Tag Archives: Criminal

Omnireviewer (week of March 26, 2017)

I listened to 35 podcast episodes this week. For interested parties, you can generally be sure that I’m living well when my podcast intake is especially high. This week I did a lot of running, a lot of cooking and a lot of cleaning. Thus, a lot of podcasts. That said, this week also marked the first time in several years that I’ve felt compelled to just sit down and listen to a podcast while doing nothing else. That is because seven of the 35 podcast episodes I listened to this week are among the best podcast episodes ever made. If you travel in these circles, you already know what I mean. If not, read on.

This was going to be a full post of nothing but podcasts and one album. I decided to do yet another review of a game I occasionally dip into just so I’d have something worthy to offer my second pick of the week. But it’s been an auditory sort of week, broadly speaking.

30 reviews. (Because a bunch are lumped together.)

Music

William Basinski: A Shadow in Time — The second Basinski piece I’ve heard, after The Disintegration Loops. This is entirely different and on the whole, less conceptual than The Disintegration Loops. This doesn’t entirely work in its favour, since a big part of The Disintegration Loops’ appeal comes from its premise. The fact that you’re listening to audiotape fading away is part of what makes it so sad. The closest thing A Shadow in Time has to a conceptual hook like that is its first track’s dedication to David Bowie. But it’s hard to relate the dedication to the content of that track, which is basically a less effective version of the kind of music on The Disintegration Loops. And regardless, it is by far the lesser of the two tracks on this album. The title track is monumental, producing vast waves of electronic sound that build and collapse in on themselves in succession. It reminds me of nothing more than John Luther Adams’ vast orchestral masterpiece Become Ocean. High praise, from me.

Games

Sunless Sea — For those who are following my gaming exploits, I have decided that Half-Life is not for me. That doesn’t necessarily mean I won’t finish it, but I’m putting it aside for now. Somebody once told me that my problem is I want games to be books. I can’t really contradict that. And Half-Life is nothing like a book. It has many positive attributes that I can objectively recognize, but it ultimately comes down to how good you are at firing pretend guns at pretend monsters whose presence is the result of the one genuine story event in the early game, which happens essentially at the very beginning. This is neither the kind of thing I tend to appreciate, nor the type of thing I am remotely good at. So, even on easy mode, Half-Life has been mostly a mixture of boredom and frustration. That was a realization from about two weeks ago. This week, I cleansed my palate with Sunless Sea, which is as much like a book as any game I’ve ever played. A very fancy book. Every time I revisit this, I’m astonished at how much I haven’t discovered. I know there are whole branches of lore, and whole organizing principles of the gameworld that I’m not familiar with because I’ve spent relatively little time playing the sister title Fallen London. I will eventually rectify this, because the world that these games take place in is one of my very favourite imaginary worlds. As far as I can tell, it is unique in its mode of expression, which I might characterize as unyielding, glib understatement in the face of abject terror. I’m constantly curious about the larger forces at play in this game’s byzantine geopolitics and theology, and I’ll probably take up Fallen London again in an effort to find some of that out. But for now, I’m going to focus on actually finishing Sunless Sea’s main quest. Because at my glacial rate of progress, the sequel will be out by the time I manage that. (Seriously, Sunless Skies is going to be awesome.) Pick of the week.

Podcasts

Shittown (S-Town) — If you have not heard S-Town, do not read this. It’s best to go in knowing nothing. My purpose here is not to convince you to listen to it, it’s just to process it for myself and others who already have. But you should definitely listen to it right now. S-Town is among the very, very best work ever done in the podcast medium. (I will henceforth call it Shittown, because I see no need to demure.) Shittown is the story of a man who lived his life as a character in a story, and who actually found somebody to tell the story. It is other things aside from that, but it is that more than it is anything else. A weird tic of mine is that I usually find myself more fascinated with the telling of a story and the person doing the telling than I am with the people the story is about. Not so with the story of John B. McLemore. Like Hamlet (yeah, I’m pulling out the big guns), McLemore exerts such a magnetic pull over his own narrative that he overtakes the role normally occupied by the storyteller. And even though McLemore answers Hamlet’s existential question with a definitive “not to be,” thus removing himself as an agent in Brian Reed’s radio story two-sevenths of the way through, he continues to exert the same pull in death as he had in life. It’s as if he constructed his own life like an elaborate clock, inserted Reed as the final cog, wound it and, by drinking cyanide, finally set it off. He was the author of his own demise, but also the author of his own characteristically secular afterlife. If my clock metaphor seems laboured or obvious, I can’t wholly take the blame. Shittown itself is full of obvious, overtly literary metaphors, a fact that Reed lampshades in the first episode, noting that McLemore knows he couldn’t resist the symbolic valences of his potentially unsolvable hedge maze. Shittown is full of obvious metaphors because McLemore filled his life with obvious metaphors. Reed’s job is basically to transcribe the ongoing novel that this extraordinary, complicated person fashioned out of his own life. In Shittown, Reed plays Nick Carraway to John’s Jay Gatsby. John even cultivates a Gatsbian isolation from the members of his community, and is rumoured to be fairly well off. And by leaving his affairs in disarray upon his death, by spreading rumours of buried treasure, and by leaving countless relationships in states of tension and irresolution, he ensured that the story of his death’s aftermath would be as complicated and compelling as everything that had come before. In emphasizing McLemore as the author of his own story, I don’t mean to take anything away from Brian Reed’s accomplishment, which is substantial. It may be a new high bar for audio nonfiction. I can’t think of another show that’s so willing to completely divorce itself from traditional journalistic methods of story organization. (What even is the story of Shittown? Nothing happens throughout its entire duration that is unusual enough to warrant reporting in itself.) Love and Radio is the closest thing I can think of, but even that show is frequently confined to the studio. It couldn’t hope to introduce us to somebody like Uncle Jimmy, the sunny-dispositioned relation whose communication is hampered by a bullet that’s been lodged in his brain for 20 years. But even this emphasizes the extent to which Shittown succeeds on the basis of its astonishingly good tape and the people on the other end of Reed’s microphone. Woodstock, Alabama is a stranger-than-fiction town with implicit metaphors baked in. John B. McLemore was a stranger-than-fiction man who saw the metaphors and cast himself as the tragic outcast protagonist of the story that he was clearly living in. Brian Reed knew to hit record. Pick of the week.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Reza Aslan” — This is aggravating. I love Aslan, but Maron’s habit of just saying things without questioning whether they’re right makes a fool of him multiple times here, and not in an endearing way. It has its moments, as even the weakest of Maron’s episodes do. But fundamentally, a Marc Maron interview with Reza Aslan isn’t a good idea. I should have known better.

Judge John Hodgman: “In-lawful Gathering” — My newfound love for this show continues. The highlight of this episode is a introverted husband who is clearly being tortured by his family’s tradition of eating with 20 extended family members five nights a week. This poor fellow’s basic nature is at odds with his goal, here. On one hand, he’d love to simply enumerate the evidence that this is a terrible and very strange practice that’s killing him slowly. On the other, he definitely does not want to say anything bad about anybody. That would be unthinkable. This is worth it just to hear this guy attempt to walk that impossibly fine line.

The Heart: “Bathroom Bill” — A heartbreaking, mutedly hopeful story about the effect of Washington state’s proposed bathroom bill on one young trans girl and her mother. The bill didn’t pass, but it came stupidly close and shocked this story’s pseudonymous narrator out of her blue state complacency. It’s a story from the podcast How To Be A Girl, which has also been featured on Love and Radio. It’s staggering stuff, and definitely unlike anything else being made adjacent to public radio. Listen to this, it’s really beautiful.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Memes, Fads, Advice, and Neil Gaiman” — I want more Guy Branam on this show. I don’t like Pop Rocket all that much, but he’s very funny and brings out the best in the three main panelists, who I don’t think are always necessarily operating at full funny capacity. Also, do they have an intern doing their packaging right now? There’s a retake left in an ad, and there’s no extro with credits and theme music. Not that I care, but what an odd thing. I only bring it up because it really points out how familiar the rhythms of these shows become. When it changes, it’s kind of like listening to a familiar album and for some reason the tracklist is backwards.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Beauty and the Beast & SXSW” — I’m sad that Katie Presley’s only ever on this show around SXSW. She should have her own show. Between her appreciation of “the erotic potential of the Beast,” the angry experimental music of Moor Mother, and her fellow panelists’ bemusement about Moor Mother, she is a welcome monkey wrench in this episode.

Love and Radio: “La Retirada, Part Three” — This is easily the best instalment of this fascinating series about a family that found themselves embroiled in a drug cartel. This part deals with the particulars of being in the witness protection program. That’s a story I’m not sure I’d heard before. This would have been a great episode of Love and Radio, even if this was all there was to it.

The Memory Palace: “A Washington Monument” — One of the best episodes in a while. Nate DiMeo asks you to imagine an alternative to the Washington Monument that actually exists, and it is a truly outstanding alternative. Much better than the current one. Also, I love hearing DiMeo stumble and “um” his way through his promo copy. It makes this show feel more intimate than others.

Radiolab: “Shots Fired: Parts 1 & 2” — Best thing Radiolab’s done since “The Rhino Hunter.” This two-parter about police shootings in Florida contains some extremely disturbing tape of violence. But the most distressing moments all come in interviews with the surviving family members of the victims. Both episodes are essential, and they each demonstrate a different facet of the topic at hand. The first examines implicit bias as a motivator for police violence, and the second examines how good information can turn bad in a matter of minutes and lead to tragic results. Horrifying.

Crimetown: “The Network” — Thank god Buddy Cianci is back soon. This show has gone too far adrift. In the next season, they need to either aggressively tell one story, or just abandon their format altogether.

The Kitchen Sisters Present: “Sam Phillips, Sun Records, and the Acoustics of Life” — This is one of the podcasts on the Radiotopia network that I’ve unfairly neglected. The Kitchen Sisters Present (a more unwieldy but also more descriptive title than the original Fugitive Waves) feels on the one hand radical and singular and on the other like good-old fashioned public radio. The reason for this, as far as I can tell, is that it never allows itself to stay bolted to the studio. I really don’t mind podcasts that are largely studio based, with phoner interviews etc. But they’re definitely becoming the norm, even among podcasters with public radio backgrounds and approaches. The Kitchen Sisters’ work is a large monument to the dying art of going places while holding microphones. I owe it to myself and them to hear more of their catalogue. This episode about Sam Phillips resonates with their methods because Phillips was a guy who started off doing the very same thing: going out into the world with a tape recorder and capturing sound. The fact that he later became famous for his work in a studio is almost a moot point because the studio he opened operated on a philosophy of allowing the whole world to come inside. It’s a compelling and unusual look at a life’s work that’s normally thought about exclusively in terms of legacy: “the man who invented rock and roll,” etc. This isn’t that. It’s a lot more interesting than that.

Code Switch: “The 80-Year Mystery Around ‘Fred Douglas’ Park” — A tiny little thing about how an iconic abolitionist’s name has been misspelled in his namesake park for ages. I like these little podcast extras showing up in my feed. More shows should do six-minute or less mini episodes.

Homecoming: “Final Season One After Show: Season Two?” — Catherine Keener is charming and I am definitely looking forward to the return of this show.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Dave Chappelle and CHiPs” — Wow, these Chappelle specials sound like a disaster. But maybe I’ll go back and watch the old ones now. Stephen Thompson is a bit overzealous as a substitute host, I think. But I still like him.

99% Invisible: “The Falling of the Lenins” — I’m not sure what’s up with 99pi right now. I’ve enjoyed a number of their recent shows, but I miss the days when they had focussed design angles to every episode. This is a political story, and not only that, it’s one that doesn’t add much to what I learned about Ukraine’s history from the newspaper coverage after Putin annexed Crimea. I hesitate to suggest that 99pi should stay in its wheelhouse, because the sanctuary churches episodes were pretty good, I thought. But these sorts of stories just aren’t the sort of thing they can reliably do.

Code Switch: “A Bittersweet Persian New Year” — More than anything, this made me hungry. Also, Persian New Year is a thing I knew nothing about, so, two counts of time well spent.

On the Media: “It’s Just Business” — Come for the segment on coal miner photo-ops, stick around for the bit on ISPs selling your browsing data, and then maybe sit out the true crime thing. That’s less pressing.

Imaginary Worlds: “Beyond the Iron Curtain” — Russian science fiction sounds crazy. I will likely not read any of what’s mentioned here. But I love the story explaining socialist realism. That’s fun.

Reply All: “Favour Atender: The Return” — A repeat episode with a small extra segment. But it’s mostly worth it for the amazing extro by Breakmaster Cylinder, who I am at this point 90% sure is PJ Vogt.

All Songs Considered: “Sufjan Stevens, Gorillaz, Perfume Genius, More” — That Gorillaz song with Noel Gallagher is terrible. It’s one platitude after another. Dire. Don’t understand how anybody could like it. On the other hand, the tracks by Perfume Genius, the Family Crest and especially Hippo Campus are all fantastic. I’m on the fence about the Sufjan Stevens/Nico Muhly/Bryce Dessner/James McAlister collaboration. I’ll definitely listen to the album when it comes out, but I’m not sure I’ll like it. Much as I want to.

You Must Remember This: “Jayne Mansfield (Dead Blondes Part 9)” — What a weird liminal figure Jayne Mansfield was. This is basically the story of how an actress of the immediately post-Marilyn Monroe era found herself obsolete in the hippie era. Stories from this transitional period in time are always fascinating to me because it’s a reminder of how quickly the culture can do an about-face. That’s why I love Mad Men. It’s why I loved the Charles Manson season of You Must Remember This. And it’s why I’m looking forward to this horrible period in history that we’re living in being over so that we can at least begin to process it by way of similar narrative constructions.

Crimetown: “Bonus Episode: Cat and Mouse Part II” — I’m not sure I’m entirely comfortable with this show’s attitude towards murderers. It’s essentially the same as Martin Scorsese’s attitude in Goodfellas, which is basically that they’re terrible but also unspeakably glamorous. But Scorsese is dealing with actors who are only pretending to be murderers. This show features tape of interviews with actual murderers. It’s a genre-wide problem, mind you. But the glib, tough-guy approach to talking to mobsters sometimes strikes me as a bit tasteless.

The Gist: “Step Away From the Screen” — Leggings, Mike? You’re basking in the opportunity of a slow news day and you decide to talk about leggings? Even the interview isn’t especially compelling. Anyway.

99% Invisible: “Manzanar” — Well, there’s mention of a plaque, at least. The stories 99pi has been doing lately are important stories, but they’re important stories that should fall to news reporters to tell. Not 99% Invisible. The legacy of the Japanese internment camps is extremely important to remember in America’s current political climate. So, newspapers should definitely send reporters out there. But when this show is at its best, I find a different sort of value in it. It tells important stories that don’t necessarily have any resonance with the current news cycle at all. It tells important stories that are not matters of life and death, but just about how people can make life a little better by thinking a little harder. That’s a worthy task, and it gained this show a big following. I miss that.

