Omnireviewer (week of Oct. 9, 2016)

Whole bunch of fun stuff this week, including separate entries for each instalment of Kentucky Route Zero that I replayed. Also, an additional recommendation: don’t let a bit of rain stop you from running the seawall. Did that this afternoon, with a bunch of podcasts lined up, and it was a highlight of my week. 31 reviews.

Television

All Aboard the Starliner: The Making of Full Circle — I am not about to become the sort of person who watches the special features on old Doctor Who DVDs. But it seems I have indeed watched this one, so why deny it. It’s most fun to watch Christopher Bidmead and Lalla Ward, two people I quite admire, slag off Matthew Waterhouse mercilessly. But it’s also nice to hear the story of how Bidmead encouraged Andrew Smith, the very young writer of this story.

Last Week Tonight: October 9, 2016 — Firstly, this is fine. Secondly, the bit about the, ahem, “spray-tanned Furby eating KFC and screaming at a gold star family” is exactly the sort of non-joke that I wrote about last week that I wish this show would stop doing. Finally, the quality of the argumentation in the Guantanamo segment proves my earlier point about Oliver being most valuable as a pundit.

Doctor Who: “State of Decay” — It’s really wonderful the extent to which K-9 is seen as a joke even within the show at this point. In this story, he becomes weaponized, in the most ironic way possible. Love that. Altogether, this is a less worthwhile story than the previous one. It’s attempt to rationalize vampires is clumsy, and aside from the crackling scenes of the Doctor conversing with the rebels, this is a bit dull. No matter. I’m really only watching this to have the necessary context for the next story, which I suspect I will completely adore.

Full Frontal With Samantha Bee: October 5, 2016 — I think this just found its way onto my weekly viewing list, which currently only contains Last Week Tonight, a show that I’m becoming less enamoured of by the second. For better or worse, John Oliver tends to comment on current events from above the fray: the closest thing to righteous indignation that he can conjure is bemusement. Whereas Sam Bee is right in the shit, getting publicly angry on behalf of us less clever people, just like Jon Stewart used to do. I feel a bit dumb for not having watched this regularly. The episodes I’ve seen are the best satire of the year.

Doctor Who: “Warrior’s Gate” — Oh, I like this a lot. Mostly. Romana doesn’t quite work here, in spite of it being her swan song. Lalla Ward may be slightly to blame: you couldn’t blame her for having one foot out the door, considering everything. But there are story problems as well. She’s forced to be mysterious rather than whimsical and she’s also robbed of her competency once she’s captured. Annoyingly, this would have been easy enough to fix: just have her accompany the freighter crew out of curiosity rather than suspicion, and allow her to find her own way to escape rather than having Adric rescue her. She wouldn’t even necessarily appear credulous; she could just do what the Doctor always does and take a risk with relative confidence that she’ll find her way out of any tight spot that arises. This alternative also leaves Adric with nothing to do, which is a bonus. But aside from all of this, “Warrior’s Gate” is fabulous. I haven’t seen the show this abstract since the first episode of “The Mind Robber,” which this bears some obvious aesthetic similarities to. And, “episode one of ‘The Mind Robber’ stretched out to a full story” is a pretty decent brief. And the fact that time travel actually plays a role in the story makes it feel like my favourite bits of the new series. It’s weird and arty, and a bit austere. If this entire season could have kept up the pace and the tone of this and “Logopolis,” it would be one of the high points of the classic series.

Cabaret (televised broadcast of the Sam Mendes production) — I was recently defending my opinion that there are good musicals other than Hamilton (though only a handful that I really love) and I realized that my opinion of Cabaret, always a favourite, is entirely based on the film adaptation. That movie is brilliant, but it excises most of the songs. So, I figured I’d scour YouTube for a filmed theatrical production and I found this. Holy shit. Everything that was implied in Joel Grey’s performance as the Emcee is made as explicit as possible in Alan Cumming’s. Where Joel Grey says “Ladies and gentlemen,” Alan Cumming says “Ladies and gentlemen.” This is that rare thing where two performers make something so completely different out of a piece that they can’t meaningfully be judged against each other. Part of the beauty of Joel Grey’s leering creep is that you can never quite tell whose side he’s on. Alan Cumming’s emcee is so aggressively of the counterculture that he couldn’t possibly be aligned even slightly with fascism. He’s a one-man middle finger to Hitler. The other thing that this made clear is that Cabaret’s best songs are in fact in the movie. Kander and Ebb’s other masterpiece, Chicago, isn’t as dramatically satisfying or profound as this, but it’s got better tunes, on balance. Still, Cabaret is a classic. Pick of the week.

