cross-sections of people and buildings that were whole in the original picture. That’s damn close to Borges in “Pierre Menard” mode.

Farhad Manjoo: “Can Facebook Fix Its Own Worst Bug?” — This piece about how Facebook is handling its post-election flail is not encouraging. A couple of choice excerpts: “For the typical user, Cox explained when I met him on a morning in October at MPK20, News Feed is computing the relative merits of about 2,000 potential posts in your network every time you open the app. In sorting these posts, Facebook does not optimize for any single metric: not clicks or reading time or likes. Instead, he said, ‘what you really want to get to is whether somebody, at the end of the day, would say, ‘Hey, my experience today was meaningful.’’” This is notable because I have never once felt this way on Facebook. The lack of meaningful interactions with people or content is the basis of my entire objection to the news feed. It promotes (and thus encourages the production of) the content equivalent of marshmallows: you consume them because they’re there and they have a sort of outward appeal. But you never actually enjoy yourself and eventually you start feeling shitty and resenting all the marshmallows you ate and the source where you got them. (This is Facebook’s shit to take responsibility for, but it’s also on every news organization and producer of web content to not fall into the trap and reject what value they have.) The piece then goes on to detail Facebook’s moderately successful efforts to combat clickbait — efforts that were predicated on a logic that I cannot imagine applying universally: “Facebook’s entire project, when it comes to news, rests on the assumption that people’s individual preferences ultimately coincide with the public good, and that if it doesn’t appear that way at first, you’re not delving deeply enough into the data.” Evidently, Facebook’s internal method for fixing problems is as pig-headedly metrics-focussed as it has forced the entire rest of the world to be. This piece is fascinating, and leaves me with more of a sense of Mark Zuckerberg’s good intentions than I had before, but absolutely zero faith in his (and his company’s) ability to fix the problems they’ve caused, let alone the ones they set out to remedy from the beginning.

Music

Neil Young: Neil Young — So I thought to myself, how deep should this deep dive go? Shall I make a detailed survey of the early material from Neil’s time in Buffalo Springfield — or rarer still, the Squires? Shall I finally listen to those other two CSNY albums? No, I decided. This will be a survey of Neil’s solo career, with that defined as any album that has his first and last name on it as a principal artist. Crazy Horse albums count, as does anything he released with ad-hoc bands like the Stray Gators and the Shocking Pinks. And Pearl Jam. I won’t obligate myself to listen to every live and archival release, though I’ll likely check out some, because the ones I’ve heard are among Neil’s best work, and albums like Rust Never Sleeps and Time Fades Away make the secondary designation normally afforded to live albums sort of inapplicable in Neil’s case. By my count, these guidelines will still find me listening to at least forty albums. So, we begin a fair ways from the beginning, actually, with the self-titled album. At this point, he’s already written and recorded classics like “I Am A Child” and “Mr. Soul.” He was five years past his earliest recordings. But this marks the start of Neil Young as “Neil Young” as opposed to “guy in band.” And it’s… well, it’s an anomaly, but it’s a compelling one. This is one of those albums like Jethro Tull’s This Was that feels like the start of an alternate history that forked a different way in our reality. (Maybe I’ve been reading too much Borges.) It’s the album that finds the now-anointed godfather of grunge sounding like a well-heeled young folkie with aspirations towards glossy marketability. The arrangements on this have a similar feel to the ones on Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter in the way that they never just leave the singer alone. This isn’t bad by definition. Far be it from me to criticize polish while being a huge prog fan. But Neil is an artist who feels more radical by far when he’s being noisy and sloppy and spontaneous. With this much fuss applied, he sounds a bit MOR. (To use his own nomenclature, I prefer Neil in the ditch.) “The Old Laughing Lady” suffers particularly from its arrangement, which almost works — until the midsection with the wordless backing vocals comes around. I could live with the little electric piano riff in 5/4 that breaks up the verses, but I don’t understand what that wordless midsection has to do with the rest of the song. It’s empty bloat, and it would be profitably excised on the Unplugged album years later. “The Loner” fares better, if only because it’s familiar enough that it seems unfathomable without its arrangement. The less familiar tracks range from hidden gems (“Here We Are in the Years”) to unmemorable instrumentals (“The Emperor of Wyoming”) to “The Last Trip to Tulsa,” which is the one truly unvarnished performance on the album but isn’t necessarily one of Neil’s best lyrics. Neil Young has its undeniable pleasures, but it’s best heard as a piece of Neil’s history. This polished side of him wouldn’t vanish outright after this: it would continue to marvellous effect in his work with CSNY and to blockbuster effect on Harvest. But immediately afterwards, the radically unvarnished side of Neil would come to the fore and mark the point where it’s clear that he’s a real creative force.

Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere — If Neil’s self-titled debut represented his introduction to us as something other than “guy in band,” Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is where Neil Young arrives as a legend. This is a hell of an album, and though I’d heard the majority of it before (because more than half of it is on the Decade compilation), this was my first time through the whole thing. Crazy Horse is the kind of band I ought to hate, being who I am. But their committed sloppiness feels less like the result of laziness than like a progressive musical experiment. This is the point where noise becomes a major part of Neil Young’s sound. This is the album that starts the thread of Neil’s career that will climax on Rust Never Sleeps and go gloriously over the top on Weld. “Down by the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand,” both feature sprawling jams where Neil strains at the very edges of his extremely limited technique as a lead guitarist and they set the template for all great Crazy Horse jams to come. The shorter songs are all excellent, especially “Cinnamon Girl,” obviously. And the title track is maybe the most Canadian song ever recorded. This is also the album that makes it clear we can never know what to expect from Neil Young. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is as unlike the debut as it is possible to be. And within a year of this album, Neil would join CSNY and go back to making radically structured music, albeit of an entirely different persuasion from on his first solo record. This is already an exciting ride. But Neil’s next solo album is his first proper masterpiece.

The Mountain Goats: The Sunset Tree — We interrupt this Neil Young binge for yet more erudite early-2000s indie rock. (Because the full Decemberists catalogue wasn’t enough.) I’ve meant to properly get into the Mountain Goats since I heard “Heel Turn 2” on Welcome to Night Vale. (I understand they’re working on a podcast together now? I’m curious.) This was apparently something of a breakthrough for them, though they have more acclaimed albums that predate this than postdate it. Still, The Sunset Tree served its purpose. I’m hooked. “This Year,” which I’m told is a very famous song in certain circles, is exactly what I needed right now. “I am going to make it through this year if it kills me” is one of those lyrics that seems obvious in retrospect, except that nobody wrote it before. Other highlights include “Dance Music,” which belongs to a niche subgenre I’m particularly fond of, namely songs with really chipper music and really dark lyrics. I’m also a big fan of “Dilaudid,” with its string arrangement and escalating vocal performance from John Darnielle. I need a few more listens for this to sink in, but this is definitely a band I’m going to listen to now.

Shugo Tokumaru: Toss — I’ve gotta say, it doesn’t live up to the promise of “Lita Ruta,” which is still my favourite song of the year so far. (Provided we don’t count cantatas based on Supreme Court decisions as “songs.”) Unlike In Focus? which is the other full Tokumaru album I’ve heard, this is really uneven. It is also sparser and simpler on balance than In Focus? is, and I’m not sure simplicity suits Tokumaru. Naturally, the best parts of the album are almost dizzyingly complex, with “Lita Ruta” being the clear winner but the first track, “Lift,” is glorious as well, as is the magnificently-titled “Cheese Eye.” This album is apparently the first time Tokumaru has gone out of his way to work with a variety of other instrumentalists, which makes for an album which is at times extremely timbrally diverse, but I would have preferred if it stayed that way for its whole duration. If I’m going to listen to this guy, I want total sensory overload. Honestly, there’s still enough great stuff on it that I’m confident in calling it one of my favourite albums of the year so far, but I suspect that has more to do with how badly I’ve fallen off the music discovery wagon than anything.

