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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)