Games

Kentucky Route Zero: Act 1 — I’ve decided to replay the first three acts of Kentucky Route Zero before approaching act four, because this is so enormously dense that I couldn’t possibly remember everything that’s important. It turns out to be built for second playthroughs. As far as I know, it’s probably built for fourth playthroughs. Kentucky Route Zero is brilliant at offering up tantalizing little thematic threads that you can pull on but you can’t quite connect with each other. Right from the beginning of this, it’s clear that there’s metafiction at play: Joseph’s computer in the first scene is foreshadowing of how that character will recur in the third act, and of the idea that computer programs will form a central element of the story. I’m fairly convinced that the three people in the basement of Equus Oils, who appear again in “Limits and Demonstrations,” are also serving as an element in this set of themes. When they first appear, they are playing a game, the rules of which are unclear. So is the player when they first encounter these characters. Next time we see them, they are surveying weird art. So is the player, at every point during Kentucky Route Zero. Indeed, the entire notion of watching, listening to and examining things is central, here. There are tape recorders strewn around, and televisions that become games when moss grows on them (more foreshadowing). Soon enough, we’ll be watching theatre in “The Entertainment” and hearing music in the pub in Act Three. Also, the theme of hardship stemming from economic recession is immediately obvious, with the power to Equus Oils having been shut off, and the Márquezes having fallen on hard times. It’s tempting to try and tie these threads together in some cogent fashion. But there’s part of me that resists the idea of forming one unified theory of Kentucky Route Zero’s story. It seems like it ought to be bigger than that. Like a David Lynch movie or a Virginia Woolf novel, it need not be pinned down by the need to answer the question “what does it mean?” Still, as I play through the next three acts and the interstitial features between them once more, I’m going to see if any connections come to me unbidden.

Kentucky Route Zero: “Limits and Demonstrations” — It’s worth noting that this computer game is as good an art exhibit as I’ve ever seen in Vancouver. The first time I played through “Limits and Demonstrations,” I had already been through the first three acts of the main game. So, it didn’t strike me just how much explicit foreshadowing there is in this. It also didn’t strike me the extent to which the three characters you accompany through this exhibit are mirrors of Lula, Donald and Joseph. I still do not know entirely what to make of this, but it certainly adds a layer to Kentucky Route Zero’s pre-existing sense of performativity. And these characters only seem to appear when there is metafiction afoot. I’ll follow these thoughts up when I get through Act 2 for the second time.

Kentucky Route Zero: Act 2 — I had really meant to make this playthrough of the first three acts a quick one, just to refamiliarize myself before playing Act 4, but it’s impossible not to immerse yourself in this. Even the bits that I remember really clearly, I still feel compelled to go through in detail. (I did give the Secret Tourism locations along the Echo a miss, this time, though.) Just wandering through the Museum of Dwellings, observing the structures and listening to what people say is satisfying. And the format of having that entire segment take place in past tense, from the perspective of the people Conway and Shannon talk to rather than by Conway and Shannon themselves is a brilliant little method of distancing. It also gives us a broader picture of the world where this is taking place: each of the people living here is having similar problems to the characters we know better, like Joseph and Weaver. I’m also particularly intrigued by the scene that takes place in the storage locker. The idea that there was once a church here, but that everybody stopped coming, and now the janitor is keeping it alive by posting pictures of the congregation on the wall and playing tapes of the sermon is pretty rich. It’s a facsimile of a thing: a digital representation of reality, much like the cave systems in William Crowther’s Adventure — the first adventure game, and a key reference point in Kentucky Route Zero Act 3. I think this is overall my least favourite of the first three acts, but I still love the Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces, with its BBQing organist and its floor full of bears.