Code Switch: “Sanctuary Churches: Who Controls the Story?” — A complex account of the balancing act that the new sanctuary movement faces: be public about your actions as an open protest of the government, or be quiet out of respect for the privacy of those who seek sanctuary?

The Memory Palace: “Roots and Branches and Wind-Borne Seeds” — This is proof that any story can be told well. Nate DiMeo foregrounds the fact that there is no drama in the story he has to tell, and by foregrounding it, he introduces a new thematic layer to the narrative. Nice.

Crimetown: “Renaissance Man” — This is what I’m talking about. If this season had laser focussed on Buddy Cianci and Raymond Patriarca, it could have been glorious. I cannot believe that Buddy Cianci was the mayor of a major city. I cannot believe he got reelected. There is much in the world to shake one’s faith in democracy. Add this to the list.

Criminal: “Rochester, 1991” — This is an absolutely horrifying story of a person who ended up, first, in an abusive relationship and second, on the wrong side of the law. What this woman has been through is unthinkable. It’s not easy to listen to, but it does have something of a happy ending, so that’s not nothing.

Omnireviewer (week of Mar. 19, 2017)

15 reviews. One of them is a full season of television, so.

Movies

Brazil — Oddly, this is the movie I turn to when I need a bit of cheering up. It’s been my favourite movie ever since the very first time I saw it. That’s a funny thing, come to think of it: I must have been 12 when I first saw Terry Gilliam’s satirical dystopian masterpiece. I know this because I saw it the week I got braces. I was miserable. I wanted to lash out at the entire universe. But strangely, I recall that week was my introduction to two longstanding obsessions: this movie, and the band Rush. I got braces the week of the Toronto Rocks concert for SARS relief. I remember that on the night I got braces, I either watched the telecast of that concert and fell in love with Rush or I watched Brazil. Either way, they happened in close succession at a time when I was emotionally vulnerable — for a dumb reason, I grant you. But I was 12, and the reason kind of doesn’t matter. And I’ve been slavishly devoted to both of them ever since. Still, I’m a little ashamed of the fact that my favourite movie has been the same since the age of 12. That’s a year over half my life ago. I honestly can’t tell if my love for Brazil has more to do with the movie itself, or more to do with the fact that I still associate it with the relief it granted me from the circumstances of my life at the time when I first watched it. I remember that the cut of the movie that I saw that first time is not the version that I’ve come to love in the years since. It was a rental from a video store, and it was the American cut, which I’ve only seen one other time, on the one occasion when I saw Brazil in a cinema. The version I watched just now is the European cut, which is the version I watched obsessively in high school on the first of three discs in my Criterion Collection set. I don’t know what it says about me that the most comforting movie I know is as cynical and dark as this one is. Maybe I can take refuge in it just because I know its rhythms better than any other movie. Or maybe it soothes me because its particular dystopia is pettier, more personal and more relatable than any other cinematic dystopia. Maybe it’s the protagonist’s relentless romanticism in spite of his circumstances. At this point, it almost doesn’t matter. This movie is part of my DNA the same way that Thick as a Brick and Mahler’s fifth symphony are. Certain elements of it have entered my vernacular in spite of them not being in anybody else’s. Every time my strange employment situation at my current company becomes mired in bureaucracy I take it upon myself to incorporate the expression “27B-6” into casual conversation with a colleague. I’m yet to have any of them recognize the meaning. In any case, relatability accounts for only a fraction of the meaning that this movie has for me. What really enthralls me about it is that I’m still finding new facets of it after all these years. I have watched Brazil countless times in countless contexts, but this may have been the first time I’ve been wearing headphones for it. Tiny bits of dialogue that I missed before were suddenly clear. (I always wonder what specific lines can be attributed to Tom Stoppard. It speaks well of the other screenwriters that it isn’t entirely obvious.) The long and the short of it is, there are still moments in this movie that surprise me. It is so magnificently dense that I can’t imagine a time when it won’t yield new secrets. There is nothing that I appreciate more in this world than a work of art so fantastically oversignified that it makes me forget my own circumstances entirely. Nothing clears the mind like sensory overload. That is what Brazil has always done for me. It is my escape, in the same way that Sam Lowrey’s vibrant inner life is his escape from his own dire circumstances. It has served this purpose for me for more than half my life. I feel like I owe Terry Gilliam a few drinks. Pick of the week.

Television

Downton Abbey: Season 4 — To some extent, I enjoy watching Downton Abbey the way that audiences are expected to watch Game of Thrones: by carefully tracking and forecasting changes in the balance of power. The fact that Downton’s shifts in power take place over the course of an actual period in history makes it less easily abstracted (i.e. it’s easier to draw generalized conclusions about how power works from a narrative in a completely hypothetical fantasy world than in one that’s bound by what we know of the historical context). But it also makes it more satisfying to see Lord Grantham, the spongy old aristocrat and increasingly the show’s outright villain, grasping at the straws of his former glory. The looming presence of actual history also factors into one of my least favourite plotlines of the season, which is the requisite “racism exists” plotline, wherein a rebellious young rich woman tries to get back at her mother by courting a black jazz singer called Jack. And while that works out about as well as you’d expect, what’s actually most upsetting about it is how far out of its way the show goes to make its conservative white aristocrats (and its socialist white ex-chauffeur) essentially okay with Jack. There’s a sense that even the most pearl-clutchingly racist among the cast of characters is only paying lip-service to racism as a widely-held ideology. If only the world were a slightly better place, to paraphrase the show, they’d all be relieved to not have to play at racism anymore. This is bullshit. There is exactly one reason why old Lady Grantham doesn’t protest to Jack’s presence at Downton and that’s because the audience needs to like her, and we can’t if she’s a blithering racist — which history and narrative context tells us she should be. This is just one reminder that Julian Fellowes is primarily interested in painting an ahistorically benign picture of the old aristocracy. This is the most substantial problem with this show, and it’s the thing that makes it consistently less than great. (Seek out the tragically underappreciated miniseries Parade’s End for an antidote.) This is the point in the review where I remember that I mostly actually liked this season and should point out something good about it before yammering on some more about the things that pissed me off. So: seeing Kiri Te Kanawa playing Nellie Melba was fun. Now, let’s talk about how a whole bunch of this season consists of “very special plotlines.” We’ve already discussed the racism plotline. But there’s also the abortion plotline and, god help us, the rape plotline. I won’t go into detail on either, save to say the extent to which the rape plotline is eventually made into a male character’s problem is distressing and unsurprising. But I hope this kind of storytelling doesn’t become the norm going forward, because it smacks of desperation. I’ve accepted that Downton Abbey is revisionist history. I don’t need it to get “gritty.” And I don’t trust it at all to get these stories right. But it says something about this show that in spite of all of this, I haven’t thrown up my hands and ragequit watching. Things like the relatively frothy Christmas special that finishes the whole thing off make it worthwhile. I suspect that may be one of my favourite episodes in the entire series — especially the hysterically convoluted caper plotline where Grantham enlists the aid of virtually the entire family to get a compromising note out of the hands of a blackmailer. The comedy of manners that ensues as the accomplices try and fail to hide that they’re up to something is what makes this show fun. This season succeeds over the previous one primarily because it makes Mary work again. She’s the show’s ace in the hole, and getting saddled with the increasingly uninteresting Matthew as a scene partner again and again was defeating the purpose of her. It’s good to see her doing something new. It’s great to see her in a position of relative power where she can stand up to Lord Grantham. See? It’s really just Game of Thrones, but polite.

Literature, etc.

Bryan Lee O’Malley: Lost At Sea — I read both of O’Malley’s standalone graphic novels this week. And I am shocked and maybe a bit embarrassed to have liked this one better. That’s because Lost at Sea is a road novel and a coming-of-age story, which is an extremely bog standard juxtaposition compared to the premise of Seconds. It’s the story of a young woman named Stephanie who believes she has no soul, this thought having arisen from the gradual pileup of relatively normal adolescent traumas: the loss of her best friend, the breakdown of her parents’ relationship, and a romance gone wrong. At first glance, it’s an unappealing proposition: a comic narrated by the inner monologue of a person who is reacting in a way that’s seemingly out of proportion to the severity of her problems. I believe this is what some call “whining.” But these moments hit Stephanie at a vulnerable time in her life, and she’s clearly dealing with some vaguely defined, deeper issues. With this in mind, Lost At Sea seems to me a very effective description of what it feels like to hit a patch where nothing makes any sense. O’Malley underlines this with the subtle suggestion of a supernatural element — maybe a deal with the devil or possibly just forking timelines; an implicit expression of the plot mechanic that’s made explicit in Seconds — which is by no means necessary to actually justify what happens in the story. It’s just a way of expressing Stephanie’s need to rationalize events that are simultaneously unthinkable and already rational. I love the moment in the book where this finally coalesces, while Stephanie looks up at the stars. When you look up at the stars, she says, your immediate surroundings fade away and it’s like you could be living at any point in your life — in any of your lives. Whatever happened to you, whatever catastrophic rupture occurred in your emotional life (spacetime bullshit or no), you always have access to every moment you’ve lived through, thanks to memory. And this is ultimately what helps Stephanie find the sense of perspective she’s been badly in need of throughout the story. Memory is both a torturer and a tool. When Stephanie realizes the latter of those purposes, she’s able to make enough sense of her life that she can cease to regard herself as soulless — because she no longer needs that as a justification for her emotions. It’s a staggering ending. I loved this. Pity I watched Brazil, or it would be pick of the week.

Bryan Lee O’Malley: Seconds — Let me be clear. This is by any reasonable measure a more accomplished graphic novel than Lost at Sea. The cartooning is more stylish, the page layouts more adventurous, and the story contains many more moving parts. However. It basically just boils down to a story about a person who tries to change history and learns that’s a bad idea. This is by no means a new take on the “let’s change history” story, whereas I’d argue (and I have, in my previous review) that Lost at Sea actually does something very specific within the broad framework of “coming-of-age road novel.” Both Seconds and Lost at Sea end with their protagonists having an epiphany of sorts. But where Lost at Sea’s epiphany constituted a young woman accepting reality by accepting the validity of her own memories, Seconds’ epiphany amounts to “you have to learn to accept your mistakes.” I know, I know, it’s the journey and not the destination. And Seconds is a twisty, turny yarn with outstanding characters. But after Lost at Sea, I was a bit disappointed that Seconds ends with a platitude. It is effectively a fairy story. And while I’d love to say there’s nothing wrong with fairy stories, actually there is. The thing that’s wrong with fairy stories is that they fail to acknowledge that the world is complicated and can’t be easily righted with a few one-sentence morals. I loved Seconds. I think it’s a really great comic book. If I hadn’t have read it the day after Lost at Sea, I’d probably be more prepared to take it on its own terms. In any case, I’m super excited to read the Scott Pilgrim series.

Music

Anna Meredith: Varmints — I often say that my favourite experience to have with a piece of art is sensory overload. I suspect Anna Meredith agrees. Save for Shugo Tokumaru, this is the most “everything at once” music I’ve encountered in recent times, and I love it. Can’t wait to hear more.

Podcasts

The Gist: “Todd Barry Would Rather Be Drumming” — I think maybe Mike Pesca is the best interviewer of comedians in the podcastverse. He doesn’t force himself to laugh at everything they say like Jesse Thorn sometimes does. He isn’t a comic himself, so he doesn’t have the low-lying resentment that sometimes creeps into Marc Maron’s interviews with other comedians. And in spite of not being a comic, he does have the fastest brain in the business, so he can feed his guests material to riff on in a way that Terry Gross never will be able to. This is a pretty standard episode of The Gist, all told. I listened to it because Todd Barry’s awesome. But this show’s good enough at its walking pace that it consistently makes me regret that I don’t have time to hear every episode.

The Bugle: Episodes 4020 & 4021 — Episode 4020 is the first I’ve heard with Helen Zaltzman, and she’s officially my favourite new Bugle co-host. She and Andy for some reason have a natural rapport. I love Hari Kondabolu as well, and I think the decision to limit Trump talk is a wise one. This show is fun to listen to in the grocery store because it’s a challenge not to laugh constantly and look like a crazy person.

Criminal: “Vanish” — God, I love Criminal. This is the show that I most wish I could find the time to listen through the full archive of. Maybe soon I will. This episode outlines the challenges with faking your own death. One challenge comes in the form of a dude whose job it is to find you if you do that. Absolutely fascinating. Also, challenge accepted. (Wait, no, I didn’t say that. No, it was nothing. Never you mind.)

Judge John Hodgman: “Oculus Miffed” — The thing that’s struck me about this show on the couple of occasions I’ve listened to it is the warmth of it. Hodgman likes to portray himself as a chilly weirdo, but that’s completely not what he is even on the surface, really. In this episode, a guy wants to convert the master bedroom in the house he lives in with his girlfriend into a virtual reality parlour. On the surface, this sounds insane. But Hodgman wisely doesn’t try to force the conversation into the frame of “crazy boyfriend has crazy idea and boring girlfriend doesn’t like it.” Instead, he asks straightforward questions and quickly realizes that’s not what’s going on here: this guy wants the VR room in the house primarily because he knows his girlfriend is interested in it. He’s just gotten a bit overzealous with his plans for where in the house it should go. Hodgman’s verdict is both funny and also a lovely comment on what it means to live in reality with another person. I think I may be sold on this show.

You Must Remember This: “Marilyn Monroe: The End (Dead Blondes Part 8)” — The Monroe three-parter is certainly the highlight of this “Dead Blondes” series, and one of the best things I’ve heard on this show. This episode puzzles through the various theories, conspiracy and otherwise, relating to Monroe’s infamous death. Longworth’s own conclusion about what makes the most sense is both rational and heartbreaking, and she’s able to explain the multiplicity of conspiracy theories with reference to Monroe’s persona, which she examined in the previous episode. Really fantastic stuff. Pick of the week.

Reply All: “The Russian Passenger” — An entire episode dedicated to Alex Goldman’s attempt to find out how Alex Blumberg’s Uber account got hacked. Fascinating, and definitely Uber’s fault. They’re dirty liars, all of ‘em.

The West Wing Weekly: “Two Cathedrals (Parts I and II) — Man, everybody involved with The West Wing in any capacity seems really good at talking. Who’d have thought. “Two Cathedrals” is the consensus best-loved episode of the show, though it’s been long enough since I watched it that I don’t remember whether or not I agree. In any case, hearing Aaron Sorkin talk about his original concept for President Bartlett’s season two story arc is worth the listen alone.

99% Invisible: “Negative Space: Logo Design with Michael Bierut” — A straightforward interview with some very funny moments, and some very enlightening ones. It’s fascinating to hear stories from before the time when everybody in the world cared about and critiqued logos within an inch of their designers’ lives.

All Songs Considered: “Why SXSW Matters: The Best Of What We Saw, 2017” — Ah, yes. The thrill of discovery. I’m happy to have sat the daily episodes out, because now we get to actually hear the music, and much of it is wonderful. I’ve already looked into Anna Meredith, and I’ve watched the video of Let’s Eat Grandma playing in a trailer. But there’s so much more great music on this. It almost makes me want to go to SXSW someday. But not quite. That’s a panic attack waiting to happen.

