Tag Archives: Doctor Who

Omnireviewer (week of April 30, 2017)

Hey, remember last week when my post only had seven reviews in it and was super short? Prepare yourself. This one’s 6000 words. Also, I decided to allocate my two picks of the week to non-podcasts, because podcasts aren’t making up such a staggering preponderance of these reviews, these days. Never fear, this will likely be a temporary state of affairs. Incidentally, this was another week when I would gladly have given out more than two picks of the week, but I failed to exercise restraint last week and I’m not making it a trend. No sir.

29 reviews.

Games

Sunless Sea — It is with intense satisfaction that I would like to report that after 130 hours of playing this over the course of two years (and seven dead captains, to boot) I have completed the main story of Sunless Sea! By “main story,” I mean the ambition called “Your Father’s Bones,” which you can choose at the start of a game. (This ambition has a narrative hook: you’re looking for the final resting place of your departed father. Whereas the other starting ambitions are essentially opportunities to explore freely while amassing fictional money or items that will eventually allow you to end your game with a win if you choose. So, the Father’s Bones option seems like a “main story” to me.) I confess that playing through this ambition was very much a “journey not the destination” sort of experience. The ending of the story is entirely fine, and beautifully written. But the true appeal of this storyline is in the subplots you have to follow while collecting a series of rare items. True, a fair chunk of the quest falls under the category of that hoary old video game trope “find X things.” But seldom does a quest to find things result in such rich storytelling. I got to know my ship’s gunnery officer a bit, and realized he’d built munitions for some truly shady people. I aided in my chef’s training and watched as he prepared a meal for a retinue of the living drowned. I hunted a ship crewed entirely by spiders. And it was all expressed through, bar none, the best written prose in the industry. I say this every time I write about this game, but Sunless Sea and its sister title Fallen London are the only games I’ve played with a distinctive and sure-handed approach to language that rivals literature. The humour, terror, characterization and poignancy of the various stories contained within this game all arise from the writers’ ingenious and idiosyncratic use of English. It’s a thing to behold. I will likely put aside Sunless Sea for a while now (and perhaps take up Fallen London in a more serious way), but I’m sure I’ll return to it at some point. I still feel as though I’ve only made a cursory survey of many of its moving parts. I don’t understand the full significance of the island of mute exiles in the north. I don’t understand why the locals at Mutton Island, just off the coast of London, suddenly started acting so weird. And I definitely don’t understand where the terrifying artificial sun in the corner of the map came from. Plus, I haven’t really dove into (excuse the pun) the excellent Zubmariner expansion, which has a starting ambition of its own. I think I’ll make it my goal to finish at least one more ambition in Sunless Sea before the sequel, Sunless Skies comes out. I never tire of this game, and I increasingly love the parts of it that annoyed me at first — namely the long, slow trips from port to port — best of all. While these moments can become extremely stressful under certain circumstances, they are usually fairly placid. This lends a contemplative element to a game that otherwise serves up plot pretty swiftly. Like baseball, I suppose. For a game that is so concerned with (and so effective at simulating the experience of) abject terror, it can feel curiously therapeutic to play. Sunless Sea is for me the most magnificent escape into an alternate universe that gaming has ever offered. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Pick of the week.

Television

Bill Nye Saves the World: Season 1, episodes 1-3 — It was Bill Nye who first made me want to be a scientist. It is crucial to note at this juncture that I am not a scientist, and in fact have a tenuous understanding at best of many very basic scientific concepts. However, when I was about eight or nine, when Bill Nye the Science Guy was nearing the end of its run, I wanted nothing more than to be a madly gesticulating, eccentric, bowtied fellow in a lab full of Tesla coils and beakers of colourful fluid. It was only partially the whimsical aesthetic of the show that pulled me in: it was just as much the spirit of joyful curiosity about the way the world works. The Nye Labs point-and-click adventure Stop the Rock! likely had an even more formative influence. That game let you actually explore Nye Labs. The wonder! The part of me that got sucked into early Radiolab is a part that was probably put there by Bill Nye. So I feel a tremendous amount of goodwill towards this guy. And basically, I think his new show is good. Certainly it’s noble. But by focussing specifically on the controversial global issues that require us all to have a better understanding of science that we do, he gives up something really crucial about the science communication work he’s done in the past: he loses sight of the sheer mad joy of understanding as an end in itself. Yes, it’s true that science is crucial to helping us navigate the biggest challenges we face. But that’s only one side of it, as far as I’m concerned. The other is that it’s just better by definition to know more about the world than you do. And that experience of joy in knowledge is essential to winning people over onto the side of science. I’d like to see Nye do a show that is similarly aimed at adults, but which balances topics of substantial-to-massive contemporary importance (alternative medicine, climate change) with scientific topics that are complex but maybe not quite so tied into the nightly news. When I was a kid, Bill Nye taught me about things I’d never heard of before, from underwater life to plate tectonics. I kind of still want him to do that. And also talk about climate change! We should never shut up about climate change. But… also fun new science facts. And the celebrity guest appearances can go. The not-famously-charismatic Steve Aoki’s guest spot is so arbitrary I kind of enjoyed it in spite of myself. But why Zach Braff is in the first episode, I’ll never understand.

American Gods: “The Bone Orchard” — Hugely, enormously promising. Like, “maybe this will be better than the book” promising. There are so many blazingly good sequences in this first episode that it almost seems ostentatious. The casting is flawless, with Ian McShane being a particularly obvious but magnificent choice for Mr. Wednesday and Ricky Whittle offering a harder, colder Shadow than the one in the book. A good choice, since it gives him a direction to move in. The look of the show is much more similar to Hannibal than I’d expected. Clearly Bryan Fuller is in the habit of bringing his own aesthetic to stories originated by others. Shadow’s dreamworld is rich and hallucinatory. I’m particularly fond of the way the ceiling of his cell breaks open to reveal Laura. And the entire ending sequence with the Technical Boy is brilliantly creepy in a way that only tech-based horror can be. The way that the Technical Boy forms out of weird claymation is the sort of bizarre, entrancing choice that is making me feel like this might actually kick the book up a notch. It’s really trying to be its own thing. But there are standout segments straight from the book as well. Shadow’s first conversation with Wednesday on the plane is a delight, and gives McShane the opportunity to be as gruff as we Deadwood fans are used to seeing him, but with an unfamiliar note of whimsy. Likewise, the bar fight with Mad Sweeney plays out almost exactly as in the book, and the gradual escalation from coin tricks to full-on brawling is as satisfying in this medium as that one. But the appeal of this so far is definitely not the basic joy of seeing a familiar work of fiction play out onscreen. It’s the much more complicated thing of seeing a familiar work of fiction get filtered through another auteur’s sensibility. I didn’t expect so much stylized gore, nor so many scenes with the dialogue almost entirely re-written. These are indications that Bryan Fuller (and, I suppose Michael Green, who is ostensibly an equal partner in this) will be making this his own. This is going to be so great.

Doctor Who: “Knock Knock” — Again, the best thing about this episode is the riffing on Doctor Who as a cultural force. “Oh, you’re the Doctor?” “Yes.” “Cool!” So, that’s a theme that’s continuing. But man, this was pretty blah. I enjoyed it in the sense that it was good performers filmed well while saying witty lines. But as horror stories rooted in the confused dynamic between a parent and child go, it’s sure not “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances.” I like seeing Bill just go about her life outside the TARDIS, but we don’t get much of that before the generic haunted house story starts up. Competent. Not great. The weakest of the season so far, by a substantial distance.

Better Call Saul: “Sabrosito” — I should have mentioned last week how satisfying it is to see Patrick Fabian’s Howard Hamlin gradually transition into a really wonderful comic performance. His fence-climbing antics last time around were a highlight, but this week all he has to do to get a laugh is say “well that is a shame” in the most transparently ingratiating tone of voice possible. I really like this character. Fring’s plotline in this is notable mostly for his final speech to his employees at Los Pollos, which is a terrible speech. Intentionally so, obviously. It really drives home the point that Fring is intensely cynical: he knows he can anticipate a certain amount of critical thinking on the part of the people he associates with in the drug business. And certainly on the part of the cops. But employees at a fast food restaurant? Nah, they’ll buy anything. I’m not sure we’ve seen this from him before. It’s the only time he’s been less than completely convincing in his cover, but he knows he only has to be convincing enough. And he is. Jimmy’s plotline only surfaces halfway through the episode, once we’re through with Fring and Hector Salamanca. (Mark Margolis is continuing to add depth to this character, which both makes him fun to watch in this show, and deepens the tragedy of his barnstorming mute, wheelchair-bound performance in Breaking Bad.) I do wish that this story would move a little faster. I’m enjoying the Mike/Gus side of this season, but I feel as though the emphasis on that is slowing down progress on the story that has always fascinated me the most, which is anything involving Jimmy and Kim. Still, this is great.

Comedy

Maria Bamford: Old Baby — This is the best comedy special I’ve seen since about three Louis C.K. specials ago. I will repeat none of the bits, because the trailer for this proves that they are not funny out of context. I will say that Bamford has the perfect mix of three characteristics I like in a comic: jokes that frame the familiar in a new way, a delivery that complicates and deepens the writing itself, and uncommon life experiences to draw on. Regarding the second-last one of those, Bamford’s characters are hilarious, particularly when they’re her parents. And regarding the last, Bamford’s experience with mental illness is (silver linings) a fruitful source of material for her. I’m underselling this by making it tediously abstract. But I’m not about to explain comedy, here. This is on Netflix. Go watch it now. Pick of the week.

Movies

The Road Forward — The opening film of this year’s DOXA festival, this is a musical semi-documentary by Marie Clements, one of our local visionaries. It uses a gigantic storytelling toolbox including songwriting, music video, interviewing, visual symbolism and archival footage to tell a vast, nuanced story. The story is about the untold history of First Nations activism on the West coast of Canada. And it would be a hell of a story, even told straightforwardly. There are stories here, like the origins of the Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood and the Indian Constitution Express movement, that are the sorts of incredible tales that inevitably prompt white people such as myself to say things like “how was I never taught this?” (Which is a sentiment that the film pokes fun at once or twice.) It’s moving, important and enormously ambitious. Its flaws are flaws it shares with virtually all movie musicals and some music videos: a certain ostentatious theatricality keeps it slightly at arm’s length (this started life as a theatre piece). But it’s still something I think every Canadian should see, not out of a sense of duty, but because it features contributions from a huge number of really great artists, with Clements at the top of the pile.

Literature, etc.

Jorge Luis Borges: “Ibn-Hakam al-Bokhari, Murdered in his Labyrinth” — I’ve decided not to read this Borges collection in order, but rather to skim through and read the ones whose titles or first sentences jump out at me. The first sentence of this story is as follows: “‘This,’ said Dunraven with a vast gesture that did not blench at the cloudy stars, and that took in the black moors, the sea, and a majestic, tumbledown edifice that looked much like a stable fallen upon hard times, ‘is my ancestral land.’” I’m in. This is a fairly restrained application of Borges’s genius, but it’s definitely Borges. (One thing I recall from my long-ago reading of “The Garden of Forking Paths” is that it’s about a labyrinth. Sounds like this will be a theme.) Again I’m curiously reminded of Neil Gaiman. A cursory Google (and the slightest bit of common sense) reveals that Gaiman is a fan of Borges. And this story about stories feels like the sort of thing that wouldn’t be out of place in Sandman. Basically, one man tells a friend a story about a man who hid away in a labyrinth. And another man ponders the story, finds it insufficient and tells another version that’s more convincing based on the same facts. Simple, direct, ingenious. And also fable-like. Borges’s recurring motifs of labyrinths and libraries appeal to me on an aesthetic level as well as a thematic one. This is going well.

Jorge Luis Borges: “Borges and I” — An extremely short, vaguely troubling autobiographical sketch that finds Borges negotiating the difference between his public and private personas. This is part of The Maker (AKA Dreamtigers), and I think I’ll probably hold off on reading any more of that until I get a copy of the complete text. (My complete fictions collection dogmatically refuses to include the poems in The Maker, which are apparently crucial to its flow.) But this is a lovely little observation. If it’s any indication of what The Maker is like in general, it seems like the sort of thing I’ll enjoy more once I’ve got a better sense of what made Borges into the public figure he describes here. Perhaps I’ll focus on the earlier stories.

Jorge Luis Borges: “The Garden of Forking Paths” — You know, it’s possible that I hadn’t actually read this like I’ve been saying I have this whole time. Having read it now, it’s clear to me that the reason I was familiar with it is primarily because of the extraordinary way that Borges poses a thought experiment that prefigures hypertext literature decades before its actual invention. This is definitely something I’d read about this story. But the story itself seems unfamiliar to me. Maybe I just read it in a different translation? I dunno. I can’t imagine it would have made such a weak impression. This is deservedly a classic. Not as mindbending as “The Library of Babel,” but it’s also spinning more plates. It’s got a narrator with a motivation, a framing device, and an espionage plot all surrounding the main event, which is clearly the conversation about the labyrinthine novel that is effectively hypertext. One of the things I love most about the Borges stories I’ve read so far is they’re very short, and thus make rereading a completely non-daunting proposition. Future rereads of this will likely find me trying to decide why Borges decided to place this idea in this particular story. What difference does it make that the narrator learned the secret of his ancestor’s novel during the course of an act of espionage? How does the detective story connect with the metafiction? I’m sure somebody could explain this to me, but I’m just as happy to figure it out at my own damn pace.

Jorge Luis Borges: “The Circular Ruins” — This is the one Neil Gaiman cited as a favourite. It’s a good one, with a fantastic premise and a twist ending that renders this much better upon re-reading, or at least re-considering. The premise is that there’s a place with gods who will allow you to imagine a person into existence. The detail with which Borges describes this process makes this a good read on the first time through. But really it’s about the ending.

Jorge Luis Borges: “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” — This is second only to “The Library of Babel” in my survey of Borges thus far. This is ingenious for so many reasons: 1) Its form, which is a sort of academic memorandum complete with all of the resentfulness and spite for one’s rivals that those can often contain. 2) Its premise, which is that a 20th-century author made it his life’s goal to write Don Quixote (i.e. writing the exact same novel as Cervantes, word for word, but arriving at it independently and centuries after Cervantes already wrote it). This is wonderfully absurd and highlights a side of Borges that I don’t hear talked about that much, namely that he’s really funny. 3) The way that Borges chases this premise down several compelling rabbit holes. (This is a similar approach to the one he takes in “The Library of Babel,” which is perhaps why I like it so much.) Borges’s narrator analyses the content of Menard’s Quixote alongside the content of Cervantes’ original (which, remember, is exactly the same) and finds them to be entirely different works by virtue of their authors’ differing contexts and intents. Borges manages to be both instructive on how context is crucial to criticism (and the nature of criticism is explicitly discussed in the text) and he also satirizes this very same approach by way of reductio ad absurdum. This is outstanding. So far, reading Borges has felt like coming home.

Jorge Luis Borges: “Deutsches Requiem” — A slightly less effective Borges story, though that might be an unfair judgement on my part, because it just doesn’t have the specific things I’ve loved about the few Borges stories I’ve read so far. It’s not a premise-driven story, it’s a character-driven story. And the character is, apparently, the ultimate Nazi. I’m not going to lie, I picked this one out because I love the Brahms piece it’s named after. Not a highlight of my Borges reading thus far. But here’s a miscellaneous note I haven’t been able to work into any of my previous Borges reviews: I’m really reminded of China Miéville in a few of these stories. Neil Gaiman has been the modern reference point I’ve gone back to again and again when discussing Borges, but Miéville shares Borges’s gift for the mindblowing premise. Some of the stories from Three Moments of an Explosion could practically be Borges stories. I’m thinking particularly of “A Second Slice Manifesto,” in which Miéville describes an art movement that exposes new sides to classic works of representational painting by imagining a “slice” down a certain point in the image, revealing cross-sections of people and buildings that were whole in the original picture. That’s damn close to Borges in “Pierre Menard” mode.

Farhad Manjoo: “Can Facebook Fix Its Own Worst Bug?” — This piece about how Facebook is handling its post-election flail is not encouraging. A couple of choice excerpts: “For the typical user, Cox explained when I met him on a morning in October at MPK20, News Feed is computing the relative merits of about 2,000 potential posts in your network every time you open the app. In sorting these posts, Facebook does not optimize for any single metric: not clicks or reading time or likes. Instead, he said, ‘what you really want to get to is whether somebody, at the end of the day, would say, ‘Hey, my experience today was meaningful.’’” This is notable because I have never once felt this way on Facebook. The lack of meaningful interactions with people or content is the basis of my entire objection to the news feed. It promotes (and thus encourages the production of) the content equivalent of marshmallows: you consume them because they’re there and they have a sort of outward appeal. But you never actually enjoy yourself and eventually you start feeling shitty and resenting all the marshmallows you ate and the source where you got them. (This is Facebook’s shit to take responsibility for, but it’s also on every news organization and producer of web content to not fall into the trap and reject what value they have.) The piece then goes on to detail Facebook’s moderately successful efforts to combat clickbait — efforts that were predicated on a logic that I cannot imagine applying universally: “Facebook’s entire project, when it comes to news, rests on the assumption that people’s individual preferences ultimately coincide with the public good, and that if it doesn’t appear that way at first, you’re not delving deeply enough into the data.” Evidently, Facebook’s internal method for fixing problems is as pig-headedly metrics-focussed as it has forced the entire rest of the world to be. This piece is fascinating, and leaves me with more of a sense of Mark Zuckerberg’s good intentions than I had before, but absolutely zero faith in his (and his company’s) ability to fix the problems they’ve caused, let alone the ones they set out to remedy from the beginning.

Music

Neil Young: Neil Young — So I thought to myself, how deep should this deep dive go? Shall I make a detailed survey of the early material from Neil’s time in Buffalo Springfield — or rarer still, the Squires? Shall I finally listen to those other two CSNY albums? No, I decided. This will be a survey of Neil’s solo career, with that defined as any album that has his first and last name on it as a principal artist. Crazy Horse albums count, as does anything he released with ad-hoc bands like the Stray Gators and the Shocking Pinks. And Pearl Jam. I won’t obligate myself to listen to every live and archival release, though I’ll likely check out some, because the ones I’ve heard are among Neil’s best work, and albums like Rust Never Sleeps and Time Fades Away make the secondary designation normally afforded to live albums sort of inapplicable in Neil’s case. By my count, these guidelines will still find me listening to at least forty albums. So, we begin a fair ways from the beginning, actually, with the self-titled album. At this point, he’s already written and recorded classics like “I Am A Child” and “Mr. Soul.” He was five years past his earliest recordings. But this marks the start of Neil Young as “Neil Young” as opposed to “guy in band.” And it’s… well, it’s an anomaly, but it’s a compelling one. This is one of those albums like Jethro Tull’s This Was that feels like the start of an alternate history that forked a different way in our reality. (Maybe I’ve been reading too much Borges.) It’s the album that finds the now-anointed godfather of grunge sounding like a well-heeled young folkie with aspirations towards glossy marketability. The arrangements on this have a similar feel to the ones on Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter in the way that they never just leave the singer alone. This isn’t bad by definition. Far be it from me to criticize polish while being a huge prog fan. But Neil is an artist who feels more radical by far when he’s being noisy and sloppy and spontaneous. With this much fuss applied, he sounds a bit MOR. (To use his own nomenclature, I prefer Neil in the ditch.) “The Old Laughing Lady” suffers particularly from its arrangement, which almost works — until the midsection with the wordless backing vocals comes around. I could live with the little electric piano riff in 5/4 that breaks up the verses, but I don’t understand what that wordless midsection has to do with the rest of the song. It’s empty bloat, and it would be profitably excised on the Unplugged album years later. “The Loner” fares better, if only because it’s familiar enough that it seems unfathomable without its arrangement. The less familiar tracks range from hidden gems (“Here We Are in the Years”) to unmemorable instrumentals (“The Emperor of Wyoming”) to “The Last Trip to Tulsa,” which is the one truly unvarnished performance on the album but isn’t necessarily one of Neil’s best lyrics. Neil Young has its undeniable pleasures, but it’s best heard as a piece of Neil’s history. This polished side of him wouldn’t vanish outright after this: it would continue to marvellous effect in his work with CSNY and to blockbuster effect on Harvest. But immediately afterwards, the radically unvarnished side of Neil would come to the fore and mark the point where it’s clear that he’s a real creative force.

Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere — If Neil’s self-titled debut represented his introduction to us as something other than “guy in band,” Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is where Neil Young arrives as a legend. This is a hell of an album, and though I’d heard the majority of it before (because more than half of it is on the Decade compilation), this was my first time through the whole thing. Crazy Horse is the kind of band I ought to hate, being who I am. But their committed sloppiness feels less like the result of laziness than like a progressive musical experiment. This is the point where noise becomes a major part of Neil Young’s sound. This is the album that starts the thread of Neil’s career that will climax on Rust Never Sleeps and go gloriously over the top on Weld. “Down by the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand,” both feature sprawling jams where Neil strains at the very edges of his extremely limited technique as a lead guitarist and they set the template for all great Crazy Horse jams to come. The shorter songs are all excellent, especially “Cinnamon Girl,” obviously. And the title track is maybe the most Canadian song ever recorded. This is also the album that makes it clear we can never know what to expect from Neil Young. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is as unlike the debut as it is possible to be. And within a year of this album, Neil would join CSNY and go back to making radically structured music, albeit of an entirely different persuasion from on his first solo record. This is already an exciting ride. But Neil’s next solo album is his first proper masterpiece.