Kentucky Route Zero: “The Entertainment” — This is my favourite of the three interludes Cardboard Computer has released so far, though it lacks the high-concept gusto of “Here and There Along the Echo.” I’ll never forget the first time I played this and gradually realized what was going on: that the scene before me was in fact a play, that there was an audience present, and that I was an actor. This second time through, one of the first things I saw when I started looking around was the lighting rig above the stage. I can’t recall whether my first experience was similar, but of course I wouldn’t have known what to make of it anyway. It’s interesting to note that this sort of faux-Iceman Cometh old-time bar setting seems to be in the air again, these days. This captures the same sort of misguided nostalgia for a time and place that wasn’t actually any good that Horace and Pete does. And, to boot, they are both essentially theatrical productions taking place inside a different medium. I’m not sure where to follow that train of thought to next, so I’ll use it as a segue to discuss the most interesting thing about “The Entertainment,” which is its ostentatious, explicit theatricality. And the fact that it’s story is presented as a play is undercut by the fact that some of the characters are later seen in a non-theatrical context: this bartender will later show up in this bar again, but as a real character and not an actor. Similarly, Lula Chamberlain and Joseph Wheatree are credited as the play’s set designer and adapted playwright, respectively. I have written before about how it’s probably best to resist interpretations of Kentucky Route Zero that attempt to wrestle it into internal consistency. But “The Entertainment” makes it tempting to go against that. If anybody has a plausible explanation of how this bar can exist both as a play within a game and as a diegetic locale in that same game, I’m all ears. Bonus points for explaining how Lula and Joseph can exist both inside of this story and outside of it.

Music

John Coltrane: Meditations — My favourite Coltrane album by a mile. The strange noisiness of “The Father And The Son And The Holy Ghost,” with Pharaoh Sanders and Rashied Ali squeaking and banging as hard as they can, would be hard to appreciate in isolation. But, that track along with the other free sections of this recording only make up half of the yin yang. This record also features some of McCoy Tyner’s most beautiful playing on record, and Coltrane himself at his simplest and most direct. It demands to be listened to from beginning to end, because without each of its segments to prop each other up, it loses its integrity completely. But, when approached on its own terms, it is a timeless classic. Too bad it broke up Coltrane’s core quartet. But, he had other business to attend to anyway. (Also, I listened to this while reading Blake, and it paired rather nicely — two examples of unorthodox spirituality expressed in occasionally bewildering ways.)

Chance the Rapper: Acid RapColouring Book was definitely a step forward from this, but it’s a mostly great record with its own merits. It isn’t as straightforwardly joyful as its successor, but that’s not a bad thing necessarily. He is definitely much more stoned on this one, and a bit less grown up. But it’s a good record that I’ll return to — albeit probably a bit less frequently than Colouring Book.