Code Switch: “Not-So-Simple Questions From Code Switch Listeners” — I’d like to see this become a regular feature. There’s nobody I’d rather tackle difficult questions like these than the Code Switch team.

Omnireviewer (week of Jan. 15, 2017)

A modest 20 reviews, because I’m binge-watching again. By the way, there’s never been a better time to follow me on Tumblr, because tomorrow marks the start of my customary late-January week of reflection on the stuff I liked from the past year. I’ll be counting back from 30, finishing next Saturday. But if you abstain from Tumblr, never fear, because as usual I will post an omnibus of all 30 on this site.

Television

Sherlock: “The Final Problem” — You know, it wouldn’t be so disappointing if it weren’t probably the last episode. There are good things here, not least of which is an opportunity for Mark Gatiss to play Mycroft at the moment when the condescension finally wears too thin to bother. I never thought I’d say this, but between his performance in this episode and his script for the first one, Gatiss is the best thing about Sherlock season four. But there are other clear weak points here. After two weeks of brilliant directing from a couple of the best in the Mofftiss-adjecent stable, first-timer Benjamin Caron turns in a mixed effort, including a really dumb-looking take on the classic “guys jump out of windows to escape an exploding building” shot, a bit where Sherlock swoops down into the camera like Batman, and a shot of Watson passing out while the camera spirals about. This all feels like it belongs in some other show. It’s worth noting that I’m not one of the people who has been disappointed by the James Bond-esque action in this season. Honestly, I didn’t remember it not being there before. The way the action has been handled is still very much in the visual universe of this show. But there are amateurish moments in this episode, to an extent that we haven’t seen since the first season. Okay, now a plus: Moriarty’s back for a final bow, and he’s dancing to Queen. “Do you like my boys? This one’s got more stamina, but he’s less caring in the afterglow.” That entire scene is sublime. Andrew Scott is brilliantly over the top. Alright, now back to the negatives. This episode worked really hard to show Sherlock having become “a good man.” But in having him act in a conventionally human fashion in pretty much every situation, rather than ever being ethically compromising or cold, the writers seem to have lost track of the fact that we know he’s a good man, and the beauty of this version of the character is that we continue to feel that way even when he makes decisions that we wouldn’t make. If they wanted me to sympathize with Sherlock to the degree that I normally do during the course of an episode, they should have made his evil sister put him in situations that would emphasize the areas where his character is weak, as opposed to ones where he’ll be forced to act honourably. In fact, this was the wrong approach entirely to the villain of this episode. Eurus shouldn’t have been a calculating arch-manipulator who uses humans as lab rats; she should have been somebody who knows Sherlock’s worst attributes and wishes to put them on display. She should have tried to demonstrate to him the extent to which he is fundamentally lacking in empathy, only to have John Watson reaffirm his value. That would have been a character beat to end the show on. I could say more, like how I wish there’d been more jokes, or how bits of this were legitimately scary in a way that Moffat scripts haven’t been for a while, but the details will largely fade into the background with this one, in the face of how bizarrely these two writers misinterpreted the appeal of their protagonist in the final episode of their show. Mary’s closing monologue is an obvious attempt to paper over that (final) problem, but the thing is that in this particular reinterpretation of the Sherlock Holmes corpus, it does matter what kind of people Holmes and Watson are. The adventures themselves account for a certain amount of what’s great about this show, but if the true motivations of the characters really mattered as little as Mofftiss are explicitly trying to tell us in that speech, then I wouldn’t have spent the previous hour and a half being so pissed off about why Sherlock’s being portrayed in this light. I think I’ll leave it there. Sherlock, at its best, was a huge achievement in television storytelling. However, it was infrequently at its best and it unfortunately didn’t end there. I mean, I guess it still could. But after this season, I can’t say I’m that interested in more.

Downton Abbey: Season 3, episodes 1-5 — I’ve been trying to decide what it is about this series that keeps me coming back in spite of literally everything about it. I think part of it is that it’s the only thing with a sense of humour as dry as I require. More shade is thrown and with greater subtlety in this show than basically any other. Only in this show could the line “a great many noses will be out of joint” serve as very nearly a cliffhanger.  This season is more like a straightforward soap opera than the show has ever been. But the presence of Cora’s mother, a truculent American bulldozer with about as little respect for the Edwardian aristocracy as I have, is extremely refreshing. Whether or not it comes off in the end, the idea to have a character in the show to whom it is necessary to justify the function of Downton is a very clever idea. Surely Julian Fellowes is entirely aware that he’s got people in the audience like me. Also, I quite like the organ arrangement of the meditation from Thaïs that’s played right before Edith’s almost-wedding. Wonder where I can find sheet music for that?

Games

Steve Jackson’s Sorcery!: Part 4 — Last we checked in, I was hopelessly stuck and wandering around a part of the map that there was literally no way out of with the items that I had. I was worried that this would be the bit where I stopped enjoying myself, but I’m actually glad that I got to spend a bit of time in that area because it’s one of the best parts of the game so far. Basically, just outside the huge castle that you’re trying to get into is a complex of stone towers that were once a great college of magic. They’ve been left in a state of dilapidation in recent years, but they’ve still got dangerous magic around them. That’s the best concept in this game so far: an abandoned magical college full of traps and impossible rooms. That would be a good game in itself. Anyway, I never did find a proper way out of there. But I did find an elegant way to die, which is the only way that you can really go back and make your choices again. So that turned out not to be an annoyance at all, but rather a lovely excursion away from the main plot. Having gotten back to the main plot, I swiftly realized how much I’m not used to having to think through simple puzzles in order to finish games. I died nine times within the game’s very last section, in the big castle I spent hours trying to get into last week — all because I failed to see one extremely obvious way to solve the problem that kept happening. Anyway, this is just another example of me wanting games not to be games, because I’m bad at them. If you’re not, I think you probably ought to play this. The fourth instalment is good enough to justify the sometimes tedious schlep through the first three.

NORTH — Nothing special. For two bucks and an hour of your time, it’s good value. But while this game is to be commended for its attempt to win the player’s empathy for a refugee, it doesn’t have a lot to say about the specifics of that experience. It sets its narrative in a hazy, purposely abstract city populated by anguished deformed ghouls. And while its visual style is completely wonderful and gets across a sense of loneliness and alienation that befits its theme, NORTH falls flat in that it doesn’t take the extra step and establish more acute consequences for its central character’s decision to flee to this place. NORTH deals in generalities. You learn that your character has moved to a place that distrusts his religion, will only allow him to do the most menial and dangerous work, and doubts that he was even persecuted at all in his home country. This all rings true, but the structure of the game is such that all of these hurdles are jumpable, and there’s no sense here that the character suffers the sort of sustained discrimination and hate from his fellow citizens that are presumably the attitudes this game is trying to combat. Rather, he is simply made to live in a rather stylish dystopian surveillance state. (Perhaps one that surveils him more closely than others, but even that is not entirely clear.) So basically, this game is really good at inspiring empathy for an isolated person who has been forced to move far from home, but its attempts to generalize the refugee experience to the point of abstraction make it substantially less powerful than it wants to be.

Movies

HyperNormalisation — Before we discuss the content of this troubling, mesmerizing masterpiece, let’s take a moment to acknowledge that the BBC has (at least in this instance) figured out what a public broadcaster should do on the internet. For context, this is a three-hour web-exclusive documentary by the BBC’s weirdest longstanding contributor, Adam Curtis. It covers the 40-year story of how the world got to a point where obviously horrible things can happen routinely (suicide bombings, Trump, Putin) while most people continue to think the world is still normal. So basically, it is extremely ambitious and engages in exactly no handholding. Oh, you don’t know who Andrei Tarkovsky is? Fucking Google it. We have the world at our fingertips. We shouldn’t insist that documentarians, broadcasters and journalists fill us in on shit like that. If Curtis took the traditional broadcasting approach, HyperNormalisation would be nineteen tedious hours long. By circumventing basic explanatory parentheticals and trusting his audience’s intelligence and curiosity, Curtis is able to present three hours of pure analysis and evaluation. Less time spent explaining equals more time spent synthesizing. This is easier to do when the documentary is open in one of many browser tabs and easily rewindable than if it’s on BBC Two. Many legacy media outlets, public and not, have looked at the internet primarily as a threat, and of course they’re not wrong. But they are damn well wrong to react to that threat by making themselves more similar to the vapid sorts of web-native operations that command competitively-sized audiences to their broadcast platforms. The internet was once the proud home of the stuff that’s too weird and difficult for what used to be called mainstream media. The BBC’s release of HyperNormalisation exclusively on their iPlayer feels like a beautiful glimpse into an alternate universe where legacy media joined the party where the cool, smart kids were. It’s an acknowledgement that the internet offers the opportunity to do exactly what they’ve always done, except smarter and more niche. Meanwhile, two browser tabs over, there are National Post headlines shouting at me to click on them so that Facebook will see them as profitable and display them more prominently so that more people will click on them and see ads on the National Post website and not learn a damn thing from the article and then do it all again and again until they’ve spent half the running time of HyperNormalisation consuming the media equivalent of marshmallows and feeling a bit sick. So, it’s appropriate that towards the end of its staggering exploration of how everything became fake, HyperNormalisation asserts that we know the world less well than ever because we view it through the simplified, personalized lens of algorithmically-curated social feeds. The Wikipedia synopsis actually sums up the effect of this better than I probably could: “The American Left’s attempt to resist Trump on the internet had no effect. In fact, they were just feeding the social media corporations who valued their many additional clicks.” There’s more on social media in this, particularly as it applies to the fruitless revolutions in Egypt during the Arab Spring and on Wall Street during the Occupy movement. But it’s actually expressed with even more clarity in Curtis’s interview on Chapo Trap House, which I recommend. Putting my usual hobby horse aside for a moment, this documentary is tremendously clever in its structure. It begins with stories in New York and Damascus, and continues symmetrically mapping the gradual dissolution of politics into a false narrative-making machine through America and the Middle East. There are quick asides to the U.K. and Russia, but this is mostly a story about the U.S., Syria, and most compellingly, Libya. The figure who is the lynchpin of Curtis’s entire sprawling argument is Muammar Gaddafi: a cartoonish lunatic who wasn’t responsible for much that the U.S. (knowingly wrongly) accused him of, but who was deranged enough to take responsibility anyway. Curtis traces Gaddafi’s transformation from America’s handmade bogeyman that let them conveniently remain allied with Syria through the Gulf War, into a political intellectual and friend of the West after 9/11, and subsequently into an enemy again when the U.S. allied itself with the Libyan rebels. This strand of Curtis’s narrative alone makes it clear that reality hasn’t been tremendously important in American politics for a long time. The documentary was released before the election of Trump, but this makes that completely unthinkable event look inevitable in retrospect. Pick of the week.

Music

Jethro Tull: Bursting Out — Now, naturally, I would say this. But this is one of the best live albums ever. If you’re trying to convince somebody why live albums are worthwhile, and why they were such a big deal in the ‘70s, this is possibly the very best one. I’d put it at number two on my personal live list, edging out Yessongs and Magma’s Live/Hhaï by a fraction and losing out only to Gentle Giant’s Playing the Fool. By the height of prog rock in the ‘70s, the studio recording had long supplanted the live performance as the platonic ideal of a piece of music. (Think of a Beatles song. You’re thinking of the record, not a live track.) Since then, as music has become increasingly producer driven and recordings have become fussier and fussier and piled with more layers of artifice (by no means a value judgement; it’s just true), live records have become increasingly superlative as live performances inevitably come to resemble the records more and more. But the ‘70s represents an interesting transitional phase, where albums were becoming increasingly elaborate, but they were still basically made by people who played instruments. So, live performances from this period are a hybrid between the profoundly expressive act that music making always is, and the thrill of watching a series of stunts. Jethro Tull is one of the bands that succeeded most consistently in existing at that intersection. The performances on this live record are unique to the studio versions because the studio versions are irreproducibly complex. Instead, they are compelling reinterpretations of the material for a different setting. This is a kind of record that I don’t think we’ll ever see again. And that’s fine. But thank god we have this one.  

Igor Stravinsky/John Eliot Gardiner, Ian Bostridge, Bryn Terfel, etc: The Rake’s Progress — I used to listen to this a bunch back in music school but man, it’s been a while. It came up at work recently, and I figured it was about time to revisit this. This is one of those recordings that seems like the platonic ideal of the opera in question. (Mind you, it’s also the only Rake I’ve listened to more than once. There’s a reason for that, though.) Gardiner treats the material with the unsentimentality that it begs, and that matter-of-factness allows the score itself to express its own natural beauty. And the singing is absolutely peerless. Bostridge and Terfel are two of the best singers of their generation, both at their very best here. Terfel’s Nick Shadow is very much a classic Bryn Terfel characterization: a touch of the clown, but threatening nonetheless. Along with Anne Sofie von Otter’s bearded lady, he breathes life into a story that isn’t always naturally invigorated by Stravinsky’s compulsively austere music. That’s especially relevant in the first act, because this opera famously takes a while to get going. Act two has a lot of great stuff in it, but it’s the third and final act that’s the real masterpiece. Honestly, I’d recommend that any classical music fan take the 55 minutes to listen to act three and the short, brilliant epilogue to hear Stravinsky at the absolute height of his abilities in neoclassical mode. It’s Stravinskian music clothed in Mozartean garb, and the three scenes of act three show three distinctly different takes on that concept. The auction scene is total chaos that must take untold hours of rehearsal. The graveyard scene is creepy and muted, and a magnificent two-hander for the singers in the leading roles (Terfel and Bostridge are unspeakably entertaining together). And the final scene in the madhouse is the best of all. Stravinsky does something really clever here. The Rake has gone insane and believes himself to be Adonis. Stravinsky’s music seems to support that delusion, as it’s suddenly filled with ambrosia, and the distance between the beauty of the music and the reality of the Rake’s madness makes the scene gloriously sad. The epilogue is two and a half minutes of Stravinsky’s most addictive music. I love this. Listen to this.

Podcasts

Welcome to Night Vale: “worms…” — The episodic plot of this episode gradually melted away into the larger story arc, but it’s fine. I do think Hiram McDaniels is played out as a character, but I know he sticks around for at least twenty more episodes, and probably more. One of the most pronounced weak points of Welcome to Night Vale is that they don’t know when things are played out. Their continuity is a crutch that they use in place of new jokes, because they think they can (and perhaps they actually can?) rely on their fan base to be delighted at the mere mention of the Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives In Your Home, or the Desert Flower Bowling Alley and Arcade Fun Complex. Which, granted, are both fun combinations of words. But the novelty wears off when the thing they’re attached to doesn’t actually have anything new to contribute to the story. For a show about the mysterious and unknowable, Night Vale sure does rely an awful lot on familiarity as a positive trait in itself. If I space out my listening enough (and my increasing behindness should indicate that I do), I can tolerate it. But after listening to three episodes last week (even though one of which was “Voicemail,” which is one of the few to break the structural mould) I’m already starting to get sick of this again.