Podcasts

Crimetown: Episodes 16 & 17 — Good episodes. The problem with this season has just been lack of focus. If they’d just found a way to really hone in on two narrative threads: Buddy Cianci and the Patriarca crime family, this would have been great. And I suppose everything does tie back to that to a certain extent, but this feels like it’s really gone everywhere. But this focusses on Cianci, which makes it feel of a piece with the season’s arc as I’d originally perceived it. Still, I have other problems. In their promo for the big party they’re holding to celebrate the end of the season, the hosts of this say something to the effect of “by the end you won’t be sure who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.” Except yes I will. The ones who committed or were implicated in murders for business reasons are the bad guys. That’s pretty clear to me. I wish it were clearer to the people who make this show. (To be fair, cops and government officials are often also the bad guys. But my point is that Crimetown sometimes can’t resist saying “look how great these criminals are!” And I wish they wouldn’t.)

All Songs Considered: “Todd Rundgren On Technology, Creativity And His New Song With Trent Reznor” — Rundgren’s a good interview. You can tell somebody’s a good interview when they’re even interesting on All Songs Considered. Can’t say the song does anything for me. But I’ve always meant to check out Rundgren’s catalogue, especially A Wizard, A True Star. So maybe it’s time.

StartUp: Season 5, episodes 1-3 — I wish they’d stick to serialized seasons. The Dov Charney season was one of the undersung wonders of last year’s podcasts, and probably journalism in general. The first episode of this is a story of one businessman’s foray through “the surprisingly cutthroat world of toys.” I’m honestly kind of sick of journalism that starts from the premise of “look how interesting this seemingly mundane thing is!” So that didn’t work for me. But the two-parter on Friendster is really solid. What a catastrophe. It concludes with a comparison of the way Friendster was managed with the way Facebook was managed, and that really drives home the point that Friendster was the biggest idea of the early millennium, deployed by the wrong people.

You Must Remember This: “Barbara Loden (Dead Blondes Part 12)” — I’m starting to feel similarly about this as I am to Crimetown, though to a much lesser degree. The beginning of this season promised a point would be made about “blondeness” in Hollywood, and it hasn’t really come to that. This is still a good story about a compelling historical person, and how she was misrepresented by her powerful husband, Elia Kazan. But I’m hoping that Karina Longworth finds a way to tie everything together in the last episode of this series the way she almost did in the Barbara Payton episode several weeks ago.

Judge John Hodgman: “Live From the London Podcast Festival” — Nice stuff, but the highlight by far is a moment where the hosts of No Such Thing As A Fish argue over whether the existence of a conspiracy theory counts as a fact. The conspiracy theory in question? That the Titanic was sunk by time travellers who all wanted to see the last moments of the Titanic and thus all arrived at the same time, causing it to sink. This is bonkers in itself, but I won’t spoil the best moment of this exchange. I’ll just say that somebody definitely doesn’t understand the concept of a bootstrap paradox.

All Songs Considered: “The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy & Olivia Chaney Talk About New Collaboration, Reimagining British Folk” — ALERT ALERT NEW DECEMBERISTS sort of. Offa Rex is a side project where the Decemberists cover old British folk tunes (the sort of ones that inspired the band’s trilogy of bona fide classics: Picaresque, The Crane Wife and The Hazards of Love) with the brilliant Olivia Chaney on vocals. God, can she ever sing. And the arrangements are so ‘60s I can barely contain myself. I will be listening to this album in full as soon as I can, and I am overjoyed to see that Chaney will be joining the Decemberists at the August tour date I’m seeing here in Van. Also, I feel like I’ve been a right dickwad about Bob Boilen’s interviewing, lately. This is a really fun conversation and Bob really keeps it frothy, pointing out Meloy’s mispronunciations of things and everything. Nice stuff.

Reply All: “The Secret Life of Alex Goldman” — The payoff to the “P.J. hacks Alex’s phone” arc. This is actually really fantastic in spite of Alex Goldman having a really boring life, because 1) Goldman and Vogt have a compelling enough dynamic that they can talk about nothing and still be fun and 2) there turn out to be broader implications. Reply All can spin gold out of very thin material.

Imaginary Worlds: “Healing Through Horror” — I’d like to hear more episodes of this show that deal with horror, especially modern horror, but this isn’t really a highlight. This features two people who have both used horror as a means of escaping trauma, but their reasoning for why this is helpful to them is more obvious and less compelling than the episode that deals with this same thing with respect to Harry Potter. Seriously, that Harry Potter series was really great.

On The Media: “Rewriting the Right” — Nice to see OTM explaining the American right. Because god knows I would never understand it otherwise. I’m only half snarking. This trip through the horrible odyssey of right-wing think tanks and their campaigns to influence academia and policy is truly horrifying and I feel bad now.

Imaginary Worlds: “Designing BoJack’s World” — This features an interview with the cartoonist who was hand-picked (with no animation experience) by the creator of BoJack Horseman to design the show’s aesthetic. Given that this show’s host is a former animator himself, this is really interesting. BoJack is the adult cartoon that I feel gets the most out of its choice of idiom. All of the character drama would play out fine in a live-action dramedy, but the animation allows not only for great sight gags, but also for the sense that this is a bizarre and alienating world — a great mood to strike in a narrative about show business.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Summer Movie Preview 2017” — I, too, am looking forward to Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2.

Omnireviewer (week of Apr. 23, 2017)

Well, this is an odd instalment. For the first time since starting Omnireviewer in October 2015, I went a week without listening to any podcasts. This is because I was listening to an audiobook instead. It also means that this week we only have seven reviews, which is an all-time low. Given that, it would seem logical to only do one pick of the week. But, you know what? I’m going to allow myself not just my usual two, but THREE. It was a very high-performance week and I make the damn rules, here. And a seven-review Omnireviewer with no podcasts is an anomalous farce to begin with, so fuck it.

Here are your seven reviews.

Literature, etc.

Jorge Luis Borges: “The Library of Babel” — I have purchased a rabbit hole full of rabbit holes. Namely, the collected fictions of Jorge Luis Borges as translated by Andrew Hurley. I am essentially unfamiliar with Borges, given that the only things I’ve actually read of his are excerpts from The Book of Imaginary Beings and a long-ago, half-attentive read of “The Garden of Forking Paths.” But I’ve always meant to dive into his work, primarily because of my personal obsession with metafiction (note that Neil Gaiman also figures largely in my media consumption this week). There’s a quote I happened upon once (I think it’s Borges, but I may be wrong because I can’t source the quote no matter how hard I Google) that explains what’s creepy about metafiction. The quote posits that we’re unsettled by stories where the characters become self-aware as characters in a story, because it makes us feel like there’s a possibility that we too may be fictional. Stories within stories suggest infinite regress of which we are only one level, and by definition in between two others. (I may be thinking of the second paragraph on the second page of this essay, where Borges discusses Hamlet’s play within a play, which kind of outlines the same idea. Though in my memory, the quote was more on-the-nose than this.) I love this. It’s like Borges predicted The Matrix, and also every Silicon Valley conspiracy theory about how we’re actually all in a computer simulation. More to the point, it pins down my exact morbid fascination with metafiction. This is why I suspect Borges might be a writer I should seriously investigate. “The Library of Babel” is a much-suggested starting point, and I adore it. At a mere seven pages long, it establishes a complete universe governed by a simple premise with some unthinkably mindfucky implications. The premise is that the universe of this story is an inconceivably vast (but not infinite) library, in which every possible combination of 25 characters is present. The most astounding implication of this is that all meaning, even impossible meaning, can be expressed flawlessly through language. An example: in this library, there is a book that tells the true story of your death. Because there would have to be. Read this goddamn story. I enjoyed Hurley’s translation and the one linked here is not that, but a cursory glance finds it to be adequate, though it regrettably does not contain Borges’s footnotes. Pick of the week.