The Mountain Goats: The Sunset Tree — We interrupt this Neil Young binge for yet more erudite early-2000s indie rock. (Because the full Decemberists catalogue wasn’t enough.) I’ve meant to properly get into the Mountain Goats since I heard “Heel Turn 2” on Welcome to Night Vale. (I understand they’re working on a podcast together now? I’m curious.) This was apparently something of a breakthrough for them, though they have more acclaimed albums that predate this than postdate it. Still, The Sunset Tree served its purpose. I’m hooked. “This Year,” which I’m told is a very famous song in certain circles, is exactly what I needed right now. “I am going to make it through this year if it kills me” is one of those lyrics that seems obvious in retrospect, except that nobody wrote it before. Other highlights include “Dance Music,” which belongs to a niche subgenre I’m particularly fond of, namely songs with really chipper music and really dark lyrics. I’m also a big fan of “Dilaudid,” with its string arrangement and escalating vocal performance from John Darnielle. I need a few more listens for this to sink in, but this is definitely a band I’m going to listen to now.

Shugo Tokumaru: Toss — I’ve gotta say, it doesn’t live up to the promise of “Lita Ruta,” which is still my favourite song of the year so far. (Provided we don’t count cantatas based on Supreme Court decisions as “songs.”) Unlike In Focus? which is the other full Tokumaru album I’ve heard, this is really uneven. It is also sparser and simpler on balance than In Focus? is, and I’m not sure simplicity suits Tokumaru. Naturally, the best parts of the album are almost dizzyingly complex, with “Lita Ruta” being the clear winner but the first track, “Lift,” is glorious as well, as is the magnificently-titled “Cheese Eye.” This album is apparently the first time Tokumaru has gone out of his way to work with a variety of other instrumentalists, which makes for an album which is at times extremely timbrally diverse, but I would have preferred if it stayed that way for its whole duration. If I’m going to listen to this guy, I want total sensory overload. Honestly, there’s still enough great stuff on it that I’m confident in calling it one of my favourite albums of the year so far, but I suspect that has more to do with how badly I’ve fallen off the music discovery wagon than anything.

Podcasts

Crimetown: Episodes 16 & 17 — Good episodes. The problem with this season has just been lack of focus. If they’d just found a way to really hone in on two narrative threads: Buddy Cianci and the Patriarca crime family, this would have been great. And I suppose everything does tie back to that to a certain extent, but this feels like it’s really gone everywhere. But this focusses on Cianci, which makes it feel of a piece with the season’s arc as I’d originally perceived it. Still, I have other problems. In their promo for the big party they’re holding to celebrate the end of the season, the hosts of this say something to the effect of “by the end you won’t be sure who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.” Except yes I will. The ones who committed or were implicated in murders for business reasons are the bad guys. That’s pretty clear to me. I wish it were clearer to the people who make this show. (To be fair, cops and government officials are often also the bad guys. But my point is that Crimetown sometimes can’t resist saying “look how great these criminals are!” And I wish they wouldn’t.)

All Songs Considered: “Todd Rundgren On Technology, Creativity And His New Song With Trent Reznor” — Rundgren’s a good interview. You can tell somebody’s a good interview when they’re even interesting on All Songs Considered. Can’t say the song does anything for me. But I’ve always meant to check out Rundgren’s catalogue, especially A Wizard, A True Star. So maybe it’s time.

StartUp: Season 5, episodes 1-3 — I wish they’d stick to serialized seasons. The Dov Charney season was one of the undersung wonders of last year’s podcasts, and probably journalism in general. The first episode of this is a story of one businessman’s foray through “the surprisingly cutthroat world of toys.” I’m honestly kind of sick of journalism that starts from the premise of “look how interesting this seemingly mundane thing is!” So that didn’t work for me. But the two-parter on Friendster is really solid. What a catastrophe. It concludes with a comparison of the way Friendster was managed with the way Facebook was managed, and that really drives home the point that Friendster was the biggest idea of the early millennium, deployed by the wrong people.

You Must Remember This: “Barbara Loden (Dead Blondes Part 12)” — I’m starting to feel similarly about this as I am to Crimetown, though to a much lesser degree. The beginning of this season promised a point would be made about “blondeness” in Hollywood, and it hasn’t really come to that. This is still a good story about a compelling historical person, and how she was misrepresented by her powerful husband, Elia Kazan. But I’m hoping that Karina Longworth finds a way to tie everything together in the last episode of this series the way she almost did in the Barbara Payton episode several weeks ago.

Judge John Hodgman: “Live From the London Podcast Festival” — Nice stuff, but the highlight by far is a moment where the hosts of No Such Thing As A Fish argue over whether the existence of a conspiracy theory counts as a fact. The conspiracy theory in question? That the Titanic was sunk by time travellers who all wanted to see the last moments of the Titanic and thus all arrived at the same time, causing it to sink. This is bonkers in itself, but I won’t spoil the best moment of this exchange. I’ll just say that somebody definitely doesn’t understand the concept of a bootstrap paradox.

All Songs Considered: “The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy & Olivia Chaney Talk About New Collaboration, Reimagining British Folk” — ALERT ALERT NEW DECEMBERISTS sort of. Offa Rex is a side project where the Decemberists cover old British folk tunes (the sort of ones that inspired the band’s trilogy of bona fide classics: Picaresque, The Crane Wife and The Hazards of Love) with the brilliant Olivia Chaney on vocals. God, can she ever sing. And the arrangements are so ‘60s I can barely contain myself. I will be listening to this album in full as soon as I can, and I am overjoyed to see that Chaney will be joining the Decemberists at the August tour date I’m seeing here in Van. Also, I feel like I’ve been a right dickwad about Bob Boilen’s interviewing, lately. This is a really fun conversation and Bob really keeps it frothy, pointing out Meloy’s mispronunciations of things and everything. Nice stuff.

Reply All: “The Secret Life of Alex Goldman” — The payoff to the “P.J. hacks Alex’s phone” arc. This is actually really fantastic in spite of Alex Goldman having a really boring life, because 1) Goldman and Vogt have a compelling enough dynamic that they can talk about nothing and still be fun and 2) there turn out to be broader implications. Reply All can spin gold out of very thin material.

Imaginary Worlds: “Healing Through Horror” — I’d like to hear more episodes of this show that deal with horror, especially modern horror, but this isn’t really a highlight. This features two people who have both used horror as a means of escaping trauma, but their reasoning for why this is helpful to them is more obvious and less compelling than the episode that deals with this same thing with respect to Harry Potter. Seriously, that Harry Potter series was really great.

On The Media: “Rewriting the Right” — Nice to see OTM explaining the American right. Because god knows I would never understand it otherwise. I’m only half snarking. This trip through the horrible odyssey of right-wing think tanks and their campaigns to influence academia and policy is truly horrifying and I feel bad now.

Imaginary Worlds: “Designing BoJack’s World” — This features an interview with the cartoonist who was hand-picked (with no animation experience) by the creator of BoJack Horseman to design the show’s aesthetic. Given that this show’s host is a former animator himself, this is really interesting. BoJack is the adult cartoon that I feel gets the most out of its choice of idiom. All of the character drama would play out fine in a live-action dramedy, but the animation allows not only for great sight gags, but also for the sense that this is a bizarre and alienating world — a great mood to strike in a narrative about show business.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Summer Movie Preview 2017” — I, too, am looking forward to Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2.

Omnireviewer (week of Apr. 23, 2017)

Well, this is an odd instalment. For the first time since starting Omnireviewer in October 2015, I went a week without listening to any podcasts. This is because I was listening to an audiobook instead. It also means that this week we only have seven reviews, which is an all-time low. Given that, it would seem logical to only do one pick of the week. But, you know what? I’m going to allow myself not just my usual two, but THREE. It was a very high-performance week and I make the damn rules, here. And a seven-review Omnireviewer with no podcasts is an anomalous farce to begin with, so fuck it.

Here are your seven reviews.

Literature, etc.

Jorge Luis Borges: “The Library of Babel” — I have purchased a rabbit hole full of rabbit holes. Namely, the collected fictions of Jorge Luis Borges as translated by Andrew Hurley. I am essentially unfamiliar with Borges, given that the only things I’ve actually read of his are excerpts from The Book of Imaginary Beings and a long-ago, half-attentive read of “The Garden of Forking Paths.” But I’ve always meant to dive into his work, primarily because of my personal obsession with metafiction (note that Neil Gaiman also figures largely in my media consumption this week). There’s a quote I happened upon once (I think it’s Borges, but I may be wrong because I can’t source the quote no matter how hard I Google) that explains what’s creepy about metafiction. The quote posits that we’re unsettled by stories where the characters become self-aware as characters in a story, because it makes us feel like there’s a possibility that we too may be fictional. Stories within stories suggest infinite regress of which we are only one level, and by definition in between two others. (I may be thinking of the second paragraph on the second page of this essay, where Borges discusses Hamlet’s play within a play, which kind of outlines the same idea. Though in my memory, the quote was more on-the-nose than this.) I love this. It’s like Borges predicted The Matrix, and also every Silicon Valley conspiracy theory about how we’re actually all in a computer simulation. More to the point, it pins down my exact morbid fascination with metafiction. This is why I suspect Borges might be a writer I should seriously investigate. “The Library of Babel” is a much-suggested starting point, and I adore it. At a mere seven pages long, it establishes a complete universe governed by a simple premise with some unthinkably mindfucky implications. The premise is that the universe of this story is an inconceivably vast (but not infinite) library, in which every possible combination of 25 characters is present. The most astounding implication of this is that all meaning, even impossible meaning, can be expressed flawlessly through language. An example: in this library, there is a book that tells the true story of your death. Because there would have to be. Read this goddamn story. I enjoyed Hurley’s translation and the one linked here is not that, but a cursory glance finds it to be adequate, though it regrettably does not contain Borges’s footnotes. Pick of the week.

Neil Gaiman: American Gods (The Tenth Anniversary Edition audiobook) — I feel as though my initial impressions of this novel from last week carried through to the ending, so I won’t belabour this. I’ll only say that this is straightforwardly one of the greatest fantasy novels ever. Still, I think it’s in third place out of the four Neil Gaiman works I’ve encountered (numbers one and two being, respectively, The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Sandman. “The Doctor’s Wife” is a respectable number four.) This is at turns immensely moving and terribly clever. As a mythology enthusiast in general, I got a lot out of this. I’m incredibly psyched for the TV show. I’m certain Ian McShane will knock it out of the park. Also, a word on audiobooks: I’ve decided I like them. I got through this a hell of a lot faster than I would have if I’d read it, because I seemingly spend most of my life on busses, running, or doing chores: none of which are settings I tend to enjoy reading in. This is going to be part of my life now, I’ve decided. And now, a few more specific notes. Firstly, Neil Gaiman has a very specific and nuanced sense of the epic. In American Gods, that manifests in many ways, some rather unlikely. Food, for instance. In The Odyssey, everybody is constantly eating. They eat roasted meat and fruits and they drink sweet wine, and the way Homer (and his translators) describe it draws me into the adventure as surely as any story of a cyclops or siren. In American Gods, everybody is also constantly eating. And the meals they eat are every bit as decadent and as lavishly described as the feasts in Homer, but of course they’re modern and American. One of the first things that happens in the novel is a man eats a burger with a side of chili. A burger with a side of chili. It may simply be that I’m Canadian, and thus used to a touch more restraint in my pub fare. But to me, chili is under no circumstances a side dish. So this plot detail is deliciously and, yes, epically gluttonous. I love it. It makes me want to live in this world of heroic, divine eaters. It makes me want burgers and chili and french fries and meatball subs and macaroni and cheese and fried chicken and lager and black coffee. Not chocolate cream pie, though. I’ve never liked chocolate cream pie. But when I read about it in American Gods, I kind of wish I were the sort of person who would enjoy chocolate cream pie. Another note: the “Coming to America” chapter about Essie Tregowan is everything I love about Neil Gaiman in a nutshell. Essentially, it’s a story of a woman whose love for fantasy stories helps to bring a god over to America. Stories about the value of stories are not rare in Gaiman’s oeuvre, but he does them more movingly than anybody else. Hearing this in audio form makes me wonder if Nate DiMeo has read or listened to this. Because, supernatural element aside, that segment could easily be an episode of The Memory Palace. I’m not sure whose writing that’s a greater compliment to: DiMeo’s or Gaiman’s. Finally: it’s nice to now have read two novels with Mad King Sweeney as a character. He is a highlight of At Swim-Two-Birds as well, and that is my favourite novel ever. American Gods has an entirely different take on him, and that take deepens my impressions of this mythological personage. I adored American Gods. Neil Gaiman is a class act in a generation of genre fiction writers that I mostly don’t like. He articulates a vision of America from the outside that is deeply consistent with my Canadian perspective, and thus I’m certain the perspectives of many many non-Americans living in a world inundated with American culture against our will. He strings you along like the finest con artists the world has ever known. Pick of the week.

Television

Better Call Saul: Season 3, episodes 1-3 — I always forget how much I love this show when it isn’t in season. I wouldn’t say that any of these three episodes find the show at its very best. But we’ve got several promising elements, here. Firstly, it looks like this season’s arc will primarily deal with Jimmy being on trial. That’s a good story arc idea, and it gives plenty of opportunities for development in my favourite element of this show, which is the relationship between Jimmy and Kim. Rhea Seehorn continues to be outstanding, and I love every scene with the two of them together, not just because of the dynamic established between the two characters in the scripts, but also because Seehorn is really good at reacting in a traditionally actorly way to Bob Odenkirk’s often idiosyncratic approach to delivering lines. It’s easy to forget, given the increasing esteem in which he is held for this role, that Odenkirk comes from sketch comedy, which is a writer’s medium, not an actor’s one. He’s not at all the usual sort of person you see headlining an hour-long drama. That’s a big part of this show’s appeal. Of course, the other promising element is the return of the magnificent Giancarlo Esposito as Gus Fring. I must admit, I felt a bit trepidatious about this when I first heard they were doing it. I’m not a fan of overreliance on favourite elements from any given narrative’s canon (see basically any review I’ve ever written of Welcome to Night Vale). And this show has generally been very good about ensuring that its story works independently of Breaking Bad — quite the trick given that show’s long shadow. But so far, it seems like Gilligan and Gould are managing to integrate Fring into their narrative fairly organically. The origins of Mike Ehrmantraut’s relationship with that character is narratively rich ground, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it turns out. The episode that he first appears in is brilliantly stage-managed as well, with the delayed reveal of the Los Pollos Hermanos sign and then the extended sequence where Fring is an extremely conspicuous blur in the background of a shallow-focus shot. You have to be really paying attention to see it, but when you do, you know it’s completely intentional. This is what I love most about Vince Gilligan as a television auteur: he takes the audience’s intense attention for granted, and uses it to his advantage. I’m really looking forward to the rest of this season. Maybe this will be the year when I remember how much I love Better Call Saul even when the season ends.

Doctor Who: “Thin Ice” — So much of this season so far feels like a victory lap. I don’t mean that in a bad way, nor do I mean to credit Steven Moffat with every decision on this show, which has been written by three different people in as many weeks. (The usual state of affairs.) But aside from this season’s interest in reiterating the basic appeal of Doctor Who at its core, it also feels like an excuse to just have a hell of a lot of fun. If there was a non-tragic component to the Doctor’s loss of Clara’s memory (*sniff*), it’s that he’s been able to move on from his most recent loss faster than usual. There’s none of the brooding that was necessary after the departures of, say, Rose or the Ponds. This gives Peter Capaldi the opportunity to show off the side of Twelve that shares DNA with Tom Baker’s whimsical Fourth Doctor and Sylvester McCoy’s hammy, performative Seventh. Twelve will probably still go down in history as a curmudgeon with a heart of gold (the previous reference points always seemed to be William Hartnell and Jon Pertwee), but it’s lovely to see him cast off the shade and just have a ball being a mercurial pot-stirrer. Which, of course doesn’t last for long, because we need a story. And what a moment when Spider disappears under the ice. This character moment is communicated through acting, and without a single word. The Doctor, thinking pragmatically, retrieves his sonic screwdriver. He does not show an outward sign of concern for the death that’s just taken place. He busies himself examining the screwdriver. Bill is appalled. We as viewers are not made to think the Doctor monstrous. He is not, after all, openly cavalier. (This would have been a tempting but bad place for a one-liner.) But neither are we allowed to think that what’s just taken place isn’t a terrible thing, because Bill is there to offer the expected reaction while the Doctor behaves in the idiosyncratic way he believes to be most useful. Our brooding Twelve from two seasons ago (“You would make a good Dalek”) doesn’t make an appearance, however. This is a more stable version of the character. We seem to be done with the stories about whether or not the Doctor is truly a hero. I predict that this is the closest we’ll come to that this season, and it’s a subtly different sort of thing: it’s a story about confronting the unpleasant realities of throwing in with a character from an adventure serial. This comparatively sunny setup is going to make Twelve’s regeneration absolutely gutting. Let’s be prepared.

Movies

The Lost City of Z — I had high hopes for this that weren’t quite realized, but it’s definitely two and a half hours well spent in a movie theatre. And I do mean that precisely: this is a movie that you need to see in theatres, because it is conceived as an experience. This is an epic in the David Lean tradition: it’s the closest thing to Lawrence of Arabia that I’ve seen this decade. I do have a weakness for huge movies like this. (There’s a hint of Apocalypse Now in it too, which is always a compliment from me.) But I freely confess that my bar for these movies isn’t hard to clear: show me some pretty scenery framed nicely by the cinematographer, maybe with some elegant slow pans, and I’m pretty much good. This did that. But I won’t pretend to have been especially engrossed by the story or characters. The key tension comes from Charlie Hunnam’s protagonist, Percy Fawcett, struggling to balance his compulsion to explore the Amazon with his obligation to be present for his family. This is not psychologically complicated. And this movie is not psychologically complicated. The hardships of jungle exploration are mostly conveyed as physical struggles. This is where it breaks from Apocalypse Now, which finds a source of delirium in the jungle, rather than just a straightforward threat to life and limb. I can’t help but see this as a missed opportunity. Also, I’m not convinced that this movie is the corrective to certain colonial narratives that some critics seem to think it is. It is still focussed on a white man, and it has tinges of the “white saviour” trope about it. I dunno. I enjoyed looking at this movie, but I haven’t got much to say about it, apparently. The acting’s fine. Hunnam is more capable than I’d thought. And it’s lovely to see Robert Pattinson settling into the role he was always meant for, namely, second-fiddle eccentric character actor. Pattinson is a genius in this context and it was a criminal offense for any casting director to ever mistake him for a leading man. This is not a masterpiece. It’s awfully pretty, but it isn’t narratively or thematically ambitious enough for me to really consider it great.

Music

Neil Young: On the Beach — This was the one instalment in Neil’s “Ditch Trilogy” that I’d never heard from start to finish. I’ve always considered the other two chapters, Time Fades Away and Tonight’s the Night to be among his most effective work. But On the Beach might be the best of the three. Of the three, Time Fades Away is always going to be the odd one out, since it’s completely live. So, if we judge this against Tonight’s the Night, we find that this is substantially more put together, even if its songwriting moves in the same general direction of desolation and despair. But in music, sound is everything. So, in its comparative restraint, On the Beach takes on a substantially different meaning than its predecessor/successor (depending on whether you consult the order of recording or release). If Tonight’s the Night is the sound that emerges from an open wound, On the Beach is the residue from a recently cauterized one. Given this interpretation, “Walk On” is one of the most uplifting and glorious tracks in the Neil Young catalogue. It opens the album with a sense of genuine fortitude in the face of trauma. “See The Sky About To Rain” is a sad song, but it’s wistfully sad, in the same way as certain songs on After the Gold Rush or Harvest. (It is also quickly becoming one of my favourite Neil Young songs, up there with “After the Gold Rush,” “Powderfinger” and “Tired Eyes.” I cannot listen to this enough.) The rest of side one keeps the pace, with a general sense of a person in possession of his faculties, in spite of having recently walked through the valley of the shadow of death. But side two gets darker. Here we have Neil really sinking into the feelings of paranoia and worthlessness that plagued him at the bottom of the ditch. “Ambulance Blues” is especially dismal, in the best way. If we look at the Ditch Trilogy in its intended order with Time Fades Away representing the descent, Tonight’s the Night representing the nadir, and On the Beach representing the emergence, then I think it’s a magnificent choice to have something as dark as “Ambulance Blues” to finish the whole thing off. “Walk On” is a great way to start the final instalment in a trilogy about pain and despair, but it would be a needlessly pat way to finish it. By putting the triple shot of “On the Beach,” “Motion Pictures” and “Ambulance Blues” at the end of the trilogy, Neil suggests that the hard times don’t dissipate so easily. Nothing here has the bloodshot suicidal terror of “Tired Eyes,” but much of it acknowledges that such a state existed in the past. On the Beach is a tremendously cathartic record. It has everything. It might be Neil Young’s finest achievement. Pick of the week.

Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Arc-Weld — I feel an intense Neil Young binge coming on. This is another album I’d meant to listen to for ages but never got around to. And oh my god is it heavy. It is hearing loss in an LP sleeve. It’s a return to shit-hot, dirty knucklehead rock and roll after a decade of bizarre (and sometimes interesting, but always bizarre) dalliances with other styles. But it’s more than that: Arc-Weld finds Neil doubling down on the heavy rock he’d done more than a decade prior on Rust Never Sleeps. The tracklist shares many songs with that earlier quasi-live album, but they are infinitely heavier, noisier, sloppier and better here. This is the Neil Young that they call the godfather of grunge. This Neil Young doesn’t do “Heart of Gold.” For background: you may have heard of Weld, which is the double live album that makes up the bulk of this collection, but it’s not really complete without the third disc, Arc, which is just abstract guitar noise culled from the same live dates as Weld. Basically, as far as I can tell, on this tour Crazy Horse did a ton of noisy extended endings and openings of the heavy songs (namely, all of them), and Arc is just a bunch of them sewn together. I saw Neil in 2009 (not with Crazy Horse, though I thought it was until a bit of recent Googling) and they were nearly this noisy, aggressive and abstract then, as well. (They did do “Heart of Gold,” though, and a handful of other acoustic tracks.) Noise is a huge part of Neil’s appeal for me, and that’s why I kind of feel like Weld alone is incomplete without Arc. The entirety of Arc-Weld highlights the extent to which Neil Young is as much a noise artist as a songwriter, but Arc throws it into starker relief. This is what puts Neil Young above many of his contemporaries to me: he embraces chaos and intensely esoteric modes of music-making such as harsh noise — even as he continues to epitomize the earthiest of North American songwriting traditions. The highlights are a 14-minute “Like a Hurricane” that seems to pass in three, a distortion-laden take on “Blowin’ in the Wind” with added air raid sirens that feels less like a pastiche than a much-needed update, and tracks from Ragged Glory that I hadn’t heard before, whose studio versions will surely pale in comparison once I get around to them. Also, apparently the backing vocals are overdubbed on this. I could care less. This has a rawness to it that you don’t get in a studio. I’m not often in the mood for Neil Young, but when I am I think maybe he is the definitive rock star: the one we can point to and say “that.” That’s what he sounds like on Arc-Weld.

Omnireviewer (week of Apr. 16)

Lots of good stuff this week. Also one very bad thing that I enjoyed regardless. 22 reviews.

Movies

The Wicker Man (2006) — Oh, good lord. Firstly, be warned (BEE warned) that the infamous “NOT THE BEEEES” scene is actually not in the theatrical release of this movie. It’s in an alternate ending only on the DVD. I guess when they were editing the movie they found the line they couldn’t cross, and that was it. If you haven’t seen this, you should definitely watch it. Watch it with some people around. Nicholas Cage’s scenery chewing results in one of the most compellingly terrible performances I’ve ever witnessed. Everything about this movie is so crazily off the mark that I have trouble believing any actor attached to it (maybe Cage more than anybody) took it seriously as they were making it. It’s laden down with severely inept writing (“Of course. Another plant!”), weirdly benign jump scares (that bit where he wakes up twice) and badly-directed child extras (“Phall-ic sym-bol, phall-ic sym-bol”). I must confess, I never saw the appeal of the original, acclaimed version of The Wicker Man. But seeing some of the stuff that this version gets wrong makes me appreciate it a little more. For one thing, the remake de-emphasizes the protagonist’s religion. We do see a crucifix in Cage’s house early in the film, but that’s about the extent of it. In the original, the detective’s religiosity is what compels him to investigate the missing girl’s disappearance with such vigor: he inherently distrusts the Hebridean islanders because of their paganism. And that’s really what the original film is primarily about. Its horror derives from Christian anxiety over lingering paganism in rural places. This is substituted out in the remake for two ill-advised alterations: making the missing girl the detective’s daughter (“there has to be stakes” says American cinema) and making the island not merely pagan but also a matriarchy. Because to secular, urbane, 21st-century Americans, paganism isn’t scary. But women running society? Heaven fucking forfend. And then there’s the fucking bees, which are somehow both ham-fistedly symbolic and a seemingly arbitrary addition to the story. But all of this is just me wilfully missing the point of watching this movie. I said before that I didn’t really enjoy the original Wicker Man all that much. I think it has a good story with interesting implications about religious anxiety. But it also has tonally jarring musical numbers and Christopher Lee at, frankly, not his best. On the other hand, I completely enjoyed the Nic Cage remake. This is the rare case where I’ll happily recommend a ridicule-watch of a bad movie over a sincere screening of an objectively more accomplished one. Seriously. Watch this.

Television

Battlestar Galactica: Season 3, episodes 14-20 — Let’s make this a full-on appraisal of the complete season, shall we? Okay. Starting at the beginning. The New Caprica arc is outstanding, if far shorter-lived than I’d expected. It’s remarkable how close to the season two status quo (and in fact, the pre-”Pegasus” status quo) we end up in, a mere four episodes after everything changes. Still, the decision not to belabour the point of New Caprica is probably a good one, and it allows for a remarkably brisk start to the season. The “Exodus” two-parter is up there with the season two finale, the first episode of the miniseries and “33” among my favourites in this series. Once we’re past that arc, the show returns to something like business as usual, but with the extremely satisfying addition of a plotline that takes place on a Cylon baseship. I brought this up last week, but it bears repeating: the set alone is one of the best things this show has ever done. The way that the editing is deliberately disorienting in the baseship scenes is brilliant. And every new glimpse we get of Cylon society — of the ways that they interact with their surroundings and each other in ways that are both human and alien — adds depth to the show. It’s in the small choices: like the way that red characters are projected over the Cylons whenever they’re in their control room and the water-filled interfaces with the consoles. The Cylons aren’t creepy because they’re mechanical. They’re creepy because they’re weirdly organic, and yet they live like this. I’m particularly enamoured with the Hybrid: a Cronenbergian horror that puts the interior of the Cylon raiders to shame. Number Three getting her own honest-to-god(s?) plotline is a welcome development. At this point in the show, nearly half of the known Cylon models (Three, Six and Eight — the women, not coincidentally I imagine) have at least certain sympathetic aspects. I love that we’re seeing more from that side of the conflict. The Galactica-based plotlines of the mid-season are more hit and miss. Starbuck, my favourite character in the first two seasons save possibly for Roslin, gets particularly short shrift. She’s jammed into an inelegant love quadrangle in which neither of the inconvenient marriages involved makes a lick of sense. (There’s still satisfaction in seeing her at her triumphant moments, though. Every time she triumphs I get this warm fuzzy feeling like I’ve just punched Dirk Benedict in the face.) Still, one episode takes these flawed storylines and makes them sing, and that is “Unfinished Business.” Weaving together a recreational boxing tournament onboard the Galactica and flashbacks from the almost good times of early New Caprica, it establishes that the characters in this show don’t need to be dogfighting, fomenting revolution or barking commands to be compelling. It leaves out everything I love most about this season — the Cylon baseship, Baltar’s plotline aboard said baseship, weird spirituality — and still manages to be the best episode of the season. However, like season two, this has some serious clunkers in its second half. “The Woman King” is a shitty would-be conspiracy thriller with Helo in the lead. Even so, while the actual crimes that Helo’s investigating are deeply unconvincing plotting, it does develop his character in an interesting way that I wouldn’t have thought to observe: he’s the character on the ship who is constantly on the wrong side of everything. Among the crew, he’s possibly the most liberal. Speaking of politics, another disappointment in this season is the transformation of Tom Zarek from a revolutionary freedom fighter to an abuser of executive power. That’s dispiriting. But then, it has happened frequently enough throughout history. What’s really bizarre is how the show suddenly recast Baltar as a farmer’s son and he was briefly the fleet’s primary voice of radical politics. So, effectively, both of Battlestar Galactica’s far-left figures are compromised: Zarek because he eventually perpetrates the abuses he once professed to hate, and Baltar because he’s using leftist rhetoric for cynical, personal means. At least there’s kickass union boss Chief Tyrell. (I also love that this entire plotline is scored with a sort of quasi-bluegrass from space.) And I do like that the show is willing to have its two broadly sympathetic leadership figures, Adama and Roslin, be completely and committedly wrong and insensitive about labour organizing and issues of class in general. That rings true. But back to the negatives for a moment. “A Day in the Life” is an Adama feature episode that’s not worthy of the character. It finds him wilfully hallucinating his own dead wife, whose line readings are bizarrely terse and suck the energy out of every scene she’s in. That takes us to the season’s endgame, I suppose. In general, I approve of the plot developments in these episodes as broad strokes — Starbuck dies and returns enlightened, Baltar is found not guilty, everyone is a Cylon, etc. — but I don’t think they make especially good television on a micro level. It’s little choices that let them down, not big ones. I understand that there’s a twist in this show somewhere that people disapproved of. I can’t figure out what it is. But there are little things creeping in that make it seem a little bit less sure-handed than it once was. The whole contrived thing of Apollo being called as a witness at Baltar’s trial to deliver his speech, for instance. That speech needed to happen, but why go about it in such a weird way? And really, the whole decision to focus such a big chunk of the season finale on something as relatively low-stakes as Baltar’s trial. Or the “All Along the Watchtower” thing in the finale. That was a little overcooked. (Though I’m curious about how a song from contemporary Earth ended up in this show, given what we’ve been made to understand about when in human history it takes place. I have an obvious theory. Don’t tell me if I’m right.) The final shot of the season, with all of the cosmic zooms finishing on the reveal of Earth feels like it’s from a completely different show, aesthetically: a much more 2001 sort of science fiction show. Could it be that we’re hurdling headlong into crazy for season four? (That much I know.) And finally. Fat Apollo. Fat fucking Apollo. This is a good season of television. The highs are super high, and the lows aren’t much lower than previously.

Doctor Who: “The Pilot” — Ohhhh yes. Oh, I’m so glad it’s back. The title flags the most interesting thing about this episode, which is that it is functionally a new start. Doctor Who isn’t the first show to make a pun on the word “pilot” in an episode title. Lost comes to mind immediately, and there must be others. But I don’t know of another that does one 10 seasons into its run (or, indeed, 36 seasons in). This feels like Steven Moffat challenging himself to restate the premise of the show and express its fundamental romantic joy without too much reference to continuity. It is enormously successful in that, and I found myself as overwhelmed as ever by the reveal of the TARDIS interior. I’ve written before about a concept I call “wonder surrogacy,” where a show or movie establishes a character inside of its narrative whose specific role is to marvel at what’s going on around them in the hopes that their wonder will rub off on an audience who may be skeptical. I first noticed this in Jurassic World, and I’ve been extra cognizant of it ever since. It nearly never works. Certainly, Doctor Who is the sort of text you may expect wonder surrogacy to rear its head in. It’s been around for over 50 years, and the key elements (the TARDIS, Daleks, regeneration, etc.) are part of the public consciousness. And yet, every time a new companion is introduced, we’re treated to the phenomenon of a person being surprised and aghast and overjoyed to find the TARDIS “bigger on the inside,” as if this is not common knowledge. So, why does the elongated “bigger on the inside” sequence with Bill work so well? Why does this seeming example of wonder surrogacy (like all of the “bigger on the inside” scenes in the new series) give me chills while the rest leave me rolling my eyes? The best answer I can come up with is that the TARDIS is a genuine wonder. A CGI dinosaur is not a genuine wonder. It’s just an image, and an increasingly banal one. The TARDIS is the entry point to an entirely new understanding of the cosmos. Crossing the threshold from its outside to its inside requires an entirely new concept of how physical space works, and when you cross the threshold again to the outside, everything may well have changed completely. As an image, the TARDIS is purposely banal. As a concept, it is the perfect metaphor for imagination itself. There is no wonder surrogacy required for such a thing. Only wonder. Love him or hate him (and I believe there are reasons for both), Steven Moffat understands this better than anybody else who has ever written for this show. That’s why I’m excited for this season, and why I’ll be fairly disconsolate about his departure.

Doctor Who: “Smile” — Still the most interesting thing about this season so far (and I am quite favourably disposed to this season so far) is the way that it is reiterating certain basic elements of the appeal of Doctor Who. The moment that really stands out in this episode for me is a small one right after Bill asks the Doctor why it has to be him that saves the people of the planet they’re on. Naturally, being Twelve, he doesn’t give a satisfactory answer. But Bill, being cleverer even than the people who initially dreamed up this show, sees the notice on the outside of the TARDIS that proclaims, in the manner of even the most non-bigger-on-the-inside police boxes, “advice and assistance obtainable immediately.” Why does the Doctor keep the TARDIS in its police box form? Because he lives by that notice on the door like a code. This is fundamental to the show, and it squares with Steven Moffat’s view of the Doctor as a different, worthier kind of hero. So far, it looks like Moffat has decided to use his final season on the show to revisit the first principles of the show, and compose a love letter to the glorious legacy of Doctor Who, which he recognizes that he’s an infinitesimally small part of. A good part, though. A really good part. The rest of this, with a script written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce (whose “In the Forest of the Night” is an idiosyncratic favourite of mine), is a fun Doctor Who romp that allows Bill and the Doctor plenty of time alone to get to know each other. The Emojibots are deeply scary in a way that conventionally terrifying monsters are not. They throw our own vapidity back in our faces and then kill us. I love that. This series is two-for-two. If Sarah Dollard delivers next week like I think she will, it’ll be off to a massively better start than its predecessor.  

Literature, etc.

David A. Banks: “Podcast Out” — An interesting critical look at the limitations and potential consequences of NPR’s major podcasts. Broadly I agree with Banks’s assessment, though to me the biggest problem with Radiolab and its ilk is not their reliance on the sciences to explain the world, but on the stories of individuals to explain science. There’s no room in most public radio-derived podcasts for any huge, world-defining story that can’t be localised into a personal narrative told by, like, a single dad in Newark or whatever. It’s a weirdly closed-minded approach to curiosity. Note that I still listen to a boatload of these kinds of podcasts, but I increasingly appreciate the ones like Theory of Everything and Love and Radio that break from the structure and challenge rather than confirm the listener’s assumptions.

Neil Gaiman: American Gods (The Tenth Anniversary Edition audiobook) — Okay. Enough podcasters have told me to check out Audible that I’m doing it. This edition of the audiobook features a full cast, including a really brilliant fellow (Ron McLarty) doing the role of Mr. Wednesday, and it features Neil Gaiman himself reading certain interstitial chapters. As a listening experience I’m pretty sold on full-cast audiobooks. Gaiman’s presence is much appreciated as well, as he’s always an engaging reader of his own work and he’s got a wonderful and distinctive voice. I also appreciate that he’s deployed sparingly. Makes you really lean in when you hear him. The only issue with the audiobook so far is a sex scene that becomes distinctly unsexy when read aloud. These actors can only act so much. It’s not a play, after all, and we listeners have lives to get on with. But hearing a sex scene read aloud in a fashion somewhere between matter-of-fact and actually dramatic is, well, awkward. As for American Gods itself, I’ve been meaning to get around to this since I read and adored The Sandman a few years back. With the show coming up soon, with both Bryan Fuller and Ian McShane attached, I figure I’d best do it now. I’m three chapters in and I love it already. The idea of ancient gods finding their place in America is outstanding, and I’m already very curious about who this youngster is who wants them gone. I know enough of Norse mythology to know that Odin won’t live forever, so the stakes are already high. As for Shadow, he’s a compelling enough protagonist. His relationship with his dead wife is proving to be the most interesting thing about him. But so far, I’m really in it for the lore. I’m enjoying this enough that I’m actually rushing through writing this so I can get back to it. More next week, I’m sure.

Music

Ted Hearne/The Crossing: Sound from the Bench — This is my favourite music of the year so far. Admittedly, it hasn’t been a busy year for me in terms of discovering new music. But this is really, really good. I was familiar with Hearne from his oratorio The Source, which has moments of staggering brilliance (especially the chorus “We called for illumination at 1630”) but which I generally found a bit literal and earnest. The choral music on this collection has no such problem. The title work is the centrepiece and the highlight, featuring guitars and drums backing up the chorus. The text is drawn from both Supreme Court decisions and ventriloquism textbooks. This unorthodox and rich choice of texts helps to combat the earnestness that I found slightly offputting in The Source. Sound from the Bench is a genuinely funny piece of music. Its primary subject is the Citizens United decision that deemed corporate campaign spending to be a form of free speech protected under the first amendment. This is patently absurd and implicitly hilarious. Of course, it has some rather dire connotations, but unlike the war-adjacent texts of The Source, it isn’t directly a matter of life and death. But holy crap is it ever musically powerful. The other three works on the disc are nearly as good as the main event, but the short piece “Consent” stands out. It gets dark partway through, but the opening — is simply a mixed chorus singing the words “I want you, I want to” — is absolutely staggering. Hearne is one of the most explicitly socially-conscious composers working right now, and while I wasn’t certain whether it was working when I heard The Source, I have no doubt now that it absolutely can. And the recording itself is fantastic as well. None of the fuzziness that you sometimes hear around the edges of choral recordings. This isn’t pretending to be a live concert. It’s music that happens right in your head. The Crossing is a miraculous ensemble with a distinctive sound that ranges from symphonic choir to glee club. I can’t wait to hear more from them. This is beautiful. I desperately want an opera from Ted Hearne. Not the usual kind with arias and duets and things, but an Einstein on the Beach sort of opera that takes advantage of his facility with found texts and choral writing. If someone could please commission that from him (I’m looking at you, Opera Philadelphia) it would be epochal. Pick of the week.

Kendrick Lamar: Damn. — Ah man, this is going to make me work, isn’t it? Kendrick Lamar’s music always takes a gigantic amount of listening to sink in for me. It’s entirely possible that he’s my favourite rapper around right now, but I’ll never connect with him as directly as, say, Run the Jewels, because the beats are so raw and spare that my mind wanders. And you can’t let your mind wander with this guy. Here’s what I love: “DNA,” with its Fox News samples. “DUCKWORTH,” with its (maybe specious?) storytelling. “FEAR,” with its tripartite structure and uncharacteristic repetition. And “LOYALTY” with Rihanna rapping. This is approximately the same number of high points I detected on my first listen of To Pimp a Butterfly. If things proceed similarly, I will like and understand this better many many months from now.

Car Seat Headrest: Teens of Denial — Here’s an album that took a while to creep up on me. I’m still not convinced it’s the second coming that some claim it is, but I enjoy a larger percentage of the many many tracks on this than I did when I first heard it. “Vincent,” “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” and “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia” are still the highlights, but I’ve come to love “Fill in the Blank,” “Cosmic Hero” and “Drugs With Friends” as well. In general, this is music that occupies the same space as the Smiths and Belle and Sebastian: you listen to it for a catharsis. It’s at its best when your life isn’t. But for all its structural ingenuity, Will Toledo’s songwriting doesn’t have the wit of Stuart Murdoch, let alone Morrissey. So I’m not sure this can transcend those moments of needing catharsis the same way that other sad guy music can. This isn’t every day music the way that Strangeways, Here We Come is, for instance. No shame.

Podcasts

Containers: “Welcome to Global Capitalism” — The episode on 99pi convinced me to check this out, but I’m not going to make it through. There’s some good tape in this, but there’s also tape of the host literally flipping through archives. An eight-part series on how shipping containers changed the world was always going to be a maybe/maybe not proposition. At another time, in another state of mind, I would love this. But I think I’d prefer it if it didn’t take such a public radio approach of insisting that its subject matter is interesting every step of the way. Maybe I don’t need all these personal narratives to keep me involved. Maybe I can just hear you out and be interested in your thesis for its own merits. Anyway, I tried.

Love and Radio: “The Secrets Hotline” — This has been a truly great season of Love and Radio. As a final episode, this is a nice capper, though it’s insubstantial compared to, say, “A Girl of Ivory,” “Doing the No No” or “Blink Once For Yes,” which are three of my favourite episodes the show has ever done. The original scoring in this is a nice touch, and some of the secrets proffered here by anonymous callers are truly juicy. The feeling of sanctioned voyeurism is a good one. If you’re reading this, do listen to this episode, but seek out the three I’ve mentioned first if you’ve never heard this show. It is one of the miracles of podcasting.

Home of the Brave: “Trump’s Wall: Part 1” — My god, the tape in this is so beautiful. It’s just nature sounds from a riverside, recorded beautifully. More broadly, I’m very happy that Scott Carrier is doing a larger piece on Trump’s wall. That promises to be some of the best radio of recent years. And doing short updates like this is a good way to keep us sated.