Chapo Trap House: “Better Call Saul Alinsky” — The Chapos are joined by MST3K’s Bill Corbett to talk about the single most hilariously misguided and offensive documentary of recent times: Dinesh D’Souza’s Hillary’s America. I am so happy they watched it so I don’t have to.

Love and Radio: “No Bad News” — This is about a hypnotist who stopped watching the news and ended up treating Uday Hussein because he had no idea what was going on in the world. It is less frustrating (in the good way) than many episodes of Love and Radio but that may just be because of the hypnotist’s soothing voice, which probably made me more amenable to his self-enforced ignorance.

Theory of Everything: “Entrapment” — Excellent, but particularly excellent for the segment from ten years ago, in which a younger, more naïve Benjamen Walker tells a story about his cell phone ruining his relationship. Oh, for the days when the most insidious invasion of privacy that your cell phone could manage was a butt dial.

Theory of Everything: “The Twentieth of January” — Firstly, the novel they’re talking about in this is real. There actually is a spy novel from 1980 about a Republican president who gets elected in spite of having no political experience and an amount of wealth that’s inconsistent with his image as a populist. And then a British intelligence agent reveals a plot by the Russians to influence the election. That much of this episode — the part that describes the plot of the novel — is entirely true. But just finding this book and noting its similarity to our contemporary shit cyclone wouldn’t be enough. So Benjamen Walker and his guest Josh Glenn spin a bizarre conspiracy theory that the book is one of the few that Donald Trump has actually read, and that it was given to him by the KGB. That’s the beauty of this show. It would never squander the knowledge of a weirdly prescient espionage thriller on mere reportage. It takes it several steps further.

Code Switch: “Obama’s Legacy: Did He Remix Race?” — A fine conclusion to the trilogy, with some really excellent tape from the poet Richard Blanco, who read at Obama’s inauguration. The best part is hearing the panel take apart the optimism of Obama’s farewell address, look at it from a few different angles, and not quite be able to come to a decision on it.  

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: DJ Khaled” — So, I listened to this at 1.5X, and I’m not sure I’ve ever been more entertained. But even at regular speed, I’m sure Khaled’s explanation of why it’s important to have a lot of pillows will delight you.

The Sporkful: “The Great Office Coffee Election” — This is fun. WNYC voted on what the new free office coffee was going to be, so Dan Pashman obviously had to make a Sporkful out of it.

Song Exploder: “Solange – Cranes in the Sky” — First off, I’m confused about how Hrishikesh Hirway was able to isolate the drums and bass from this track if the stems went missing. Did they find them after the fact? But in any case, this is really illuminating. Basically, Solange took an instrumental that she couldn’t do much with except loop and built a song on top of it that actually has direction and manages to go somewhere because of her skill with harmony. I love this show because it focusses in on the craftsmanship of music. That’s especially useful with music like this, where it intersects so perfectly with a big social conversation. The vast preponderance of criticism about A Seat at the Table has focussed on Solange’s social message, as well it should. But there’s space to recognise that Solange is both very thoughtful about feminism and race and she is very good at making music. Pick of the week.

The West Wing Weekly: “What’s Next? featuring Lin-Manuel Miranda” — Worth it for the lines about Yo-Yo Ma alone.

The Gist: “The 12-Step Program of Highly Effective People” — Nick Thune is a funny fellow. I saw him live last year, and was pretty impressed. This is a good conversation that gets into the craft of his comedy a bit, and gets to why he resists tightening up his set to just the lines that get the biggest laughs. I respect him for that. I found him entertaining to listen to, even when the punchlines were spread a fair way apart. Mike Birbiglia can get away with this too.

Criminal: “In Plain Sight” — It’s been so long since I listened to Criminal. I really should go back and listen to the whole archive. This is an incredible show. It reminds me as much of Reply All as anything, because it takes a really broad view of its premise. Anything that could ever have been interpreted as criminal is fair game. So, this story of two slaves escaping so that they could have a proper marriage in a church — an escape that involves a pretty insane disguise — is the sort of thing you can rely on this show for. Lovely.

The Memory Palace: “The Presidency of William Henry Harrison, or Back in the Saddle” — One of the really slight ones. It’s nice, and a good tie-in for inauguration day, but not one of the episodes that’ll sell you on this show.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Young Pope & Hell or High Water” — Here’s one of the episodes that makes me want to watch both of the things they’re talking about. The Young Pope in particular sounds exactly weird enough to be just what I want out of life.

Omnireviewer (week of Aug. 28, 2016)

27 reviews, featuring the point where I finally caught up with my podcast subscriptions. Always a moment of joy and satisfaction.

Literature, etc.

Thomas Ligotti: “Gas Station Carnivals” — Another corker. Ligotti likes to make his narrators into straightforward authorial inserts: in this, “Sideshow” and “Teatro Grottesco,” the authors are writers of grim prose. It isn’t self-aggrandizement; it lends a terrifying verisimilitude to the stories, because you start to feel like these things could have actually happened to Ligotti. Cleverly, this entire story proceeds nearly to the end without anything unsettling specifically happening, but rather, a series of unsettling things being described to our incredulous narrator by a third party. I’ve found time and again that Ligotti is as impressive for his structural cleverness as for the specific details of the horrors he conjures.

Thomas Ligotti: “The Bungalow House” — I don’t know if it’s just the effect of taking a bit of a break from this short, but extremely intense book. But, I’m finding this final run of stories especially fantastic. This story is sort of built around a twist, and it’s a twist you can see coming for a mile. But that didn’t affect my enjoyment of the story at all. It’s about a person who finds a kindred spirit in a series of tape recordings. (Does this resonate with me? To a point.) That premise, and the prose descriptions of the recordings in question make this another of the best stories in Teatro Grottesco.

Steven Pearlstein: “Meet the parents who won’t let their children study literature” — Pearlstein’s a bit condescending to accountants, I’d suggest. But then, how can you not be? While the broad sweep of his (admittedly familiar) argument is intensely sympathetic, the real reason I’m reviewing this is that shitty headline. This is an opinion piece, and a somewhat re-cooked one. There are almost no actual quotes from the reluctant parents the headline promises to introduce. I wanted a hate-read and I got a bland editorial. Screw you, WashPo.

Television

Stranger Things: Episodes 1-3 — I see why this is striking a chord. There’s more to it than just the ‘80s homages, which are great in themselves, though none of these reference points are especially meaningful to me, I must say. It’s just so fun. It’s a great yarn, strewn across familiar character and plot beats, with some truly great performances by many people, some of whom are barely teenagers, and some of whom are Winona Ryder. I feel like this is the sort of show I’ll have gotten the gist of before the story actually ends, but let’s not pre-judge that.

Music

Paul Simon: Surprise — This past Wednesday, a colleague casually mentioned loving the album that Paul Simon and Brian Eno made together, and I was thinking “why have I not heard that?” The answer, naturally, is a general prejudice against late works by legacy artists. We all have that prejudice, don’t we? But Simon’s poetic gifts had not waned substantially by 2006 (if the track I’ve heard from his most recent album is any indication, they still haven’t), and Eno remains a restless innovator. There are a few needlessly on-the-nose couplets here and there (It’s outrageous, the food they try to serve in a public school/Outrageous, the way they talk to you like you’re some kind of clinical fool”), but by and large this is one of the better pop albums made by a person over 60. Faint praise? Maybe. Here’s this though: the best track on this record is as good as the best stuff on Graceland. “Another Galaxy” is a marvel. It tells a simple story with astonishing economy (two verses and a chorus), it matches the peaks and troughs of the melody with the emotional highs and lows of the lines, and it offers a glimpse inside of its central character’s head with really simple language. This, from a guy who’s known to pack 20 words into a line when he can. Simon’s voice slips beautifully between the notes, and Eno’s electronics are perfectly complementary to the acoustic ballad that this is at its core. If there’s one problem with it, it’s that the broad strokes of the lyrics recall “Life On Mars” a bit, which is a comparison that does no song any favours. Both are about young women in difficult situations, romanticizing outer space as a place to escape. But where Bowie offers a generalized sort of discontentment, Simon’s is ultra-specific. There are other songs on this album that are nearly as good, which ought to demonstrate that, though this isn’t a masterpiece, it’s a really great album. Pick of the week.

IQ: The Wake — I had an inexplicable urge to listen to Marillion’s Misplaced Childhood yesterday. It’s an album I loved in high school, but has since grown insufferable to me for its preening self-pity and overwrought, empty bombast. Still there are memories in it, and I managed to get about ten minutes in before I began shuddering so hard I had to turn it off. I remembered my recent survey of The Seventh House by IQ, Marillion’s erstwhile neo-prog rivals, and how much better I liked it than the bulk of the Marillion catalogue, which is completely inaccessible to me now, save occasionally for Clutching at Straws and Brave. I figured perhaps it was time to give their most relevant period piece a listen. This is almost exactly concurrent with Misplaced Childhood, so unlike some of IQ’s later, more beloved albums, it actually belongs to the neo-prog moment that they are perpetually and anachronistically attached to. It’s a conflicting listening experience. On one hand, there are occasionally moments where a melodic snippet or solo leaps out of the headphones in the way that the best classic prog does. On the other hand, this is very much of its time. It sounds more ‘80s than Marillion ever did, and the recording fidelity is pretty dodgy, even by that era’s standards. Musically, it sounds a bit like what it is: a younger generation attempting to revive a lost art. The members of IQ are ‘80s prog’s hipster woodworkers. It’s like they’ve got a list of things that the old masters did, and they check as many boxes as they can while still sounding like a band that isn’t Genesis. At least Marillion had a distinctive personality fronting them. Fish’s vocals and lyrics frequently grate, but there’s nothing like his intensely introspective, confessional style in prog prior to Script for a Jester’s Tear, with the very notable exception of The Wall. (I just learned that Script and The Final Cut came out within a week of each other. Who poured self-pity into England’s water supply?) On The Wake, singer Peter Nicholls is clearly trying, but his performances and lyrics remain fairly generic. He would improve drastically, along with the rest of the band, by the time of The Seventh House. The closest they come to something as distinctive as “The Wrong Side of Weird” here is “Headlong,” which is also the one track on this album I could see myself returning to. I came to this expecting an interesting period piece, and I found a slightly dull one. But it never made me shudder the way that “Lavender” does.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Pete’s Dragon & Kids and Their Monsters” — Wow, they’re rough on Pete’s Dragon. I was half-inclined to see that movie after reading the reviews. But… we’ll see. Also, Stephen Thompson mentioned the Hip! I love that, even though the Hip will never be a thing in the States, the story of their denouement is making the rounds down there.

On The Media: “Define ‘Normal’” — Lots of good stuff, here. The opening segment on therapists doubling as specious pundits (specious therapists doubling as pundits?) is of particular interest, but the discussion of sexism in the Olympics, as it relates to gendered physical/physiological traits is also worth sticking around for.

Criminal: “The Editor” — One of the best prison correspondence stories I’ve heard. A man who was never taught to read (shame on American public schools) teaches himself to read in prison, reads 600 books, and starts finding errors in the Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia. So, he contacts the editor, and they become lifelong pals. Brilliant. And brilliantly told.

The Memory Palace: “Numbers” — One of the good ones. DiMeo cedes the spotlight to archival audio from newscasts in this episode. His writing and delivery are still first rate, but they’re bolstered by the incredibly matter-of-fact reading of the Vietnam draft lottery. The archival audio highlights the way that DiMeo is able to weave plausible fictions around his historical material. Probably in my top five episodes of this show. Profoundly moving. Pick of the week.

Code Switch: “‘Southside’ and Black Love at the Movies” — Karen Grigsby Bates is a relatively recent introduction to this podcast, but I’m definitely a fan. It could just be that this is about movies, and I’m always all about the pop culture-focussed episodes of this show. But this conversation with Bob Mondello is good listening.

Love and Radio: “An Old Lion or a Lover’s Lute, Special Extended Cut” — I listened to the additional conversation tacked on the end of this, because I remember the original clearly enough. It’s a classic episode of Love and Radio in that it defines the show’s central ethos, which is the notion that it’s better to listen to people than not to. Jerome, the cat-calling man of dubious gender politics who is the subject of this episode, is too complicated to write off completely. So are most people. This show recognizes that. Hearing the producer Ana Adlerstein talk to Jerome once again about people’s responses to the episode only makes it explicit that this is what she and the show’s regular producers are trying for. It’s a profound approach that challenges listeners to engage empathetically, even as it realizes that many of its protagonists (I’m thinking especially of the sex offender in “A Red Dot”) will not win the audience’s sympathies.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: MTV’s Video Music Awards 2016” — Stephen Thompson wants fights at the VMAs. And who can blame him? Still, I’m yet to watch that 15-minute Beyoncé performance, so I likely shouldn’t judge.

On The Media: “Bob’s Grill #5: Former CNN President Jon Klein” — AKA “Brooke’s Grill.” This is a nice reminder that Gladstone can summon Garfieldesque umbrage when need be. If there’s one thing I hate in a smarmy interview subject, it’s that thing where they say to an established journalist, “if you were only listening to me…” Shut up. There’s no way that Brooke Gladstone’s not listening to you. If her questions don’t line up with what you’ve told her, it’s because you’re not making sense, or you’re bullshitting. In this case, the latter.

Radiolab: “The Girl Who Doesn’t Exist” — The story of how it’s possible to be born in the United States and not have a birth certificate — and of how some assholes think that this is okay. Honest to god, that sovereignty bullshit makes me go out of my mind. But this is mostly the story of a girl escaping from a family who has that ideology and finding herself, perhaps ironically but perhaps not, more free.

The Memory Palace: “O, How We Danced” — A small thing. A tiny word painting of a dancing marathon that got shut down by the police for obviously specious reasons. Nice, but I listened to it mostly because the below showed up in my feed.

The Memory Palace: “Remixx: (o how we danced with miley) — It’s just the above episode, with Miley thrown in. Not an especially clever remix, and you get the feeling that it’s something that the three people who work on this show thought was funny when somebody brought it up, and then somebody actually made it as a joke, and then they released it. Which is a thing that I like, when it happens. Fine.

All Songs Considered: “Breaking Up With Your Favourite Bands” — It seems that Bob Boilen and I have some similar reference points. We are both baby boomers, see. However, when Boilen is discussing why he doesn’t listen to ELP anymore (something I definitely do not begrudge him for), he does not seem to have the facts at the tip of his tongue. Carl Palmer never played with the Nice; he was with Atomic Rooster and the Crazy World of Arthur Brown prior to ELP. Also, when Robin Hilton comments on the guitar sound, Boilen seems not to be aware that it’s a synth. Tut, tut. Also, he’s the only person in the room who’s heard of Cockney Rebel… but I have too! They’re so glammy that they even made the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack. All nitpicking aside, this is a really fun conversation. The notion of breaking up with bands you once loved doesn’t hit me quite so hard as many, I’d imagine, since most of my favourite bands did their best work 20 or more years before I was born. I never had a whole lot of interest in what Jethro Tull was up to in the ‘00s. We were preemptively broken up. I suppose there’s Opeth, though. Time was, I’d look forward to everything they put out. But then nostalgia took over, and even an openly nostalgic music fan such as myself couldn’t handle the constant reiterations of tired prog tropes. I haven’t cared since Heritage, and probably won’t listen to any of their new albums going forward.

