Merry Christmas! I got you 13 reviews.
Janet Malcolm: “Yuja Wang and the Art of Performance” — This is an outstanding rejoinder to the shitty critics who have made a career of telling Yuja Wang that she can’t dress that way. It is very Janet Malcolm, in the sense that you feel like at least a few of the people she interviewed (not Wang) are scared of her. But aside from being delightful in all of her usual ways, she also demonstrates here that she knows something about classical music — or at least, she has made sufficient inroads to write about it as a facet of modern culture (which is challenging, because by and large it is not one). There’s a brilliant moment partway through this where Malcolm describes the contrast between seeing Wang perform in one of her famously dramatic dresses versus in a more conventional one, and it ought to be a “case closed” moment for any critic who’s still trying to convince readers that Wang’s style isn’t a key part of her artistry. Lovely stuff.
Battlestar Galactica: Season 1, episodes 1-3 — The first episode of this season, “33,” is almost a classic. The premise is a brilliant one to employ this early in the series. (To be clear, for those just tuning in, it’s not the actual first episode; there’s a miniseries that precedes the first season.) It’s a basic idea: the Cylons are attacking every 33 minutes, so the crew is massively sleep deprived. Seeing them in this state so early in our relationships with them is telling for us viewers. I do have a concern, though: the plotline in the second half of the episode deals with a civilian ship called the Olympic Carrier that could pose a threat, so the crew has to decide whether or not to potentially kill a small number of civilians to eliminate a threat to a larger one. It is, if I’m not mistaken, the second trolley problem in as many episodes. And there have only been three at this point. Uh-oh. “33” is still a solid 8/10 episode, though. I’d say the two that follow it fare a bit worse. “Bastille Day” in particular makes a noble attempt to deal with the ethics of violent revolution, but confuses it by having our violent revolutionary demand that an election be held, which seems to signal tacit approval of the democratic system he had previously tried to overthrow (presumably in favour of a different sort of democratic system, but that’s a bit beside the point). Overall, though, this show is off to a great start. I actually feel a bit silly not giving it my pick of the week, but frankly the below-reviewed programme took up so much more of my week that it seems only right.
Downton Abbey: Season 1 — Well, I’m home for Christmas, and what better way to kill some time in a small town with one’s mother than watch the English aristocracy wistfully while away their final glory days? I feel deeply conflicted about the messaging of this show: it takes for granted that we’ll be able to at least empathize with Lord Grantham’s belief that the cultivation and maintenance of a great house is a suitable raison d’etre. It is not. The aristocracy that is portrayed here as being at best an ideal of elegance worth striving for and at worst a little bit out of touch was in fact intensely socially poisonous. This wouldn’t even warrant saying in most decent company, but that belies the popularity of this show. So, why is it so popular — even among people who would normally find it (and the fact that it’s written by a Tory peer) something close to offensive? And more to the point, why am I so completely in love with every goddamned second of it? Two things. Firstly, it’s just really good. The acting is completely wonderful, and the characterization is swift and effective. The plotlines are the stuff of soap operas, and I’m always in for that, provided that I’m not watching an actual soap opera. I have standards, thank you. And the show is good enough about including enough elements of the period’s counterculture that you can read against its grain and think of the ostensible heroes of the show as uncannily sympathetic villains. The social change-adjacent narratives can be slightly overcooked: at one point, a commoner traipses into Downton, points his finger and yells something like “Things are changing! Soon, you’ll all be down in the muck with us!” But who’s complaining. Also, I have to marvel at this show’s mastery of televisual language. The very first episode of this season is brilliant about introducing the goings-on about the house, using the exact same trick that Battlestar Galactica’s first episode used to show us around the battlestar: tracking shots. We see the operations of the downstairs, where the service lives and works, and we learn how that part of the house is laid out in relation to the more opulent upper floors. We only see our ostensible (but dubious) protagonist, Lord Grantham, several minutes into the episode, descending a staircase from behind — moments after having seen countless maids and footmen hurriedly ascending a staircase from their world to his. It’s lovely symmetry, and brilliantly efficient storytelling. As for characters, Maggie Smith’s dowager countess is the obvious highlight, and she kills me in every scene. (“No Englishman would dream of dying in someone else’s house!”) But I’m also a big fan of Carson the butler, and Mary the insufferable daughter. That last performance is a thing of incredible complexity. Michelle Dockery makes Mary intensely unlikable in her less considerate moments, but still makes us root for her because we understand why she feels compelled to act in such perverse, counterintuitive ways. This is a really lovely series in almost every way except for being completely ass-backwards in its opinion of its characters. I love it, I love it, I love it. Pick of the week.