Neil Gaiman: American Gods (The Tenth Anniversary Edition audiobook) — I feel as though my initial impressions of this novel from last week carried through to the ending, so I won’t belabour this. I’ll only say that this is straightforwardly one of the greatest fantasy novels ever. Still, I think it’s in third place out of the four Neil Gaiman works I’ve encountered (numbers one and two being, respectively, The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Sandman. “The Doctor’s Wife” is a respectable number four.) This is at turns immensely moving and terribly clever. As a mythology enthusiast in general, I got a lot out of this. I’m incredibly psyched for the TV show. I’m certain Ian McShane will knock it out of the park. Also, a word on audiobooks: I’ve decided I like them. I got through this a hell of a lot faster than I would have if I’d read it, because I seemingly spend most of my life on busses, running, or doing chores: none of which are settings I tend to enjoy reading in. This is going to be part of my life now, I’ve decided. And now, a few more specific notes. Firstly, Neil Gaiman has a very specific and nuanced sense of the epic. In American Gods, that manifests in many ways, some rather unlikely. Food, for instance. In The Odyssey, everybody is constantly eating. They eat roasted meat and fruits and they drink sweet wine, and the way Homer (and his translators) describe it draws me into the adventure as surely as any story of a cyclops or siren. In American Gods, everybody is also constantly eating. And the meals they eat are every bit as decadent and as lavishly described as the feasts in Homer, but of course they’re modern and American. One of the first things that happens in the novel is a man eats a burger with a side of chili. A burger with a side of chili. It may simply be that I’m Canadian, and thus used to a touch more restraint in my pub fare. But to me, chili is under no circumstances a side dish. So this plot detail is deliciously and, yes, epically gluttonous. I love it. It makes me want to live in this world of heroic, divine eaters. It makes me want burgers and chili and french fries and meatball subs and macaroni and cheese and fried chicken and lager and black coffee. Not chocolate cream pie, though. I’ve never liked chocolate cream pie. But when I read about it in American Gods, I kind of wish I were the sort of person who would enjoy chocolate cream pie. Another note: the “Coming to America” chapter about Essie Tregowan is everything I love about Neil Gaiman in a nutshell. Essentially, it’s a story of a woman whose love for fantasy stories helps to bring a god over to America. Stories about the value of stories are not rare in Gaiman’s oeuvre, but he does them more movingly than anybody else. Hearing this in audio form makes me wonder if Nate DiMeo has read or listened to this. Because, supernatural element aside, that segment could easily be an episode of The Memory Palace. I’m not sure whose writing that’s a greater compliment to: DiMeo’s or Gaiman’s. Finally: it’s nice to now have read two novels with Mad King Sweeney as a character. He is a highlight of At Swim-Two-Birds as well, and that is my favourite novel ever. American Gods has an entirely different take on him, and that take deepens my impressions of this mythological personage. I adored American Gods. Neil Gaiman is a class act in a generation of genre fiction writers that I mostly don’t like. He articulates a vision of America from the outside that is deeply consistent with my Canadian perspective, and thus I’m certain the perspectives of many many non-Americans living in a world inundated with American culture against our will. He strings you along like the finest con artists the world has ever known. Pick of the week.

Television

Better Call Saul: Season 3, episodes 1-3 — I always forget how much I love this show when it isn’t in season. I wouldn’t say that any of these three episodes find the show at its very best. But we’ve got several promising elements, here. Firstly, it looks like this season’s arc will primarily deal with Jimmy being on trial. That’s a good story arc idea, and it gives plenty of opportunities for development in my favourite element of this show, which is the relationship between Jimmy and Kim. Rhea Seehorn continues to be outstanding, and I love every scene with the two of them together, not just because of the dynamic established between the two characters in the scripts, but also because Seehorn is really good at reacting in a traditionally actorly way to Bob Odenkirk’s often idiosyncratic approach to delivering lines. It’s easy to forget, given the increasing esteem in which he is held for this role, that Odenkirk comes from sketch comedy, which is a writer’s medium, not an actor’s one. He’s not at all the usual sort of person you see headlining an hour-long drama. That’s a big part of this show’s appeal. Of course, the other promising element is the return of the magnificent Giancarlo Esposito as Gus Fring. I must admit, I felt a bit trepidatious about this when I first heard they were doing it. I’m not a fan of overreliance on favourite elements from any given narrative’s canon (see basically any review I’ve ever written of Welcome to Night Vale). And this show has generally been very good about ensuring that its story works independently of Breaking Bad — quite the trick given that show’s long shadow. But so far, it seems like Gilligan and Gould are managing to integrate Fring into their narrative fairly organically. The origins of Mike Ehrmantraut’s relationship with that character is narratively rich ground, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it turns out. The episode that he first appears in is brilliantly stage-managed as well, with the delayed reveal of the Los Pollos Hermanos sign and then the extended sequence where Fring is an extremely conspicuous blur in the background of a shallow-focus shot. You have to be really paying attention to see it, but when you do, you know it’s completely intentional. This is what I love most about Vince Gilligan as a television auteur: he takes the audience’s intense attention for granted, and uses it to his advantage. I’m really looking forward to the rest of this season. Maybe this will be the year when I remember how much I love Better Call Saul even when the season ends.

Doctor Who: “Thin Ice” — So much of this season so far feels like a victory lap. I don’t mean that in a bad way, nor do I mean to credit Steven Moffat with every decision on this show, which has been written by three different people in as many weeks. (The usual state of affairs.) But aside from this season’s interest in reiterating the basic appeal of Doctor Who at its core, it also feels like an excuse to just have a hell of a lot of fun. If there was a non-tragic component to the Doctor’s loss of Clara’s memory (*sniff*), it’s that he’s been able to move on from his most recent loss faster than usual. There’s none of the brooding that was necessary after the departures of, say, Rose or the Ponds. This gives Peter Capaldi the opportunity to show off the side of Twelve that shares DNA with Tom Baker’s whimsical Fourth Doctor and Sylvester McCoy’s hammy, performative Seventh. Twelve will probably still go down in history as a curmudgeon with a heart of gold (the previous reference points always seemed to be William Hartnell and Jon Pertwee), but it’s lovely to see him cast off the shade and just have a ball being a mercurial pot-stirrer. Which, of course doesn’t last for long, because we need a story. And what a moment when Spider disappears under the ice. This character moment is communicated through acting, and without a single word. The Doctor, thinking pragmatically, retrieves his sonic screwdriver. He does not show an outward sign of concern for the death that’s just taken place. He busies himself examining the screwdriver. Bill is appalled. We as viewers are not made to think the Doctor monstrous. He is not, after all, openly cavalier. (This would have been a tempting but bad place for a one-liner.) But neither are we allowed to think that what’s just taken place isn’t a terrible thing, because Bill is there to offer the expected reaction while the Doctor behaves in the idiosyncratic way he believes to be most useful. Our brooding Twelve from two seasons ago (“You would make a good Dalek”) doesn’t make an appearance, however. This is a more stable version of the character. We seem to be done with the stories about whether or not the Doctor is truly a hero. I predict that this is the closest we’ll come to that this season, and it’s a subtly different sort of thing: it’s a story about confronting the unpleasant realities of throwing in with a character from an adventure serial. This comparatively sunny setup is going to make Twelve’s regeneration absolutely gutting. Let’s be prepared.