Fresh Air: “Remembering Gene Wilder” — Amazing that this 2005 interview doesn’t even touch on Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Still, Wilder was a gentleman, and a fabulous comic actor. This is a lovely remembrance, and Wilder’s story about how Richard Pryor fixed a racist scene in Silver Streak at a moment’s notice is fabulous.

Code Switch: “What’s So Funny About The Indian Accent?” — I’m curious about how many Indians and Indian-Americans will listen to this conversation, in which a panel of Indian and Indian-American people claim not to be that offended by stereotyped Indian accents à la Apu, and think, hey wait. Obviously, I haven’t the slightest clue about this, but it strikes me that people could pretty justifiably get upset about Apu’s accent, given that it’s actually spoken by a Greek American man with no ear towards accuracy. I’m surprised it didn’t come under more intense scrutiny, here.

Reply All: “Boy Wonder” — “Can you solve this?” “Yeah, you’re a Yeti.” I dunno, Reply All has done this story before. Down to the same online diagnosis community, the same New York Times columnist, and the same references to House. Like House, it is frustrating for its repetition of things past. But it does have a great central character. If you do tune in, stick around until he starts reading self-coined platitudes.

Millennial: episodes 1 & 2 — I caught up with my subscriptions! I can finally start listening to new shows! But at this point, I’m committed to listening to every episode of so many podcasts that I need to be judicious about which ones get added to the pile. This show has its merits. The host, Megan Tan is very self-aware about the fact that making a podcast about being a millennial is extremely #millennial of her. And she’s a good storyteller with an engaging presence. But… I’m not sure how badly I need to hear the story of a person graduating journalism school and then struggling in a tricky job market when… well, this story bears a certain resemblance to EVERYBODY’S LIFE WHO I KNOW. I imagine it’s more interesting to people who are in less similar situations to Tan than I am. Also, I don’t relish the part of this story where her podcast gets picked up by Radiotopia like, three months in. I mean, really. But the primary reason why I don’t think I’ll listen to more Millennial is just that I’m more than 20 episodes behind, and I am not super willing to commit to a serialized podcast of that length with everything else I’ve got to listen to. Especially since I’m hoping to get back to my beloved You Must Remember This, which does tend to come in large chunks. It’s a shame, though. This is a good show. If I could stop time, I’d definitely listen to this.

Science Vs: “The G-spot” — This is a departure for the show, in that it doesn’t do its standard bullet-point interrogations of the major questions regarding a topic. Instead, it tells the story of public awareness of the G-spot since the 80s, with much giggling. Wendy Zukerman also takes an interesting detour into the history of anatomists suppressing the knowledge that the clitoris exists. This is definitely becoming, if not one of my favourite Gimlet shows, at least one of the good ones.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “You’re The Worst & Mixing Comedy and Drama” — You’re The Worst doesn’t sound like my kind of thing, but Glen Weldon explaining how stories work always is. This reminded me that I really need to listen to the audiobook of his Batman book.

On The Media: “Kids These Days” — Some great segments here. The one on millennials in the media is mostly satisfying for correctly identifying that Strauss and Howe’s generational theory is completely loopy. The one on music in presidential campaigns is fantastic, and pointed me towards this crazy art film of an attack ad for Nixon’s 1968 campaign, of all things.

Seminars About Long-term Thinking: “Neil Gaiman: How Stories Last” — I’m more interested in commenting on the form of this than the content, which is a perfectly good bit of Neil Gaiman in Neil Gaiman mode. This is a podcast provided by the Long Now Foundation, a fascinating organization co-founded by this program’s host, Stewart Brand, and best known for the very large, very slow clock they are constructing as a symbol for how much more long-term humanity should be thinking. It is also well known for including Brian Eno among its board members. This is a particular kind of podcast offering that doesn’t get included in lists of recommended listening. It fits alongside BBC Radio 4’s annual podcast of the John Peel Lectures, and other such things. Seminars About Long-term Thinking is simply an audio series made from the foundation’s lecture series of the same name. It is unedited, as far as I can tell. Very much in keeping with the philosophy of the Long Now, Gaiman is allowed to stretch his talk out for a substantial time, repeating himself at will, and allowing for long, pregnant pauses. The full episode is 103 minutes long. Brand is an occasionally bungling host, without an ear for when Gaiman says something interesting and worth picking up on, but that’s not really the point. This is a way to immerse yourself in a new way of thinking. The lecture series has a broad enough focus — long-term thinking — that its individual episodes can be about anything. But it is always framed by the fascinating philosophy of the organization that produces it. I can’t say for sure whether I’ll listen to any more of this. But I do admire it.

Code Switch: “ Singer Juan Gabriel’s Sexuality Was ‘Open Secret’” — This is a nice 20-minute primer on why Mexico is going all Canada over Gabriel’s death. (The parallels between Juan Gabriel and Gord Downie are extremely few, it would seem. But we can sympathize with the feeling of losing, or being about to lose, an icon who was uniquely of your home country.) It occurs to me that this episode may not be of much value to people who already know who Gabriel was — which is to say, apparently every Spanish-speaking person living within a hemisphere of Mexico. But Code Switch shouldn’t be held to that standard. I’ve learned something from every episode I’ve heard.

Omnireviewer (week of Aug. 14)

16 reviews. What on earth have I been doing? (Playing my new accordion. That’s what I’ve been doing.)

Movies

Shadow of a Doubt — I haven’t seen a lot of Hitchcock, and I honestly find him a mixed bag. I do not share the rest of the world’s reverence for Vertigo, and I think that Psycho is essentially saved by Bernard Herrmann. But I enjoyed this movie, screening at the Cinémathèque, on a number of levels. First off, the structure of establishing at the start that Joseph Cotten’s character is being chased and may be guilty of something terrible, and then avoiding the reveal for most of the movie worked brilliantly for me. In terms of the things that are happening for the bulk of the running time, this is mostly a comedic family portrait (it’s co-written by Thornton Wilder) with a Hitchcock-shaped cloud hanging over it. The tension of not knowing what Cotten did, or if he did it, is heightened by the fact that the family’s interactions are such a pleasure to watch. In fact, if there’s a real problem with this movie, it’s that the small-town comedy of manners is a better movie than the thriller it lives inside. The precocious young girl Ann is a complete scene stealer. And Herb the eccentric neighbour is far and away the best thing in this movie. I’m uncertain if some of the things I found funny were actually meant to be. Certainly, some of the laughter in the theatre was at the expense of the old-timey values espoused by the script. (“No champagne for me,” says the local priest. “And none for my wife, I’m sure!”) But there’s a fine line between reading the film as openly misogynistic and patriarchal and reading it as a critique of those same ideologies. It seems I prefer lesser-known Hitchcock movies to the critical juggernauts. As it stands, this is neck-and-neck with Saboteur for the mantle of my favourite Hitchcock movie. Bearing in mind that I have problems with both of them.

Television

Deadwood: Season three, episodes 7-9 — This is still great. In fact, two of these three episodes probably rank alongside season two’s best. “Unauthorized Cinnamon” in particular is just a classic hour. But “Amateur Night” is a joy as well, because it makes Brian Cox, a relative newcomer to the show, into an audience surrogate: he and we are both just enjoying the usual business of being in Deadwood. If this show manages to screw up the landing as badly as everybody says it does, it’ll have to do it real fast, because there are only three hours left and this season is still brilliant.

Last Week Tonight: August 14, 2016 — Neither here nor there. It’s fine, but it’s probably the least excellent episode so far this season. I have no further thoughts.

Comedy

Louis C.K.: Live at the Beacon Theatre — The first time I watched this it completely blew me away. I’ve cited it as my favourite stand up special on at least a few occasions. It holds up. Louis is amazing down to the tiny details, like “he sticks his face right in the front of his fuckin’ head…” His bit about not giving his first-class airplane seat to a soldier is possibly the definitive Louis C.K. bit, and there are few comedy bits with more repeat value than the segment on the evil child called Jizanthapus. I do think that even in the few years since this, he’s matured a bit in terms of knowing what he probably shouldn’t say. His bit about First Nations peoples is well-intentioned, but still stereotypes massively. His bit about men being bad at sex is similarly well-intentioned, but heteronormative. You take the good with the bad, I suppose. This is still a very, very good comedy special.

Music

St. Vincent: St. Vincent — Unbeknownst to me, this was my first exposure to John Congleton. He and St. Vincent are a great match, because he’s very good at blending rock and electronic music, and Annie Clark is a songwriter with a modern sensibility but also a virtuoso guitarist. This is a really great album. “Rattlesnake” and “Severed Crossed Fingers” are especially irresistible. But this time through, I also developed a greater appreciation for “Regret” and “Bring Me Your Loves.”

The Tragically Hip: Day For Night — I never got into the Hip. But right now, it’s pointless to resist getting sucked up into the Hipmania that has swept the nation. And rightly so. In preparation for last night’s epochal broadcast (not reviewed for CBC reasons, and also because the knowledge that you’re witnessing history makes assessment sort of beside the point), I listened to my first Hip album. I went with Day For Night rather than Fully Completely on the strength of “Scared,” a ballad I listened to for the first time on Friday, and then immediately five more times. It’s a really good album. I won’t pretend like it’s a clear all-time favourite. There are moments that feel crashingly generic to me — only musically, though. Gord Downie’s lyrics are anything but. I completely get why this band is so important to so many people. The Hip have a distinct identity, even when a song is sonically just cookie-cutter 90s rock and roll. The songs stretch past five minutes, just for the luxury of it. It’s not a statement; they just don’t really care about economy. There are good solos to be had. But mostly, this is a showcase for the very, very good songwriting of Gord Downie, accompanied by a very competent backing band. The songs that are the most obvious heavy-hitters are classics. Aside from “Scared,” which is still my favourite, “Grace, Too,” and “Nautical Disaster” are outstanding mood pieces. Downie’s lyrics are at their very best in the latter. Also, perhaps strangely, the other song on this that made a lasting impression is “Titanic Terrarium.” I’m not even sure what it’s about, or how the various threads of lyrical imagery running through it are meant to connect. But any song that starts with the lines “Growing up in a biosphere/ no respect for bad weather” has me straight away. This is a band that’s at their best when they are at their most idiosyncratic — lending credence to my theory that it’s intense specificity that endears audiences to artists’ broader oeuvres, even if blandness isn’t necessarily a hindrance to producing gigantic hit singles. This won’t be the last I listen to the Hip, even if they are a phenomenon that will keep me slightly at arm’s length, despite their admirable efforts to welcome all. My estimation of this may be higher than it would be otherwise, owing to the zeitgeist. But regardless, this is certainly the thing that has preoccupied me most this week. Pick of the week. 

Literature, etc.

Assorted Tragically Hip-related thinkpieces (Stephen Marche in the New Yorker, Chris Koentges in Slate, Michael Barklay in Macleans) — Before I get to these, I’ll say that my favourite single example of Hip-related media on the night of the concert came from Vox TV critic Todd VanDerWerff on Twitter. VanDerWerff happened to be vacationing in Canada and watching the Olympics on CBC, and then he tweeted this: “I didn’t even choose to watch this concert. I just turned on the TV in our cabin, and it was on. Like it was mandatory Canadiana.” Yup. We’ve got a bunch of problems up here, and Gord Downie has helped point them out as poetically as anybody. But I love that this is a place where there’s a band whose final concert is your civic duty to watch. VanDerWerff rightly proposed that there is no American equivalent to this. Of the three pieces listed here, my favourite is Koentges’s in Slate, where he frames Downie’s final tour in terms of post-Terry Fox Canadian heroism. Marche’s contains the best prose in terms of quantifying the Hip’s appeal. Barklay’s goes into the most detail about Downie as a figure in the broader Canadian community of musicians. But honestly, the only reason to read all three of these is if the Hip is all you’re thinking about for a certain period of time. And, speaking as a person who had very little interest in them two weeks ago, that is definitely the mood I was in after the show.

Podcasts

The Sporkful: “Is This Pizza Worth Waiting For?” — I want pizza. Dan Pashman makes me hungry. Also, this managed to be a convincing exploration of the psychology of expectation, as well as a narrative about a legendary pizza place. It’s a subtle narrative stunt, but it’s pretty impressive radio making.

Fresh Air: “Meryl Streep” — Streep’s a dull interview. But Terry Gross does her best to get an interesting conversation going by using singing as a throughline. Streep’s there to promote her new Florence Foster Jenkins biopic, from which there is copious hilarious audio in this. Streep’s approximation of Jenkins’s terrible singing is enough to maybe compel me to see this movie. But when she talks about Jenkins, this thing happens that often happens with very empathetic actors: she gets defensive of her character. Jenkins was a bad singer. A terrible one. That’s what she’s known for. That’s why there’s a movie about her. And even though Streep had to painstakingly learn to sing in the particular bad way that Jenkins did, she still has a tendency to try and point out Jenkins’s musical virtues, of which there are none. Still, once Terry Gross moves past the new movie and starts talking to Streep about singing more broadly — as a young woman studying opera, as a professional doing Broadway, and as a major movie star in Into the Woods — things pick up.

Reply All: “Sandbox” — Most of this episode is devoted to an alternate cut of P.J. Vogt’s story about his mom and his aunt for Invisibilia. But, tellingly, this cut is substantially different and actually a fair bit better. It is framed as a story about two people using technology to interact in a way that highlights their respective idiosyncrasies — two people who happen to be Vogt’s mom and aunt. That whole intro was lopped off in Invisibilia, which takes emphasis off of some of the broader implications of the story. Maybe I’m just a Reply All partisan.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Steven Universe and Board Games” — I probably won’t watch Steven Universe, not because I’m averse to children’s entertainment, but because committing to a children’s show feels weird to me. I saw Finding Dory like the rest of the world. But I’m not putting more than a couple hours into something like that, no matter how awesomely social justicey it is. And it does sound like a really great kids’ show. The discussion of board games that follows is an odd thing. Three of the four panelists are really devoted to talking about mostly pretty traditional games that aren’t pop cultural productions in any meaningful way (spades?), and Stephen Thompson keeps hearkening back to a prior discussion of board games from a couple years prior. Ehh.

Criminal: “Eight Years” — A pretty sobering tale of ongoing, long-term internet harassment. The founder of one of the major Harry Potter fansites, from way back in pre-social media days, has been mercilessly abused by one specific, clearly mentally ill person for nearly a decade. It’s a crazy story.

