Okay, look. I know I said I was cutting back my media intake. And, I know, I know, this week’s instalment doesn’t seem to reflect that at first glance. But let’s break down what we have here: two TV episodes, two movies, and one album. That’s not much, really. Also 39 podcasts.
No, shush. Let me explain. It’s my turn to talk.
First, 39 is not a number you can compare to my previous review counts because every week, including this week, I condense binge-listens down to a single review. So if you’re looking at that figure and thinking it’s a new record, ergo a new low, you are not strictly speaking correct. To further clarify, I am not including the two trailers I reviewed in that calculation. Okay, that doesn’t help my case.
But honestly, it’s not as hard as you’d think to get through that many podcasts. I listened to most of those 39 episodes in one day. I just spent a whole day cleaning my apartment and running errands, and I listened to, like, 30 podcast episodes. They’re not that long, mostly. Put them on 1.5x speed and they fly by. So, like, cut me a break, okay? Not even that many podcasts. Don’t give me that crap.
Anyway, 21 reviews. Not so much, in the grand scheme.
Oh also here’s the latest CBC segment. I’m at 2:12:52.
Twin Peaks: The Return: Part 16 — Good lord. I’ve been griping about Cooper’s lack of awakeness for weeks, but I didn’t realize how I’d react when it finally happened. There were tears. It was beautiful and ugly. Not only does Cooper wake up in this episode, but he wakes up and proves himself to be as decent and lovable as ever. It would have been easy to wake Cooper up and have him not recognise Janie E or Sonny Jim. But instead, he wakes up and in spite of the fact that he is not Dougie Jones, he still recognizes himself as part of this family. I love Dale Cooper. I love him. And I suspect that when I watch this season of Twin Peaks again (and I will), it will be substantially less frustrating with the knowledge that Cooper wakes up in time for the finale. There’s much else to love here, including the fact that Jerry Horne’s plotline is actually consequential. I have been a fan of Jerry Horne from the moment he first interrupted a joyless family dinner with his Norwegian sandwiches. And I’ve generally thought that the stoner comedy of his latter-day plotline is one of the more compelling updates of a classic character in the series. (“I am not your foot” is the most hysterical moment of the season.) I never suspected that he’d cross paths with Dark Cooper, but here we are. And then we have Laura Dern’s best performance all season, including her trip back to the Black Lodge, where she proves to be massively more self-aware than Douglas Jones was in this same situation. God, I’ve loved Laura Dern in this. I do hope we get to meet the real Diane. I’m sure she’s lovely. And then there’s that ending. Eddie Vedder’s performance of “Out of Sand” is a welcome diversion from the ultra-modern styles of recent Roadhouse performances, including Lissie and the Veils who were both brilliant. Vedder’s presence here is a welcome reminder that the horror of Twin Peaks is an analogue horror: it is straightforwardly magical, and not technological. He’s the perfect choice for an episode like this, short of Jack White or Tom Waits. I have no idea what to make of the final image of Audrey looking in a mirror. Perhaps the anoraks are right and she’s been in an institution all this time? We’ll see. Anyway, this wasn’t the best episode of the new Twin Peaks. That will remain Part 8. But it was the most satisfying one since the two-part premiere. Pick of the week.
