Omnireviewer (week of Mar. 13, 2016)

19 reviews. Back in normal person territory.

Television

Cucumber/Banana/Tofu: episodes 6-8 of all three, plus “The Screwdriver” — One thing I didn’t bring up in my pick of the week entry for this last time is that while Cucumber is a showcase for Russell T Davies: idiosyncratic stylist, Banana is a showcase for a number of different writers as well. Sue Perkins and especially Charlie Covell do magnificent work as guest writers on this show. So, even when Davies stops writing Cucumber, I really hope that he keeps doing Banana. I touched on this last week, but it bears expanding on: every time there’s a movie about LGBTQ people that manages to capture the attention of a mainstream audience (i.e. one that includes ignorant straight dudes such as myself) it is almost without fail a joyless slog. So, an LGBTQ anthology show with a sense of fun, that tells a different story every week and highlights the work of LGBTQ writers, is just something that needs to exist. I don’t think there’s anybody better to oversee it that Russell T Davies, but Banana could easily have a continued life once he moves on from it. I really love these shows, and I think it’s a dreadful shame that they’ve been so overlooked. I can’t urge you enough to watch them. (Although, since I am ostensibly reviewing things on this blog, I will say that I felt that the much-hyped sixth episode of Cucumber was the weakest of the lot, and the one time when the show crossed the line into self-indulgence and soapy plot contrivance. It’s a minor quibble. Nothing’s perfect.)

Last Week Tonight: March 13, 2016 — Nothing much to say except “yes.” And “ha!” And “yes.” And if you stay until the end of the credits, you get to see Rich Sommer try to eat a computer.

Better Call Saul “Rebecca” — Easily the season’s best episode yet. Jimmy and Mike’s plots are more amusing than substantial, but sidelining those characters gives us a chance to get to know both Chuck and Kim a bit better. Both are wonderful characters played by brilliant actors. What’s really interesting is seeing them explicitly linked in the way that they treat Jimmy. Given that Chuck has so much more experience in this regard and that they’re apparently comparing notes now, I’m fairly certain that Chuck will end up being a key factor in Jimmy and Kim’s inevitable breakup. Come to think of it, that could be an intentional play on Chuck’s part. The opening seems to suggest that Jimmy somehow drove a wedge between Chuck and his former wife. Revenge?

Horace and Pete: Episode 1 — Oh, I’m going to like this. Louis C.K. is explicitly going in for a critique of American values, and that is a ride I want to go on. But he’s not leaping feet-first into Kevin Smith polemical territory — there’s a division of labour here. Supporting characters are allowed to talk politics explicitly, but the main contest of old values vs. new values takes place in the A plot, with no explicit references to parties or primaries or Donald Drumpf. The first episode is structured around mirroring the supporting characters’ political arguments with the main characters’ family struggle. There aren’t any neat A to B comparisons to be made, because Louis C.K. has more subtlety than that. But this is essentially political theatre, and C.K. is setting himself up to be for the centre-left what the Coen brothers are for the centre-right. And I guess he can just work with whoever he wants now? Seriously, Steve Buscemi, Alan Alda, Edie Falco, Jessica Lange and Rebecca Hall in the same show? With a theme song by Paul Simon? On the internet? It’s possibly that C.K.’s imperial phase has only just started. Very excited to catch up on this and see where this goes.

Movies

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot — What the hell was this? Okay, look. Normally, I’m all about that thing where you don’t worry about whether you’re making a comedy or a drama. None of the best TV seems to care, after all. (See three out of four shows listed above.) But I feel like when you’re telling a true story about a recent war, you need to make a decision. There were some good lines in this, and some good performances. Tina Fey is great in this. But holy hell does the script go every which way. Really not very good.