Radiolab: “Nukes” — For everything I said about Radiolab earlier, they can make straightforwardly compelling radio. This episode poses the question, who gets to call the President’s decision to use nuclear weapons into question? The answer: it has differed from one administration to another. But the specifics are really fascinating.

Criminal: “420” — Ah, hilarious. This episode tells the story of how three teenagers’ tongue-in-cheek codeword for pot became universally acknowledged, with a substantial assist from the Grateful Dead. It also broaches the hilarious subject of Colorado’s 420 mile-marker signs getting stolen so consistently that they had to be replaced with 419.99 mile-marker signs. This is why Criminal is the best true crime podcast.  

Crimetown: “Family Ties” & “Bonus Episode: Gangster’s Daughter” — I have nothing more to say about this season of Crimetown. These are both adequate standalone episodes of this season. But I’m basically still in this solely because I’m susceptible to the sunk costs fallacy. Good thing it’ll soon be done.

The Kitchen Sisters Present: “Tony Schwartz: 30,000 Recordings Later” — This may be the third time I’ve heard this, but it’s good every time. The story of a guy who devoted his life to going out into the world and preserving sounds with a microphone, only to succumb to agoraphobia late in life. There’s a doc like this to made about R. Murray Schafer, but don’t tell anybody I said that or they’ll beat me to it.

99% Invisible: “The Architect of Hollywood” — A new classic from this old standby. It’s the story of Paul Revere Williams, the architect who single-handedly conceived the Hollywood style of architecture. This story reveals how that  intensely hybridized style grew out of this one architect who learned to do every style out of necessity, because he was a black man working almost exclusively for white people whose instincts were not to trust him. This is super. I’ve missed Avery Trufelman’s stories. Is it just me, or has it been a while?

Code Switch: “The Beef Over Native American Hunting Rights” — I dunno, there’s a major source in this who kind of sounds like a bigoted fool to me. Maybe I’m wrong, but this is the first time I’ve felt the bad kind of uncomfortable while listening to this show. Also, there’s some super ham-fisted writing at the end. An off week.

The Gist: “The Handmaid’s Fail” — Alexandra Petri is a fantastic guest host, though I do wonder if she’s just doing a Mike Pesca impression here. She really is a lot like Mike Pesca in her questions and her delivery. Also, this reminded me that I really need to read The Handmaid’s Tale. I don’t know how I’ve read four Margaret Atwood novels and that isn’t one of them.

This American Life: “The Other Mr. President” — The best part of this Sean Cole’s segment on Vladislav Surkov, and that’s not nearly as good as Benjamen Walker’s.

Slate’s Political Gabfest: “Bill Comes Due Edition” — I had forgotten how dull I find this. There’s been some stuff happening that compelled me to return to it — I mean, North Korea, Bill O’Reilly… this is fascinating, disgusting stuff — and I still couldn’t help myself from getting bored.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Fate of the Furious Plus Clapbacks and Feuds” — I hadn’t realized how funny Sam Sanders is. Now I’m extra excited for whatever the hell he’s developing. This is really good episode of this show, by the way. If you want to know why it is my preferred example of this format, this is a good episode to go with. Pick of the week.

Omnireviewer (week of Jan. 1, 2017)

I’m beginning to put together my belated year-end list, as per tradition. Part of that involves going through a bunch of stuff I meant to get to when it actually still was 2016 that I didn’t. So, a bit of that here. Not sure any of it will make the list. But there’s a fair bit of good music here. And lots of other things. 29 reviews.

Television

Doctor Who: “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” — More than anything, this demonstrates how Steven Moffat writing Doctor Who is pure joy in basically any configuration. This is a purposefully slight, silly romp with virtually no consequences either held over from or contributing to past and future episodes of the show, and yet it kind of made my week. It’s a bittersweet reminder that this show, under this writer, is still pretty damn good even when it’s spinning its wheels. I say bittersweet because this is the last year when we’ll get to see it. Anyway, Moffat’s take on the Superman/Lois Lane situation is exactly what you’d think it would be, in the sense that it cranks the farce up to eleven (Twelve? Joke credit Sachi Wickramasinghe). And that’s basically what this is: a farcical reinterpretation of Superman. The story belongs to the new characters, Grant (our Clark Kent) and Lucy (our Lois Lane). The Doctor just sort of gets to be there — which is basically the only way to do a standalone Doctor Who story at this point. The Doctor’s plotline is too continuity-heavy for anybody to be able to just jump on board at Christmas. But there are some Easter eggs (Christmas eggs?) that I think are worth noting. Think about this: Moffat’s final season will surely clue up some lingering Twelfth Doctor plotlines, even if Capaldi stays on. The last line spoken before his era properly began was Eleven’s final line: “I will always remember when the Doctor was me.” I’ve always thought that was a bit of a limp exit. But the Doctor seems to be keeping his promise: not only is he mourning River Song (primarily an Eleventh Doctor companion), but he seems to be trying to cope with his grief by attempting to contact Amy and Rory with his huge New York time antenna. Maybe series ten will focus on legacy and remembrance in some way. That would be a good theme for Moffat to go out on. For most writers it would be bombastic. But I think if anybody’s earned it, it’s this guy.

Sherlock: “The Six Thatchers” — I never thought that one of the best episodes of Sherlock would be one solely credited to Mark Gatiss. And I never thought that Mark Gatiss would produce my favourite episode of television in a week also featuring a new episode written by Steven Moffat. Yet here we are. This is a marvellous, tightly-wound episode that manages a huge amount of business with remarkable grace and poetry. This story continues (and supposedly concludes) Mary’s story from last season, at first in the guise of a new and self-contained case for Sherlock to solve regarding the smashing of Margaret Thatcher busts (satisfying in itself). And it does this while never forgetting about the show’s new status quo, in which Sherlock is primarily motivated by Moriarty’s final plot. It incorporates a wonderfully obtuse pairing of a man who meets death in Baghdad with footage of sharks, which comes full circle in the episode’s climactic scene. That will be the brainworm of this episode: the thing that sticks for the longest. It contains typically wonderful performances from its leads (and I’m including Amanda Abbington in that: she’s the best part of this) and an absolutely stunning series debut from director Rachel Talalay, who seems to have become Steven Moffat’s virtuoso of choice: the person he goes to when he needs something really complicated taken care of (i.e. the last two season finales of Doctor Who). Sherlock has always been a deliberately stylized sort of show, but Talalay gives this an artful elegance that it has occasionally lacked in the hands of other directors. The scene in the aquarium, and all of the visual references to it that play out subtly in other scenes are brilliantly deployed. There’s one moment where it’s done with just a hint of shimmery blue light on Sherlock’s face. Another director might have cut away to a shot of the shark tank, which would have been fine, but this is so much less intrusive. It’s a non-hamfisted way to portray the looming spectre of death. And that’s a difficult thing to pull off. So, incidentally, is killing off your best supporting character, and the one female character to have ever held any real purchase over the show’s major story arcs. And they don’t pull it off, because there’s no real way to do that because it’s both a bullshit trope and an obvious net loss for the show. But I won’t cry foul just yet because if they can keep finding ways to bring back Andrew Scott’s Moriarty, I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of Mary yet. Even if she is actually dead. Which, I repeat, would be a bad thing. But let’s think about that a bit more when the season’s over. If I have one other complaint about this, it’s that for the second season premiere in a row, Gatiss has glossed over what was supposedly a game-changing plot twist in the preceding season finale. In “The Empty Hearse,” he blithely declined to reveal the true means by which Sherlock survived the events of “The Reichenbach Fall.” And now, he allows Sherlock’s status as the murderer of Charles Augustus Magnussen in “His Last Vow” to be brushed away in the cold open (though, who’s to say how permanent that will turn out to be). There’s an argument to be made that Magnussen’s death was rendered essentially moot by the return (in some form) of Moriarty and the events of “The Abominable Bride.” And certainly that’s the argument that Mycroft would make. But this is becoming a concerning pattern, and if this season ends with a huge twist like the last two, I might find myself a bit sceptical of this show’s ability to solve its own puzzles. Still, none of that seems especially important given what a fabulous story “The Six Thatchers” is in itself.

All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace: Episodes 2 & 3 — This three-part documentary on the way that ideas from computer science won an unwarranted psychic victory over humankind is one of the most astonishing pieces of documentary filmmaking I’ve ever seen. The third episode is especially haunting. The filmmaker, Adam Curtis, is both a lucid guide through some fairly complex ideas, and a spectacular aesthete. The documentary is effectively a work of collage, with lengthy clips from news footage, satire programming and previous documentaries all given entirely new meaning by way of clever juxtaposition with Curtis’s voiceover and musical choices. And the actual story in the third episode, where a computer scientist and a geneticist collaborate to justify a concept of humans as machines — all while horrible violence is playing out in the African nations where the materials for computer technology are mined — is a thing of intense power. I would almost recommend the third episode as a standalone television masterpiece to anybody who feels they only have an hour to spare. But I’d much sooner suggest watching all three parts of this. It will change the way you think about the legacy of modern technology. I will say, though, that there’s something almost unacceptably perverse about using music from West Side Story over footage of the Rwandan genocide. I’m sure that to most people it slipped right past. But I find that slightly tasteless. It’s a vanishingly minor point. Pick of the week.

Charlie Brooker’s 2016 Wipe — I think I’m over my Charlie Brooker phase. There are maybe about three good lines in this (aside from those given to Philomena Cunk who, as usual, is the funniest thing in the world), and aside from that there’s just a whole lot of rote reiterations of how awful 2016 was, without any attempt to offer a new take. However, it is a good way of recalling some of the smaller bits of weirdness that happened this year, like The Great British Bake Off leaving the BBC. And, the Trump rap that concludes this is strangely cathartic. Also, apparently Jeremy Corbyn supporters have their knickers in a twist about this? Seriously? He comes off better than any other politician in the country in this. Or maybe I’m just naturally attracted to leftist political figures with absolutely no clue how to court an electorate.

Cunk on Christmas — “Scientists now believe that 80% of all burps occur at Christmas, threatening to put a hole in the Oz-wan layer at precisely the moment the sky is full of vulnerable reindeer.” Philomena Cunk is an amazing character because she’s not just a generic buffoon, she’s a very specific type of buffoon, whose buffoonery has a sort of fanciful logic to it.This isn’t one of her best specials, but I did plenty of laughing, and it isn’t even Christmas anymore. “Merry Christmas. And a very new year.”

Battlestar Galactica: “Act of Contrition” — There are some bits of this where the televisual language hasn’t aged well, i.e. the rocket’s eye view in the first scene where all the pilots get killed. That’s a shot that should only be used for comedy. But that sort of thing is made up for with things like the way that Starbuck’s attempts to suppress painful memories is conveyed through editing. Story wise, this focusses on one of my favourite threads in the show so far: Starbuck’s grief and guilt. She even throws a bit of heat on what’s going on with the two Adamas, who are among my least favourite characters — at least when they’re in scenes together. 

Games

Steve Jackson’s Sorcery!: Part 3 — I so badly wanted to love this, but I confess that I found it tedious in a way that I didn’t find the first two parts, in spite of the substantial mechanical improvements made for this third part. Let me spoil just a bit of the game in order to demonstrate why I find it simultaneously brilliant and frustrating. Sorcery 3’s key mechanic is a set of beacons distributed throughout the map that you can shine anywhere in a 360 degree radius, and all of the area within the beacon’s beam is cast back in time by hundreds of years. Basically, there are two layers to the game’s map, one of which can only be exposed in fragments. One thing that you can use a beacon to do is reconstruct a little seaport town that’s been gone for presumably centuries. That allows you to hitch a ride across the lake with some fishermen from a bygone time. But if you happen to steer the boat outside the beam of the beacon, it vanishes into the mists of time along with its crew, leaving you to struggle in the cold water. Here’s what I love about this: it’s not just that any given point on the map can take two possible forms, one past and one present. It’s that the act of crossing the threshold has consequences in itself. This is soooo complex, and I admire Inkle very much for attempting it. On the other hand, this mechanic means that you might not discover the consequences of a choice you make on one edge of the map (namely, where to shine a beacon) until you’re already halfway across the map from that beacon. And without the benefit of foresight, you’re likely to have things happen like boats disappearing from under you quite a lot when you mess with the beacons a lot. This led me to rewind my game and replay the same sequences of events a lot more that I would consider optimal, just to find a particular outcome that would allow me to accomplish the game’s key task: killing seven serpents before you find your way to the map’s exit. The open-world concept of this game seems to indicate that Inkle learned some stuff from making 80 Days and incorporated it here. But where 80 Days’ story moves you relentlessly into new territory, even when you’re purposely biding your time, Sorcery 3 forces you to traverse the same parts of its open world again and again. It is immensely tiresome, and at some point I started looking forward to finishing the game. Never a good sign. I still hold out hope that the fourth part might synthesize the strongest points of the second and third parts. We’ll see soon enough.

Music

Kate Bush: The Kick Inside: — The fact that this is a) one of the most auspicious debuts in pop history and b) definitely not one of the best Kate Bush albums speaks volumes. Bush would really come into her own when she started producing her own albums, in the period when she’s stopped playing live and her label started ignoring her. The Kick Inside finds her instead filling the not entirely befitting role of ingénue: a bona fide pop phenomenon, coming off of the success of a masterful, chart-topping debut single, and having been graciously ushered into “the system.” The result is a good album, but one that doesn’t yet have Bush’s creative DNA in every note, the way that The Dreaming does. The Kick Inside is very much a rock album, in the same way that the second Peter Gabriel album is a rock album. Both of those solo records have the feel of being a band record, because a lot of the same musicians are present throughout. I think that’s kind of a defining trait of rock albums: “made by bands.” Whereas both Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush would gravitate towards more of a revolving door sort of approach to sessions on their artier, poppier records: using what musicians seem necessary at any given time. That doesn’t preclude frequent collaborators on both of their parts, but the sense that there’s such a thing as a Kate Bush Band vanished after Lionheart and didn’t really return until her live shows with the KT Fellowship. That makes the first two Kate Bush albums (and particularly this one, because Lionheart just isn’t very good) really compelling period pieces. And if you focus in on the songwriting specifically, regardless of arrangements, performances and all of the other territory that’s often occupied by producers, it’s incredible the extent to which Bush started as she meant to go on. Her songs are already defined by incredible specificity: “James and the Cold Gun” comes to mind immediately. As does “Wuthering Heights,” which is of course one of the best songs ever, period. Though for my money, the remixed and extended version with the alternate vocal on the compilation The Whole Story is better than the version that appears on the album. You can hear the guitar solo a little better, it goes on for a little longer, and Bush’s voice has gotten a little fuller by that time. (It comes from around the time of Hounds of Love, I believe.) Still, the strengths of the song lie in the song itself, and that doesn’t change from version to version. It’s a fun game to try and decide where the phrases begin and end. Is the chorus three repeating measures in four? Or is there a measure in two on the lyric “…home, I’m so…” and then a measure in six before it repeats? I wrote recently about Syd Barrett’s intuitive mode of songwriting, which is also characterized by odd phrasing. But frankly, the sheer naturalness of Bush’s oddly-phrased debut single puts “Arnold Layne” to shame. Also, consider the lyric in the chorus: “Heathcliff, it’s me, Cathy; I’ve come home! Let me in your window!” That is the entire chorus of a hit song. How is it possible to turn that into the chorus of a hit song? Anyway, this album is great. And it’s unbelieveable that Bush was 19 when it came out. And still, it feels like she’s being held back by everybody else in the room.

Bon Iver: 22, A Million — I’ve always kind of hated Bon Iver. His first album — the one that every beard-having, flannel-inclined person thinks is the best thing ever — inspired more intense resentment in me than any other album not made by Arcade Fire. As far as I can remember, not having heard it since it came out, For Emma, Forever Ago is mawkish and sentimental, and it’s slathered in an affected lo-fi aesthetic that calls more attention to its log-cabin origin story than to the mediocre music that it doesn’t quite manage to hide. Bon Iver, Bon Iver was not so much a step in the right direction as a massive overcorrection: a grandiose, fussy record of the type that I’m generally inclined towards, but the meticulous production seemed to be attempting to mask the same thing that For Emma’s self-mythologizing was: a lack of basic musical material. So, I wasn’t planning to listen to this at all, until “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” unexpectedly knocked me flat on All Songs Considered. And having listened to this third album in its entirety, I’m wondering if I haven’t gotten Justin Vernon completely wrong from the very beginning. I can’t quite put my finger on why I like this so much more than his first two albums, and naturally I resent myself slightly for having confessed this to myself. It’s strangely important to me to hate Bon Iver. But this album is so delicate, and so concerned with its fragile surfaces, which always threaten to come apart at any moment, that it offers the immediate impression that those surfaces are the whole product. Nothing is being disguised here. Vernon is simply offering a thin film of gorgeous sounding music: more a sound collage than a collection of songs. And this observation, laid on top of my specific objections to Vernon’s first two albums (namely that he uses aesthetics to mask a lack, rather than as an end in themselves) makes me think that I’d best go back and reconsider his earlier work as well. It’s possible that my entire distaste for the first two Bon Iver albums came about because I was mistaking a painter of frescoes for an architect. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the songs must be the point for an artist with roots in acoustic folk. But that’s an assumption, and possibly a wrong one. In any case, regardless of whether my opinions of the first two records change, 22, A Million is absolutely brilliant.

Run the Jewels: Run the Jewels 3 — I don’t want to say I’m underwhelmed by this. I do think it has a fairly sizable mid-album slump, from “Stay Gold” (probably the weakest track they’ve ever done) through “Everybody Stay Calm.” But the five tracks prior to that run and the three tracks after are up to RTJ2 standards, more or less. It’s going to take more than one listen to sink in, clearly. What’s important is that there’s more Run the Jewels. We’ve heard enough from this duo to know how they work, and know what we should expect from them. But that doesn’t mean that they’re anything close to played out. It means they’ve hit their stride. I’ll report back when I figure this out a bit more.

Huerco S: For Those of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have) — This kind of thing is the reason I like Pitchfork’s year-end list. I didn’t hear this mentioned anywhere else this year, yet here it is. It’s a nice bit of ambient music that I’m happy to have heard, though I can’t say it captured my attention to the same extent as some of the year’s other ambient releases by, for instance, Nonkeen, and especially Tim Hecker. I do admire Huerco S for having the guts to just cut his tracks off at the end rather than always fading. It almost makes the music come off more like a work of art you’d see in a museum than something performative. It’s like he’s saying, “Here, look at this for a while.” And then he opens a cupboard, and the thing exists in front of your eyes for a duration of time. Then he closes the cupboard. The music doesn’t have anywhere to go, it just is a thing, and it could conceivably keep being that thing for any arbitrary amount of time. Nice.

Danny Brown: Atrocity Exhibition — Oh god I don’t know what I think of this. Brown’s lyrics are great, and the production is the exact kind of unhinged that I find compelling. But that voice is just nails on a chalkboard. When Danny Brown raps in his lower, more human sounding register, like in “Tell Me What I Don’t Know,” I’m totally onboard. And I think that his high register could work as excellent seasoning, like in his guest verse on RTJ3. But he uses it on most of this album, and I kind of find it a bit much. When it works, it really works, though. “Ain’t it Funny” is probably my favourite track, and that’s got Brown’s helium voice all over it. Anyway, this is well worth hearing, but I don’t think anybody is necessarily guaranteed to like it. That’s a good thing.

Podcasts

Fresh Air: “Best of: 2016 Pop Culture Wrap-Up” — This TV critic really likes Better Call Saul. So do I, to be clear, but he’s made it his best show of the year two years running. That seems a little much. This is interesting, overall, but it’s also a reminder that pop culture podcasts are better at pop culture discussion than public radio interview juggernauts. This is neither as fun, nor as thoughtful as Pop Culture Happy Hour’s year end episodes. Still fine.

99% Invisible: “Mini-Stories: Volume 1” — This is a lot of fun, and also notable for containing the sound of Roman Mars laughing, which is disorienting. I’m always happy to listen to these “peek behind the curtain” sorts of podcast episodes. I think the highlight is Sam Greenspan’s mini-story about a place called Circleville, which was laid out on a circular pattern rather than a grid, making everybody miserable and resulting in a process of “squaring” that resulted in presumably a billion puns. (Roman picks the low-hanging fruit by gleefully proclaiming the city “Squaresville.”) Looking forward to volume 2. Also, groovy handpan music at the end. Nice.