Live events

Vancouver Symphony Orchestra/Karina Canellakis & Karen Gomyo: Live, Oct. 15 — Bless me father, for I have sinned. It’s been… two years since my last symphony concert. Quite frankly, the VSO is yet to convince me that paying for a ticket to hear them live will reliably be a more worthwhile experience than staying home and listening to a recording of the Concertgebouw in the same rep. But when a friend invites me to go I’ll happily attend, especially when the Berg Violin Concerto is on the program. It is one of the most beautiful pieces of the 20th century, and essentially the only work from the Second Viennese School that I would recommend unreservedly to anybody who’s interested in classical music. (Check out Isabelle Faust’s recording with Claudio Abbado. The ending is heartstopping.) Karen Gomyo played the solo part with all of the expressiveness that Berg wrote into it, and she tackled the technical bits with substantial derring-do. Karina Canellakis is a really solid conductor who possesses the clarity that all of the most acclaimed conductors in recent history seem to lack. But that didn’t stop the orchestra from struggling with parts of the Berg. Most of it came off okay, but the glorious ending of the piece was compromised by the band not playing together. There were even some issues in Mozart’s Magic Flute overture — including outright wrong notes in the violins during the slow opening. But Canellakis took it at the fast clip that it needs to stay aloft, and once it got going, I really enjoyed it. It never gets old, the Magic Flute overture. One of those rare pieces that survives overexposure. The second half of the program was Rachmaninov 2, so they were starting from a deficit. Rachmaninov all blends together for me. I like the third concerto, but for the most part he’s one of the surest composers to make my eyes glaze over. Which they did, about halfway through the first movement, and I didn’t check back in until the third, which I thought Canellakis conducted brilliantly. She restrained the orchestra enough for the bulk of the movement that the huge romantic climaxes felt properly cathartic. And the final movement is a jolly romp that it’s hard not to like. Interestingly, this was very much a “clap between the movements” kind of crowd, which I always find reassuring, because traditions are stupid and I prefer the company of people who are either ignorant or irreverent of them. I noticed more young people around than I usually see at classical shows. That’s nice. The friend I went with even ran into some folks she knows who are also our age. Guess they ought to program more Berg. This was fun. If I get a chance to hear Canellakis conduct live again, I’ll go for sure. My general standard of success for a night out at live entertainment is whether or not it was as good as seeing a decent movie. This was. Chalk it up as a win.

Podcasts

The Gist: “Rapid Response: The Town Hall Debate” — Pesca is a public discourse poet. I didn’t watch the second debate because there are limits to how successfully I can remain sane. But this essentially confirms my suspicions: that the format would make it a complete shambles and that nobody would say anything new. Okay, now onto a longer podcast recap of this same inane thing…

NPR Politics Podcast: “The Second Presidential Debate” — I have to say, the panel on this podcast is doing god’s work by making it so I don’t have to actually sit through these godawful debates. They tell me what happened, offer a bit of analysis, resist total partisanship, and also don’t act like Trump isn’t a buffoon whose campaign is well off the tracks. It’s what anybody needs to stay informed and also sane.

You Must Remember This: “The Blacklist” parts 9-11, plus Lena Horne rerun — The Lena Horne piece is an absolute highlight of this show, partially because it corrects the major issue with most episodes, which is the absence of tape. I love You Must Remember This, and I love Karina Longworth, but I’m sometimes frustrated by the fact that she thinks she can write a script and read it over music and that’s radio. It obviously doesn’t stop me from listening, but when I heard the Lena Horne episode, which has a great deal of archival tape of Horne telling her own story, it made me wish that the show would be like this more often. Podcasts aren’t audiobooks. Fortunately, You Must Remember This is an excellent enough audiobook that I don’t mind when it calls itself a podcast.

99% Invisible: “Project Cybersyn” — A lovely story that ties Chilean socialism in with nationalized design. In general, 99pi tends to position its stories as stories in themselves, as opposed to sub-narratives of larger stories. It’s nice to see a staunchly design-oriented story that ties into a political narrative that is larger than itself.

NPR Politics Podcast: “Trump v GOP” — I don’t foresee myself ever having anything much to say about this podcast, but I will continue forcing myself to go through the motions of reviewing it each time. I have principles. I will say this: I was really sceptical of this podcast’s claims in its early advertising to be a functional one-stop shop for political coverage. I still don’t believe there’s such a thing, and the very suggestion of it is a little bit dangerous. But having started to listen fairly regularly, it definitely comes closer than any other source of election news that I come across.

In The Dark: Episodes 5-7 — This really picked up for me in the sixth episode, where the story went broader and started getting into the national consequences of Jacob Wetterling’s disappearance, such as the very first sex offenders registry. It keeps the momentum through the seventh episode, which moves backwards to explain how the narrative of “small town cops who’ve never seen this sort of thing before are in over their heads” is bunk. Because, it turns out, the very police department that mishandled the Wetterling case so badly had mishandled a bunch of other cases in the past and failed to adequately debrief. This is nearly over, I assume, but it has become quite dazzling.