Movies

The Lost City of Z — I had high hopes for this that weren’t quite realized, but it’s definitely two and a half hours well spent in a movie theatre. And I do mean that precisely: this is a movie that you need to see in theatres, because it is conceived as an experience. This is an epic in the David Lean tradition: it’s the closest thing to Lawrence of Arabia that I’ve seen this decade. I do have a weakness for huge movies like this. (There’s a hint of Apocalypse Now in it too, which is always a compliment from me.) But I freely confess that my bar for these movies isn’t hard to clear: show me some pretty scenery framed nicely by the cinematographer, maybe with some elegant slow pans, and I’m pretty much good. This did that. But I won’t pretend to have been especially engrossed by the story or characters. The key tension comes from Charlie Hunnam’s protagonist, Percy Fawcett, struggling to balance his compulsion to explore the Amazon with his obligation to be present for his family. This is not psychologically complicated. And this movie is not psychologically complicated. The hardships of jungle exploration are mostly conveyed as physical struggles. This is where it breaks from Apocalypse Now, which finds a source of delirium in the jungle, rather than just a straightforward threat to life and limb. I can’t help but see this as a missed opportunity. Also, I’m not convinced that this movie is the corrective to certain colonial narratives that some critics seem to think it is. It is still focussed on a white man, and it has tinges of the “white saviour” trope about it. I dunno. I enjoyed looking at this movie, but I haven’t got much to say about it, apparently. The acting’s fine. Hunnam is more capable than I’d thought. And it’s lovely to see Robert Pattinson settling into the role he was always meant for, namely, second-fiddle eccentric character actor. Pattinson is a genius in this context and it was a criminal offense for any casting director to ever mistake him for a leading man. This is not a masterpiece. It’s awfully pretty, but it isn’t narratively or thematically ambitious enough for me to really consider it great.

Music

Neil Young: On the Beach — This was the one instalment in Neil’s “Ditch Trilogy” that I’d never heard from start to finish. I’ve always considered the other two chapters, Time Fades Away and Tonight’s the Night to be among his most effective work. But On the Beach might be the best of the three. Of the three, Time Fades Away is always going to be the odd one out, since it’s completely live. So, if we judge this against Tonight’s the Night, we find that this is substantially more put together, even if its songwriting moves in the same general direction of desolation and despair. But in music, sound is everything. So, in its comparative restraint, On the Beach takes on a substantially different meaning than its predecessor/successor (depending on whether you consult the order of recording or release). If Tonight’s the Night is the sound that emerges from an open wound, On the Beach is the residue from a recently cauterized one. Given this interpretation, “Walk On” is one of the most uplifting and glorious tracks in the Neil Young catalogue. It opens the album with a sense of genuine fortitude in the face of trauma. “See The Sky About To Rain” is a sad song, but it’s wistfully sad, in the same way as certain songs on After the Gold Rush or Harvest. (It is also quickly becoming one of my favourite Neil Young songs, up there with “After the Gold Rush,” “Powderfinger” and “Tired Eyes.” I cannot listen to this enough.) The rest of side one keeps the pace, with a general sense of a person in possession of his faculties, in spite of having recently walked through the valley of the shadow of death. But side two gets darker. Here we have Neil really sinking into the feelings of paranoia and worthlessness that plagued him at the bottom of the ditch. “Ambulance Blues” is especially dismal, in the best way. If we look at the Ditch Trilogy in its intended order with Time Fades Away representing the descent, Tonight’s the Night representing the nadir, and On the Beach representing the emergence, then I think it’s a magnificent choice to have something as dark as “Ambulance Blues” to finish the whole thing off. “Walk On” is a great way to start the final instalment in a trilogy about pain and despair, but it would be a needlessly pat way to finish it. By putting the triple shot of “On the Beach,” “Motion Pictures” and “Ambulance Blues” at the end of the trilogy, Neil suggests that the hard times don’t dissipate so easily. Nothing here has the bloodshot suicidal terror of “Tired Eyes,” but much of it acknowledges that such a state existed in the past. On the Beach is a tremendously cathartic record. It has everything. It might be Neil Young’s finest achievement. Pick of the week.

Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Arc-Weld — I feel an intense Neil Young binge coming on. This is another album I’d meant to listen to for ages but never got around to. And oh my god is it heavy. It is hearing loss in an LP sleeve. It’s a return to shit-hot, dirty knucklehead rock and roll after a decade of bizarre (and sometimes interesting, but always bizarre) dalliances with other styles. But it’s more than that: Arc-Weld finds Neil doubling down on the heavy rock he’d done more than a decade prior on Rust Never Sleeps. The tracklist shares many songs with that earlier quasi-live album, but they are infinitely heavier, noisier, sloppier and better here. This is the Neil Young that they call the godfather of grunge. This Neil Young doesn’t do “Heart of Gold.” For background: you may have heard of Weld, which is the double live album that makes up the bulk of this collection, but it’s not really complete without the third disc, Arc, which is just abstract guitar noise culled from the same live dates as Weld. Basically, as far as I can tell, on this tour Crazy Horse did a ton of noisy extended endings and openings of the heavy songs (namely, all of them), and Arc is just a bunch of them sewn together. I saw Neil in 2009 (not with Crazy Horse, though I thought it was until a bit of recent Googling) and they were nearly this noisy, aggressive and abstract then, as well. (They did do “Heart of Gold,” though, and a handful of other acoustic tracks.) Noise is a huge part of Neil’s appeal for me, and that’s why I kind of feel like Weld alone is incomplete without Arc. The entirety of Arc-Weld highlights the extent to which Neil Young is as much a noise artist as a songwriter, but Arc throws it into starker relief. This is what puts Neil Young above many of his contemporaries to me: he embraces chaos and intensely esoteric modes of music-making such as harsh noise — even as he continues to epitomize the earthiest of North American songwriting traditions. The highlights are a 14-minute “Like a Hurricane” that seems to pass in three, a distortion-laden take on “Blowin’ in the Wind” with added air raid sirens that feels less like a pastiche than a much-needed update, and tracks from Ragged Glory that I hadn’t heard before, whose studio versions will surely pale in comparison once I get around to them. Also, apparently the backing vocals are overdubbed on this. I could care less. This has a rawness to it that you don’t get in a studio. I’m not often in the mood for Neil Young, but when I am I think maybe he is the definitive rock star: the one we can point to and say “that.” That’s what he sounds like on Arc-Weld.

Omnireviewer (week of Apr. 16)

Lots of good stuff this week. Also one very bad thing that I enjoyed regardless. 22 reviews.