This American Life: “Kid Logic 2016” — Marvellous. The great thing about This American Life’s structure is that the specificity of their themes. These are all stories about kids using comprehensible logic to arrive at the exact wrong conclusions. And it is hilarious. It starts with Jonathan Goldstein asking children what they think the tooth fairy does with all the teeth, continues with a reading by Michael Chabon, and also contains contributions by Howard Chackowicz (unmediated, for once, by Goldstein) and Alex Blumberg. I laughed more times during this than during most comedy podcasts.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Casey Affleck” — So, the sexual harassment allegations (which warrant a Google for those unconcerned about triggers) cast a pall over this otherwise engaging conversation. I didn’t actually know about any of that until Maron mentioned it at the start of this interview. In any case, Affleck is clearly a smart, grounded person with a level of devotion to his craft that isn’t surprising, given his incredible performance in Manchester by the Sea. I continue to love that movie, but Affleck’s past is distasteful enough that I think this is the last interview with him that I’ll listen to.

In Our Time: “The Gin Craze” — One of the most fun, least consequential episodes of this show that I’ve heard. Melvyn Bragg has a surprising amount of fun talking about drunkenness. The best stuff in the podcast comes after the actual radio show ended, however. And it’s always amusing to hear Bragg wheedle his guests about why they did or didn’t bring up such a thing during the actual show. Delicacy isn’t his strong point. That’s why I love him.

Twenty Thousand Hertz: “8-bit Sounds” — Twenty Thousand Hertz is a welcome addition to the “about ten minutes” club: miniature stories about a very specific topic. This particular one is about how a set of extremely stringent limitations resulted in the production of some of the most iconic sounds of all time. If they heard this, Brian Eno and Peter Gabriel would both be proud of the sound designers and composers responsible for the sounds of early video games.

All Songs Considered: “Poll Results: All Songs Considered Listeners’ Favourite 100 Albums of 2016” — I have been generally amenable to all of the massively hyped albums of 2016 except for the Radiohead record. I like “Burn the Witch” and “Sleepwalking” well enough, but I imagine that twenty years from now we’ll look at A Moon Shaped Pool as Radiohead’s Goat’s Head Soup: the moment we knew they didn’t have much fight left in them. And yet, NPR Music’s listeners rated it the number one album of the year, so what do I know. This is a fun listen with a ton of great music, but it’s better to just stick with the end that’s got Ann Powers and Stephen Thompson on it, because their taste is way more interesting than a horde of randoms (one of whom was me).

Twenty Thousand Hertz: “The Mystery Hum and its Government Coverup” — This episode about a mysterious, ever-present hum in Windsor, Ontario really only needs to mention that such a thing exists to be good. But now I really want to hear the whole season of Serial that discovers what it actually is.

The Gist: “Bob Boilen: Tiny Desk, Big Effect” — The Bob Boilen interview is nothing much, but Pesca’s spiel about confirmation bias implicit in the universal dubbing of 2016 as the Worst Year Ever is essential. (Starts at 19:40.) Bits of 2016 were intractably awful, sure. And tons of people that everybody loves did in fact die. But Pesca thinks rationally: we just don’t hear about all of the people who could have died but didn’t, because they didn’t die. We didn’t hear about the relative lack of ebola, because a lack isn’t a story. It’s a good way to go into 2017: knowing that there are certain things that happened in 2016 that will make the world materially worse, but also not pretending that only bad things ever happen.

A Point of View: “The Shape Of Our Time” — A somewhat lightweight essay from Adam Gopnik about the difference between nationalism and patriotism. Still, not unworthy of ten of your Earth minutes.

Twenty Thousand Hertz: “The Sound of Extinction” — This episode about the sounds that we lose over time focusses on modern sounds, like the sound of dial-up internet, or Big Ben. And that’s lovely. But I’m reminded of the composer and acoustic ecologist R. Murray Schafer, who has devoted his life to the preservation of what he calls the natural soundscape. It would be interesting to hear a second part of this that deals more with the concerns of acoustic ecology. But I really liked this.

Radiolab: “Lose Lose” — I can deal with sports stories when it’s Radiolab, plus Mike Pesca, plus Chuck Klosterman. That’s just about the only permutation that works. This is fine, but not a season highlight by any stretch.

Code Switch: “Obama’s Legacy: Diss-ent or Diss-respect?” — If this first part is any indication, this three-part series on President Obama’s legacy might be one of the best things Code Switch has ever done. Just hearing a lowlight reel of the racist bullshit that Obama had to put up with from his professional colleagues, let alone the right-wing media, is enough to make a powerful point about specifically why he has become a divisive figure. But it’s also interesting to hear a take on how Obama was so different from previous visions of a Jesse Jacksonesque possible first black president. Looking forward to parts two and three.

Jay and Miles X-Plain the X-Men: “The Strangest Podcast Of Them All” — Oh, this is a very good thing. I don’t know if it’s specifically the kind of very good thing that I need in my life, since I am really not that invested in the X-Men. But I’m clearly invested enough to have read two of Jay and Miles’s favourite story arcs, namely those by Grant Morrison and Joss Whedon. Whether I return to this or not is entirely down to how fatigued I become with my usual selection of podcasts, and how in need of new stuff I am.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Sherlock, Carrie Fisher, George Michael, and Debbie Reynolds” — I mutedly disagree with Glen Weldon on Steven Moffat’s supposed tendency to use women as plot devices in his shows, buuuuut the episode of Sherlock that they’re actually discussing here doesn’t really help me back up my opposition. I also disagree that Sherlock’s 90-minute episodes are too much. It seems to me like the only way to fit in all of the plotline that’s necessary and also have the very necessary scenes that are mostly just banter. The banter is crucial, and it wouldn’t survive if these episodes were cut down to an hour. The in memoriam segment is lovely, especially where Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds are concerned. Maybe I should watch Postcards from the Edge? Definitely I should watch Singing in the Rain.

Fresh Air: “Lin-Manuel Miranda” — It’s nice to hear Miranda talk in a bit more detail than in other interviews about the impact of Stephen Sondheim on him as an influence and a mentor. As far as I’m concerned, they are not just the two best musical theatre songwriters of their respective generations, they’re also the two best songwriters ever to have emerged from Broadway. Also cool to hear him apparently reference Code Switch. I suppose he’s not necessarily referring to the podcast specifically, but it kind of seems like he is. Somewhere, Gene Demby squealed with delight.

Chapo Trap House: “No Future feat. Adam Curtis” — This focusses on Adam Curtis’s latest documentary, HyperNormalization, which I haven’t seen yet. There is a mindblowingly subtle moment in this where Curtis is explaining what Ayn Rand meant when she said that she wouldn’t die, but rather that the world will die. He explains that when you’re a nutjob individualist narcissist of Rand’s capacity, the world seems to actually be inside your head. So, death actually means the end of the world. At this point in the interview, which has thus far been a pretty standard, lo-fi conversation between three people, the producer edits in a snippet of “Don’t Stop Believing.” Because (spoiler for the most infamous television finale ever ahead) this is what happens, probably, at the end of The Sopranos. Tony dies, and the world ends. Journey is silenced mid-phrase. The Sopranos didn’t actually come up in conversation here, mind you. It’s just a lovely little illustration of the idea, for the benefit of the people who will be able to discern what’s going on. Very clever. Plus, Curtis has a brilliant critique of modern liberal activism that is tied up in the inadequacies of social media. It goes something like this: social media is great at organizing people and allowing them to do things, but it’s terrible at fostering the kinds of complex discourse that leads to viable ideas for how to run a country. So, when Mubarak was overthrown (a wonderful idea in principle), the populace that did the overthrowing was left without a clear idea of what was to happen next. But, as usual, the reactionary right had an idea. And in this case, it came in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood, and soon enough we’re back at square one. Silicon Valley has constructed social media platforms not in accordance with any way that ideas have traditionally flowered, but with contemporary, vapid notions of management. Mark Zuckerberg wants to “connect people.” He assumes, like many managers I’ve known, that if the infrastructure is in place for people to talk to each other, that’s enough to bring change in the world. It’s not. Change requires ideas. Ideas aren’t born out of platforms that privilege the simple. I’ll be watching HyperNormalization very soon. And I’ll definitely be listening to more Chapo Trap House. I will not, however, be following them on Twitter. Pick of the week.

Omnireviewer (week of Nov. 6, 2016)

Here’s a fun game! Guess which reviews I wrote before armageddon, and which I wrote after!

22 reviews.

Television

Last Week Tonight: November 6, 2016 — Well, it survives the election by not being primarily about the election. But interestingly, it also announces itself as a “web video” in spite of the fact that it’s on television. Which is interesting, and demonstrates that Oliver has entirely embraced his role as the most viral comedian.

Full Frontal with Samantha Bee: “Post-Election” — First off, getting Lizzo to perform at the end of the episode where Samantha Bee’s natural enemy became the most powerful person in the country was a masterstroke. When everything is shitty, Lizzo. I dunno if she would have been there regardless, but it worked well as an ending to the episode. I admire Bee’s optimism in the face of the worst possible outcome. She closes the episode by echoing the most worthwhile sentiment in Clinton’s concession speech: “there is more work to do.” During the Bush administration, Jon Stewart was the comedic voice that held the right’s feet to the fire and kept progressive people sane. Of the available heirs to the throne, my money’s on Samantha Bee to do the same during the Trump administration.

Doctor Who: “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” — This is a mess. The story is boilerplate adventure serial nonsense and there are too many moments where an attempt at a heartstring-tugging catharsis falls totally flat because of bad acting or obvious manipulation. But there are positives. Firstly, the on-location shooting makes this one of the most visually distinctive early serials, and there are actually some really great shots in there. You know, between all of the crap edits that obscure cause and effect. Also, William Hartnell has thoroughly figured out his role at this point. He’s completely charming in this. He’ll never be one of my favourite Doctors, but he’s adorable when he gets to be a hero. For the first time, you can start to see the universal characteristics of the Doctor that would be expanded on in iterations I like better (Patrick Troughton, Tom Baker, Sylvester McCoy, David Tennant, Matt Smith, Peter Capaldi). In this, you see the Doctor as a humanist, an ingenious man of action and a loveable weirdo. The one thing Hartnell doesn’t pull off is the scene where he bids Susan farewell, and that’s not his fault. That is quite simply one of the most completely bungled emotional beats in this show. It would have been so simple to just have Susan decide for herself to stay behind with David. Then, the Doctor could be forced to say goodbye in his way. And that is something you could see Hartnell pulling off brilliantly: trying to stay aloof while the emotions well up. As it stands, it looks like what it is: a presumptuous old man stranding his granddaughter on a foreign planet. A fitting end to a really not very good serial at all.

Movies

Mean Girls — It transpires that almost all of my Vancouver guy friends have moved away, and I now find myself in a social circle of almost entirely women. And, apart from occasionally feeling like the fly in the ointment, this is fine. It also means that I occasionally find myself in a room where a movie is playing that I didn’t necessarily feel like I’d ever watch. But when that movie is Mean Girls, there are no protests to be raised. Mean Girls is singularly brilliant. It’s astonishing the extent to which Tina Fey’s writing has maintained its aesthetic through this film, 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. This movie is joke dense to a level that would not become standard for at least another several years. (30 Rock premiered in 2006, but Fey was clearly ahead of the curve. On the other hand, Archer premiered in 2009.) The acting is uniformly fantastic, with the titular mean girls stealing the show. Rachel McAdams offers an uncanny performance as the queen bee we can all remember as part of our high school experience. And it’s hilarious to see Amanda Seyfried playing dumb when she’s been taking totally different roles since then. Also: I’m pretty sure I’ve never actually seen Lindsay Lohan in a movie before. She’s always just been a pop culture reference point — and specifically, one relating to drug abuse and lost innocence. So, to see her offering an actually very sympathetic performance in this movie was something of a welcome shock. Amy Poehler does that thing she does where she’s funny every time she’s in the frame, even if she’s not saying anything. But what’s really remarkable about this film is that it manages to conform to a standard comedic plotline while remaining honest to the realities of high school: Lohan’s character gradually becomes the very thing she detests, which is both narratively ripe and truthful to the experiences of adolescence. And if Tina Fey has a tendency to put the moral of the story in her own character’s mouth, at least that character is something of a feminist role model — and not at all a drug pusher. I completely enjoyed watching this, and I’m happy to have seen it in the company of a number of people for whom it appears to be a formative text: a quotable and relatable film that maintains its power twelve years on.

Music

Leonard Cohen: New Skin for the Old Ceremony — If there’s an upside to great artists dying (and let’s be fair, Cohen’s death is less sad than Bowie’s or Prince’s because he was 82), it’s that they get to be back in the conversation for a while. And that means I can listen to his music and talk to people about it with the benefit of a news hook, which is basically necessary. I’ve learned that I can’t just talk at people about Jethro Tull for no reason other than being obsessed. (Though nothing will, and nothing should, stop me from doing essentially that on this blog. You can opt out. And the fact that you haven’t is frankly bizarre.) So, I figured I’d give a spin to one of the classic Cohen albums that I hadn’t actually heard. New Skin for the Old Ceremony is firstly one of the best album titles ever. Think about it for a second. Good. Also, it seems to me on first listen to be essentially the equal of Songs of Leonard Cohen in terms of consistency (high, but not 100%), although it is more the stylistic cousin of the somewhat better Songs of Love and Hate. What I’m saying is it’s better than its “lesser classic” reputation would suggest. Also, this is the album on which Cohen seems to most embody Joni Mitchell’s characteristically dismissive description of Cohen as a “boudoir poet.” But that’s not a strike against the album. He puts aside some of his more existential questions here, but they’re replaced with compelling, intimate pictures of specific relationships. “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” is the obvious highlight in this sense. I reckon it’s not merely the most romantic song to have a blowjob reference in the third line, but possibly the most romantic song ever to be written about a one-night stand. Famously, it’s about Janis Joplin, and famously Cohen regrets having revealed that. But putting that indiscretion aside, “Chelsea Hotel” is one of many reasons I feel that Leonard Cohen is an effective model of non-toxic masculinity. There’s no sense of self-congratulation in this story, and Cohen emphasizes the value that he places on his lover’s entire self. That sort of thoughtfulness is rare enough in songs about long-time romantic partnerships, let along hookups. (If anybody reading this disagrees with me, I’d be interested to hear. Because I’ve been wrong about these sorts of things before.) The rest of the album stays the course. It’s not entirely about love and loss, but enough of it is that you come away from it feeling like those are the key themes. I’d say this is Cohen’s Blood on the Tracks, but frankly just about any Leonard Cohen album could be his Blood on the Tracks. Blood on the Tracks is Bob Dylan nicking Cohen’s schtick (and doing it better, but that’s not the point). Leonard Cohen was awesome. I hope the rest of the world is also spending some time with his records right now. Pick of the week. 

Literature, etc.

David Remnick: “Leonard Cohen Makes it Darker” — I read this just before Cohen died, so I kind of assumed that he was exaggerating the extent of his illness. He did, after all, say that he was. But regardless of any of that, this is a really fascinating portrait of Cohen at the end of his life. He seems happy, fulfilled and resigned. And he’s completely in possession of his faculties. It really highlights how Cohen’s lyrics are darker than his personality. This is a lovely companion piece to You Want it Darker, if only to add a touch of levity to Cohen’s final chapter.

Sala Suleri: “Meatless Days” — Suleri’s prose is truly wonderful, and her descriptions of food are worthy of the best authors in the “food writing” genre. Which is definitely not what this is. This is a memoir about childhood, and how food plays into how we see the world as we grow up. Lovely.

Philip Sandifer: TARDIS Eruditorum Volume 1: William Hartnell — I bought this ages ago and it’s taking me a ludicrously long time to get through, for reasons that have nothing to do with Sandifer. I just find it hard to dredge up the will to actually watch these dull old stories from the earliest days of Doctor Who. My enthusiasm for Sandifer’s writing is such that I’ll put myself through the dull-as-shit experience of watching a story written by Terry Nation, just so that I’ll be equipped to read Sandifer’s essay on that story. In this period at least, Sandifer’s TARDIS Eruditorum entries are often superior works of art to the television that they critique. I just read the book version of one of my favourite posts on Sandifer’s blog, which is on “The Rescue.” His observation of how clever it is to have a man in a rubber suit actually turn out to be a man in a rubber suit as opposed to being a monster is brilliant, makes watching “The Rescue” more fun, and is exactly the reason why I like reading Sandifer’s criticism.  But, since the next Doctor Who story that I haven’t seen is “The Romans,” for which I have exactly no enthusiasm, it’ll probably be another several months before I get any farther in this book.

Podcasts, etc.

Slate Election Day Special — This is the reason for the “etc.” in the heading. Slate did a clever thing here, by putting out updated editions of the same podcast (sort of) periodically throughout election day, adding and updating stories as they become relevant. It’s like a newscast, except more polished, more discretely packaged, and without the need for an anchor who can fill time, which has always been a stupid idea and is part of the reason why traditional broadcasting is largely so stupid.  This is definitely a format I could see working in other situations in the future. As for the content itself, Alison Stewart and Zoe Chace are both brilliant and covered the stories they chose with rigor and fairness. It was nice to hear Mike Pesca show up from time to time, since he’s got the fastest brain in the business. He was made for this sort of thing.

Fresh Air: “Trump And The White Working Class” — George Packer’s take on this election is hugely informed by his work on The Unwinding, which I haven’t read, but which sounds fascinating. He comes down mostly on the side that views Trump’s voters as disaffected, but his position is more nuanced than many who claim this, and he’s well aware of the extent to which the white working class does not actually make up Trump’s base.

A Point of View: “America Votes” — Adam Gopnik has been, along with Bob Garfield, one of my most treasured voices of reason in this election. This is possibly his most succinct summation of why Trump is awful. It’s ten minutes. Just listen to it.

On the Media: “Poor Judgement” — The final instalment of Brooke Gladstone’s poverty myths series takes the form of an OTM news consumer guide, which is a really good idea, because the media apparently cannot portray poverty in anything close to an accurate semblance. This series has been among the best radio of the year.

This American Life: “Master of Her Domain… Name” — I listened to this on November 8th. It has a story about how Hillary Clinton does not know how to use a computer. Then it has a story about a man making cat puns. Then it has a story about a police officer who was bested by a squirrel. Then the United States elected Donald Trump as their president.

On the Media: “Now What?” — This was the first podcast I listened to after the election of Donald Trump. It is the most difficult 17 minutes of radio I’ve listened to all year. On the Media has been one of my favourites, and possibly my very favourite show of 2016. Bob Garfield is a big part of that. His call to arms, where he implored reporters not to settle into familiar routines as Trump’s campaign went on — to acknowledge that he is a totally unique candidate and highlight his obvious unfitness for office at every opportunity — was one of very few moments in this election season where somebody said something that I thought made sense. His closing line was a killer: “The voters will do what the voters will do, but it must not be, cannot be because the press did not do enough.” And Brooke Gladstone has always been one of the most valuable people on the radio, because she’s one of the few who can explain to people how they’re processing information, so that they can then examine their own interface with the media and arrive at something closer to the truth. This was massively evident in the poverty myths series that just wrapped. So, hearing Garfield and Gladstone disagree so vehemently in this taped conversation with Katya Rogers about the future of the show is extremely disquieting. At the risk of infantilizing myself, there’s an element of “mom and dad are fighting” to this. It’s two people you’ve come to deeply trust, and who you take for granted will present a united front, not seeing eye to eye. At no point during this episode did I know whose side I was on. I kept listening, but I wanted it to stop. I think these next four years are going to be very bad. And when even the most reliably sane and measured source of analysis is existentially spiralling in the wake of the election, it seems like an indication that things might be worse than I thought. Pick of the week, if only because it’s the most preoccupying thing on the list.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: The Election and Political Comedy” — This is either the last, second-last, or third-last pre-election, election-related podcast I will listen to. It’s just too painful to listen to missives from that more innocent time. *sniff. Also Glen Weldon doesn’t understand that John Oliver’s show doesn’t have any jokes on it, and that’s distressing.

The Heart: “Love, Harry” — One day I will go back through the entire archive of The Heart and Audiosmut. Because it is such engrossing radio. This extremely gutsy and vulnerable piece details the near-romantic relationship between the show’s host and one of its early producers. It feels like listening to something you’re not supposed to be listening to. I love it. And, as always, it has some of the best, most subtle, least ostentatious sound design in all of radio. I think it’s Kaitlin Prest who does the mixing? I don’t really know. But it is top shelf, always.

99% Invisible: “Ten Letters for the President” — Listening to this post-election is distressing. Because, it’s clear that President Obama’s dedication to reading a sample of the citizenry’s correspondence will not be continued by President Trump. Ruined my listening experience.

Code Switch: “A Muslim and Mexican Walk Into A Bar…” — It’s as good as you could expect from a clearly shell-shocked Code Switch team. It’s funny, for much of its duration. But I would have been just as satisfied, or more, if Gene Demby had just unloaded all of his fears and doubts into the microphone for 25 minutes.

On the Media: “Wrong Number” — A deeply unsatisfying post-election hour. But, to be fair, Brooke Gladstone knows that and directs listeners to the existentially terrifying podcast extra from earlier this week. Part of me feels like Nate Silver ought to have been made to sweat a bit more, but the rational part of my brain knows that he’s justified to say that Five Thirty-Eight’s predictions were within the margin of error. But frankly, if the margin of error can encompass such drastically different outcomes as American fascism vs. no American fascism, then my faith in data remains slightly shaken. Call me a plebe. Go ahead.

