At long last, I’ve decided to trade in my long serving podcatcher, Stitcher, for something a little shinier, namely Overcast. I just figured I’d try it out because I’m deeply sympathetic to the developer’s commitment to an open, RSS-based future for podcasting, which would ensure that my beloved medium doesn’t have to start competing in the attention economy and grubbing for clicks on Facebook and similar cesspools of deviance and decrepitude. But before I made this decision, I made sure to check my final listening stats on Stitcher. Since first downloading the app on September 19, 2014, my total listening time is the rather pleasing sum of 1,000 hours. Less roundly, 1,000 hours and 29 minutes. That’s an average of about 52 minutes a day. Not bad.
Sicario — This confirms that Denis Villeneuve is a director that I definitely want to see more from. This is a crazily tense movie with great performances from Emily Blunt and Benicio del Toro in particular, but also Josh Brolin. It’s definitely most notable for being a) a great thriller, and b) a really interesting take on the “strong female lead” trope. This is a movie that doesn’t just mindlessly let its protagonist kick ass, but rather sees her face intense negation and danger at the hands of her male superiors — but without ever leaving Blunt’s character’s perspective or denying her interiority. This strikes me as rare and interesting. (See the AV Club review for more.) It’s no Arrival, but I’m happy to have seen it, and excited to be moving backwards through Villeneuve’s catalogue. Next stop: Prisoners.
Battlestar Galactica: Season 2, episodes 1-8 — Well, they’re expanding the uses of their made-up cursing. In the second episode, we get “mutherfracker” and “godsdamn” in the same conversation. So far, this season has more or less kept pace with the first. I’m beginning to feel that the show is copping out by having all of the military’s most dubious moves happen on Colonel Tighe’s watch. He’s an innately unlikable character, so this seems like a way for the show to motion towards a nuanced portrayal of its military-aligned protagonists without compromising the integrity of its central figure, Commander Adama. Part of me feels that this would be more interesting if it were Adama, with all of his moral posturing, who was making the shitty calls. Still, I’m very much enjoying this and as early 2000s political genre television goes, this is well ahead of 24 in terms of nuance. Not that that’s a high bar.
Chvrches: Every Open Eye — I spent a bunch of this week listening to Bleachers’ “I Wanna Get Better” on repeat. But I can’t seem to get through that full album. Chvrches is the antidote to this. The first record had monstrously good singles and a couple of prime album cuts, but this second record is great from start to finish. It’s 45 minutes of pure pop catharsis. Only “Make Them Gold” lets down the side. Where most of the album is openly making the best of negative experiences, “Make Them Gold” is like a self-help book rendered in verse. That aside, though, I find new highlights on this every time I listen to it. This time around, it was the elegant chorus of “Keep You On My Side” that hit me hardest. Check out how it glides through the first two lines, before hitting hard only on the third. This has turned out to be the album from 2015 that I’ve continued to listen through. Pick of the week.
Replica — During the Steam winter sale, I can never resist a two dollar 8-bit indie game. But good lord is this one ever ersatz. The idea is clever on its face: you’ve been imprisoned by the security arm of an authoritarian government, and all you have in your possession is somebody else’s cellphone. Periodically, you’re contacted by an agent of the state who nudges you to begin collecting data on the person who owns the cellphone. You have to crack codes, scan text messages and so forth to find evidence that this person is a terrorist — though, of course, they may not be. But once you’re past the premise, everything falls apart. The character who serves as the primary voice of the authoritarian regime is horrendously overcooked and says things along the lines of “Knowing who Che Guevara is DEFINITELY means you’re a communist.” It’s fictional totalitarianism in the highest possible register. And while modern authoritarianism does seem to be getting more and more overt, I’m still always going to be interested in fiction that depicts more realistic (i.e. surreptitious) systems of control. Like Papers, Please, for instance. This game is aping that one right down to its 8-bit aesthetic. But where Replica features a rabid ideologue talking shit at you throughout the whole game, Papers, Please tells a story of oppression by way of a border patrol and the people who pass through it — who generally decline to monologue at you. Much cleverer. Also, there are generally a few things in this that display an unsophisticated understanding of the politics the game is dealing with. The words “terrorism” and “revolution” are used effectively interchangeably, which could be clever — if the writer (or, to be fair, possibly the translator) didn’t have the perpetrator of these acts also use the words interchangeably. And most of the game’s multiple endings (yeah, this guy really just wanted to make Papers, Please) conclude with the famous Mussolini quote that starts “All within the state…” It’s a nice touch, but the developer also uses that quote at the end of the game’s credits, missing an opportunity to use an opposing quote. It really feels like the place where you’d put an anti-authoritarian quote from Orwell, or Thoreau, maybe. As if that’s not enough, the game contains at least two blatant references to superior indie games (The Stanley Parable and, yes, Papers, Please) that have no function within the story, but serve simply as a way for the developer to say “look at me, I’m making a game!” Replica is one of those games that still occasionally passes muster in the indie games community, in spite of being pretty far below the average level of sophistication of political art in more established media. I daresay even the film adaptation of V for Vendetta has a more nuanced outlook on authoritarianism, and that is not something one wants to say about anything, ever. Perhaps it seems bellicose to pick on a game by a solo, part-time developer whose passion project this is. But there’s very little to recommend it. Even in these unsubtle times, this game is not subtle enough.
The Bugle: “How bad can it get in a week?” — Fairly laugh-light, this, except for a couple of moments near the end, some of which come from listener mail, and one of which comes from Andy Zaltzman’s ten-year-old daughter. You know it’s bad out there when even Andy Zaltzman can’t convert his abyss gazing into jokes.