Science Vs: “Guns,” parts 1 & 2 — I’ll confess to already being slightly put off by the hokey tone of this. But the content is spectacular. Wendy Zukerman cuts through rhetoric on both sides of the political spectrum — though as any reasonable person would expect, the arguments posed by the gun lobby are more thoroughly untrue than those opposing them. I’ll definitely keep listening to this.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Mr. Robot’s Sam Esmail” — I’m not interested in this show and I’m not interested in this man.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Werner Herzog/Godfrey” — The Godfrey segment is funny because Maron’s a jerk. But like most everybody, I expect, I listened to this to hear Werner Herzog’s Bavarian deadpan for an hour. It’s a miraculous interview, in which Maron proves himself to be a far more existentially anxious person than Herzog, but only because Herzog has come to know the void that they both stare at with much more depth. Herzog has come to terms with the void. Maron’s quaking in his boots. I can’t wait for Herzog’s four upcoming movies. Pick of the week.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Get Down and TCA 2016’ — I hope Brittany Luse comes back to this show often. They ought to make her a regular fourth chair. That is essentially what’s notable about this episode, the discussion topics of which are not totally compelling to me.

Omnireviewer (week of May 22)

19 reviews. One of my favourite picks of the week ever (the first one).

Music

The White Stripes: Under Great White Northern Lights — Based on the bits and bobs I’ve seen online, I’m not sure this is the best available document of the White Stripes’ live show. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s all one song into the next, into the next. And my understanding was that they could really play fast and loose (in both senses) with their material in a live setting, since it’s just the two of them and they’re basically telepathic. I will investigate further.

Pink Floyd: A Saucerful of Secrets — For my money, better than The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. I used to be astonished at how quickly the other members of the band, and especially Roger Waters, were able to fill the void left by Syd Barrett. But after reading some of Mark Blake’s book about the band, it’s clear that Waters always had rock star aspirations and wouldn’t soon settle for being just some bassist. It’s also clear that Richard Wright was the most musically knowledgeable member of the band from the start. If Barrett had been able to continue on in the band, I highly doubt that he would have continued to exert such creative dominance. But as it stands, he wasn’t able to continue on, and the people around him were more talented than anybody gave them credit for. I like Barrett’s music a lot, but this is my pick for the best early Pink Floyd album (certainly the best prior to Meddle), and it’s only partially because of “Jugband Blues.”  A final note: it is astonishing to hear the version of Pink Floyd that made “Interstellar Overdrive” and that will go on to make the bulk of More and Ummagumma gradually give way to the version of Pink Floyd that will make “Echoes” and “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” through the course of the title track’s 11 minutes.

Literature, etc.

Thomas Ligotti: “The Town Manager” — This is the second story of two in this collection that has reminded me of a favourite piece of internet media, which it predates. “The Town Manager” has all of the hallmarks of Welcome to Night Vale, including the dark humour. But, being Ligotti, the darkness ultimately wins out over the humour. It’s about a town that abides by the arbitrary dictates of a series of town managers and a barely-remembered town constitution that nobody has understood for decades. One suspects it is not Ligotti’s goal to write fiction that is #relatable, but “The Town Manager” fits the bill.

Thomas Ligotti: “Sideshow, and Other Stories” — A high-concept story, the premise of which is that Ligotti met another writer in a coffee shop and he gave him a sheaf of tiny stories. The framing device makes it — since we know who this guy is, his writing takes on deeper meaning. Nice.

Thomas Ligotti: “The Clown Puppet” — A bit dumb, honestly. I feel like creepy puppets have been played out since before this story was written. The prose is great, though, and it’s repetitiveness and sense of alienation remind me of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which is a very good thing to be put in mind of.

Television

Last Week Tonight: May 22, 2016 — Brilliant from start to finish. In the segment on Trudeau’s apologies for elbowgate (oh my god am I actually going to use that word in a blog post yes I am), Oliver and his writers demonstrate something they’ve demonstrated before, which is that they understand Canada better than our own comedians and indeed better than much of our media. The main segment on primaries and caucuses demonstrates what we all pretty much knew, which is that this system is madness, and it contains one of my favourite comedic tropes, which is a person explaining a concept factually but the concept is so arcane that it becomes absurd after a few lines. And his final segment on the leader of Chechnya contains the best joke to have been hand-delivered to them by a horrible tyrant: “we have completely lost our cat.”

Game of Thrones: “The Door” — Things are picking up, now. Obviously, the headline is Hodor and generally everything in the Bran plotline, which I’ve been excited about from the start, but there’s much more to love in this. Tyrion and Varys are working as characters again, and Varys gets one of his best moments ever, when he spouts a rather eloquent screed against fanaticism, only to be seriously unsettled by the possibility that the Red Priestesses actually have a power he’d never considered real. The Wall continues to benefit from the presence of characters we’re not accustomed to seeing there: Littlefinger is at his most loathable here, and Sansa’s just-frank-enough account of her rape by Ramsay is a satisfying expression of power on her part — though it doesn’t come close to justifying that plotline in the last season. Jorah and Daenerys get their best scene together, and it’s only slightly undercut by Daario standing there awkwardly. Considering how angry I was at this show four episodes ago, the fact that it’s won me over is a minor miracle. I would like to stop seeing Arya get beaten up, though.

Movies

La Règle du Jeu (The Rules of the Game) — It is really great to have a public library in your city that lets you stream the bulk of the Criterion Collection. The Rules of the Game has been one of my favourite movies since I first saw it in a film studies class, at exactly the point in my life when seeing movies like The Rules of the Game in film studies classes would have the greatest impact. It contains what is still my favourite movie quote ever. Approximately translated: “The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons.” That perfectly describes the way that everybody acts in this movie, and mostly in real life too, I think. Nobody in The Rules of the Game is evil. Self-interested, certainly. Inconsiderate, also. Myopic, certainly. But for the most part, the characters in this movie do what they feel is right. And when they don’t, they jump through hoops to justify their actions to themselves. And people still get hurt. The worst things that happen in the world don’t happen because humans are malicious; they happen in spite of the fact that they’re not. “The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons.” There is only one other movie I can think of that recognizes this is true, and that is A Separation, which is the closest thing to a 21st-century Rules of the Game. If you’ve seen one and not the other, see the other. If you’ve seen neither, watch them both tonight.  

Games

EarthBound — Finally beat it. The fact that this game is a masterpiece really crept up on me. I was totally lukewarm on it at first. But in retrospect, its relatively innocuous opening chapters are a long con, designed to ease you into the game’s philosophy, which is basically that you cannot trust authority. The fact that this is such an obvious theme in a game intended for children, and that it is obvious without ever being stated outright, warms the cockles of my heart. In EarthBound, you play as a seemingly ordinary child called Ness. Pains are taken to establish the fact that Ness’s family is lower-middle class at best, and that their neighbours, the Minches, are wealthy. The Minches’ eldest son Pokey is an especially entitled little wanker who consistently anchors one of my favourite plot threads in the game, more on which in a moment. Ness’s family is loving, but his father is a lazy absentee who never appears in the game: he is only reachable by phone. (Possibly the saddest and most poignant moment in EarthBound is in the end credits: each of the characters’ names scroll across the screen, accompanied by an image of the character. But when “Dad” scrolls across the screen, the image is simply of a rotary telephone.) As the game pushes along, it isn’t only family and the trappings of wealth that get a raised eyebrow from EarthBound’s devs. It’s also the police, (Ness gets attacked by cops almost immediately when the game begins) organized religion (a cult paints an entire town blue as a matter of dogma), and consumer culture (you’re attacked by anthropomorphic records and coffee cups during a power outage in a department store). It’s power in all of its forms that EarthBound distrusts. In the final moments of the game’s last battle, Pokey appears again to gloat about how he’s able to ally himself with the powerful. One assumes that this is what he has learned from his privileged upbringing: associate with the powerful, regardless of morals and ethics. Throughout the game Pokey allies himself with a ridiculous but terrifyingly effective cult leader, a millionaire property developer under the influence of mind control, and Cthulhu. (Well, not technically Cthulhu, but more or less. The game goes full-bore Lovecraft at the end, more on which in a moment.) He’s an absolute weasel, he’s totally unrepentant, he’s allowed to get away with everything, and crucially, he is not redeemed. He’s just bad. A bad rich person, against whom an upright poor kid has to fight. In a summer where the biggest movie is about a clash between a soldier and a wealthy industrialist, it is incredibly refreshing to see something so openly sceptical of power. And the game’s best trick is that it reveals itself to be a dramatically different game than you thought you were playing right at the end, when your fight with an unknowable, incomprehensible consciousness takes on the tenor of Lovecraftian horror. But the game has prepared you for this by the end: no authority is worth taking at face value. Even the seemingly sedate narrative of a seemingly trustworthy little Nintendo game can turn on you. I think EarthBound is available on Wii U, or whatever that thing is called. So, parents: get this game for your kids. I honestly believe that it has the capacity to instil important values and make them better citizens. And beyond that, it’s just a grand old yarn. Pick of the week.

Kentucky Route Zero interludes: “Limits and Demonstrations,” “The Entertainment,” and “Here and There Along the Echo” — Like every fan of Kentucky Route Zero, I am anxiously awaiting the next, profoundly delayed, instalment. But unlike many Kentucky Route Zero fans, I had completely missed the fact that there are mini-games available for free that add depth to the main story. They’re not just trifles — It took me a couple of hours to get though all three. And they make substantial additions to the story’s canon. “Limits and Demonstrations” is in retrospect the first part of the game to make its metafiction explicit: this is a game about computer games, though the main story doesn’t quite make it there until Act 3. “The Entertainment” broadens Kentucky Route Zero’s engagement with the subprime mortgage crisis, which is somehow also a major recurring theme. It also contains a nice Waiting for Godot riff, as the bar patrons await the arrival of the entertainment. (When we meet the entertainment in Act 3, she explicitly quotes Beckett.) “Here and There Along the Echo” is certainly the most novel of the three — the entire game consists simply of a touchtone telephone that can only call one number. When you call that number, you’re faced with an inscrutable tree of menus read by an eccentric Southern gentleman who claims to represent “The Bureau of Secret Tourism.” The world of Kentucky Route Zero is so well defined that the devs can strip it down to a hotline and it’s still aesthetically recognizable. I can’t wait for Act 4.

Podcasts

The Heart: “Not the Right Time” — This is heavy stuff. It’s a first-person narrative about a woman having been sexually abused as a child. It’s beautifully produced, and exactly as hard to listen to as it’s meant to be. But it’s hard to judge this just yet, since it’s just the first episode of a mini-season that sounds like it will be very eventful, and very troubling to follow. I still will, though.

Reply All: “On the Inside, Part II” — So, at this point this actually is just Serial. And in spite of being less obsessive and rigorous than Koenig’s team’s production, it is entertaining me more than the second season of Serial did.

Fresh Air: “Marc Maron On Sobriety And His ‘Uncomfortable’ Comfort Zone” — I’ve heard Maron interviewing Terry Gross. Time for the opposite. What’s notable is how obviously Gross likes Maron: she wants the best for him and finds him excellent company, even though he can be overbearing. (I suppose interview subjects are allowed to be overbearing, but it still doesn’t speak well of them.) What’s also notable is how bad Maron’s TV show sounds like it is.

Fresh Air: “ Bryan Cranston” — I don’t know why Fresh Air is my favourite show to cook to, but that does seem to happen a lot. This is an old interview, but Cranston is such a charmer. A fun chat.

StartUp: “The Runway” — GOOGLE SPONSORS GIMLET NOW!?!?!? Ahem. This was lovely, and I liked that they broke it up into small vignettes. But in general, if you have to announce the structural gimmick at the start, you’re either not doing the gimmick right or you’re just generally not adventurous enough. I’ll go with the second one, with the provision that almost every podcast has the same problem. Somebody really needs to tear the walls of this medium down. And I say that as a devotee.

All Songs Considered: “A Conversation With Paul Simon” — On one hand, it’s cool to hear Bob Boilen basically do Song Exploder redux and just talk to an artist about one song. And the song is pretty good. On the other, it’s awkward to hear Paul Simon talk about studio practices that are a matter of course for any hip-hop producer as if they’re the most innovative thing in the world.

Criminal: “39 Shots” — This is the story of the time when leftist protesters got shot up by the Klan and the Klan was deemed not guilty on the grounds of self-defense. The most compelling and damning aspect of this is that the police were not there, in spite of them having issued the permit for the protest that was taking place, and saying they would be there to protect the protesters. As usual, Phoebe Judge does not try to influence your opinions directly. Nonetheless, it will disgust you.

Radiolab: “Coming Soon: More Perfect” — A show from Radiolab about the Supreme Court? Will Brooke Gladstone be involved? Because then I’m in.

99% Invisible: “Loud and Clear” — The story of why cassette tapes are still popular in prisons. There are so many interesting things in the world. At the best of times, 99pi reminds me of that. Plus, the Theory of Everything clip they play at the end is gold. I’m going to have to check that episode out. Pick of the week.

Omnireviewer (week of Feb. 27, 2016)

I’ve been writing about Pink Floyd, and thus listening to and reading about Pink Floyd a hell of a lot. Hopefully the fruits of these labours will be visible soon. But you can’t rush these things. Speaking of Pink Floyd and Rush, let’s begin with Genesis, and continue with 29 other things, for a total of 30! That’s the most in ages. Well done, Parsons. Thank you, Parsons.  

Music

Genesis: A Trick of the Tail — You know when a song you haven’t thought about for years comes to mind unbidden and you have to listen to it? That happened to me with “Squonk,” just now. I never expected that to happen with “Squonk.” But it did prompt me to listen through this entire album, which I haven’t heard for ages. This is like homemade macaroni and cheese straight out of the oven to me. People consider it a miracle that Genesis managed to make an album this good immediately after Peter Gabriel’s departure. But those people might not have a firm grasp on the power dynamic in Genesis: it was never Peter Gabriel’s band. Tony Banks and Michael Rutherford were at least as influential. Without Gabriel, they did lose a certain amount of the darkness that made The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway so delicious. But that’s not objectively a bad thing. I think it’s telling that fans of Genesis’ prog output tend to love this album and dislike, say, Duke. Because both of those albums are basically pop albums. The difference is that Trick is a pop album wearing a prog aesthetic: Hans Christian Andersonesque fables in the lyrics and semi-acoustic pastoralism in the music. Whereas Duke is a modern-sounding pop album mostly made up of love songs. But they’re both full of pop hooks. Really, Genesis was always more of a pop band than their prog contemporaries, even when their frontman was a guy who wore flower costumes. Maybe that’s why their music has such comfort food potential.

Pink Floyd: assorted early singles and unreleased tracks — I listened to all of the most notable tracks from the Barrett era that aren’t on Saucerful or the Piper special edition. Namely: “It Would Be So Nice,” “Julia Dream,” “Point Me At The Sky,” “Careful With That Axe Eugene” (the less-familiar studio version), “Vegetable Man,” “Scream Thy Last Scream,” “One in a Million,” “Reaction in G” and “Sunshine.” Together, they make a nice, if disjointed, early Floyd mini-album. Seldom has there been a band whose castoffs and curios are quite so interesting. I think it’s undeniable that Pink Floyd got better towards the mid-70s, but they were never again so radical as they were when Barrett was around. (An aside: the “Point Me At The Sky” single is apparently the rarest of all Pink Floyd releases. It is also the first track with a Gilmour/Waters songwriting credit. It also features the line “If you survive ‘til 2005…” What I’m saying here is that they really should have played it at their 2005 reunion show. That’s a huge missed opportunity. Sure, nobody would have known it. But, considering that it was the first time in decades that Gilmour and Waters shared a stage, it would have had such sentimental value.)