The Bugle: “Tony The Tiger: RIP” — This has its moments, but there are long stretches of laughlessness. I’m confident that Andy Zaltzman will reach equilibrium eventually, but the key is going to be finding collaborators that think he’s funny, as opposed to just a weird old dude who’s good at puns. Also, it is legitimately weird that this is a Radiotopia podcast now. Zaltzman doesn’t even seem to have a clue what that means. Or maybe he’s just being funny. Who can tell?

The Bugle: “ZERO DT” — It must be a good sign that I went on to listen to another episode of The Bugle right away after listening to the season premiere. However, it was mostly just because I needed to hear how these same two people reacted to Trump’s election. Short answer: not well. Longer answer: this is a better episode than the other one I listened to, even if Hari Kondabolu sounds like he’s been severely beaten in the interim. Which he sort of has. We all have.  

NPR Politics Podcast: “The Election of Donald Trump” — This is about all I need in terms of election wrapup, I think. Gonna try to not think about this too much until Trump takes office. For my own sanity.

Omnireviewer (week of Oct. 9, 2016)

Whole bunch of fun stuff this week, including separate entries for each instalment of Kentucky Route Zero that I replayed. Also, an additional recommendation: don’t let a bit of rain stop you from running the seawall. Did that this afternoon, with a bunch of podcasts lined up, and it was a highlight of my week. 31 reviews.

Television

All Aboard the Starliner: The Making of Full Circle — I am not about to become the sort of person who watches the special features on old Doctor Who DVDs. But it seems I have indeed watched this one, so why deny it. It’s most fun to watch Christopher Bidmead and Lalla Ward, two people I quite admire, slag off Matthew Waterhouse mercilessly. But it’s also nice to hear the story of how Bidmead encouraged Andrew Smith, the very young writer of this story.

Last Week Tonight: October 9, 2016 — Firstly, this is fine. Secondly, the bit about the, ahem, “spray-tanned Furby eating KFC and screaming at a gold star family” is exactly the sort of non-joke that I wrote about last week that I wish this show would stop doing. Finally, the quality of the argumentation in the Guantanamo segment proves my earlier point about Oliver being most valuable as a pundit.

Doctor Who: “State of Decay” — It’s really wonderful the extent to which K-9 is seen as a joke even within the show at this point. In this story, he becomes weaponized, in the most ironic way possible. Love that. Altogether, this is a less worthwhile story than the previous one. It’s attempt to rationalize vampires is clumsy, and aside from the crackling scenes of the Doctor conversing with the rebels, this is a bit dull. No matter. I’m really only watching this to have the necessary context for the next story, which I suspect I will completely adore.

Full Frontal With Samantha Bee: October 5, 2016 — I think this just found its way onto my weekly viewing list, which currently only contains Last Week Tonight, a show that I’m becoming less enamoured of by the second. For better or worse, John Oliver tends to comment on current events from above the fray: the closest thing to righteous indignation that he can conjure is bemusement. Whereas Sam Bee is right in the shit, getting publicly angry on behalf of us less clever people, just like Jon Stewart used to do. I feel a bit dumb for not having watched this regularly. The episodes I’ve seen are the best satire of the year.

Doctor Who: “Warrior’s Gate” — Oh, I like this a lot. Mostly. Romana doesn’t quite work here, in spite of it being her swan song. Lalla Ward may be slightly to blame: you couldn’t blame her for having one foot out the door, considering everything. But there are story problems as well. She’s forced to be mysterious rather than whimsical and she’s also robbed of her competency once she’s captured. Annoyingly, this would have been easy enough to fix: just have her accompany the freighter crew out of curiosity rather than suspicion, and allow her to find her own way to escape rather than having Adric rescue her. She wouldn’t even necessarily appear credulous; she could just do what the Doctor always does and take a risk with relative confidence that she’ll find her way out of any tight spot that arises. This alternative also leaves Adric with nothing to do, which is a bonus. But aside from all of this, “Warrior’s Gate” is fabulous. I haven’t seen the show this abstract since the first episode of “The Mind Robber,” which this bears some obvious aesthetic similarities to. And, “episode one of ‘The Mind Robber’ stretched out to a full story” is a pretty decent brief. And the fact that time travel actually plays a role in the story makes it feel like my favourite bits of the new series. It’s weird and arty, and a bit austere. If this entire season could have kept up the pace and the tone of this and “Logopolis,” it would be one of the high points of the classic series.

Cabaret (televised broadcast of the Sam Mendes production) — I was recently defending my opinion that there are good musicals other than Hamilton (though only a handful that I really love) and I realized that my opinion of Cabaret, always a favourite, is entirely based on the film adaptation. That movie is brilliant, but it excises most of the songs. So, I figured I’d scour YouTube for a filmed theatrical production and I found this. Holy shit. Everything that was implied in Joel Grey’s performance as the Emcee is made as explicit as possible in Alan Cumming’s. Where Joel Grey says “Ladies and gentlemen,” Alan Cumming says “Ladies and gentlemen.” This is that rare thing where two performers make something so completely different out of a piece that they can’t meaningfully be judged against each other. Part of the beauty of Joel Grey’s leering creep is that you can never quite tell whose side he’s on. Alan Cumming’s emcee is so aggressively of the counterculture that he couldn’t possibly be aligned even slightly with fascism. He’s a one-man middle finger to Hitler. The other thing that this made clear is that Cabaret’s best songs are in fact in the movie. Kander and Ebb’s other masterpiece, Chicago, isn’t as dramatically satisfying or profound as this, but it’s got better tunes, on balance. Still, Cabaret is a classic. Pick of the week.

Games

Kentucky Route Zero: Act 1 — I’ve decided to replay the first three acts of Kentucky Route Zero before approaching act four, because this is so enormously dense that I couldn’t possibly remember everything that’s important. It turns out to be built for second playthroughs. As far as I know, it’s probably built for fourth playthroughs. Kentucky Route Zero is brilliant at offering up tantalizing little thematic threads that you can pull on but you can’t quite connect with each other. Right from the beginning of this, it’s clear that there’s metafiction at play: Joseph’s computer in the first scene is foreshadowing of how that character will recur in the third act, and of the idea that computer programs will form a central element of the story. I’m fairly convinced that the three people in the basement of Equus Oils, who appear again in “Limits and Demonstrations,” are also serving as an element in this set of themes. When they first appear, they are playing a game, the rules of which are unclear. So is the player when they first encounter these characters. Next time we see them, they are surveying weird art. So is the player, at every point during Kentucky Route Zero. Indeed, the entire notion of watching, listening to and examining things is central, here. There are tape recorders strewn around, and televisions that become games when moss grows on them (more foreshadowing). Soon enough, we’ll be watching theatre in “The Entertainment” and hearing music in the pub in Act Three. Also, the theme of hardship stemming from economic recession is immediately obvious, with the power to Equus Oils having been shut off, and the Márquezes having fallen on hard times. It’s tempting to try and tie these threads together in some cogent fashion. But there’s part of me that resists the idea of forming one unified theory of Kentucky Route Zero’s story. It seems like it ought to be bigger than that. Like a David Lynch movie or a Virginia Woolf novel, it need not be pinned down by the need to answer the question “what does it mean?” Still, as I play through the next three acts and the interstitial features between them once more, I’m going to see if any connections come to me unbidden.

Kentucky Route Zero: “Limits and Demonstrations” — It’s worth noting that this computer game is as good an art exhibit as I’ve ever seen in Vancouver. The first time I played through “Limits and Demonstrations,” I had already been through the first three acts of the main game. So, it didn’t strike me just how much explicit foreshadowing there is in this. It also didn’t strike me the extent to which the three characters you accompany through this exhibit are mirrors of Lula, Donald and Joseph. I still do not know entirely what to make of this, but it certainly adds a layer to Kentucky Route Zero’s pre-existing sense of performativity. And these characters only seem to appear when there is metafiction afoot. I’ll follow these thoughts up when I get through Act 2 for the second time.

Kentucky Route Zero: Act 2 — I had really meant to make this playthrough of the first three acts a quick one, just to refamiliarize myself before playing Act 4, but it’s impossible not to immerse yourself in this. Even the bits that I remember really clearly, I still feel compelled to go through in detail. (I did give the Secret Tourism locations along the Echo a miss, this time, though.) Just wandering through the Museum of Dwellings, observing the structures and listening to what people say is satisfying. And the format of having that entire segment take place in past tense, from the perspective of the people Conway and Shannon talk to rather than by Conway and Shannon themselves is a brilliant little method of distancing. It also gives us a broader picture of the world where this is taking place: each of the people living here is having similar problems to the characters we know better, like Joseph and Weaver. I’m also particularly intrigued by the scene that takes place in the storage locker. The idea that there was once a church here, but that everybody stopped coming, and now the janitor is keeping it alive by posting pictures of the congregation on the wall and playing tapes of the sermon is pretty rich. It’s a facsimile of a thing: a digital representation of reality, much like the cave systems in William Crowther’s Adventure — the first adventure game, and a key reference point in Kentucky Route Zero Act 3. I think this is overall my least favourite of the first three acts, but I still love the Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces, with its BBQing organist and its floor full of bears.

Kentucky Route Zero: “The Entertainment” — This is my favourite of the three interludes Cardboard Computer has released so far, though it lacks the high-concept gusto of “Here and There Along the Echo.” I’ll never forget the first time I played this and gradually realized what was going on: that the scene before me was in fact a play, that there was an audience present, and that I was an actor. This second time through, one of the first things I saw when I started looking around was the lighting rig above the stage. I can’t recall whether my first experience was similar, but of course I wouldn’t have known what to make of it anyway. It’s interesting to note that this sort of faux-Iceman Cometh old-time bar setting seems to be in the air again, these days. This captures the same sort of misguided nostalgia for a time and place that wasn’t actually any good that Horace and Pete does. And, to boot, they are both essentially theatrical productions taking place inside a different medium. I’m not sure where to follow that train of thought to next, so I’ll use it as a segue to discuss the most interesting thing about “The Entertainment,” which is its ostentatious, explicit theatricality. And the fact that it’s story is presented as a play is undercut by the fact that some of the characters are later seen in a non-theatrical context: this bartender will later show up in this bar again, but as a real character and not an actor. Similarly, Lula Chamberlain and Joseph Wheatree are credited as the play’s set designer and adapted playwright, respectively. I have written before about how it’s probably best to resist interpretations of Kentucky Route Zero that attempt to wrestle it into internal consistency. But “The Entertainment” makes it tempting to go against that. If anybody has a plausible explanation of how this bar can exist both as a play within a game and as a diegetic locale in that same game, I’m all ears. Bonus points for explaining how Lula and Joseph can exist both inside of this story and outside of it.

Music

John Coltrane: Meditations — My favourite Coltrane album by a mile. The strange noisiness of “The Father And The Son And The Holy Ghost,” with Pharaoh Sanders and Rashied Ali squeaking and banging as hard as they can, would be hard to appreciate in isolation. But, that track along with the other free sections of this recording only make up half of the yin yang. This record also features some of McCoy Tyner’s most beautiful playing on record, and Coltrane himself at his simplest and most direct. It demands to be listened to from beginning to end, because without each of its segments to prop each other up, it loses its integrity completely. But, when approached on its own terms, it is a timeless classic. Too bad it broke up Coltrane’s core quartet. But, he had other business to attend to anyway. (Also, I listened to this while reading Blake, and it paired rather nicely — two examples of unorthodox spirituality expressed in occasionally bewildering ways.)

Chance the Rapper: Acid RapColouring Book was definitely a step forward from this, but it’s a mostly great record with its own merits. It isn’t as straightforwardly joyful as its successor, but that’s not a bad thing necessarily. He is definitely much more stoned on this one, and a bit less grown up. But it’s a good record that I’ll return to — albeit probably a bit less frequently than Colouring Book.

Live events

Vancouver Symphony Orchestra/Karina Canellakis & Karen Gomyo: Live, Oct. 15 — Bless me father, for I have sinned. It’s been… two years since my last symphony concert. Quite frankly, the VSO is yet to convince me that paying for a ticket to hear them live will reliably be a more worthwhile experience than staying home and listening to a recording of the Concertgebouw in the same rep. But when a friend invites me to go I’ll happily attend, especially when the Berg Violin Concerto is on the program. It is one of the most beautiful pieces of the 20th century, and essentially the only work from the Second Viennese School that I would recommend unreservedly to anybody who’s interested in classical music. (Check out Isabelle Faust’s recording with Claudio Abbado. The ending is heartstopping.) Karen Gomyo played the solo part with all of the expressiveness that Berg wrote into it, and she tackled the technical bits with substantial derring-do. Karina Canellakis is a really solid conductor who possesses the clarity that all of the most acclaimed conductors in recent history seem to lack. But that didn’t stop the orchestra from struggling with parts of the Berg. Most of it came off okay, but the glorious ending of the piece was compromised by the band not playing together. There were even some issues in Mozart’s Magic Flute overture — including outright wrong notes in the violins during the slow opening. But Canellakis took it at the fast clip that it needs to stay aloft, and once it got going, I really enjoyed it. It never gets old, the Magic Flute overture. One of those rare pieces that survives overexposure. The second half of the program was Rachmaninov 2, so they were starting from a deficit. Rachmaninov all blends together for me. I like the third concerto, but for the most part he’s one of the surest composers to make my eyes glaze over. Which they did, about halfway through the first movement, and I didn’t check back in until the third, which I thought Canellakis conducted brilliantly. She restrained the orchestra enough for the bulk of the movement that the huge romantic climaxes felt properly cathartic. And the final movement is a jolly romp that it’s hard not to like. Interestingly, this was very much a “clap between the movements” kind of crowd, which I always find reassuring, because traditions are stupid and I prefer the company of people who are either ignorant or irreverent of them. I noticed more young people around than I usually see at classical shows. That’s nice. The friend I went with even ran into some folks she knows who are also our age. Guess they ought to program more Berg. This was fun. If I get a chance to hear Canellakis conduct live again, I’ll go for sure. My general standard of success for a night out at live entertainment is whether or not it was as good as seeing a decent movie. This was. Chalk it up as a win.

Podcasts

The Gist: “Rapid Response: The Town Hall Debate” — Pesca is a public discourse poet. I didn’t watch the second debate because there are limits to how successfully I can remain sane. But this essentially confirms my suspicions: that the format would make it a complete shambles and that nobody would say anything new. Okay, now onto a longer podcast recap of this same inane thing…

NPR Politics Podcast: “The Second Presidential Debate” — I have to say, the panel on this podcast is doing god’s work by making it so I don’t have to actually sit through these godawful debates. They tell me what happened, offer a bit of analysis, resist total partisanship, and also don’t act like Trump isn’t a buffoon whose campaign is well off the tracks. It’s what anybody needs to stay informed and also sane.

You Must Remember This: “The Blacklist” parts 9-11, plus Lena Horne rerun — The Lena Horne piece is an absolute highlight of this show, partially because it corrects the major issue with most episodes, which is the absence of tape. I love You Must Remember This, and I love Karina Longworth, but I’m sometimes frustrated by the fact that she thinks she can write a script and read it over music and that’s radio. It obviously doesn’t stop me from listening, but when I heard the Lena Horne episode, which has a great deal of archival tape of Horne telling her own story, it made me wish that the show would be like this more often. Podcasts aren’t audiobooks. Fortunately, You Must Remember This is an excellent enough audiobook that I don’t mind when it calls itself a podcast.

99% Invisible: “Project Cybersyn” — A lovely story that ties Chilean socialism in with nationalized design. In general, 99pi tends to position its stories as stories in themselves, as opposed to sub-narratives of larger stories. It’s nice to see a staunchly design-oriented story that ties into a political narrative that is larger than itself.

NPR Politics Podcast: “Trump v GOP” — I don’t foresee myself ever having anything much to say about this podcast, but I will continue forcing myself to go through the motions of reviewing it each time. I have principles. I will say this: I was really sceptical of this podcast’s claims in its early advertising to be a functional one-stop shop for political coverage. I still don’t believe there’s such a thing, and the very suggestion of it is a little bit dangerous. But having started to listen fairly regularly, it definitely comes closer than any other source of election news that I come across.

In The Dark: Episodes 5-7 — This really picked up for me in the sixth episode, where the story went broader and started getting into the national consequences of Jacob Wetterling’s disappearance, such as the very first sex offenders registry. It keeps the momentum through the seventh episode, which moves backwards to explain how the narrative of “small town cops who’ve never seen this sort of thing before are in over their heads” is bunk. Because, it turns out, the very police department that mishandled the Wetterling case so badly had mishandled a bunch of other cases in the past and failed to adequately debrief. This is nearly over, I assume, but it has become quite dazzling.

Imaginary Worlds: “Magical Thinking” — A wonderful consideration of the storytelling pitfalls and opportunities associated with magic. This episode splits fictional approaches to magic into two camps, which Patrick Rothfuss calls “poetic” and “scientific” magic, the idea being that in the latter category, the magic is defined by a Dungeons and Dragonsesque set of strictures, whereas in the former it is allowed to exist essentially unexplained. My favourite example of “poetic” magic is actually from an ostensibly SF narrative, not a fantasy one: the sonic screwdriver from Doctor Who. These days, the rule about whether or not the sonic can do something is basically, if it would cheapen the story for it to be able to do that, then it can’t. On the other hand, if it could potentially get the story past a boring obstacle set up by another element of the plot, then it definitely can. In other words, the story dictates the specifics of the magic, and not the other way around. The other way around, where the story sort of emerges from the magic system’s specific set of cans and can’ts (haha cants) is totally valid too — and it’s worth noting that it’s an approach that really jives with the creative approaches I admire most in music. Specifically, the rule-based approach of Brian Eno. But I’ve come to deeply admire writers like Steven Moffat, whose respect for consistency (and canonicity) is limited to whether or not it improves the story in his head. Well, look! This episode spun out a nice set of thoughts, didn’t it? Gold star.

All Songs Considered: “Solange, Gillian Welch, Cuddle Magic, More” — The talk outweighs the music on this episode, which Solange handily wins (though, as Robin Hilton will tell you, it’s not a competition). The most interesting thing to happen on this episode is Bob Boilen outright hating a song that Hilton chose, which I’m not sure I’ve ever heard happen before. The sticking point was Boilen’s contention that the guitar solo is dead. And, rocker though I am at heart, I can’t easily disagree. In the past… twenty years, I can only name a handful of really distinctive guitar soloists (not guitarists, mind you, but soloists specifically) with something to say through the medium of guitar solos. I’m thinking of Johnny Greenwood, Jack White and St. Vincent specifically. The era of proliferation of great guitar soloists has certainly ended. But, the existence of those three artists, and I’m sure many others I’m not thinking of right now, demonstrates to me that there’s still potential in the guitar solo. Basically, I come down more on Boilen’s side than Hilton’s, in the sense that I think we’re past the era where guitar solos should be the norm in any specific kind of music. We’re in an era where they must only be employed advisedly.

The Memory Palace: “The Met Residency Episode M2: One Bottle, Any Bottle” — These episodes for the Met do suffer a bit when you’re not actually at the Met, looking at the things that DiMeo is talking about. Not just because of the fact that you don’t know what they look like: in this episode, DiMeo actively conjures the mystique of the place, and the value judgements implicit in having an object occupy space there — space, where the listeners themselves are presumably standing also. It’s still a nice bit of radio, but inconsequential out of context.

StartUp: “Diversification of Worry” — Okay, so I definitely just typed out and backspaced a really angry, unfair screed about the cancellation of Mystery Show. Basically, I think we can trust Alex Blumberg’s judgement when he assures us that there’s only so much he can say about the situation without it being harmful. He could be protecting Starlee Kine as much or more than he’s hiding his own (mistaken?) decision making process. So, I don’t think we can expect to hear much more, and we probably shouldn’t get up in arms about it. That said, I don’t know why Blumberg didn’t make more of an effort to get out in front of the story and not seem like the guy who cancelled a beloved show without telling anybody until the show’s host told the world on Facebook (while Blumberg all the while vaunted an air of “transparency” around his company). But that’s not what concerns me most. What concerns me most is the notion that we may have witnessed the outer limit of the art that can feasibly be produced within the confines of a venture-backed company concerned with its revenue targets. I can only assume that Mystery Show was super expensive (Nick Quah breaks this down a bit in his most recent issue of the Hot Pod newsletter, which is well worth a subscription if you’re interested in the podcast biz). And given the company’s obvious need to not have gigantic expenditures with low returns, it makes sense that Mystery Show was untenable. But the thing is, it was so good. One of the best podcasts ever. Blumberg doesn’t deny that. So, perhaps this is a limitation of his business model — a limitation that might not have existed in the public radio world that he left to start Gimlet. And I wonder if Mystery Show could have survived had it been developed for a publicly-funded platform — any such platform that could offer a podcast with an idiosyncratic release schedule. Maybe that would have presented a whole different set of problems. But I do think this is evidence that companies like Gimlet are not the future of podcasting. They can only be a part of it. Public media is irreplaceable, because we can’t afford to have any more Mystery Shows get canned.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “A Fall Movie and Television Preview” — This is always one of my favourite episodes of the year, because Glen Weldon is always so obviously wrong about what television will be a ratings success. Also, I am now massively looking forward to a season of great movies. Manchester by the Sea is at the top of my list, but there’s a bunch of stuff mentioned here that I hadn’t heard about, and will check out.