Chapo Trap House: “No Country For Gorilla Men” — Oh man, it’s great to hear Matt Taibbi on this show. He’s basically a Chapo who can write magazine features. I have already decided that Taibbi’s new book, Insane Clown President, which I have not read and only found out about through this podcast, is a modern classic and the sort of journalism that will save the world. But also, this is the funniest Chapo Trap House since I’ve started listening. This is one of relatively few shows that became essential listening for me almost immediately.
All Songs Considered: “How Laurie Anderson And Philip Glass Were About To Change The World” — Somebody should give Tom Huizenga his own podcast. This interview with Laurie Anderson is certainly better than what Boilen and HIlton usually muster, and it’s fun to hear Anderson talk about the days when she and Glass traveled in the same bohemian circles. Also, hearing Anderson talk over Philip Glass music really made me want to listen to “O Superman.” Man, does that ever sound like Philip Glass.
In Our Time: “Parasitism” — Is it weird that I found this comforting? It’s an hour of scientists talking about parasites. But it turns out we need parasites! So, things are looking up.
The Heart: “Ultraslut” — This “Pansy” season is already super promising. The first episode was an exploration of what it’s like to be a feminine straight, cis man. And now this one chips away at the orthodoxy that gay men are universally accepting of femininity. Good work, right here. And beautifully mixed, as always.
Love and Radio: “Snakes!!!!!!!!” — Once again, Love and Radio makes it impossible to write off a difficult person. This guest is a challenging listen right from the start, because the producers decided to begin this episode with him refusing to answer a question. In some circumstances, I’d think that was mean. But in this case, I think it’s an entirely reasonable response to his manners. If somebody treats you unpleasantly, you need not treat them unpleasantly in return. But when put in a position where you have to accurately portray that person to somebody else, you’re within your rights at that point to make them seem like a bit of a jerk. This guy claims that immunization is the key to treating snake bites, rather than antivenom. He immunized himself against the bite of the Black Mamba by gradually introducing venom into his system. All well and good, but when confronted with the idea that this isn’t actual science, which it obviously isn’t, he goes on a rabid, resentful, anti-intellectual rant in which he claims to be better than any normal scientist because can they withstand the bit of the Black Mamba? No, they don’t have the balls! It’s a kind of bullshit that I find particularly hard to stomach in today’s, erm, climate. But we also learn that this guy is really, really good at the specific thing he’s devoted himself to. It isn’t science, but it is definitely impressive. He’s capable of both extreme meticulousness and crazy bravery. And it’s worth noting that he’s managed to immunize himself against the bites of several of the world’s most venomous snakes without a degree in immunology. Also he’s a Tool fan, which earns him, like, two points in my book. The point is, I wanted to say this guy is an asshole and wash my hands of him, but the show didn’t let me. Again, the value of this show is that it proves it’s better to listen to people than not to. People may be wrong, but they are seldom (never?) actually worthless. Pick of the week.
Code Switch: “So, What Are You Afraid Of Now?” — Everything. I’m afraid of everything.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Rachel Bloom on Mary Tyler Moore” — I have never actually seen The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but hearing the creator of a contemporary show about a single woman (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) talk about how Moore’s show paved the way makes me want to investigate.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: The Oscar Nominations” — I share Stephen Thompson’s enthusiasm for Arrival’s nine nominations, and Glen Weldon’s for The Lobster’s screenplay. But the category I’m most excited for didn’t get a mention: the documentary feature category. Of the nominees, there’s only one I’ve seen (and at least two that I will be seeking out prior to the ceremony) but that one is O.J.: Made in America, which is the best documentary I’ve ever seen. I don’t care that it isn’t a movie. It deserves an Oscar. Frankly, the category looks like it’s got an embarrassment of riches, with Ava DuVernay nominated for 13th, along with the extremely buzzy I Am Not Your Negro. But Ezra Edelman’s O.J. Simpson documentary is a thing of history-making heft.
Radiolab: “Stranger in Paradise” — A somewhat ineffectual little story about how the raccoon became the national animal of Guadalupe, in spite of not actually being native to that island. On another show I might praise this, but it’s mostly just another episode that made me miss the old Radiolab.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Riverdale and Other Teen Soaps” — Wow, I haven’t heard them hate something this much for ages. Riverdale sounds tragically misbegotten, but it’s always nice to hear Linda Holmes and Sarah D. Bunting talk about television.
Desert Island Discs: “Desert Island Discs at 75” — This gigantic, three-hour celebration of 75 years of one of the most absurdly specific programmes in public radio is well worth a listen. I’m not sure if Desert Island Discs actually invented the concept of the “desert island disc,” but regardless, this is a pretty unbelievable archive of interviews with notable people the world over. Where else will you get to hear Jacqueline Du Pre request Daniel Barenboim as the one “luxury” she’d take with her to a desert island? Obviously, it’s spotty. Even within these three hours, it’s easy to see that they show’s original host Roy Plomley was a bit of a lightweight. An interview with Margaret Thatcher is almost entirely apolitical, and thus almost entirely uninteresting. But still: the fact that this show is still going, and with such a similar format as the one it started with, demonstrates its value.
The Gist: “The Case of the Frozen Trucker” — Emily Bazelon is the person you need to explain Trump’s Supreme Court pick to you. He’s bad. But he’s not stupid. So, there’s that.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Oscar Documentary Roundup and a Foreign Language Film We Love” — I wrote too soon. Lovely of them to do a whole segment on the documentaries. Mostly, this just confirmed that I don’t need to see Fire at Sea or Life, Animated, and that I should just stick to the three frontrunners. (Wow, it’s only a really stacked category that you say that about.) It also confirmed that I need to see The Salesman, and also that I need to see The Past, because I loved A Separation enough to warrant watching this guy’s life’s work, basically.