Movies

The Wicker Man (2006) — Oh, good lord. Firstly, be warned (BEE warned) that the infamous “NOT THE BEEEES” scene is actually not in the theatrical release of this movie. It’s in an alternate ending only on the DVD. I guess when they were editing the movie they found the line they couldn’t cross, and that was it. If you haven’t seen this, you should definitely watch it. Watch it with some people around. Nicholas Cage’s scenery chewing results in one of the most compellingly terrible performances I’ve ever witnessed. Everything about this movie is so crazily off the mark that I have trouble believing any actor attached to it (maybe Cage more than anybody) took it seriously as they were making it. It’s laden down with severely inept writing (“Of course. Another plant!”), weirdly benign jump scares (that bit where he wakes up twice) and badly-directed child extras (“Phall-ic sym-bol, phall-ic sym-bol”). I must confess, I never saw the appeal of the original, acclaimed version of The Wicker Man. But seeing some of the stuff that this version gets wrong makes me appreciate it a little more. For one thing, the remake de-emphasizes the protagonist’s religion. We do see a crucifix in Cage’s house early in the film, but that’s about the extent of it. In the original, the detective’s religiosity is what compels him to investigate the missing girl’s disappearance with such vigor: he inherently distrusts the Hebridean islanders because of their paganism. And that’s really what the original film is primarily about. Its horror derives from Christian anxiety over lingering paganism in rural places. This is substituted out in the remake for two ill-advised alterations: making the missing girl the detective’s daughter (“there has to be stakes” says American cinema) and making the island not merely pagan but also a matriarchy. Because to secular, urbane, 21st-century Americans, paganism isn’t scary. But women running society? Heaven fucking forfend. And then there’s the fucking bees, which are somehow both ham-fistedly symbolic and a seemingly arbitrary addition to the story. But all of this is just me wilfully missing the point of watching this movie. I said before that I didn’t really enjoy the original Wicker Man all that much. I think it has a good story with interesting implications about religious anxiety. But it also has tonally jarring musical numbers and Christopher Lee at, frankly, not his best. On the other hand, I completely enjoyed the Nic Cage remake. This is the rare case where I’ll happily recommend a ridicule-watch of a bad movie over a sincere screening of an objectively more accomplished one. Seriously. Watch this.

Television

Battlestar Galactica: Season 3, episodes 14-20 — Let’s make this a full-on appraisal of the complete season, shall we? Okay. Starting at the beginning. The New Caprica arc is outstanding, if far shorter-lived than I’d expected. It’s remarkable how close to the season two status quo (and in fact, the pre-”Pegasus” status quo) we end up in, a mere four episodes after everything changes. Still, the decision not to belabour the point of New Caprica is probably a good one, and it allows for a remarkably brisk start to the season. The “Exodus” two-parter is up there with the season two finale, the first episode of the miniseries and “33” among my favourites in this series. Once we’re past that arc, the show returns to something like business as usual, but with the extremely satisfying addition of a plotline that takes place on a Cylon baseship. I brought this up last week, but it bears repeating: the set alone is one of the best things this show has ever done. The way that the editing is deliberately disorienting in the baseship scenes is brilliant. And every new glimpse we get of Cylon society — of the ways that they interact with their surroundings and each other in ways that are both human and alien — adds depth to the show. It’s in the small choices: like the way that red characters are projected over the Cylons whenever they’re in their control room and the water-filled interfaces with the consoles. The Cylons aren’t creepy because they’re mechanical. They’re creepy because they’re weirdly organic, and yet they live like this. I’m particularly enamoured with the Hybrid: a Cronenbergian horror that puts the interior of the Cylon raiders to shame. Number Three getting her own honest-to-god(s?) plotline is a welcome development. At this point in the show, nearly half of the known Cylon models (Three, Six and Eight — the women, not coincidentally I imagine) have at least certain sympathetic aspects. I love that we’re seeing more from that side of the conflict. The Galactica-based plotlines of the mid-season are more hit and miss. Starbuck, my favourite character in the first two seasons save possibly for Roslin, gets particularly short shrift. She’s jammed into an inelegant love quadrangle in which neither of the inconvenient marriages involved makes a lick of sense. (There’s still satisfaction in seeing her at her triumphant moments, though. Every time she triumphs I get this warm fuzzy feeling like I’ve just punched Dirk Benedict in the face.) Still, one episode takes these flawed storylines and makes them sing, and that is “Unfinished Business.” Weaving together a recreational boxing tournament onboard the Galactica and flashbacks from the almost good times of early New Caprica, it establishes that the characters in this show don’t need to be dogfighting, fomenting revolution or barking commands to be compelling. It leaves out everything I love most about this season — the Cylon baseship, Baltar’s plotline aboard said baseship, weird spirituality — and still manages to be the best episode of the season. However, like season two, this has some serious clunkers in its second half. “The Woman King” is a shitty would-be conspiracy thriller with Helo in the lead. Even so, while the actual crimes that Helo’s investigating are deeply unconvincing plotting, it does develop his character in an interesting way that I wouldn’t have thought to observe: he’s the character on the ship who is constantly on the wrong side of everything. Among the crew, he’s possibly the most liberal. Speaking of politics, another disappointment in this season is the transformation of Tom Zarek from a revolutionary freedom fighter to an abuser of executive power. That’s dispiriting. But then, it has happened frequently enough throughout history. What’s really bizarre is how the show suddenly recast Baltar as a farmer’s son and he was briefly the fleet’s primary voice of radical politics. So, effectively, both of Battlestar Galactica’s far-left figures are compromised: Zarek because he eventually perpetrates the abuses he once professed to hate, and Baltar because he’s using leftist rhetoric for cynical, personal means. At least there’s kickass union boss Chief Tyrell. (I also love that this entire plotline is scored with a sort of quasi-bluegrass from space.) And I do like that the show is willing to have its two broadly sympathetic leadership figures, Adama and Roslin, be completely and committedly wrong and insensitive about labour organizing and issues of class in general. That rings true. But back to the negatives for a moment. “A Day in the Life” is an Adama feature episode that’s not worthy of the character. It finds him wilfully hallucinating his own dead wife, whose line readings are bizarrely terse and suck the energy out of every scene she’s in. That takes us to the season’s endgame, I suppose. In general, I approve of the plot developments in these episodes as broad strokes — Starbuck dies and returns enlightened, Baltar is found not guilty, everyone is a Cylon, etc. — but I don’t think they make especially good television on a micro level. It’s little choices that let them down, not big ones. I understand that there’s a twist in this show somewhere that people disapproved of. I can’t figure out what it is. But there are little things creeping in that make it seem a little bit less sure-handed than it once was. The whole contrived thing of Apollo being called as a witness at Baltar’s trial to deliver his speech, for instance. That speech needed to happen, but why go about it in such a weird way? And really, the whole decision to focus such a big chunk of the season finale on something as relatively low-stakes as Baltar’s trial. Or the “All Along the Watchtower” thing in the finale. That was a little overcooked. (Though I’m curious about how a song from contemporary Earth ended up in this show, given what we’ve been made to understand about when in human history it takes place. I have an obvious theory. Don’t tell me if I’m right.) The final shot of the season, with all of the cosmic zooms finishing on the reveal of Earth feels like it’s from a completely different show, aesthetically: a much more 2001 sort of science fiction show. Could it be that we’re hurdling headlong into crazy for season four? (That much I know.) And finally. Fat Apollo. Fat fucking Apollo. This is a good season of television. The highs are super high, and the lows aren’t much lower than previously.