On The Media: “Personal Responsibility” — Gladstone’s series on poverty myths is off to a wonderful start, with an instalment on maybe the most pernicious — and certainly the most ruthless — myth of all: that poor people are lazy. It ties a profile of a present-day poor single mother to a larger narrative about the gradual erosion of welfare, culminating in Bill Clinton’s welfare reforms, the consequences of which are only beginning to show themselves now.

Science Vs: “Forensic Science” — The bad jokes are really starting to bother me. It’s a shame, too, because this is a really solid show in every other respect. I may have to demote it to an occasional listen. We’ll see how I feel after the second half of this two-parter.

This American Life: “My Undesirable Talent” — This features two incredible stories: one about a gentlemanly Mormon with a gambling addiction who became an accomplished thief, and one about a black Californian kid of Ugandan parents who convinced an entire liberal arts college that he was actually from Uganda. He did the accent and the whole bit. That second story is the real highlight. It’s hysterically funny, for one thing, and for another, it has a lot to say about African-American identity. I always say I should listen to this show more. I should listen to this show more.

The Sporkful: “Who is this Restaurant For?” Parts 1-4 — A nice compliment to Pashman’s earlier “Other People’s Food” series, this drills down on the specific issue of restaurants sending signals to people of various races, to either intentionally welcome them, or covertly ward them away. The first and last episodes are the highlights, the former because of Code Switch’s Kat Chow, whose expertise in talking about race and culture gets the series off to a reassuring start, and the latter because W. Kamau Bell is really funny. Recommended.

Theory of Everything: “Burning Down the Panopticon” — Firstly, I am fascinated to see the long game that Walker is playing with these non-existent ad spots. Secondly, one of my favourite modes for Theory of Everything is the mode where it engages directly with difficult thinkers like Jeremy Bentham and Michel Foucault. So, I quite enjoyed this. Another of my favourite modes for Theory of Everything is when Benjamen Walker expresses extreme wariness of a facet of modern life. Surveillance is certainly a facet worth being wary of. So, this mini-series is sure to be a winner.

StartUp: “You Can’t Wear a Suit Here” — It’s hard to stay angry at Alex Blumberg. It’s also hard to say just how willing his subordinates are to paint him in a negative, or even nuanced light when they’re tasked with telling a story in which he is a character. I have no doubt that he means well, but having myself worked in creative jobs where it felt like the person who was supposed to be giving me feedback had checked out in favour of stuff that doesn’t directly relate to the product we’re ostensibly making, I found myself siding with Eric Mennel on this one, even though the story takes pains to show him as a person who is juggling as much as anybody at Gimlet. And I promise that this isn’t about Mystery Show. BUT. Everybody at Gimlet seems to think of Blumberg as a person who has more optimism than practicality. Maybe that’s why he saw fit to greenlight a show that pretty obviously would be both incredible and extremely unprofitable. In any case, next episode, it looks like we’ll really get a look at what everybody thinks of him. Or, as much of a look as we can be afforded, given that anything can be edited out.

Reply All: “Boy in Photo” — Outstanding. This is Reply All in “Zardulu” mode — where they take a seemingly unimportant internet phenomenon and do investigative journalism until they find something resembling the real story. And this one has layer after layer after layer — in spite of the fact that there’s really nothing of consequence at its centre. It’s just a great story about a whole bunch of ordinary people, who were thrust into a really narrow, specific spotlight because of the internet’s inherent weirdness. Reply All is very seldom less than great, but some weeks I love it more than anything, and this is one of them. Pick of the week.

Omnireviewer (week of Oct. 2, 2016)

Just a reminder that my Tumblr exists. Okay, that’s that.

23 reviews.

Television

Last Week Tonight: October 2, 2016 — This has the unfortunate distinction of being the first episode of Last Week Tonight that I’ve watched after reading this extremely on-point parody of this show’s writing and John Oliver’s delivery. Obviously, the fact that it’s possible to make a parody of something does not itself make that thing bad; it only means that it’s possible to identify the tropes at play. That could mean that the thing being parodied is hackneyed or cliché (there is a reason there are a lot of buddy cop parodies), but it could equally mean that the subject of the parody simply has a distinctive voice (the reason that Weird Al’s “Dare to be Stupid” is such a good parody is that Devo is a good band, and Al wrote a song that’s worthy of them). But sometimes a parody can make the scales fall from your eyes so you can see a thing as it is. I have always been effusively positive about this show, but the John Oliver parody I linked above points out the fact that many of the jokes on Last Week Tonight aren’t actually jokes: they’re just lists of funny-sounding words, strung together into long sentences, which are then made the object of a comparison with a serious real-world person or thing. For instance, in this episode, Oliver ends a list of places Donald Trump gets his news with “the racist minotaur that talks to him in the one hour that he sleeps every night.” Every part of that phrase except for “racist” is entirely unmotivated by the context. The only reason for the big laugh that follows is that the phrase “racist minotaur” is funny at first… but should it be? Also, the latest in Oliver’s running gag of “alternate names for the 2016 election” is as follows: “what did I do to deserve this I always tried to be a good person is this because I stole candy once in 4th grade PLEASE STOP PUNISHING US 2016,” which, elaborate though it is, is still just finding a new sequence of words to say “the election is bad.” Also, at one point Oliver compares Hillary Clinton to “an over-confident sloth who has just learned that their credit card information has been stolen by a Ukrainian schoolboy,” except actually no, he doesn’t, because that line was from the parody BUT THE VERY FACT THAT FOR A SECOND YOU KIND OF BELIEVED IT SAYS SOMETHING about how formulaic the jokes on this show can get. (See what I did there? Mmmhmm.) Let me be clear: I still like this show. But when Oliver emphasizes (like Jon Stewart before him) that he’s a comedian and not an opinion journalist, it seems a bit pathetic to me, because he’s clearly more valuable for his skills in the latter domain than the former. The most genuinely hilarious moments on this show are in the clips that he chooses. The simple act of recontextualizing patently ridiculous moments on TV news in a comedy show, implicitly giving us permission to laugh at them, is valuable comedy — though Oliver is clearly not the only game in town in that respect. But the next time I hear somebody extol the calibre of the joke writing on Last Week Tonight, I am 85% less likely to nod in agreement.

Doctor Who: “Full Circle” — According to a recent Doctor Who poll, the best story that I haven’t seen is “Warrior’s Gate.” So, I figured I should just check out the whole trilogy that it’s the concluding entry in. Wow, it has been a while since I watched classic Doctor Who, and I had forgotten how much it demands of a modern audience. This is very difficult to take on a number of levels, just in terms of televisual grammar. You don’t get reaction shots where it seems clear that there should be a reaction shot, characters routinely make exclamations that reiterate something that’s just been shown onscreen, and the less said about the rubber monster suits, the better. But it has its appeal. Obviously it does, or else I wouldn’t have spent so many hours of my life watching old Doctor Who serials, most of which suffer these exact same problems. Ultimately, I never get tired of stories that paint a picture of a unique alien civilization at a turning point. And they are always at a turning point, because the Doctor is an agent of change, and his unexpected arrival (along with the TARDIS, his companions, and most importantly a film crew and a TV audience) must by necessity result in the forward motion of the plot. This is no “Ribos Operation,” but it is a perfectly competent iteration of that story. Also, Adric. Ugh.

Movies

Going Clear — This is fascinating, surprising and appalling. Each of the ex-Scientologists interviewed here has a compelling story about how they finally left the church. One can critique the extent to which the former high-ranking Scientologists are allowed to get away with the fairly terrible things they took part in. But the villain of this piece is Scientology itself, and to a lesser extent, its current leader, David Miscavige. L. Ron Hubbard is rightly portrayed as unsympathetic, but he is at least portrayed as sincere, and not merely power hungry like Miscavige. Best of all is the way that the documentary subtly equates the act of leaving the church with the moment of “going clear,” which is Scientology bullshit for having worked through your psychological issues by way of religious practices. A really wonderful documentary that, like Lawrence Wright’s book upon which it is based, seeks first to understand Scientology and its practitioners and only begins its critique once it is clear that something is very wrong.

Games

The Last Door: Season Two (Collector’s Edition) — There are fewer truly horrifying moments in this than there were in the first season (mind you, even the latter three episodes of that struggled to match the roomful of crows moment in the game’s pilot episode), but all in all this is a stronger game than its predecessor. The biggest and most profitable change is the introduction of an overworld map to each episode, which makes the whole thing feel bigger, more open and more exploratory. The pleasure of traipsing about a larger area is a benefit in itself, but the real payoff of this approach is that the game’s horror mythos can expand outwards beyond our central cast of characters. Superstitious seamen are aware of strange things lurking out in the fog. Secluded islanders know how the human mind can bring forth very real monsters. On that note, the story’s influences expand from Poe and Lovecraft to also include The Wicker Man, which the third episode is an extremely straightforward homage to (but without the awkward musical numbers and tonal inconsistencies). And the final episode features a satisfying set of near-callbacks to the first season, which must have been especially thrilling to people who played it more than… three days prior. In a sense, The Last Door works as a dark mirror image of one of my all-time favourite games: Meg Jayanth’s 80 Days. Both are tributes to fantastical 19th-century literature (I still stand by my assertion that there’s more Poe in this than Lovecraft, though this season certainly amps up the Cthulhu factor), both examine the world at a time when scientific and medical advances were butting heads with superstition and religiosity, and of course both of them tell their stories through a simple graphical interface with good writing (though it must be said that The Last Door could have used another round of copy editing). I dunno what it is about 19th century pastiches that makes for good games, but keep them coming.

The Lost Mind of Dr. Brain — Every so often, I revisit a game from my youth for sheer nostalgia purposes — and not because I think it may have stood the test of time. My childhood was full of edutainment titles, and hoo boy is this ever a game that an overly conscientious parent gets for their kid. It has effectively no story, just a premise: Dr. Brain accidently transferred his brain into a rat and you have to get it back by solving logic puzzles. The rat does silly voices while you solve the logic puzzles. What’s astonishing is that there’s also a character who talks to you directly about the various intelligences you’re developing in solving the puzzles. There’s no attempt to mask the game’s educational objectives. Frankly, this seems like exactly the sort of thing that I would have loved at age six. What that says about the adult I grew into, I’m not sure.

Music

Rush: Hemispheres — Don’t you love that album in a great band’s discography that’s clearly awesome but you haven’t fully gotten to know it yet? This is certainly in my top three Rush albums, but I came to it late, so I haven’t played it nearly as many times as Permanent Waves or Moving Pictures. It is very much a sunset album: it’s the logical conclusion of what they started with 2112 and A Farewell to Kings, and they would soon head in a different direction. The switch they made on Permanent Waves, seemingly made as much out of exhaustion as artistic conviction, led to the best music of their career. But that fact does not negate the excellence of their final masterpiece in their previous idiom. Hemispheres is a prog album in the 1972 mould, and deserves a place just a few rungs below Close to the Edge in that genre’s pantheon. Specifics: “La Villa Strangiato” is particularly strong, of course, and contains career-best playing from Alex Lifeson, the group’s most undersung member. The mythos that underpins the title track is both fascinating and a little bit bogus, but it wouldn’t be Rush without that quality. And let’s not talk about the politics of “The Trees.” Mostly, let’s not talk about it because I’m still having trouble figuring out if there’s irony involved. Irony has never been Neil Peart’s first priority, and I’m not sure I trust him to deploy it expertly. There’s lots to chew over in this, but it is all accompanied by brilliantly thought-out music and incredible playing. It’s definitely worth a listen for anybody who knows Rush mostly through the singles.

Literature, etc.

Annie Correal: “Want to Work in 18 Miles of Books? First, the Quiz” — I love the idea of a book quiz being part of a hiring process at a bookstore. I love the idea of a bookstore with snooty curmudgeons stalking the aisles. I love the idea of short-term employment at a bookstore bequeathing “instant New Yorker” status on a newcomer. I suppose if I’m ever in NYC again, I should stop by the Strand.

Robert Sullivan: “The Hamilton Cult” — A truly wonderful and provocative essay in Harper’s that stops far short of “debunking” Hamilton, but uses historiography to contextualize it as an example of “Great Man” history. Sullivan argues that the historical Alexander Hamilton was a drastically different beast from the theatrical creation first portrayed by Lin-Manuel Miranda. That isn’t surprising in itself, of course. What is notable is the extent to which certain (non-Chernow) Hamilton biographers feel that what’s celebrated about Hamilton in Hamilton is a long way from what Hamilton himself would have considered his legacy. I think that this historically-minded bit of history (which, once again, does not suggest that Hamilton isn’t a great piece of theatre) combined with Aja Romano’s Vox feature that casts Hamilton as fanfic (thus putting a finer point on why the issues Sullivan raises are not actually problems) would make for the most compelling mini-bibliography of Hamilton criticism you could want.

Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie: The Wicked and the Divine, vol. 4 “Rising Action” — The best volume of this extraordinary comic so far. Not sure it tops Phonogram volume 3 for the Gillen/McKelvie 2016 sweepstakes, but it brilliantly lives up to its title. It’s true that this has a proliferation of fight scenes that isn’t generally this comic’s speed, or mine, but it manages to pack in a tremendous density of plot, regardless. One particular staggering turning point near the end of this arc leaves me with absolutely no clue what’s going to happen next. But in spite of that development, I’m still wondering if WicDiv is gearing up to be a modern day Ring cycle, in which the era of gods comes to an end. If that is the case, we are clearly approaching Götterdämmerung with great speed. What that means for pop music and modern culture is anybody’s guess. Pick of the week. 

William Blake: Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion — Oh good god what is even happening who are these people is this guy just that guy by another name what is an emanation and why are all the people also places… Basically, I started reading a prophesy by a madman this week, and it is proving to be hard going. Will report back.

Podcasts

On the Media: “The Poverty Tour” — It takes more than facts and figures to properly debunk a myth that has become a mainstream narrative. It takes a rigorous interrogation of the means by which the myth was propagated in the first place. Enter Brooke Gladstone. This first instalment of a series on poverty myths focusses on a welfare advocate who has been fighting a losing battle with the media for decades. It feels like a framing device, which leads me to wonder how Gladstone will integrate and undermine media representation in the stories she tells about the impoverished in the coming weeks. I am very much looking forward to this. If it sticks the landing to the extent that I’m hoping it will, it will pair up with Bob Garfield’s various features on Trump to make On the Media the most clarifying current affairs program of this confounding year.

The Gist: “Who Called Off the Pretension Police?” — Funny, as always, but the main conversation is a bit disappointing. You may listen to this thinking that you’ll hear a thoughtful discussion of how pretension came to be socially accepted and, well, not pretentious. And it is a thoughtful discussion, but they never quite make it there, and I was left wondering how and why Pesca perceived a change at all. Skippable.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Magnificent Seven and Fleabag” — Oh man, I guess I need to watch Fleabag. When Glen Weldon recommends something this heartily, I know it will be worth a look. Aside from that, I’m already starting to miss Linda Holmes. I feel like maybe she wouldn’t have presided over a segment on The Magnificent Seven, about which there is comically little to say.

You Must Remember This: “The Blacklist” Parts 6-8, plus Chaplin rerun — This continues to be outstanding, and Longworth did in fact outdo the excellent Dorothy Parker episode with her (functional) two-parter on Charlie Chaplin during wartime, and subsequently the blacklist era. I’d urge anybody who is on the fence about committing to this extremely long series to listen to the Chaplin episodes first. They don’t require a huge amount of background knowledge, and they’re a more fascinating way in than the first two episodes of this, which are a bit slow by comparison to what comes next. But, you’ve got to take time setting up the pieces in a game this complex. The Reagan episode is fascinating too, and portrays him as essentially two-faced during this period, maintaining a public face of political balance while naming names to the FBI behind closed doors. Marvellous.

The West Wing Weekly: “In Excelsis Deo (with Richard Schiff)” & “Memorial Day Special (with Melissa Fitzgerald)” — Okay, I see the point of this now. It is still definitely for fans of The West Wing, but it’s also about acting in general, and about public service. Richard Schiff’s episode is one of the best conversations I’ve heard on a podcast in a long time. He gets choked up a couple of times when the emotions from the run of the show come flooding back. You realize that he’s immensely committed as an actor — not in the bullshit methody way, but in the sense that he really takes the job seriously, so much that he always wants to be actively involved in finessing the scripts and the finished product. It made me want to go back and watch “In Excelsis Deo” again. I might just. And the episode with Melissa Fitzgerald is a nice tag. The fact that she went from being on The West Wing to being in public service herself gives her a unique perspective on this episode. This is really great stuff and I will certainly listen to more.

Reply All: “Very Quickly to the Drill” — One of the best episodes of this show, maybe ever. The depth of Google AdWords scamming is both unsurprising and totally fascinating. The highlights of this episode are the two more detailed stories near the end, which mirror each other in terms of intentions. On the dark, awful side of the mirror, there are locksmiths. Shady, horrible scamming locksmiths whose scheme has become so prevalent that it has essentially split into cartels. On the other side, there is an international organization that claims it can find your lost wedding ring, and while it has every red flag associated with a horrible scam, it isn’t one. This is great.

StartUp: “Introducing Season 4” — I am very excited for the next Gimlet-focussed episode of this show. I’m surprised to hear that tape off the top of this trailer that says that listeners have plateaued in recent months. I think Gimlet’s shows have been great lately. Science Vs and Heavyweight are both great additions. And StartUp itself looks like it might be back to the standards of its first two seasons (yeah, I liked the Dating Ring season a lot) pretty soon. Relax, Gimlet! You are fine.

In the Dark: Episodes 1-4 — I am a sucker for that moment in serialized documentary storytelling where a huge development in a seemingly cold story changes everything, right in the middle of the reporting process. (Think of the final episode of The Jinx.) In this show, it happens between the trailer and episode one. Providence got us off to a good start. Knowing from the outset who the guilty party is allows host Madeleine Baran to focus specifically on how law enforcement got the case of Jacob Wetterling’s abduction so completely wrong. On the other hand, I kind of wish we got to hear the show that she’d been intending to make before the big revelation happened. I wonder how much would have changed. Still, it’s probably only me who obsesses that much over how the telling of a story affects the story itself (I’ve been listening to Hamilton too much, and also watching Doctor Who). This is compelling true crime, very much in the vein of Serial season one, but without its obsessive attention to tiny details (again, mitigated by the fact that the case is closed) and presumably with a proper ending. I’ve got to say, serialized true crime isn’t really where my head’s at right now, so this hasn’t been the thing I look forward to most in my feed. But it’s quality reporting on a story that seems to have had a huge impact on how abductions are handled. When Baran gets to the part about the national consequences, I expect my attention to be more thoroughly peaked.

Science Vs: “Zika” — This taught me some stuff I didn’t know, but I definitely like this show better when it chooses topics where the science is relatively definitive. A substantial part of the value of this show is its ability to take a simple statement and say TRUE or FALSE. Since the science is still very much in progress regarding the spread of Zika, this is less compelling than the episodes about guns or organic food.

Love and Radio: “A Girl of Ivory” — One of the things I like best about this extraordinary show is the extent to which it is more interested in understanding people than critiquing them. I have written before about how the structure of Love and Radio implicitly empowers its subjects by letting virtually the whole story be governed by their perspective. This episode employs a truly clever little bait and switch that benefits greatly from familiarity with that structure. You hear three people talking, and you know that the story is building up to something because for the first several minutes of the podcast, there’s no conflict. But, you can’t know what the twist is going to be, because there’s no narrator to ramp up the tension, as would be normal in most similar narratives. The moment when the penny drops is quite staggering and left me wearing a wide-eyed expression of shock for about half of my morning run. Also, regarding the title: it appears to be a reference to the old myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, in which a sculptor creates a woman out of stone and falls in love with her. Bearing that myth in mind while listening to this will lift several of its subtler themes into starter relief. Brilliant. A corker of a start to the season. Pick of the week. 

The Memory Palace “Canali” — Nate DiMeo returns to space! This is a nice one, not a great one. But the story that DiMeo tells here is compelling in itself. For a substantial chunk of time, the world thought there were canals on Mars. DiMeo puts a face on that conviction by focussing his story on the man who was most responsible for researching those canals, which don’t exist.

Code Switch: “Who is a Good Immigrant, Anyway?” — A nuanced trio of pieces on the movement to change the face of the pro-immigration movement. It makes a compelling case that even America’s centre-left politicians have got this one wrong: not all felons deserve to be barred from the country for good.