Music

Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Teodor Currentzis, MusicAeterna, et al.: Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto & Stravinsky Les Noces — I don’t give a shit about the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. Really, I can’t even tell you how little I’d normally care to hear another recording of this mouldy, overdone repertory warhorse. And it frustrates me to no end that people keep recording it when there are actual living composers writing music (and needing money). And it frustrates me to no end that I basically can’t tell the difference between any of those recordings. So, if you’re going to record this piece, I will almost certainly not care. This recording made me care. It is a totally insane interpretation, with a seat-of-your-pants spontaneity to it such that Currentzis’ orchestra sometimes struggles charmingly to keep up with Kopatchinskaja. I’m sure that there will be many classical fans and critics who will meet it with tut-tuts of disapproval. But to me, this is the standard to which we should hold classical musicians. The question shouldn’t be “how well do these musicians offer us the standard reading of this piece,” but “how do these musicians make this piece new?” Classical musicians should be expected to go back to the score and interpret it afresh every time — like Glenn Gould did, and the late Christopher Hogwood. Every other approach is lazy. This came across my desk a while ago. I wouldn’t have taken it out of the shrink wrap if not for Stravinsky’s Les Noces. But, as fantastic as Currentzis’ Stravinsky is, it’s the Tchaikovsky that sells this. That is something I thought I’d never say. Maybe this whole classical music thing has a future after all. Pick of the week.

Run the Jewels: Run the Jewels — Their second album has been one of my favourites for ages, but I was yet to hear the first. This needed to be rectified. I like this a lot, but there’s nothing on this that hit me quite like “Close Your Eyes,” “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry” or “Crown.” But El-P is a hell of a producer, and both he and Killer Mike take some fantastic verses.

Literature, etc.

A week of reading excellent writing on the internet. Also David Day’s Alice annotations, but you know about that already.

Hasit Shah: “Poor Lonely Computer: Prince’s Misunderstood Relationship With The Internet” — A glorious longread from NPR Music, this doubles as a rare inside look into Prince’s exclusive Paisley Park concerts and an exploration of digital copyright law. It’s totally ingenious, and Shah knows exactly who to talk to to make the points he wants to make.

Nitsuh Abebe et al.: “25 Songs That Tell Us Where Music is Going” — This New York Times Magazine feature is a completely over-the-top surfeit of awesome. Instead of limiting their impressive stable of staff and guest writers to the 200ish word blurbs that are standard in these kinds of lists, the NYT lets fly with a collection of op-ed style pieces and full-on reported features. (I realize now that the entire issue of the print edition is devoted to this one feature. Nice.) Of particular note are the long pieces about hip-hop group The Internet and session drummer Matt Chamberlain. And Marlon James’ long analysis of Kendrick’s “The Blacker the Berry” takes the final prize. Plus, my perpetual favourite Caroline Shaw made the list! This is no mere, vapid listicle. This is a proper thing.

Kieron Gillen: “The New Games Journalism” — If these Omnireviewer posts have taught me anything about myself, it’s that I’ll never be a “gamer.” I just don’t have the damn time. But I do love games as a medium, and I’m fascinated (and frequently disgusted and appalled) by gaming culture. And if there’s anybody associated with that culture who I trust to be interesting about it, it’s Kieron Gillen. This is an essay he wrote three years before launching Rock, Paper, Shotgun, which is essentially a manifesto arguing that a writer’s personal experience with a game is more important in writing than the mechanics of the game itself. That makes it basically transferrable to every discipline, and I’d encourage anybody who writes about the arts to check this out. In terms of its specificity to games journalism, though, Gillen manages to coin the wonderful phrase “travel journalism to imaginary places.” (Also, Gillen uses the line “just saying it could even make it happen” from Kate Bush’s “Cloudbusting” to justify his enterprise, as if his essay is a sort of incantation. That seems to me like a precursor to the idea that music is magic — the premise of Gillen’s Phonogram.)

Games

SOMA — It’s been ages since I played this, because it got too scary. I can handle jumpscares and things chasing me down dark corridors. But when unknown consciousnesses start trying to talk to me through monitors, the willies come on something fierce. I think I’m close to the end of the game now, but I wanted to check in here a bit in advance to gripe about a truly godawful bug that forced me to do one of the game’s scariest chapters twice. There’s a moment where you need to use an item to unlock a door and it’s supposed to be automatic, but it just… doesn’t happen. After some Googling, I found that others had this same problem, and when they reloaded their save files from the previous chapter, it works. But that entails having to traverse the darkness of the ocean floor, teeming with anglerfish, for a second time. And my nerves have their limits.