Pink Floyd: The Dark Side of the Moon — It turned 43 on Tuesday, so I figured may as well. I always feel like a hipster when I say stuff like this, but I really don’t think that Dark Side is one of the best Pink Floyd albums. Wish You Were Here and Animals are both more up my street where the mid-70s stuff is concerned, and The Wall is stronger thematically, if not musically. But I sure do see the appeal: it’s got a directness to it that other Pink Floyd albums don’t have. I played a couple of songs from this album with the band I was in back in high school, Sundog One. Every time I listen to it, there’s a parallel version running in my head of how it would sound if the band were still together, playing these songs. I imagine that sounds terribly sentimental, and I suppose it is, but it’s also just a fun exercise. I like to imagine that Sundog would have gotten more playful with time. We’d do “Us and Them” as a twangy campfire song with a harmonica solo in lieu of the saxophone, and “Any Colour You Like” would be flat-out disco. *Sigh.* Maybe someday.

Syd Barrett: Opel — Everything that improved in Barrett’s songwriting after he left Pink Floyd (or, was forced out by necessity) is counterbalanced by the way his solo albums are seemingly produced to highlight his “madness” rather than his genius wherever possible. This is more of a problem on The Madcap Laughs than on Barrett and it’s hard to discern why, considering that both were produced by Barrett’s friends (Roger Waters, David Gilmour and others on the first, Gilmour alone on the second). You’d think they’d want Syd to get a sympathetic hearing, and not seem like a freak show exhibit. In any case, Opel is an odds-and-sods collection from an artist whose music is chaotic even in a more polished state. It isn’t an easy listen, and you get the sense that some of it should have been kept in the vault for the sake of Barrett’s reputation. But like everything he ever did, it’s got some intensely haunting moments, and others of intense joy. The alternate take of “Golden Hair” is among the former (and also as good a setting of a literary poem as any composer ever made), and the version of “Octopus” (here called “Clowns and Jugglers”) featuring Soft Machine is very much the latter. Worth hearing at least once.

Literature, etc.

Mark Blake: Comfortably Numb: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd — I continue to be distracted from David Day’s annotated Alice, but I promise it is very good. This is something I picked up from the library for research, which I likely won’t be finishing this time around, but it’s a really great book. Like all rock music from the pre-punk era, Pink Floyd has inspired some truly dodgy writing. But Blake is a class act, with a real sense for storytelling. He starts at the end, nearly, with the band’s reunion at Live 8 in 2005. And he uses the absence of one member at that reunion, Syd Barrett, to transition to the band’s origins — and to set the scene for oncoming tragedy. Blake gets great recollections from band members and associates in original interviews. This makes a great pairing with Nick Mason’s Inside Out, which, being a memoir, can’t lay claim to accuracy. Both are entertaining reads.

Movies

World of Tomorrow — Here’s one of the two animated shorts that everybody said got egregiously snubbed at the Oscars. I haven’t seen Bear Story, so I can’t say. But this was adorable! And really dark. And adorable! The story and writing are only okay, really. It’s not top-shelf science fiction. But the really clever thing is how it uses audio that’s clearly just random babbling of an actual child as a key part of its dialogue. It’s only 17 minutes long, and it’s on American Netflix, so if you have access to that, just go watch it.

Television

Deadwood: Season 2, episodes 7-12 — The back half of this season is, no question, some of the best TV I’ve ever seen. A few highlights: at pretty much exactly halfway through the series, Al Swearengen and Alma Garrett finally have their first scene together. It’s insane that those two characters have gone so long without actually meeting, but it’s a canny decision because it makes that scene feel really momentous — so much so that when Al emerges from Alma’s room, E.B. asks him, “Have we a new pope?” What a line. Then there’s the ending of the episode “Amalgamation and Capital,” which, without spoiling anything, brings several ongoing storylines to their separate conclusions so that they all combine to have one specific consequence. It’s the kind of showy storytelling that I don’t think TV saw again until Breaking Bad. And frankly, Deadwood has better dialogue. There’s Timothy Olyphant’s performance in the following episode. He’s a scary dude when he’s angry, but he’s heartbreaking when faced with tragedy. And, of course, there’s the arrival of George Hearst, a character who’s been talked about so often that you feel like it should be a momentous event when he actually gets to Deadwood. But the show undercuts it by sending E.B. Farnum to meet him in a state of gastrointestinal distress. This is now my favourite poop joke: “Allow me a moment’s silence, Mr. Hearst, sir. I am having a digestive crisis, and must focus on suppressing its expression.” Deadwood is a show that everybody should watch. I am dreading the third season, because I’ve heard about how badly cancellation threw the ending into disarray. But the two seasons I’ve watched so far are essential. Pick of the week.

Last Week Tonight: February 28 — The main reason this isn’t pick of the week is that you’ve almost certainly watched it anyway. (And also Deadwood.) I never wanted John Oliver to cover Donald Trump. I admired him for saying that he wasn’t interested in Trump on Colbert. Basically, the thing I love most about Last Week Tonight is that it focusses on topics that aren’t necessarily part of the news cycle at any given time and manages to find the relevance and humour in them. And covering Trump is the opposite of that. But Oliver’s right: ignoring him won’t help. As I write this, Trump is trouncing Ted Cruz on Super Tuesday. And the key insight that Oliver brought to the conversation is that Trump’s greatest asset is his name. Not necessarily the actual word “Trump,” although that helps. But, the Trump brand has massively positive connotations for many people, in spite of Trump’s actually pretty dodgy leadership. So, the best mode of attack is to strip him of his damn name. Make Donald Drumpf again, indeed.

Better Call Saul: “Amarillo” — Okay. I’m just going to take a moment to rain on the parade. I still love this show, and this was a good episode. Things are picking up. But I started thinking about where the points of tension are in this story. And they’re basically, “Will Jimmy screw up his hard-won new career, and ruin his promising new relationship?” And, putting aside the fact that we know from Breaking Bad that the answer is yes, I feel like I’ve seen this story before. That’s not a knock, though. Actually, it’s nice to see such skilled TV craftspeople making something so simple. Not everything has to be Deadwood.

QI: “Messy” — Stephen Fry’s leaving QI? My god, I hadn’t heard! I’m disconsolate.

Podcasts

Criminal: “Hastings” — This is a story about a day when an eighth-grader brought a gun to school and tried to fire it. It’s told by three people who were there: the principal and two former students, now grown. It’s refreshing to hear a story like this told with so much attention paid to the experience of the survivors and so little paid to the sensational details of the (potential) shooter’s life, mental health, etc. Criminal tends to be a show that I appreciate more than I love, but it could be that I just haven’t heard a bunch of the best episodes.

Fugitive Waves: “A Secret Civil Rights Kitchen” — A lovely, slight little story about a woman who used her phenomenal cooking abilities for social good. Like all Kitchen Sisters stories, it’s beautifully produced. Listen to this to find out if Fugitive Waves will be for you. And then, even if it’s not, go listen to “Waiting for Joe DiMaggio.”

Radiolab: “K-poparazzi” — Really great. This is presented as a counterpart to the story about Gary Hart: both ask the question, “how much do we want to know about our public figures?” But instead of focussing on American politics, this one focusses on K-pop. I kind of wish they’d tightened both stories up and added a third, so it could be a classic Radiolab themed triptych. But then, my attitude towards Radiolab is always mediated by misty nostalgia.

99% Invisible: “The Green Book” — A new producer! Nice. I love how 99pi can find a way to present just about any story as being about a design solution. The Green Book was a travel guide designed to help black people travel through the United States in relative safety during the years of Jim Crow. The last edition was published shortly after the Civil Rights Act was passed, but it’s still enormously informative of that time.

On the Media: “Spotlight on ‘Spotlight,’ the Movie” — This made me even more glad that Spotlight won Best Picture. Robby Robinson and Sacha Pfeiffer’s devotion to truth in storytelling obviously extends even to their own story. Brooke Gladstone doesn’t push Robinson too hard on why he and the Globe didn’t break the Catholic Church child abuse story earlier, because she doesn’t need to. The movie explores that side of the story just as deeply as it explores the journalistic process. I loved this interview, but mostly I just love Spotlight.

The Heart: “Ghost: Alex” — This didn’t work for me. The Heart’s previous forays into fiction/semi-fiction have worked because they relied principally on a third-person narrator, which is a familiar format for a podcast. This is just a straight-ahead radio drama, and while I adore that format, the writing and acting feels forced. I would have preferred if Kaitlin Prest had remained present throughout. Maybe that’s just me.

The Memory Palace: “Overland” — Hey, there’s humour in this! I love The Memory Palace, but I’m not sure I’ve ever actually heard humour in it before. I’ve also never heard Led Zeppelin in The Memory Palace before. Nice.

Reply All: “Zardulu” — This might be the best episode Reply All has ever made. It’s best not to know too much about this going in. I’ll just tell you that it involves a conspiracy, a number of enigmas, some head scratchers, and Justin Trudeau getting threatened by the Sasquatch. I’ll also tell you that I am now halfway convinced that nothing is real. Pick of the week.

Love and Radio: “Deep Stealth Mode” — This is actually an episode of Here Be Monsters that’s making a guest appearance in Love and Radio’s feed. I’ve never listened to Here Be Monsters, but it sounds like it’s basically just Love and Radio made by different people. This is a story of a mother raising a transgender daughter whose consciousness of her gender became obvious when she was three years old. In classic Love and Radio style, the narrative stays in the tape the whole time: it’s just the mother and the daughter. No host or interviewer. It’s a lovely little story, and probably more relevant than the one I’ve chosen as pick of the week, but relevance isn’t everything. Let’s call it “recommended.”

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Oscars Omnibus 2016” — It’s possibly more fun listening to this with the benefit of hindsight. The lack of outright dismissiveness towards The Revenant is appreciated. I get it, awards momentum makes things tiresome. But it’s a skillfully made movie, and this panel recognizes that. On the other hand, Bob Mondello’s dislike of Spotlight is totally beyond me. Doesn’t matter now, though, does it?

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: The 2016 Oscars” — Basically a continuation of the above. Nice to have Gene Demby on here to offer some insight into the problems with the Chris Rock monologue.

99% Invisible: “Norman Doors” — This is actually a video, but the audio from it showed up in my feed anyway. It does really work better with the visual element. Mostly it’s just cool to see Roman Mars show up as a Vox reporter’s audio spirit guide. But I’m also a fan of any instance where he gets to gripe about bad design. (I.e. his TED talk.)

All Songs Considered: “New Mix: Breakthroughs by Car Seat Headrest, The Coathangers, Big Thief, More” — Oh my god that Car Seat Headrest song is incredible. The full version is nearly twice as long as the video edit and that’s what you need to hear. Stream it here. Do it. A show that starts there and ends with Tim Hecker has got to be good. Actually, it’s probably the best All Songs I’ve ever heard.

All Songs Considered: “New Mix: Music From M. Ward, Nothing, Marissa Nadler, a Chat with Mitski & More” — There hasn’t been a song on these last two episodes of All Songs that hasn’t been awesome. I’ve already gone back and listened to huge chunks of these shows. Now I have to try and remember to actually check out the records when they come out. My highlights here are “Pentecost” by Kyle Craft, “Girl From Conejo Valley” by M. Ward, and “Your Best American Girl” by Mitski.

On The Media: “FiveThirtyEight Explains Super Tuesday” — Listening to statisticians talk about Super Tuesday was almost as depressing as Super Tuesday itself.

Imaginary Worlds: “Imagining Wonder Woman” — Wonder Woman has the most interesting real-world origin story of any superhero, bar none. Can Superman claim to be created by a renegade polyamorous psychologist with a whips and chains fetish, as a vision of a feminist utopia? No he cannot. This is fascinating.

99% Invisible: “Mojave Phone Booth” — Actually a Snap Judgement story, this is the tale of the man who discovered a phone booth in the middle of the desert and how it became a precursor to social media. Really good.

Serial: “Trade Secrets” — Again, we venture into the weeds, and again I can’t keep myself apprised. Presumably, the reason Serial was the breakout podcast is that it was exciting. Not that this is a virtue in itself, but I do think that’s a reasonable statement of causation. So, in a sense, it’s sad to see it descend into something so eye-glazingly boring. On the other hand, maybe it reflects admirably on the team’s principles: don’t just be fun, be important. Can you tell I’m conflicted about this season? Every time I sit down to write one of these blurbs, I tie myself in knots. This is the sort of thing I’m quick to say should exist in the world, yet I’m basically listening to it out of inertia at this point.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Downton Abbey and Nostalgia as a Genre” — I came so close to starting Downton Abbey. I even made it about five minutes into the premiere. But now that I know how swiftly it went south, I think I may sit this one out. As for the podcast, I love when Barrie Hardymon and Audie Cornish come around. But for some reason, this episode doesn’t seem as interested in speaking to people who haven’t seen the thing they’re talking about. Still fine. But that’s usually one of the reasons that I prefer this show to the likes of Pop Rocket, which is more insidey. Just saying.

All Songs Considered: “The 2016 Tiny Desk Contest Winner” — Gaelynn Lea is awesome. I love that NPR chose somebody with such an idiosyncratic sound as their winner. Frankly, finding talent like this is the entire reason why public broadcasters should still be in the music business. I could not love All Songs Considered more than I do this week. In fact, let’s give the three episodes I reviewed here a collective, honourary pick of the week. But Reply All is still the best podcast episode I listened to this week, no question.

And with that, I got my listen later playlist on Stitcher down to zero for the first time in months. Thank you, dishes. Thank you, running.

Omnireviewer (week of Dec. 13)

It’s been the kind of week where I spend a lot of time with a small amount of things — most of which I’ve reviewed already in recent weeks. (Yeah, I’ve still got Hamilton on repeat.) So, only 16 reviews this time, and only one pick of the week since they’re mostly podcasts.

Television

Deadwood: Season 1, episodes 4-8 — Well, now I’m hooked, aren’t I? There’s been so much to love in these five episodes. The end of episode four is a hell of a bait-and-switch for those like me, who know absolutely nothing about the actual history of the real town of Deadwood, from which that twist is 100% taken. Al Swearengen continues to steal scenes, but the rest of the characters in the town are getting fleshed out nicely, from Seth Bullock and Alma Garrett, to E.B. Farnum and right on down to Reverend Nickelback. Still though, even most of the way through the first season, I feel like the show is still clearing its throat before it really says what it means.

QI: “Miscellany” — Noel Fielding is still alive!