Game of Thrones: “The Dragon and the Wolf” — Look, I understand folks’ reservations about this season. I see how it might disturb some that teleportation now appears possible, and ravens are basically email. I get that the show’s vaunted moral ambiguity has been to some degree flattened into a struggle against an unambiguous evil. And I actually agree that the Arya/Sansa plot doesn’t make any damn sense. (For me, the worst thing about this season is Arya getting sucked out of her own awesome storyline into her sister’s perpetually shit one.) But damn if I haven’t loved this a hell of a lot more than the previous two seasons. And that really is mostly because of the accelerated storytelling. The thing I never really appreciated about previous seasons of Game of Thrones was its penchant for delay, having cross-continent journeys take ages, simply out of fealty to continuity — or more charitably, to give characters like Tyrion and Varys an excuse to have high-minded discussions while doing nothing. (Compare/contrast with Twin Peaks: The Return, which is also all about delay and is similarly frustrating, but which also seems to leverage frustration for aesthetic purposes. This might be an easier comparison to make when Twin Peaks’ season is done.) And while I’ve always preferred the version of Game of Thrones that consists of people in rooms (or on boats) talking about power to the one where people get beheaded constantly and set aflame, I appreciate how comparatively decisive the characters in this show are this season. We get the political interest of Jon Snow’s unwillingness to bend the knee to Daenarys because of his duty to those who made him king in the North. But crucially, we also get a relatively speedy resolution of that plotline, once Jon realizes there’s a smart way and a dumb way to go about this. In this finale, we get Cersei refusing to aid the fight against the Night King for political reasons also related to Jon Snow. This was always a position she would have to at least budge on, if not relent entirely. So it’s nice to see that happen within the space of one episode. Seeing characters ponder their decisions for longer doesn’t make the problems seem more complex. It just makes the story slower. This season seems like the point where the writers realized that. And let’s talk about the army of the dead. True, they are the least subtle thing the show’s done aside from Joffrey, Ramsey and Euros. And I can see the argument that their prevalence to some degree negates several seasons’ worth of politicking south of the wall, because now there’s a common enemy that’s more evil than anybody. But firstly, this has always been where the show was heading. That’s been clear from the first time anybody said “winter is coming.” And secondly, if the writers know what they’re doing, and I think they do, they’ll use this existential threat as a means to pressurize the show’s various power struggles, rather than to negate them. I’d have less hope for this show if Cersei were sincere in her pledge to fight alongside Jon and Daenerys. But the fact that she isn’t bodes well for the final season. I haven’t been looking forward to the next season of Game of Thrones this much, maybe ever.
The Seventh Seal — Maybe it’s because of Twin Peaks, but I had a sudden urge to watch something by an arty, acclaimed film auteur that I hadn’t seen before. There are many such movies in the world, and unlike some of the great classics of English literature, I’m still actively compelled to watch them sometimes, in spite of being five years removed from my undergrad, when this sort of behaviour is to be expected. The Seventh Seal, then. My first Bergmann. I was expecting something theatrical and dour. Theatrical, I got. But not dour. This movie, which is about the inevitability of death and the cruel silence of God, is surprisingly swift on its feet. Sure, it has that chilling scene of a white-faced Death playing chess on the beach with the Three-Eyed Raven. But it also has eminently quotable bits of invective like “Listen, you big, misguided ham shank!” and “You stubble-headed bastard of seven mangy mongrels! If I were in your lice-infested rags, I’d feel such boundless shame about my own person that I would immediately rid nature of my own mortifying countenance!” Plus, it contains the first reference in any medium that I’ve heard of lingonberries, which are delicious and known to my Newfoundland extended family as partridgeberries. So, not all doom and gloom. The characters in The Seventh Seal, both comedic and dramatic, seem like characters in a fable. That’s what makes it so effective to me: it’s a story told with very simple techniques and without a lot of character interiority, which nonetheless deals with very complex themes. Death and God are unknowable mysteries to even the smartest of people. The characters like the ones in this film don’t stand a chance. Of course, it’s also one of those movies you can’t watch without also watching all of its future parodies and homages in your head. I do try to approach classics like this on their own terms, but I lost track of the number of times Monty Python and the Holy Grail superimposed itself on the picture I was actually seeing. It doesn’t detract from the experience, though. Also, being that this is a fable about people who are waiting to die, I couldn’t help but wonder if this had some influence on The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. That game also features heroes, lovers, childlike grotesques, and simple folk just trying to make a living, all of whom are intensely aware of their imminent demise. Substitute the black plague for a huge, angry moon and you’re most of the way there. This lives up to its reputation completely. I’m looking forward to seeing it again, but there’s a lot of Ingmar Bergmann to get through, so I might leave it for awhile.