Podcasts

I’m suspending Radiotopia reviews in case I decide to enter Podquest.

You Must Remember This: “Charles Manson’s Hollywood” parts 5-12 — This series tells an enormous story with such finesse. I haven’t got much to add to what I said last week, except that it continues as brilliantly as it starts. Longworth makes late 60s Hollywood seem extremely rotten. She emphasizes that Manson was part of a larger counterculture that was becoming poisonous by 1969, but that studios were still falling over themselves to monetize. And her detour into the post-Manson life of Roman Polanski is just as disturbing as the murder narrative. Seriously, what a wretched creep. I have quibbles, as you do. I wish Longworth wouldn’t do silly voices when she reads quotes. She should either get an actor, like she often does, or read the quotes straight. I wish she wouldn’t use the phrase “and/or” so much — and in her tagline, no less. But altogether, this is a unique and wonderful use of the podcast medium to tell really dense, resonant stories. I can’t recommend it enough. Pick of the week.

Radiolab: “Debatable” — Okay, now we’re back in the territory that I like Radiolab to occupy. The question here is basically “How do you engage in debate when the very structure of debate is designed to exclude you?” The answer that this episode’s protagonist Ryan Wash comes up with is “Always debate the structure of debate.” I loved this. As a sidebar, if you want to get really mad, go read the comments on this and “The Cathedral” on the Radiolab site. I agree with some of them that Radiolab isn’t what it used to be, but those aren’t the episodes to gripe about. How typical of the internet that the episodes that prompt so much bullshit are one that engages with systemic racism and another that features an indie game. If there are two things that internet fuckwits hate, it’s challenging racism and indie games.  

On the Media: “Print is Back, Back Again” — This episode gives us the actual, not that pessimistic state of the publishing industry, an inside look at Amazon’s super weird bricks-and-mortar location, and the knowledge that used books are sometimes sold by the foot as decorative objects in particular colours. Really good.

Imaginary Worlds: “Why They Fight” — I probably will not watch Batman v. Superman. But it’s cool to hear Molinsky parse the relationship between those two characters in terms of D&D character alignments. God, but I’m a nerd.

All Songs Considered: SXSW coverage — This encompasses All Songs’ hour-long preview of little-known artists they’re excited to see in Austin and their nightly debriefs after full days of, presumably, sensory overload. It’s fun to hear Bob Boilen and co. in this environment, which is presumably where they would all like to spend their entire lives. They do a great job of capturing the vibe of the place. One of these years, I’ll go.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Hamilton” — At last. I’ve been looking forward to the PCHH panel seeing Hamilton about as much as they were probably looking forward to seeing Hamilton. If you’re in any way remotely skeptical about this universally and justly beloved high-water mark of human creativity this ought to allay any doubts. As Lin-Manuel Miranda himself put it on Twitter, these guys really went in. Linda Holmes reveals how Hamilton calls back to every great Broadway musical ever (though she skips the Jesus Christ Superstar homage, maybe intentionally), and Gene Demby does the same with its references to much of the history of rap. I am so glad that all four of them loved it so much, because this is one of those cases where I’m totally okay with the hive mind. As far as I’m concerned, anybody who doesn’t like Hamilton stands revealed as a charlatan. This episode is also the perfect example of why I like PCHH so much better than Slate’s Culture Gabfest. This is both more analytically incisive than their episode on Hamilton, and also much funnier.

Reply All: “Earth Pony” — This is both named after and most notable for its magisterial “Yes Yes No” segment. The main segment is a fairly unremarkable but basically fun bit about a fictional, but nonetheless successful political prognosticator. But it’s that “Yes Yes No” featuring Jason Mantzoukas in the role of Alex Blumberg that really sells this. It might be the best that segment has ever been.

Serial: “Thorny Politics” — Oh no, now Trump’s involved. Two things I’ve loved in this season have been the actual narrative of Bergdahl’s life, capture and imprisonment; and the political ramifications of his release. This, therefore, is one of the best episodes of the season, focussing as it does on the latter of the two.

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