Games

Undertale: Once again, I’m underwhelmed by a critically acclaimed indie game from 2015. I haven’t gotten very far, so perhaps that’s a premature judgement. But the default tone for this is self-aware bad jokes, which I find very trying. I get that it’s a genre pastiche, but can’t a game have something to say about a subject other that “what games are like?” I could see this growing on me as it progresses. But then, I said that about Stasis, too.

Podcasts

Theory of Everything: “New York After Rent (post prop f director’s cut)” — This is a one-part compilation/update of a three-part series that I’ve already heard, but I honestly relished a second listen. If you want to jump on board with ToE, this is the way. It demonstrates everything that Benjamen Walker is great at: clever turns of phrase, a Jonathan Goldstein-esque ability to weave together fact and (probable) fiction, and backing up giant intellectual pronouncements with great storytelling. In this case, the giant intellectual pronouncement is that Airbnb has resulted in the total commodification of New York City — not just its housing, but its art and the very thoughts of its citizens as well. It’s one of the most ambitious pieces of radio I’ve heard this year, and one of the funniest. Pick of the week.  

Criminal: “It Looked Like Fire” — This is one of those “two people with intertwined destinies” kinds of stories. The two people are a protester in Ferguson and a newspaper photographer, neither of whom could have quite grasped the future effects of their actions. Fascinating, and elegantly told.

This American Life: “Status Update” — A guy who knows Ta-nehisi Coates gets jealous, debt collectors keep suing entire neighborhoods, and Ira Glass tries to understand teenage girls. Sometimes you can just summarize something and that sells it.

Planet Money: “Frank Sinatra’s Mug” — Sometimes in radio, it really sounds like people are reading a script. I’m fine with that — except when they try and make it seem like candid conversation. Planet Money is worse for that than any other popular podcast. This is a fun story, though.

The Heart: “Idiot+Dummy” — A simple, well-told, bittersweet little love story that’s not sentimental or cloying. The Heart does radio drama better than The Truth, here.

Imaginary Worlds: “Han Shot Solo” — Maybe it’s just because I’ve already seen The People vs. George Lucas, but this seems like the least interesting episode of Molinsky’s Star Wars series. But if you’re not familiar with the slogan “Han shot first,” and the nerd debate nerdraging nerdily around it, definitely listen to this.

99% Invisible: “Tube Benders” — Neon! How has 99pi not done an episode about neon already? This is one of the “fine” episodes of 99pi.

Serial: “The Golden Chicken” — Okay, now my head’s starting to hurt. So many details! I’m not complaining. Still, if I have one gripe about this season of Serial so far, it’s that there seems to be less tape than I remember in the first. There’s an awful lot of Sarah Koenig explaining things. Maybe that’ll change as we get further into the thick of things?

The Memory Palace: “Gallery 742” — My idea to listen to the whole back catalogue before the next new episode went precisely nowhere, but I’ll get through them one of these days. At the beginning of this episode, DiMeo tells you to consider not listening to it. Apparently, it was made to accompany a walk through a new exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and he claims it only kind of makes sense without that context. Don’t listen to him. In fact, I’m fairly certain that the richness of his storytelling would only cause the actual exhibit to disappoint me if I saw it. I’ll stop before my fawning embarrases me further.

All Songs Considered: “Poll Results: Listeners Pick Their Favourite Albums of 2015” — Inevitably, the episode featuring the critics’ picks was more interesting that the one with the listeners’ picks. But there’s still a heck of a lot of variety here, and it’s good listening. I really need to sit down with that Sufjan Stevens record. I’ve heard “Blue Bucket of Gold” on this podcast a couple of times now, and god what a gorgeous track.

Song Exploder: “Björk – Stonemilker” — As episodes of Song Exploder go, this one doesn’t offer a huge amount of insight into the track. But you get to listen to an isolated Björk vocal from one of her best songs, so that makes this essential.

All Songs Considered: “David Bowie Fulfils His Jazz Dream” — A preview of the upcoming Bowie album, guided by the bandleader, Donny McCaslin, and the Most Legendary Producer In All The Land: Tony Visconti. How can you go wrong? Bob Boilen isn’t the greatest interviewer, but he doesn’t really have to be. And the new music sounds fantastic.

Reply All: “Past, Present, Future” — This is a bunch of updates on what happened after the end of several Reply All stories from the past year. So, it’s basically an episode of Reply All that would make no sense to anybody who hasn’t heard pretty much every prior episode of Reply All. Which is fine, because who listens to one episode of Reply All and doesn’t go back and listen to the whole back catalogue? I was particularly taken by the update to the story where the P.J. and Alex broke into an abandoned building and found a goat. Mostly, because when I heard that the first time I kind of didn’t believe it. That’s the thing about radio. You can say you see something and nobody’s any the wiser. But this update has an interview with a listener who has a plausible explanation for why there was a goat in that building. Good enough for me.

Omnireviewer (week of Nov. 29)

I realize I’m usually pretty effusive in these things, but this was such an effusive week that I’ve elected to award three picks of the week, rather than the usual two. This will be a rare occurrence, I promise. But this week, it was honestly difficult to give only three. I honestly could have given about six.

Literature, etc.

Reza Aslan: No God But God — If I could force everybody I knew to read one book, I’d have to think hard about which one. This would make the shortlist in any given year, but in 2015 I expect it might find its way to the top. This is a riveting, brilliantly argued history of Islam. Aslan’s prologue to the latest edition does a fantastic job articulating the extent to which Islam is misunderstood and misrepresented in Western media, and the extent to which the distrust and hate levelled at Muslims just keeps getting worse. So basically, we need Aslan’s expertise to offer context. Pick of the week.

Karen Weise: “The CEO paying everyone $70,000 salaries has something to hide” — This Bloomberg feature feels like the first rumblings of a gigantic storm.

Movies

Inside Out — Watching a Pixar movie at home isn’t a thing I would normally do, but I’ve got a monstrous cold that I just cannot handle right now and I’m marooned at home wearing pyjamas and eating mostly cereal. So, basically reverting to childhood. What better time to see this massively acclaimed movie that I didn’t make it to in theatres? I expected it to be brilliant; I’m not sure I expected it to be so dark. I mean, it’s basically watching a young girl’s personality gradually disintegrate through symbols. But it might well be the most inventive, and one of the most moving coming of age stories I’ve ever seen.

Music

The Smiths: RankPitchfork thinks this live album is filler in the complete edition of the Smiths. Pitchfork is very hip and modern and therefore doesn’t understand live albums. This is a lot of fun, and should be in anybody’s Smiths collection who actually has a Smiths collection.

The Smiths: Every non-album track by the Smiths — All of the tracks that aren’t on any of the proper studio albums or Hatful of Hollow are distributed between a number of compilations of varying degrees of redundancy. So, I just set all of the distinct tracks up and listened through. It’s not an ideal approach, and there’s plenty that isn’t great. Still, listeners who stop at the four key albums are missing out.

National Brass Ensemble: Gabrieli — Generally, I think that Gabrieli’s music needs to be played on period instruments to be satisfying. I tend not to like the bombast that modern brass instruments (and modern brass players) bring to this 16th-century music, which predates the invention of all of those instruments. It was written for the slight reediness of an ensemble of cornetts and sackbuts — a totally different texture to symphonic brass. And, while I have no fundamental objection to great musicians taking literally any music at all and playing it literally however they want, it’s always a risk. All of which is a giant throat-clear before I say that I actually really enjoyed this. It’s a tribute to an earlier modern brass recording of Gabrieli, featuring members of three great American orchestras. I never really warmed to that album, despite its classic status among brass players. (I played the trumpet, once upon a time.) But this new one, boasting modern recording fidelity and a generally higher standard of playing has won me over. It’s a big steamroller of a thing, where period instrument recordings are smart cars, but hey. Don’t fault an envelope for not being a treehouse, right?

Television

BoJack Horseman: Season 2, episodes 7-12 — “Hank After Dark” is a classic episode. It’s got an entire plotline that takes place mostly in the news tickers at the bottom of the screen. The density of visual jokes approaches Terry Gilliam territory. Also, many excellent puns and a Bill Cosby riff with teeth. And fantastic character beats for all of the main cast. And the line “That woman can knock a drink back like a Kennedy at a wake for one of the other Kennedys, but damn if she doesn’t get shit done!” And a great kicker at the end. It almost doesn’t matter that the last five episodes of the season (the second-last in particular) are also fantastic, because this one eclipses the entire series.

Deadwood: Season 1, episodes 1 & 2 — It was time I watched Deadwood. The black sheep of HBO’s trinity of David-helmed prestige shows, it might be the most acclaimed show of its time that I haven’t seen. These first two episodes are pretty damn good — I’m especially enjoying any scene with Ian McShane in it. I’m pretty sure I’ll love this eventually, but it might take a while for me to acclimate.

Doctor Who: “Hell Bent” — What “Heaven Sent” was for experimental, minimalist, self-contained Doctor Who, this is for sprawling, continuity-heavy, epic fantasy Doctor Who. And while I’ll generally take the former approach (Blink and Listen come to mind) over the latter (The End of Time and Day of the Doctor), there are times when I’m happy to see Doctor Who go really, really big. Taken together, the astonishing two-parter of “Heaven Sent/Hell Bent” is basically an inversion of my other favourite game-changing season finale: “The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang.” Where that one started with an hour of threats from every bad guy in Doctor Who and closed with a personal story about Amy Pond’s wedding, this one opens with a chamber piece about the Doctor alone with his darkest thoughts and closes with an hour that includes Gallifrey and Rassilon and the Sisterhood of Karn and the diner from “The Impossible Astronaut” and Maisie Williams and a proper send-off for a major character. And taken together, they work brilliantly. On first viewing, I’m tempted to say that this is just as good as the end of Season 5. Pick of the week. (Happy, Sachi?)

Podcast

Oh man, when I get over this cold, I’m totally going to start running again. Because I’m so behind on my podcast listening. Seriously, I have 20 unlistened episodes on my phone right now. Sad state of affairs.

Mortified: “Jason: King of Scotland” — I don’t listen to Mortified very much, but the premise of this one, where a teenage misfit imagines himself as a Shakespearean Scottish king in his diary, was too good to pass up. It basically lived up to expectations, except that the guy consistently mispronounces the word “exeunt.”

Imaginary Worlds: “1977” — This has shot straight onto my “Religious Listens” playlist. (Those are the podcasts where I listen to every episode.) Imaginary Worlds tells well-written, well-produced stories about the cultural impact of geeky fiction. So… made for me. This is the first of a five-part series about Star Wars. I’ve always found that people talking about Star Wars is more interesting than Star Wars itself, so I’ll be listening to all five parts, for sure. Pick of the week.

Welcome to Night Vale: “A Carnival Comes to Town” — I wonder if I’ll get more invested in this show once I catch up and hear episodes the same time as everybody else? The ending of this is great, though. The thought of normal people stumbling on Night Vale and being totally baffled is wonderful.

Criminal: “American Dream” — I love stories of bank robberies. I absolutely see the romance in it. So, I had a certain amount of sympathy for the protagonist of this story from the start. Phoebe Judge doesn’t let you totally side with him, because that would be ridiculous. But, listening to this, you can imagine the thrill of standing in the queue for the tellers, knowing what you’re about to do — and knowing that nobody’s going to get hurt. This guy’s bank robberies were fairly mundane, as these things go. But when get to hear the stories as they play out in his head, it’s a rush.

Imaginary Worlds: “Empire vs Rebels” — An exploration of Star Wars’ central conflict as a sports and politics metaphor. It’s as good as that sounds, but the previous episode about the context for the first movie’s release is better.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Shonda Rhimes on her ‘Year of Yes’” — I’ve never seen anything that Shonda Rhimes has ever been responsible for, and this is kind of a “meh” interview anyway.

Surprisingly Awesome: “Concrete” — Look, I already knew that concrete was interesting thanks to… guess which podcast… 99% Invisible. I don’t think I like Surprisingly Awesome. The exclamations of breathless wonder from whoever isn’t hosting on a given week are so unnecessary and so irksome. I expect I’ll listen to this again sometime, but I’m dropping it for now. Oh well, Gimlet. Three out of four ain’t bad.

All Songs Considered: “New Mix: Missy Elliot, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, PWR BTTM and more” — My list of artists I heard on All Songs that I need to check out properly is getting really long. This week’s key addition is the arty-rocky band Public Service Broadcasting. But for me, All Songs isn’t just useful for introducing me to music I’ll like; it’s equally worthwhile for playing stuff that I don’t like, but that I do find interesting. The kind of music that I don’t really ever want to hear again, but that I’m glad I at least heard once. (Urm, Macklemore.) In 2015, that’s kind of the ideal function of a music programme, I’d argue.

99% Invisible: “Worst Smell in the World” — This is fine. Not a standout episode, but fine. I have nothing to say about this perfectly fine episode.

Imaginary Worlds: “The Canon” — I seriously love this podcast. This is an early episode about the concept of SC/fantasy “canons:” the stories that are acknowledged to have happened “in-universe.” Eric Molinsky talks to a rabbi about how fandom’s relationship to canons are similar to religious scholars’ interpretations of sacred texts. It’s a genius approach. I wish I’d come up with it.

Reply All: “Quit Already!” — A collaboration between Reply All and Radio Ambulante. I love when my favourite English language shows collaborate with Radio Ambulante. It always makes me wish I spoke Spanish, so I could listen to Radio Ambulante.

All Songs Considered: “The Year In Music 2015” — If, like me, you spent a lot of the year continuing to obsess over old obsessions and missed a lot of the new music, just listen to this. Everything played on here is fantastic and will set you on track to hear the rest of 2015’s really great music. I can feel an obsession with the Hamilton cast album coming on. Watch this space.

The Moth: “The Moth StorySLAM” — These StorySLAM episodes can be dodgy, since literally anybody can get up onstage at a StorySLAM event. But they do tend to broadcast the best of them, and some of these stories are really fun.

On The Media: “On San Bernadino” — Another instalment in my recent trend of listening to On The Media after a crisis. The segment on gun control research being hamstrung by legislation alone is worth the time.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Good Dinosaur, Pixar and Second Thoughts” — Well, now I will certainly not be seeing The Good Dinosaur. Especially not after Inside Out left me with such tremendous goodwill towards Pixar. But I likely would not have seen The Good Dinosaur anyway.

Imaginary Worlds: “Slave Leia” — I’m not sure I buy the redemptive readings of Leia’s plotline in Return of the Jedi. I’m more inclined to side with the critic in this podcast who feels that Leia is just really badly served in this movie, compared with the previous two. But it’s interesting to hear counter-arguments, and I’ll definitely be bearing them in mind when I re-watch Jedi before the new one comes out.

Surprisingly Awesome: “Tubthumping” — Okay, I’m dropping it after this one. I had to see how this episode came together in the end, after hearing the drafts of it on StartUp. Look: the topic of this episode is so obviously not boring that even Adam Davison — whose role it is here to act bored — can’t entirely sell it. I could definitely see these two guys making a great podcast together, but the seams of this format are showing already. Which is not to say that the content of this is bad; I’m inclined to think it’s the best episode they’ve made so far. But I’m still done with Surprisingly Awesome for now.