Fantastic Mr. Fox — I feel a serious Wes Anderson binge coming on. There are still a couple of his movies that I haven’t seen, and those I have are eminently re-watchable. (Except maybe The Darjeeling Limited. Maybe even that.) This closes my one gap between The Royal Tenenbaums and The Grand Budapest Hotel. Given the context I have, which is all but his first two movies, this seems clearly to be the first film in the career phase he’s in right now. The sensitive, depressive protagonists of Tenenbaums, Life Aquatic and Darjeeling are replaced by the ebullient Mr. Fox: a precursor to the precocious children of Moonrise Kingdom and the irrepressible Monsieur Gustave of Grand Budapest. None of these protagonists are especially similar, but all of them have a quiet despair or longing that lurks behind a shimmering exterior and motivates them. They are not characters defined by trauma or ennui, like in Anderson’s earlier films. (Just try to imagine George Clooney in any of Anderson’s earlier films.) A fair bit of the online chatter about Fantastic Mr. Fox interprets it as a response to criticism that his style had calcified. I can sort of see that but I probably wouldn’t have arrived there myself because I don’t agree with the premise of that argument. The Darjeeling Limited isn’t my favourite, but I think The Life Aquatic, Anderson’s most poorly-reviewed film, is a beautiful movie that excels The Royal Tenenbaums, at least for pathos. Still, Fantastic Mr. Fox inaugurated a period in Anderson’s filmography that I think will likely be seen as his imperial phase, decades from now. Oh, I suppose I should also talk about the actual movie. The best thing about this is the animation. One of my favourite things about Wes Anderson is always how hand-made everything looks, so it stands to reason that he’d do stop-motion animation exactly the way it should be. It’s got a great cast of characters, with Clooney’s Mr. Fox and Jason Schwartzman’s underachieving Ash Fox stealing most of the show. But Michael Gambon drops in as the main villain, which is always nice. Still: save for Clooney and Meryl Streep, the performances in this have more in common with the slightly listless character of your typical Wes Anderson supporting performance than they do with animated children’s entertainment. That makes me wonder how this would actually play for an audience of children. I don’t suppose it specifically has children in mind, but it does pointedly use the word “cuss” in place of every swear. It’s solid all-ages movie-making, but I’m not sure Wes Anderson could go toe-to-toe with Pixar for pleasing everybody, all the time. I loved it, though.
Crosby, Stills & Nash: Crosby, Stills & Nash — As I write this I am stranded on a bus in traffic on a bridge. This vehicle is basically a house right now. And a poorly air conditioned one at that. The soothing sounds of CSN’s three-part harmony is all that’s keeping me from losing my shit. I haven’t heard this all the way through before and while it sure doesn’t hold up to comparisons with Deja Vu, which has the advantage of Neil Young, it’s a solid record. Say what you like about the songwriting, e.g. that it is only intermittently excellent, the real genius of this is that it foregrounds group singing while using solo vocals as an embellishment. That wasn’t unprecedented in pop music by any stretch. But I’m at pains to think of a precedent in rock. Anyway, this was basically a side trail I decided to take in my (slowly progressing) trip through the complete works of Neil Young. Glad I’ve heard it, but I’ll probably only revisit “Judy Blue Eyes.”
Radiolab: “Where the Sun Don’t Shine” — Neither here nor there. Radiolab has had a profound enough influence over my personal and professional life that I rue the day when I don’t feel compelled to listen to every episode, but I fear that day will soon be upon us.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: Three-week catch-up — I have no insights about this, aside from that it’s really satisfying to listen to a bunch of it at a time. Definitely check out the Game of Thrones episode if you’ve finished the season. It elevates Glen Weldon from panelist to host, in which capacity he is rollicking good fun, and it features a variety of perspectives and levels of obsessiveness.