Imaginary Worlds: “Magical Thinking” — A wonderful consideration of the storytelling pitfalls and opportunities associated with magic. This episode splits fictional approaches to magic into two camps, which Patrick Rothfuss calls “poetic” and “scientific” magic, the idea being that in the latter category, the magic is defined by a Dungeons and Dragonsesque set of strictures, whereas in the former it is allowed to exist essentially unexplained. My favourite example of “poetic” magic is actually from an ostensibly SF narrative, not a fantasy one: the sonic screwdriver from Doctor Who. These days, the rule about whether or not the sonic can do something is basically, if it would cheapen the story for it to be able to do that, then it can’t. On the other hand, if it could potentially get the story past a boring obstacle set up by another element of the plot, then it definitely can. In other words, the story dictates the specifics of the magic, and not the other way around. The other way around, where the story sort of emerges from the magic system’s specific set of cans and can’ts (haha cants) is totally valid too — and it’s worth noting that it’s an approach that really jives with the creative approaches I admire most in music. Specifically, the rule-based approach of Brian Eno. But I’ve come to deeply admire writers like Steven Moffat, whose respect for consistency (and canonicity) is limited to whether or not it improves the story in his head. Well, look! This episode spun out a nice set of thoughts, didn’t it? Gold star.

All Songs Considered: “Solange, Gillian Welch, Cuddle Magic, More” — The talk outweighs the music on this episode, which Solange handily wins (though, as Robin Hilton will tell you, it’s not a competition). The most interesting thing to happen on this episode is Bob Boilen outright hating a song that Hilton chose, which I’m not sure I’ve ever heard happen before. The sticking point was Boilen’s contention that the guitar solo is dead. And, rocker though I am at heart, I can’t easily disagree. In the past… twenty years, I can only name a handful of really distinctive guitar soloists (not guitarists, mind you, but soloists specifically) with something to say through the medium of guitar solos. I’m thinking of Johnny Greenwood, Jack White and St. Vincent specifically. The era of proliferation of great guitar soloists has certainly ended. But, the existence of those three artists, and I’m sure many others I’m not thinking of right now, demonstrates to me that there’s still potential in the guitar solo. Basically, I come down more on Boilen’s side than Hilton’s, in the sense that I think we’re past the era where guitar solos should be the norm in any specific kind of music. We’re in an era where they must only be employed advisedly.

The Memory Palace: “The Met Residency Episode M2: One Bottle, Any Bottle” — These episodes for the Met do suffer a bit when you’re not actually at the Met, looking at the things that DiMeo is talking about. Not just because of the fact that you don’t know what they look like: in this episode, DiMeo actively conjures the mystique of the place, and the value judgements implicit in having an object occupy space there — space, where the listeners themselves are presumably standing also. It’s still a nice bit of radio, but inconsequential out of context.

StartUp: “Diversification of Worry” — Okay, so I definitely just typed out and backspaced a really angry, unfair screed about the cancellation of Mystery Show. Basically, I think we can trust Alex Blumberg’s judgement when he assures us that there’s only so much he can say about the situation without it being harmful. He could be protecting Starlee Kine as much or more than he’s hiding his own (mistaken?) decision making process. So, I don’t think we can expect to hear much more, and we probably shouldn’t get up in arms about it. That said, I don’t know why Blumberg didn’t make more of an effort to get out in front of the story and not seem like the guy who cancelled a beloved show without telling anybody until the show’s host told the world on Facebook (while Blumberg all the while vaunted an air of “transparency” around his company). But that’s not what concerns me most. What concerns me most is the notion that we may have witnessed the outer limit of the art that can feasibly be produced within the confines of a venture-backed company concerned with its revenue targets. I can only assume that Mystery Show was super expensive (Nick Quah breaks this down a bit in his most recent issue of the Hot Pod newsletter, which is well worth a subscription if you’re interested in the podcast biz). And given the company’s obvious need to not have gigantic expenditures with low returns, it makes sense that Mystery Show was untenable. But the thing is, it was so good. One of the best podcasts ever. Blumberg doesn’t deny that. So, perhaps this is a limitation of his business model — a limitation that might not have existed in the public radio world that he left to start Gimlet. And I wonder if Mystery Show could have survived had it been developed for a publicly-funded platform — any such platform that could offer a podcast with an idiosyncratic release schedule. Maybe that would have presented a whole different set of problems. But I do think this is evidence that companies like Gimlet are not the future of podcasting. They can only be a part of it. Public media is irreplaceable, because we can’t afford to have any more Mystery Shows get canned.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “A Fall Movie and Television Preview” — This is always one of my favourite episodes of the year, because Glen Weldon is always so obviously wrong about what television will be a ratings success. Also, I am now massively looking forward to a season of great movies. Manchester by the Sea is at the top of my list, but there’s a bunch of stuff mentioned here that I hadn’t heard about, and will check out.