Downton Abbey: Season 2, episodes 1-6 — The opening of the first episode is as skilled as the series premiere: look at the way that characters are reintroduced with fanfare: we hear Maggie Smith before we see her, and when we do, she’s right in the middle of the frame, and the camera pushes in slowly. Ah. Lovely to see her again. Bates emerges from a train, into a pool of exhaust — cane first, then the rest of him. Everybody gets their grand entrances. This is still excellent though so far, not quite as good as the first season. To his credit, Julian Fellowes’ decision to set the first two seasons in the pre-war years and WWI respectively ensured that they would go off into usefully divergent directions. The second season may be slightly less good, but it would be a lot more less good if it were simply more of the same. My biggest complaint with this show so far (at least in terms of craft; in terms of ethics, I’m still not remotely on board) is that it’s villains are straight out of melodrama. Thomas and O’Brien seem to never be given anything else to do but scheme. And Mrs. Bates is almost comically truculent. Frankly, I’d rip them all out of the series if I could, and give all their screen time to Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes.
Super Mario Run — Nope. Played the free bit, and I’m not going to be forking over 14 of my hard-earned Canadian dollars for more of this. It’s certainly better constructed than your average mobile running game, but it still feels more like the cheap free-to-plays that usually have the word “run” in their titles than like a Mario game. (And for that matter, it’s a lot less fun than the Rayman auto-runners.) This is what it feels like to live in a world where Apple eats everything. If Mario’s going to have a new life on iOS, he’d damn well better behave like he did on Nintendo devices rather than like any old character in a crap iPhone game. And here, he does not. Dire.
Kate Bush: Before the Dawn — A lovely Christmas gift, of the sort that we’ve all gotten used to not getting anymore because music is something you subscribe to for nine bucks a month. Kate Bush made the characteristically Kate Bush decision to not allow this on streaming services, and I’m rather glad to have the physical copy, since it’s full of photos of the shows that this three-disc set comes from: Bush’s massively acclaimed 2014 run of shows at the Hammersmith Apollo — her first live dates in 35 years. How like her to return to live performance only when she had a specific concept to execute, rather than just because live shows are what musicians do. One of the many things I love about her is that she’s done everything on her own terms since… oh, the last time she was playing concerts, I imagine. This is made up of theatrical performances of Bush’s two largest conceptual pieces, “The Ninth Wave” and “A Sky of Honey”: the second halves of Hounds of Love and Aerial, respectively. (Plus a seven-song prologue and a couple encores.) Listening to the audio from these without the visuals is a less-than-complete experience, but I do respect Bush’s reasoning that presenting them effectively as radio plays (oftentimes with the audience mixed out completely) could be more honest to the theatrical experience than a concert film would be. (Plus, we know that the footage exists. It’ll come out eventually.) Bush’s voice sounds brilliant throughout — even in the pre-recorded “And Dream of Sheep,” which may have been more difficult to get right than any of the live stuff, given that Bush recorded it while floating in a tank of water. Her instrument has darkened and lost a bit of its flexibility, but she makes up for it with renewed expressiveness in this live setting. At times, I feel that the tracks hue a bit too closely to the album versions, especially given the lack of audience sound at times. I was dying to hear “Running Up That Hill” with a guitar playing the synth line, like in the performance floating about with David Gilmour. But no dice: the dated preset from the album makes its appearance just where you’d expect. Fine. But when the tracks are allowed to expand a bit, like “King of the Mountain” and “Waking