Doctor Who: “The Pilot” — Ohhhh yes. Oh, I’m so glad it’s back. The title flags the most interesting thing about this episode, which is that it is functionally a new start. Doctor Who isn’t the first show to make a pun on the word “pilot” in an episode title. Lost comes to mind immediately, and there must be others. But I don’t know of another that does one 10 seasons into its run (or, indeed, 36 seasons in). This feels like Steven Moffat challenging himself to restate the premise of the show and express its fundamental romantic joy without too much reference to continuity. It is enormously successful in that, and I found myself as overwhelmed as ever by the reveal of the TARDIS interior. I’ve written before about a concept I call “wonder surrogacy,” where a show or movie establishes a character inside of its narrative whose specific role is to marvel at what’s going on around them in the hopes that their wonder will rub off on an audience who may be skeptical. I first noticed this in Jurassic World, and I’ve been extra cognizant of it ever since. It nearly never works. Certainly, Doctor Who is the sort of text you may expect wonder surrogacy to rear its head in. It’s been around for over 50 years, and the key elements (the TARDIS, Daleks, regeneration, etc.) are part of the public consciousness. And yet, every time a new companion is introduced, we’re treated to the phenomenon of a person being surprised and aghast and overjoyed to find the TARDIS “bigger on the inside,” as if this is not common knowledge. So, why does the elongated “bigger on the inside” sequence with Bill work so well? Why does this seeming example of wonder surrogacy (like all of the “bigger on the inside” scenes in the new series) give me chills while the rest leave me rolling my eyes? The best answer I can come up with is that the TARDIS is a genuine wonder. A CGI dinosaur is not a genuine wonder. It’s just an image, and an increasingly banal one. The TARDIS is the entry point to an entirely new understanding of the cosmos. Crossing the threshold from its outside to its inside requires an entirely new concept of how physical space works, and when you cross the threshold again to the outside, everything may well have changed completely. As an image, the TARDIS is purposely banal. As a concept, it is the perfect metaphor for imagination itself. There is no wonder surrogacy required for such a thing. Only wonder. Love him or hate him (and I believe there are reasons for both), Steven Moffat understands this better than anybody else who has ever written for this show. That’s why I’m excited for this season, and why I’ll be fairly disconsolate about his departure.

Doctor Who: “Smile” — Still the most interesting thing about this season so far (and I am quite favourably disposed to this season so far) is the way that it is reiterating certain basic elements of the appeal of Doctor Who. The moment that really stands out in this episode for me is a small one right after Bill asks the Doctor why it has to be him that saves the people of the planet they’re on. Naturally, being Twelve, he doesn’t give a satisfactory answer. But Bill, being cleverer even than the people who initially dreamed up this show, sees the notice on the outside of the TARDIS that proclaims, in the manner of even the most non-bigger-on-the-inside police boxes, “advice and assistance obtainable immediately.” Why does the Doctor keep the TARDIS in its police box form? Because he lives by that notice on the door like a code. This is fundamental to the show, and it squares with Steven Moffat’s view of the Doctor as a different, worthier kind of hero. So far, it looks like Moffat has decided to use his final season on the show to revisit the first principles of the show, and compose a love letter to the glorious legacy of Doctor Who, which he recognizes that he’s an infinitesimally small part of. A good part, though. A really good part. The rest of this, with a script written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce (whose “In the Forest of the Night” is an idiosyncratic favourite of mine), is a fun Doctor Who romp that allows Bill and the Doctor plenty of time alone to get to know each other. The Emojibots are deeply scary in a way that conventionally terrifying monsters are not. They throw our own vapidity back in our faces and then kill us. I love that. This series is two-for-two. If Sarah Dollard delivers next week like I think she will, it’ll be off to a massively better start than its predecessor.  

Literature, etc.

David A. Banks: “Podcast Out” — An interesting critical look at the limitations and potential consequences of NPR’s major podcasts. Broadly I agree with Banks’s assessment, though to me the biggest problem with Radiolab and its ilk is not their reliance on the sciences to explain the world, but on the stories of individuals to explain science. There’s no room in most public radio-derived podcasts for any huge, world-defining story that can’t be localised into a personal narrative told by, like, a single dad in Newark or whatever. It’s a weirdly closed-minded approach to curiosity. Note that I still listen to a boatload of these kinds of podcasts, but I increasingly appreciate the ones like Theory of Everything and Love and Radio that break from the structure and challenge rather than confirm the listener’s assumptions.

Neil Gaiman: American Gods (The Tenth Anniversary Edition audiobook) — Okay. Enough podcasters have told me to check out Audible that I’m doing it. This edition of the audiobook features a full cast, including a really brilliant fellow (Ron McLarty) doing the role of Mr. Wednesday, and it features Neil Gaiman himself reading certain interstitial chapters. As a listening experience I’m pretty sold on full-cast audiobooks. Gaiman’s presence is much appreciated as well, as he’s always an engaging reader of his own work and he’s got a wonderful and distinctive voice. I also appreciate that he’s deployed sparingly. Makes you really lean in when you hear him. The only issue with the audiobook so far is a sex scene that becomes distinctly unsexy when read aloud. These actors can only act so much. It’s not a play, after all, and we listeners have lives to get on with. But hearing a sex scene read aloud in a fashion somewhere between matter-of-fact and actually dramatic is, well, awkward. As for American Gods itself, I’ve been meaning to get around to this since I read and adored The Sandman a few years back. With the show coming up soon, with both Bryan Fuller and Ian McShane attached, I figure I’d best do it now. I’m three chapters in and I love it already. The idea of ancient gods finding their place in America is outstanding, and I’m already very curious about who this youngster is who wants them gone. I know enough of Norse mythology to know that Odin won’t live forever, so the stakes are already high. As for Shadow, he’s a compelling enough protagonist. His relationship with his dead wife is proving to be the most interesting thing about him. But so far, I’m really in it for the lore. I’m enjoying this enough that I’m actually rushing through writing this so I can get back to it. More next week, I’m sure.

Music

Ted Hearne/The Crossing: Sound from the Bench — This is my favourite music of the year so far. Admittedly, it hasn’t been a busy year for me in terms of discovering new music. But this is really, really good. I was familiar with Hearne from his oratorio The Source, which has moments of staggering brilliance (especially the chorus “We called for illumination at 1630”) but which I generally found a bit literal and earnest. The choral music on this collection has no such problem. The title work is the centrepiece and the highlight, featuring guitars and drums backing up the chorus. The text is drawn from both Supreme Court decisions and ventriloquism textbooks. This unorthodox and rich choice of texts helps to combat the earnestness that I found slightly offputting in The Source. Sound from the Bench is a genuinely funny piece of music. Its primary subject is the Citizens United decision that deemed corporate campaign spending to be a form of free speech protected under the first amendment. This is patently absurd and implicitly hilarious. Of course, it has some rather dire connotations, but unlike the war-adjacent texts of The Source, it isn’t directly a matter of life and death. But holy crap is it ever musically powerful. The other three works on the disc are nearly as good as the main event, but the short piece “Consent” stands out. It gets dark partway through, but the opening — is simply a mixed chorus singing the words “I want you, I want to” — is absolutely staggering. Hearne is one of the most explicitly socially-conscious composers working right now, and while I wasn’t certain whether it was working when I heard The Source, I have no doubt now that it absolutely can. And the recording itself is fantastic as well. None of the fuzziness that you sometimes hear around the edges of choral recordings. This isn’t pretending to be a live concert. It’s music that happens right in your head. The Crossing is a miraculous ensemble with a distinctive sound that ranges from symphonic choir to glee club. I can’t wait to hear more from them. This is beautiful. I desperately want an opera from Ted Hearne. Not the usual kind with arias and duets and things, but an Einstein on the Beach sort of opera that takes advantage of his facility with found texts and choral writing. If someone could please commission that from him (I’m looking at you, Opera Philadelphia) it would be epochal. Pick of the week.