On The Media: “Personal Responsibility” — Gladstone’s series on poverty myths is off to a wonderful start, with an instalment on maybe the most pernicious — and certainly the most ruthless — myth of all: that poor people are lazy. It ties a profile of a present-day poor single mother to a larger narrative about the gradual erosion of welfare, culminating in Bill Clinton’s welfare reforms, the consequences of which are only beginning to show themselves now.

Science Vs: “Forensic Science” — The bad jokes are really starting to bother me. It’s a shame, too, because this is a really solid show in every other respect. I may have to demote it to an occasional listen. We’ll see how I feel after the second half of this two-parter.

This American Life: “My Undesirable Talent” — This features two incredible stories: one about a gentlemanly Mormon with a gambling addiction who became an accomplished thief, and one about a black Californian kid of Ugandan parents who convinced an entire liberal arts college that he was actually from Uganda. He did the accent and the whole bit. That second story is the real highlight. It’s hysterically funny, for one thing, and for another, it has a lot to say about African-American identity. I always say I should listen to this show more. I should listen to this show more.

The Sporkful: “Who is this Restaurant For?” Parts 1-4 — A nice compliment to Pashman’s earlier “Other People’s Food” series, this drills down on the specific issue of restaurants sending signals to people of various races, to either intentionally welcome them, or covertly ward them away. The first and last episodes are the highlights, the former because of Code Switch’s Kat Chow, whose expertise in talking about race and culture gets the series off to a reassuring start, and the latter because W. Kamau Bell is really funny. Recommended.

Theory of Everything: “Burning Down the Panopticon” — Firstly, I am fascinated to see the long game that Walker is playing with these non-existent ad spots. Secondly, one of my favourite modes for Theory of Everything is the mode where it engages directly with difficult thinkers like Jeremy Bentham and Michel Foucault. So, I quite enjoyed this. Another of my favourite modes for Theory of Everything is when Benjamen Walker expresses extreme wariness of a facet of modern life. Surveillance is certainly a facet worth being wary of. So, this mini-series is sure to be a winner.

StartUp: “You Can’t Wear a Suit Here” — It’s hard to stay angry at Alex Blumberg. It’s also hard to say just how willing his subordinates are to paint him in a negative, or even nuanced light when they’re tasked with telling a story in which he is a character. I have no doubt that he means well, but having myself worked in creative jobs where it felt like the person who was supposed to be giving me feedback had checked out in favour of stuff that doesn’t directly relate to the product we’re ostensibly making, I found myself siding with Eric Mennel on this one, even though the story takes pains to show him as a person who is juggling as much as anybody at Gimlet. And I promise that this isn’t about Mystery Show. BUT. Everybody at Gimlet seems to think of Blumberg as a person who has more optimism than practicality. Maybe that’s why he saw fit to greenlight a show that pretty obviously would be both incredible and extremely unprofitable. In any case, next episode, it looks like we’ll really get a look at what everybody thinks of him. Or, as much of a look as we can be afforded, given that anything can be edited out.

Reply All: “Boy in Photo” — Outstanding. This is Reply All in “Zardulu” mode — where they take a seemingly unimportant internet phenomenon and do investigative journalism until they find something resembling the real story. And this one has layer after layer after layer — in spite of the fact that there’s really nothing of consequence at its centre. It’s just a great story about a whole bunch of ordinary people, who were thrust into a really narrow, specific spotlight because of the internet’s inherent weirdness. Reply All is very seldom less than great, but some weeks I love it more than anything, and this is one of them. Pick of the week.

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