the Witch” are, it’s a glorious thing. If there’s anything at all to complain about it’s just that the conceit of the show prevents certain records from getting their fair representation. Even outside of the major pieces, the album is dominated by Hounds of Love and Aerial, with a couple Red Shoes tracks thrown in, plus one from The Sensual World and my least favourite song on 50 Words for Snow. I would have sacrificed one or two of the spare Aerial tracks for something more from 50 Words, which I think is terribly underrated — “Wild Man,” maybe, or even “Misty.” And I would have axed a Red Shoes track (though I think that album’s underrated too) for something from Never for Ever, or The Dreaming. Or maybe the title track from The Sensual World. But overall, this is a wonderful document of what sounds like it was a monumental live event. And I confess that this live version of “A Sky of Honey” has sold that music to me more effectively than its studio counterpart, which I never quite understood. (And the new song “Tawny Moon” is a good addition, and legitimately brilliantly sung by Bush’s son, Albert McIntosh.) I only hope this isn’t the last we see released from these shows. I do want to know what the staging was like, in motion.
Radiolab: “Bringing Gamma Back” — Breaking science news! This episode about a new study that finds mice with Alzheimer’s can be treated with light, of all things, is astonishing. But it also has the distinct aroma of something that is going to be a non-story when the results of the human trials come out. Call me a sceptic, but I learned this kind of thinking from Radiolab’s WNYC stablemates at On the Media.
Crimetown: “Gerald and Harold” — I have generally enjoyed the episodes of this show that focus on Buddy Cianci more than the ones more broadly about organized crime. But this is a good one because it focuses on the conflict between ratting out your fellow mobster and thus breaking a sacred code (that helps keep you alive) and other aspects of your life: i.e. the possibility of your innocent brother going to prison.
On the Media: “Spy vs. Spy” — The best part of this was just getting a quick refresher of what was actually in that massive New York Times piece about the Russian hacks. It’s a lot to take in after one go.
Radiolab: “It’s Not Us, It’s You” — The follow-ups at the end of this, particularly the one for their “Gray’s Donation” episode, are great. But I don’t know why they feel the need to repeat the call to action to donate again and again in a podcast episode. It’s not radio. I get that this is basically an episode with that purpose, but come on. Say it once at the beginning and once at the end. On the other hand, it’s telling that Radiolab can actually put together an episode like this and make it reasonably compelling.
The Memory Palace: “Promise” — This is basically Karina Longworth’s blacklist series in extreme miniature. It’s the story of Hazel Scott, the massively talented pianist who spanned jazz and classical and overcame the intense social biases of her time, only to be labelled a threat by McCarthy and his goons, and find that her career had disappeared. It’s heartbreaking and a reminder of what happens when a nation institutionalizes the vilification of difference. Pick of the week.
Code Switch: “Hold Up! Time For An Explanatory Comma” — I’ve always sort of wondered how much the members of the Code Switch team imagine themselves to be writing for a white audience. I suppose, given that it’s an NPR property, they’re inevitably going to be writing for a white audience. But as a white dude listening to this show, I’m constantly wondering how much they feel they need to condescend to me. I mean, I know who Tupac is. But what don’t I know??? I probably don’t even know what I don’t know!!! It’s nice to hear them address this, even if they are quite conflicted.
The Heart: “That Smell” — Oh, man; oh jeez. Once again, I’m too bashful to properly engage with The Heart in words. I’ll just do my usual thing and say it’s excellent, powerful, pathbreaking, and that you should listen to it. But you should heed the content warning, although who are you if that actually makes you queasy?