Kendrick Lamar: Damn. — Ah man, this is going to make me work, isn’t it? Kendrick Lamar’s music always takes a gigantic amount of listening to sink in for me. It’s entirely possible that he’s my favourite rapper around right now, but I’ll never connect with him as directly as, say, Run the Jewels, because the beats are so raw and spare that my mind wanders. And you can’t let your mind wander with this guy. Here’s what I love: “DNA,” with its Fox News samples. “DUCKWORTH,” with its (maybe specious?) storytelling. “FEAR,” with its tripartite structure and uncharacteristic repetition. And “LOYALTY” with Rihanna rapping. This is approximately the same number of high points I detected on my first listen of To Pimp a Butterfly. If things proceed similarly, I will like and understand this better many many months from now.

Car Seat Headrest: Teens of Denial — Here’s an album that took a while to creep up on me. I’m still not convinced it’s the second coming that some claim it is, but I enjoy a larger percentage of the many many tracks on this than I did when I first heard it. “Vincent,” “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” and “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia” are still the highlights, but I’ve come to love “Fill in the Blank,” “Cosmic Hero” and “Drugs With Friends” as well. In general, this is music that occupies the same space as the Smiths and Belle and Sebastian: you listen to it for a catharsis. It’s at its best when your life isn’t. But for all its structural ingenuity, Will Toledo’s songwriting doesn’t have the wit of Stuart Murdoch, let alone Morrissey. So I’m not sure this can transcend those moments of needing catharsis the same way that other sad guy music can. This isn’t every day music the way that Strangeways, Here We Come is, for instance. No shame.

Podcasts

Containers: “Welcome to Global Capitalism” — The episode on 99pi convinced me to check this out, but I’m not going to make it through. There’s some good tape in this, but there’s also tape of the host literally flipping through archives. An eight-part series on how shipping containers changed the world was always going to be a maybe/maybe not proposition. At another time, in another state of mind, I would love this. But I think I’d prefer it if it didn’t take such a public radio approach of insisting that its subject matter is interesting every step of the way. Maybe I don’t need all these personal narratives to keep me involved. Maybe I can just hear you out and be interested in your thesis for its own merits. Anyway, I tried.

Love and Radio: “The Secrets Hotline” — This has been a truly great season of Love and Radio. As a final episode, this is a nice capper, though it’s insubstantial compared to, say, “A Girl of Ivory,” “Doing the No No” or “Blink Once For Yes,” which are three of my favourite episodes the show has ever done. The original scoring in this is a nice touch, and some of the secrets proffered here by anonymous callers are truly juicy. The feeling of sanctioned voyeurism is a good one. If you’re reading this, do listen to this episode, but seek out the three I’ve mentioned first if you’ve never heard this show. It is one of the miracles of podcasting.

Home of the Brave: “Trump’s Wall: Part 1” — My god, the tape in this is so beautiful. It’s just nature sounds from a riverside, recorded beautifully. More broadly, I’m very happy that Scott Carrier is doing a larger piece on Trump’s wall. That promises to be some of the best radio of recent years. And doing short updates like this is a good way to keep us sated.

Radiolab: “Nukes” — For everything I said about Radiolab earlier, they can make straightforwardly compelling radio. This episode poses the question, who gets to call the President’s decision to use nuclear weapons into question? The answer: it has differed from one administration to another. But the specifics are really fascinating.

Criminal: “420” — Ah, hilarious. This episode tells the story of how three teenagers’ tongue-in-cheek codeword for pot became universally acknowledged, with a substantial assist from the Grateful Dead. It also broaches the hilarious subject of Colorado’s 420 mile-marker signs getting stolen so consistently that they had to be replaced with 419.99 mile-marker signs. This is why Criminal is the best true crime podcast.  

Crimetown: “Family Ties” & “Bonus Episode: Gangster’s Daughter” — I have nothing more to say about this season of Crimetown. These are both adequate standalone episodes of this season. But I’m basically still in this solely because I’m susceptible to the sunk costs fallacy. Good thing it’ll soon be done.

The Kitchen Sisters Present: “Tony Schwartz: 30,000 Recordings Later” — This may be the third time I’ve heard this, but it’s good every time. The story of a guy who devoted his life to going out into the world and preserving sounds with a microphone, only to succumb to agoraphobia late in life. There’s a doc like this to made about R. Murray Schafer, but don’t tell anybody I said that or they’ll beat me to it.

99% Invisible: “The Architect of Hollywood” — A new classic from this old standby. It’s the story of Paul Revere Williams, the architect who single-handedly conceived the Hollywood style of architecture. This story reveals how that  intensely hybridized style grew out of this one architect who learned to do every style out of necessity, because he was a black man working almost exclusively for white people whose instincts were not to trust him. This is super. I’ve missed Avery Trufelman’s stories. Is it just me, or has it been a while?

Code Switch: “The Beef Over Native American Hunting Rights” — I dunno, there’s a major source in this who kind of sounds like a bigoted fool to me. Maybe I’m wrong, but this is the first time I’ve felt the bad kind of uncomfortable while listening to this show. Also, there’s some super ham-fisted writing at the end. An off week.

The Gist: “The Handmaid’s Fail” — Alexandra Petri is a fantastic guest host, though I do wonder if she’s just doing a Mike Pesca impression here. She really is a lot like Mike Pesca in her questions and her delivery. Also, this reminded me that I really need to read The Handmaid’s Tale. I don’t know how I’ve read four Margaret Atwood novels and that isn’t one of them.

This American Life: “The Other Mr. President” — The best part of this Sean Cole’s segment on Vladislav Surkov, and that’s not nearly as good as Benjamen Walker’s.

Slate’s Political Gabfest: “Bill Comes Due Edition” — I had forgotten how dull I find this. There’s been some stuff happening that compelled me to return to it — I mean, North Korea, Bill O’Reilly… this is fascinating, disgusting stuff — and I still couldn’t help myself from getting bored.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Fate of the Furious Plus Clapbacks and Feuds” — I hadn’t realized how funny Sam Sanders is. Now I’m extra excited for whatever the hell he’s developing. This is really good episode of this show, by the way. If you want to know why it is my preferred example of this format, this is a good episode to go with. Pick of the week.

Omnireviewer (week of Apr. 9, 2017)

Happy Easter! In honour of this holiday that I don’t really care for, I may have hidden a secret, EASTER EGG review in this blog post. See if you can find it!

14 reviews. OR ARE THERE?!?!?!?

Television

Last Week Tonight: April 9, 2017 — Analysis: 8, jokes: 4. Now would be the time for some outrage, Oliver. You can’t stay above the fray forever. Also, is there a single member of his audience that doesn’t already know about gerrymandering? Who watches this show? Who is this even for anymore?

Literature, etc.