The Memory Palace: Two bonus episodes — The episode called “Relics” is probably the best piece of sponsored content I’ve ever seen. It’s just straight up an episode of The Memory Palace, but it was commissioned by a hotel to be made about the fascinating history of the surrounding area. I hate sponsored content, but this is a surprisingly elegant example. And the following episode is real good fun. Nate DiMeo reruns an old episode, then plays a new version in Brazilian Portuguese, then plays an episode of The Allusionist with Helen Zaltzman that’s about the translation process. Fascinating stuff, especially given that the translator in question has also dealt with Joyce, Foster Wallace, and Pynchon. Add DiMeo to the canon, how about. Nice.
99% Invisible: Episodes 270-272 — The stethoscope episode is a good example of what attracted me to 99pi in the first place: the story of a well-known thing. Its rise and fall. Lovely. “The Great Dismal Swamp” is a more involved episode, and a less specifically design-focussed one, but it’s about escaped slaves who rejected white society completely by hiding in a hostile environment, so it’s compelling listening. “Person in Lotus Position” is about the process by which emojis get approved. It is therefore one of two stories I’ve heard about emojis in the past week. More shortly.
The Outline World Dispatch: “Inside jobs & song meanings” — This isn’t the first episode of this I’ve heard, but it is the first I’ve reviewed, because I once had dreams of producing a podcast for these guys: one which a colleague and I are now producing by our dams selves. Anyway. World Dispatch is fundamentally different from The Daily, though both are daily(ish) current affairs programs. The difference is that The Daily is about the most important news of the day, as interpreted from the newsroom of the New York Times. This show, on the other hand, is about what’s going through the minds of writers at The Outline: a pointedly non-news-hooked publication that I admire in general and often like. This episode is a slight one, focussing on the then and now opinions of a conspiracy theorist and the origins of SongMeanings.com, which is a site I used to really love. But its slightness would make it a good corollary for The Daily, which I haven’t been listening to this week. Still, bet they pair well. I’ll try that.
The Heart: “Bodies” episodes 1 & 2 — I don’t know how The Heart manages to put its seasons so close together. I know they make fewer episodes in a given year than lots of shows, but they seem so much more thoughtful and fussed over than just about anything else out there. This season is off to a particularly good start. The second episode of this, which will also serve as the premiere episode of Jonathan Zenti’s podcast Meat, is particularly outstanding. This remains the show you most need to listen to if you don’t.
Showcase from Radiotopia: “Ways of Hearing” episodes 2-4, plus Song Exploder special — Ways of Hearing is proving to be a mixed bag for me. It’s thoughtful and thought provoking, but I feel that it has a far clearer sense of what’s been lost over time than gained. (It focusses on the sea change in culture induced by the introduction of digital recording.) The “Space” episode is probably both the best episode of the show so far, and the most myopic. On one hand, it features a truly remarkable discussion of acoustics as an experienced phenomenon. It explains how Radio City Music Hall was a revolutionary innovation, because that hall is essentially non-reverberant: it is designed so that all of the sound you hear comes through the amplification. (Host Damon Krukowski demonstrates this by doing an interview in the space, which sounds like it was done in a tiny carpeted studio. It’s remarkable.) The new phenomenon of earbuds are treated as an extension of this: now the walls of the auditorium are our heads. Now, I’m normally deeply sympathetic to narratives that point out what’s been lost because of technological change. But this one doesn’t wash with me. To me, the ability to turn my own head into a private auditorium by inserting earbuds is quite simply a necessity for survival. I wrote about this by way of insinuation in my review of Baby Driver: I simply could not get through the social anxiety of any given week without the freedom to disengage from the world in this way. I would not feel fully myself without this capacity. Moreover, the ability to hear music as if it is taking place in your own head is the most intimate experience of music possible. What you lose in connection with your fellow human when you listen with earbuds, you gain in connection to the sound. As a classical music enthusiast, I occasionally butt heads with other classical fans who prefer a certain old-school style of recording where you get a lot of sound from the reverberation of the room. This, to me, is dishonest to the way that people experience music on record. If you are not literally in the same room as the musicians as they are playing, you don’t process music as documentary evidence of a sound that happened in a room somewhere; you process it as sound happening in your head, now. This is an immediacy to be taken advantage of, not fought against. Still, for all that I disagree with Krukowski’s position, I really admire his argumentation. The other episodes are less thoughtful than this, but the Song Exploder crossover is good fun for fans of that show.