F. Scott Fitzgerald: “The Crack-Up” — Written for Esquire in 1936, this three-part essay is a Scott Fitzgerald classic. The first paragraph alone makes it worth a read. But the entire essay is a marvellously self-aware account of having cracked under the pressures of what was, by any reasonable standard, a good life. I particularly love this: “Now the standard cure for one who is sunk is to consider those in actual destitution or physical suffering—this is an all-weather beatitude for gloom in general and fairly salutary daytime advice for everyone. But at three o’clock in the morning, a forgotten package has the same tragic importance as a death sentence, and the cure doesn’t work—and in a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day.” It’s got a bleak ending, and so did Fitzgerald’s life, but there are insights in here that I think could be used to repair one’s inner life in a way that the author never managed himself.

Podcasts

You Must Remember This: “Barbara Payton (Dead Blondes Part 10)” — This story is devastating, and marks the point where Karina Longworth’s broader argument in her “Dead Blondes” series begins to congeal. Payton went from movie stardom to prostitution within the space of a decade. Longworth uses the story to expose the exploitativeness of a particular Hollywood myth: if you look a certain way, everything will be great for you. This series really brings out Longworth’s ability to critique the Hollywood gossip industry while also adopting elements of its tone. Longworth revels in salaciousness, but she also knows that the way screen icons were presented says something about American culture. This series is a subtler deployment of that thesis than, say, the blacklist series. But it’s still there, and it’s still brilliant. Pick of the week.

Arts and Ideas: “Free Thinking Festival: New Generation Thinkers 2017” — I feel like I’m missing some context for this. It’s a fun conversation with a wide range of thinkers, but I don’t know why it’s happening. Anyway, nice!

99% Invisible: “Containers” — I love when Roman Mars features other shows on here. I’ve discovered some great stuff that way. Come to think of it, I discovered 99pi from hearing it on Radiolab. This episode of Containers, a series on how shipping changed the world, is interesting enough to make me possibly want to hear the whole series. That is, an entire 8-part series on shipping. Am I insane?

Judge John Hodgman: “Too Many Cooks Spoil the Borth” — I haven’t heard one of these clearing the docket episodes before, but it’s fun, especially given the presence of Kurt Braunohler. Jesse Thorn is a very funny non-comedian. That is all.

All Songs Considered: “Son Lux, Big Thief, Public Service Broadcasting, Walter Martin, More” — A few days have passed since I listened to this and I really don’t remember anything from it. I remember there was an interview with the songwriter from Big Thief, and I remember her being insightful. But in general I don’t like interviews on this show, just because Bob Boilen isn’t that good at interviewing. He and Robin Hilton are both primarily valuable for their exceptional taste and broad-mindedness. This show isn’t about insight, really. It’s about hearing music you otherwise wouldn’t. This is the rare episode that has nothing to offer me. Ah, well.

The Heart: “First Comes Marriage” — A nice little rerun about a relationship that didn’t start with love. More excitingly, a trailer for the new season, which I guess is about consent?

Judge John Hodgman: “Live From Washington, DC” — My god. It’s even better live. The highlight is an eight-year-old who asks Judge Hodgman what the right amount of Hamilton is. But there are many more.

Reply All: “Beware All” — The saga of Alex Blumberg’s hacked Uber account continues, and concludes. It features a bit of a non-ending, and Uber manages to come out of it not covered in shit (colour me disappointed). But there are many plausible theories that are plausible enough to make me afraid of the internet. You should probably listen to this.

Reply All: “Obfuscation” — A bit of public service journalism from Alex Goldman. Long and the short of it: that whole thing about what ISPs can do with your data is worrying but not super worrying.

Surprisingly Awesome: “A Message from Gimlet CEO Alex Blumberg” — Surprisingly Awesome is turning into a different show. That can only be a good thing. I look forward to Every Little Thing, though I worry that it may join Undone in the ranks of Gimlet podcasts that fail to differentiate themselves from any old public radio show.

Theory of Everything: “Art Districts” — Nice to see Benjamen Walker finally off of his surveillance hobby horse and back on his gentrification hobby horse. I love this show.

You Must Remember This: “Grace Kelly (Dead Blondes Part 11)” — A less exciting life makes for a less exciting episode. I’m surprised that Karina Longworth is still at this, after the Barbara Payton episode. If that wasn’t an appropriate finale, I don’t know what is. Looking forward to whatever she’s got up next.


Okay, that’s it! That horizontal line above this marks the end of all of the reviews! Nothing else to read! Have a good week!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CONGRATULATIONS YOU FOUND THE HIDDEN REVIEW!!!

Unfortunately it’s formless and full of spoilers. So. Proceed as you see fit.

Battlestar Galactica: Season 3, episodes 1-13 (plus “The Resistance” webisodes) — Wow, this got really out of hand. I figured I’d be able to take this season slowly because it’s sort of beyond the point where it’s generally acclaimed. But to me, this third season is so far better than much of the second, and easily on par with the first. I’ll make a final judgement next week, by which time I’ll surely be finished it. But for now, a few unstructured thoughts. a) There is maybe no single moment in this show that’s hit me harder than Colonel Tigh breaking a tense moment with Anders to ask: “Any word on Kara?” There’s humanity beneath all of that crust, and he can even be made to care about Kara Thrace when circumstances get dire. Tigh is becoming one of my favourite characters, even though he’s terrible at his job. b) Dean. Motherfucking. Stockwell. This guy is so magnetic that he actually earns his Horatio Caine sunglasses moment in the first episode of this. c) I can’t look at Fat Apollo without laughing. Seriously, who thought that was a good idea? The fat suit undermines every scene. d) A number of relationships on this show don’t make any sense, but Apollo and Dualla are a particular head-scratcher. It seems like an arbitrary choice on the writers’ parts to put Apollo in a relationship with someone — anyone — other than Starbuck, to manufacture tension. On the other hand, the mostly platonic but deeply affectionate relationship between Adama and Roslin is pitch perfect. Especially when they get stoned on New Caprica. Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell are both consistently excellent, but they do their best work on this show in their scenes together. e) Speaking of which, “Unfinished Business” is a truly magnificent episode that basically makes the rest of Apollo and Starbuck’s plotlines this season worthwhile. Starbuck’s plot is especially disappointing, with the show never quite being able to decide whether to focus on her trauma from imprisonment and psychological abuse or on the romantic tension with Apollo that predates that. But in “Unfinished Business,” none of that matters. It’s a whole episode that just focuses on character relationships, by way of a truly ingenious framing device. It’s an indie drama in the BSG universe, and it’s certainly one of my three or four favourite episodes so far. f) I love that the dance music in this show is just flat out Celtic, with circle dancing. One way to ensure that your hypothetical future doesn’t age poorly is to make it deliberately archaic in certain ways. g) As much as certain elements of the Galactica-based story aren’t working (the romantic drama), this season adds something glorious to the mix that wasn’t there before: the interior of the Cylon baseship. The set alone is one of the best things this show has ever done. The way that the editing is deliberately disorienting in the baseship scenes is brilliant. And every new glimpse we get of Cylon society — of the ways that they interact with their surroundings and each other in ways that are both human and alien — adds depth to the show. It’s in the small choices: like the way that red characters are projected over the Cylons whenever they’re in their control room and the water-filled interfaces with the consoles. The Cylons aren’t creepy because they’re mechanical. They’re creepy because they’re weirdly organic. I’m particularly enamoured with the Hybrid: a Cronenbergian horror that puts the interior of the Cylon raiders to shame. h) “The Resistance” is pretty regrettable, altogether. Remember webisodes? Were they ever good? Pick of the week.