Code Switch: Three-week catch-up — I was media detoxing in Newfoundland when Charlottesville happened, so I’m still catching up on some of the (now outdated) takes on that event from my most trusted sources. This is as good as it gets. It’s still worth going back to the pertinent Code Switch episodes to make sense of the nonsense. The episode “The Unfinished Battle In the Capital Of The Confederacy” is especially worthwhile, as it puts this whole debate about statues into context.
Gimlet trailers: Uncivil & StartUp Season 6 — Exciting things coming up at Gimlet. Mostly Uncivil. That show looks like it’s going to be great. StartUp season six I’m less sure of.
Criminal: “Carry A. Nation” — Ah, Criminal. The most perennially underappreciated podcast. This is about a temperance advocate who went around smashing bars with her hatchet. It is wonderful.
Imaginary Worlds: “Future Screens Are Mostly Blue” — This is actually a back episode of 99% Invisible that I hadn’t heard before, featuring now former producer Sam Greenspan. It’s a fascinating look at the design flaws of future interfaces in science fiction movies. So, listen to this if you’re a huge (beautiful) nerd.
The Moth: “Nate Charles & Adam Gopnik” — Worth it for Gopnik’s story about trying to take his son to a steam bath.
A Piece of Work: Episodes 6-10 — An eminently bingeable (obviously) show about how fun it is to look at art. Abbi Jacobson’s MoMA-produced show has been one of the highlights of this podcast season. I have never wanted to look at pictures and sculptures more than do after having heard this. Funny, smart, brilliant stuff.
Love and Radio: “Reunion” — A good but not extraordinary episode of Love and Radio. This is about a mother who was forced to give up her son for adoption, only to be reunited years later and feel unexpected sexual desire towards her biological son. If that sounds like something from the Maury Povich show, well it was. You’ll hear the clips to prove it. Some of Love and Radio’s journeys into the very taboo are extremely enlightening. Others are simply compelling. This is in the second category. Still good.
Homecoming: Season Two — In its second season, the podcast world’s first star-studded show earns its pedigree. Season one of Homecoming didn’t do much for me. That’s probably in part because I had recently finished Limetown, which is by any reasonable standard a better-written, more thoughtful and scarier fiction podcast than Homecoming. And, it has absolutely no movie stars in it. No Catherine Keener, no Oscar Isaac, not even any David Cross. I was never entirely sure what made Homecoming so special. Why did this show get the spangly cast? It’s not like Oscar Isaac’s never been offered a more compelling role than Walter Cruz. I stand by that assessment of season one. But season two is an entirely different beast, and it’s an entirely more accomplished show. Part of this is because they’ve amped up the comedy. Season two is as much a farce as a suspense story, where the fact that some characters know more than others is used not just for the purpose of intrigue, but for pathetic fallacy as well. David Schwimmer’s Colin Belfast gets a meatier role this season, which is great because his total unscrupulousness is a big part of what makes this season so much more exaggerated, more heightened and funnier than the last one. We also get more Amy Sedaris, which is always good. And we get Chris Gethard, playing hilariously against type as a would-be alpha male who runs a firing range. Last year, I would have placed this hysterically expensive-seeming show among the lower half of Gimlet’s offerings. No longer. This is now a very solid show. Pick of the week.
StartUp: “The Domain King” — It’s an alright story, sure. But I don’t know how much longer I can force myself to be interested in these kinds of business stories. It’s not for me. StartUp, like Radiolab, occupies a special place in my relationship with the podcast medium. But I don’t know if I can sustain this much longer.