The Heart: “My Everything, My Bear” — The Diaries season has been less hard-hitting than much of what The Heart has done, but this is one to go out on. It’s a story of two genderqueer people and how the dramatically different way that the world looks at them affects their relationship. It’s the kind of story that The Heart does really well, and that no other show in mainstream podcasting would ever do. It’s why The Heart is essential.

Omnireviewer (week of Apr. 3)

What a week. I’ve been off work, and getting a bunch of necessary things done: a bunch of cleaning, a bunch of writing — also a bunch of running and a certain amount of riding the bus to pubs, bonfires, etc. So, a lot of music and a lot of podcasts. But there have also been many hours of sitting around, regathering my sanity, and innumerable cups of tea. Thus the television, the game, and the reading.

The result of all that is, I think, my largest Omnireviewer post yet. (I’m not going to take the time to verify that.) There are 35 reviews here, and that’s with me having grouped a number of things together (and still excluding Radiotopia reviews for Podquest reasons). Counting every episode, album etc. as one would give me the shattering total score of 42. (Which is a lovely coincidence, considering that Douglas Adams makes two appearances here.)

In recognition of this large, large number, I have allowed myself to choose three picks of the week: one podcast and two others. But frankly, even if it had been a normal week, I would have been tempted to do the same. The first two picks of the week you’ll come to are things that I believe should be and will be talked about for years. This hasn’t just been a week of cultural gluttony: it’s been a week where I’ve come across a number of really astonishing things in a short period of time. And frankly, for all the time it’s taken, I think it’s also inspired me to get more done.

We’ll begin with something I watched a week ago, which seems like a strangely long time.

Television

Horace and Pete: episodes 9-10 — (I despise the concept of spoiler warnings, but I’m willing to concede that the finale of Horace and Pete is probably best unspoilt. After all, this show was released as a complete surprise for the explicit reason that C.K. didn’t want the hype machine to affect the way that people saw the show. I think that was wise. This is therefore the only spoiler warning you’ll ever see on my blog.) Louis C.K.’s critique of American values ends two ways. In the first way, Pete dies tragically and Horace decides to change his attitude after an encounter with a supernaturally nice woman played by Amy Sedaris. The story fades to black over the strains of Paul Simon’s “America.” We are reminded that regardless of the divisions in American society (divisions that have been shown to date back decades, to when Uncle Pete was vehemently anti-Gerald Ford), and regardless of the tragedies that befall individuals, America soldiers on. This ending has every property of a TV finale, except for the fact that it doesn’t actually end there. The other way that Horace and Pete ends finds Horace killed by Pete, and Pete completely mad. It fades to black over the strains of the now familiar (but suddenly more bitter than sweet) theme song, also by Paul Simon. In this version of the ending, America doesn’t survive — not in any form worth respecting, anyway. Sylvia abandons Horace and Pete’s to be forgotten, and rebuilds her life around something entirely different. She wipes it all out, just like Kurt the nihilist barfly always said should happen to the whole country. I’m not sure there’s any internally consistent metaphor in either of these endings — for all of its speechifying, Horace and Pete isn’t message fiction. It’s subtler than that. But I think that the fact that there are two endings present (and I do think that it’s meant to be read as a double-ending — consider that C.K. has never signposted where reality stops and fantasy begins in this show) basically sums up C.K.’s centrism and his belief that it’s never so simple as the ideologues say it is. Lots of political artists working in pop fields have tried to champion the centre. I’m never convinced. I’m still not. But Horace and Pete is the first interesting piece of explicitly centrist political art that I’ve seen. It succeeds where the Coen Brothers have often failed, and where South Park has actually made me angry. It’s the best TV of the year. I know it’s only April, but I don’t see anything unseating it. Its many imperfections only enrich it. Pick of the week.

Last Week Tonight: April 3, 2016 — Sometimes I play dumb iPhone games while I watch things, and then I don’t have much to say about them. Sorry.

Better Call Saul: “Fifi” — I love that there are no simple relationships in this show. Kim and Chuck, for instance. They’ve always been friendly, and we’ve even seen Chuck be totally supportive of Kim. But she’s not important enough to him that he won’t throw her under the bus to get at Jimmy. In other plotlines, it remains very interesting to see Jimmy’s story continue in low-rent Mad Men mode while Mike’s slowly turns into Breaking Bad. Saul Goodman, dodgy criminal defender, still seems a long way off. But Mike the Cleaner is fast approaching.

Archer: Season 7, episodes 1 & 2 — Archer remains Archer. I think unless this season really breaks new ground midway through, it’ll be my last. Archer is good comfort food: the rhythms of it are that predictable by this point. But it used to make me laugh like a maniac and it doesn’t anymore.

Doctor Who: “Planet of Giants” — A while back, before I was even writing these reviews, I decided to start watching classic Doctor Who from the beginning. Lest you think me completely insane, I’m not doing this because I enjoy badly-written, poorly-paced, obviously low-budget sci-fi television from the 60s. Clearly, it’s been a slow process, since I haven’t watched a single First Doctor serial since Omnireviewer began. The reason I’m doing this, really, is because I’m reading an excellent book by Phil Sandifer on early Doctor Who as a British cultural artifact, which demands a certain amount of familiarity with the show itself. (More on that below.) Yes, I’m watching television to prepare for the higher pleasure of reading scholarly essays about it. I am completely well-adjusted. Anyway, “Planet of Giants” is probably my favourite story up to this point in the series’ run. It’s still pretty bad in a lot of ways. The characters are all meant to be smart but they’re all constantly acting dumb for plot reasons. When the TARDIS lands, it’s immediately obvious to the audience that they’ve all shrunk, but the characters take half an episode to figure out what’s going on. There’s a lot of that. On the other hand, the sets are delightful. Seeing Susan and the Doctor stranded in a sink is hilarious. And the fact that the normal-sized people have their own plotline that has a direct impact on the TARDIS crew’s plotline without the two groups ever meeting is legitimately clever. Don’t misunderstand me: mid-60s Doctor Who is bad TV by modern standards. But it is profoundly interesting, and you can totally see how it would soon grow into a show with lasting value. (The Second Doctor is my personal favourite from the classic series.)

Literature, etc.

Philip Sandifer: TARDIS Eruditorum, Volume One — This is the first collected edition of essays from Sandifer’s incredible TARDIS Eruditorum blog. This volume covers the William Hartnell years of the show. It is idiosyncratic and literary enough to be far more engaging than your standard scholarly article, but it’s also far more thoughtful than what you’ll find on most TV recapping/review sites. I’ll be honest, it’s basically my benchmark for great cultural criticism (along with Chris O’Leary’s Pushing Ahead of the Dame). The book version is substantially expanded, and I’d recommend it specifically to anybody who’s trying to get through the full classic series. At the very least, it will ensure that after the show’s frequent shitty instalments, you will at least be prepared to read something interesting about it. This week, I read the essay on “Planet of Giants,” and the subsequent two essays on relevant book tie-ins that I will never read. Part of the appeal of TARDIS Eruditorum is that it can give you a sense of the vastness of Doctor Who’s extended universe without you actually having to put yourself through any of it. (Though I must say, Sandifer makes a compelling case for The Time Travellers as a solid science fiction novel…)

David Day: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Decoded — Day’s book is exactly what I wanted it to be: a volume of fascinating and not entirely convincing conspiracy theories about hidden meanings in classic children’s literature. First off, there are hidden meanings in Alice; that much is clear upon even the most cursory reading. But some of Day’s most compelling interpretational moments hinge on incredibly thin textual evidence — thus my remark about conspiracy theories. Here’s my personal favourite. Near the beginning of the book, Day gives an actually totally convincing analysis of the specific way in which Alice forgets her multiplication tables at the beginning of the book — she’s just ceased to express them in base 10. This checks out, and it’s amazing. She gradually establishes a pattern which continues as she expresses values in increasing bases, but when she reaches base 42 (in uncanny anticipation of Douglas Adams), the pattern collapses. Day then falls over himself to find examples of the number 42 throughout the text. (The playing-card gardeners Alice meets have a total value of 14, and there are three of them. 14 x 3 = 42. A stretch, certainly.) But, when the end of the book comes around and the Knave of Hearts is on trial for stealing the Queen’s tarts, the King invokes Rule Forty-Two: “the oldest rule in the book.” Day suggests that the book in question is not the King’s book of law — because surely the oldest rule in that book would be number one. Alice even says as much. The book in question is Alice itself, with this being a callback to the logical collapse that resulted from Alice’s attempt at multiplication tables in base 42 at the beginning of her adventure. And, upon invocation of this rule, Alice’s dream collapses upon itself — literally like a house of cards — and she wakes up. I love this. This makes Alice a better book, regardless of whether it’s intentional. And maybe it is. Not all of Day’s notes are this interesting; a lot of it relies on paralleling Wonderland characters with Oxford higher-ups of Carroll’s time. One even suspects that Day really wanted to write a book solely about Wonderland and Oxford, but was coerced into including other elements for the sake of general interest. Perhaps that isn’t fair. Also, Day is quite eager to dismiss the popular accusation that Carroll was a pedophile, though he does offer a compelling (or perhaps just comforting) argument that he would likely not have ever acted on this tendency. Still, I’d totally recommend Day’s book to anybody who wants to re-read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with some significant added value. And Alice is worth re-reading, regardless. This time through I noticed something that evaded me the two or three times I read it as a child: not a single one of Wonderland’s characters are “generic eccentric” in the way they tend to be portrayed in adaptations. Every one of them has their own peculiar way of thinking and speaking. The Hatter is not the Caterpillar is not the Mock Turtle. And Alice herself is a marvellous protagonist: we spend a great deal of time, particularly early in the book, inside her head as she attempts to find reason in Wonderland’s madness. And we become accustomed to her way of thinking, which is unique in itself. This was great.

Music

Killer Mike: R.A.P. Music — In retrospect, this is basically a Run the Jewels album where El-P doesn’t rap (much). The element that I missed most from the more familiar Run the Jewels records when I listened to Fantastic Damage last week was the preponderance of synth leads and basses, which are here in spades. The opening of “Don’t Die” is basically what I love most about El-P. And as much as I love him as a rapper, I found a full album of him a bit much to take. Mike, on the other hand, I could listen to for pretty much any amount of time. I love when he gets conspiratorial. “Reagan” is a hell of a thing. I think I like this as much as the first Run the Jewels album.

John Congleton and the Nighty Nite: Until the Horror Goes — This lived up to all my hopes and nightmares. The lead single, “Until It Goes,” was an immediate favourite a couple of weeks ago — one of those songs I can listen to a dozen times a day and still want more. But, having listened to the album a few times now, I think it’s possible that every other song on the album is as good or better than that one. Congleton writes huge, hooky anthems that wouldn’t be out of place on an Arcade Fire album. But instead of filling those anthems up with the usual lyrical platitudes, he gives us a guided tour of a mind that’s been considering some of modern life’s darker questions and not coming up with any reassuring answers. And he clothes his nihilistic mock anthems in nightmarish sonic garb — moaning, wheezing synths; heavy guitars; incessant drum beats and dissonant, automatic vocal harmonies. The final effect is more Brian Eno than Win Butler. High praise, I know. It’s Here Come the Warm Jets filtered through Videodrome. This anxiety-ridden, jumpy, loud, electronic-y rock and roll is exactly the catharsis I want in 2016. A masterpiece. My favourite album of the year so far, narrowly edging out Bowie. Pick of the week.

Darq E Freaker: ADHD — Purchased on the strength of “Venom,” which floored me in NPR’s Austin 100. I love “Venom” much more than the rest of this EP, for reasons I can’t entirely quantify. Alas, this is far too “dance music” for me. Ah, well. Gotta take risks.

Roxy Music: Roxy Music — Reading David Sheppard’s Eno biography really put a fine point on the extent to which Roxy Music shared a cultural moment with King Crimson. Listening to this now, it almost seems like an alternate version of In the Court of the Crimson King where Robert Fripp and Peter Sinfield were more conventionally “cool.” I suppose their analogues in terms of influence would be Bryan Ferry and Brian Eno. So, I guess that’s actually true. When I hear the dinner party nat sound that starts the album I always picture Ferry — working class, posing — dressed in a white suit just a tad too dazzling, and drinking champagne, trying to fit in. “Oh, by the way, I’ve brought my cross-dressing synthesizer friend.” In any case, it’s gradually dawned on me that this is a really good album — at least as good as For Your Pleasure. It’s really interesting to hear music made by two geniuses who don’t really know anything about music or their instruments, but anchored by a virtuoso guitarist of at least David Gilmour calibre. Phil Manzanera roars out of the gate on this. He must be one of the most underrated musicians in rock. One or the other of this and For Your Pleasure would likely make my top 10 of the 70s.

Henryk Górecki/David Zinman, Dawn Upshaw & the London Sinfonietta: Symphony No. 3 “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” — I think I gave this one listen in my undergrad and decided it was overrated. But now, with the impending release of the adaptation listed below, I figured I’d give it another shot. I’m still lukewarm on much of it. I can understand why it’s so beloved, but the best bits are overexposed in movies, etc., and a lot of the less familiar moments are also less memorable. Not a favourite, but good music.

Colin Stetson: Sorrow — I feel like I need to take this review in steps. (1) Adapting, arranging and remaking classical pieces is a good idea — and indeed, necessary for the tradition’s continued vitality. The thing that the classical music community has the most wrong is their reverence for the composer’s intentions above all else. There’s even a famous conducting textbook called The Composer’s Advocate, as if to suggest that a person who is actually present in the room when the music is made could somehow be less important than the person who wrote the road map. That is bullshit beyond measure. Literally every other “high art” form has moved past that. Shakespeare’s plays are most frequently performed in modern fashions, reflecting the director’s taste rather than the period of their composition. In literary criticism, Barthes proclaimed the death of the author 50 years ago. And yet, classical music circles are still crowded with ass-backward pedants who insist that the composers of the great symphonies must have the final say on their works. Even the notion of listening to a single, isolated movement rather than the whole work is considered sacrilege by some, because these pieces are regarded as holy texts rather than what they are: nothing more or less than indexes of their cultures. If this mothballed philosophy is allowed to continue for long, classical music will slink off to a corner and die, and nobody will miss it. I sure as hell won’t. So, when somebody like Max Richter or Colin Stetson comes along and offers an entirely new take on a work from this world, it is to be welcomed. (2) The works that most require this treatment are the ones held in the highest esteem. There’s plenty of music out there by living composers that hasn’t yet found the audience it deserves in its original form. And there’s plenty of overlooked music from past centuries. That stuff needs its first hearing before it’s given a reevaluation. So: rewrite The Four Seasons. Because I don’t give a fuck about it anymore, and neither should you. I don’t care if it’s a masterpiece; it’s broken. We broke it with overexposure. It’s not good anymore. Max Richter’s rewrite is better than Vivaldi’s original by default, because it’s new. (3) If there is a single work from the notoriously neglected late 20th-century repertoire that needs a similar treatment, it’s the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. This piece became something close to a fad in the early 90s. Zinman’s recording sold a million copies. It’s in every movie. So, reworking Górecki is a solid idea. God’s work, really. (4) Colin Stetson’s adaptation is not very good. The parts that work best are the bits where it’s just him on multitracked saxes and other reeds. But, when the drums and guitars come in, things go off the rails. Stetson is clearly aiming for post-rock, but he hits much closer to “new age.” The third movement even borders on cheesy gothic metal territory, at times. The original symphony didn’t necessarily traffic in restraint, but this turns everything up to 11, and entirely lacks the self-awareness to critique its own kitschiness. The shimmery production doesn’t help matters. I do like bits of the second movement, but by and large this is a pretty damp effort. (5) I want there to be more like this. There are sure to be pedants who will dislike this on principle. I agree with them that it’s bad. But I also think they are idiots. They are boring zombies without insight of their own, mindlessly puking up rote recitations of concert hall orthodoxy. They are eating the necrotic bits off of a body that isn’t even quite dead yet. They are the enemy. It probably seems like I’m setting up a strawman to beat down. I am not. I have talked to these people. They are vile. (6) Colin Stetson, I applaud you. Do more of this. May it appeal to me more next time.

Tim Hecker binge: Virgins, Harmony in Ultraviolet, Mirages and Radio Amor — Tim Hecker’s got a new album out. I haven’t gotten around to it yet, but in anticipation, I figured I’d check out some of the catalogue. Virgins blew me away when it first came out, but it’s taken until now to listen through the other three albums I’ve had sitting on my shelf for some time. None are as good as Virgins, because they’re just not as confrontational. Virgins has some of the characteristics of Eno’s ambient music, but it definitely isn’t that: it’s a huge, commanding presence that dares you to ignore one second of it. That’s in spite of the fact that it has very little in the way of melody, and even less in the way of a beat. It’s also better than the other albums because it is a more seamless hybrid of live and electronic sounds. Virgins sounds present partially because it is largely composed of sounds that happened in a room at some point, rather than imaginary sounds that only ever existed on a computer. Nothing wrong with that, of course. But an album like Harmony in Ultraviolet, while good, pales in comparison to Virgins because the latter is so much more fascinatingly imperfect. Harmony, Radio Amor and Mirages are all generally more “ambient” than Virgins is, but all of them have an abrasiveness that prevents them from ever really fading into the background. Mirages is the best of the three, maintaining a bittersweet mood throughout, with implied harmonies and textures that seem to break apart as they form. Still: it’s homogenous compared to Virgins. I’m really looking forward to hearing Love Streams, because it sounds like Hecker is continuing to explore the electroacoustic direction he went in on Virgins. More on that next week, I’m sure.

Gonzales: Solo Piano — I have a gut response to Chilly Gonzales that I’m not proud of. It goes something like: “he’s not as clever as he thinks he is.” That’s never a good way to think about an artist. An artist is as clever as they are. How clever they think they are shouldn’t enter into the equation, even when they tout it constantly. Whether or not they live up to their own pronouncements is in the eye of the beholder. And, hearing this album for the first time, it’s hard to justify that kind of antipathy. These are intentionally simple, slight little pieces for the passive entertainment of whoever’s around. The recording itself is delightfully idiosyncratic: every imperfection in the specific piano that Gonzales is playing is amped up, from the heavy key click to the weird overtones in the high end. I like this. And I’d wager just about everybody would like it at least a little bit. Give it a shot.

NPR Music: The rest of the Austin 100 — If you didn’t download this when you had the chance, at least go and stream it. You’ll discover at least a few things you’ll like.

Games

EarthBound — Having exhausted my Steam purchases from the Christmas sale, it’s nearly time for me to embark on my second (and inevitably, third) playthrough of Undertale. But first, I figured I’d check out the acclaimed, weird little game that so much of it apparently riffs on. So far it is charming, innocuous, unexpectedly self-aware, and has too much RPG combat in it. I will persist, because enough interesting people seem to love this game that I feel like there must be more to it.

Podcasts

Reply All: “A Simple Question” — P.J. Vogt’s description of the inescapability of Verizon’s Fios advertizing in New York City is one of the best writing moments on this show so far. This show also features some of the best tape from a city council meeting that I’ve ever heard. Basically, Verizon is awful and this story is fantastic.

On the Media: “We Gotta Try Harder” — Those watching American politics in a state of confusion and despair should listen to OTM. It will mitigate against the confusion. The despair, alas, is inevitable. Here, though, Gladstone takes on Ghanaian journalism as well. I wish she’d pushed a bit harder in her conversation with the undercover journalist who has influenced policy and exposed crime in that country. He’s pretty astonishing, but only one ethics question? Come on, Brooke. Give the people what they want.

All Songs Considered: “A Conversation with Explosions In The Sky” — Nah, I’m not going to listen to this album. They say they were trying to make a “love it or hate it” record that nobody will think is only okay, but everything I’ve heard from it so far has been completely middle of the road. Maybe if people are still into it at the end of the year.

Sampler: “Crimble Bramble” — I think I’ve found the appeal of Sampler: when there are guests on the show from my favourite podcasts, and they’re there to talk about their favourite podcasts, it’s going to be interesting. This helped everything fall into place about P.J. Vogt and Alex Goldman. The fact that they listen to so many comedy podcasts says a lot about why Reply All is the way it is.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: The Real Housewives of Potomac” — I really like Brittany Luse. The fact that I listened to this right after an episode of Sampler is just a coincidence, but I think the podcast gods are telling me to listen to For Colored Nerds. I will not, however, be watching The Real Housewives of Potomac.

Serial: “Present for Duty” — This season of Serial has been neither the most valuable radio I’ve heard in the past months, nor among the most interesting. But this episode, which poses the question: “Did American soldiers die searching for Bowe Bergdahl?” is very good. Honestly, I think that the best presentation of this story would have been a two-part (maybe three-part) episode of This American Life. Broadly, it would have focussed on the details in the first and last episodes of the season, with a few of the asides in the intervening episodes incorporated in truncated form. Koenig and her team should have been allowed to do the same amount of investigation and reporting that went into these 11 episodes, but made to tell the story in a more focussed way. Because, the tiny details of this story just aren’t as compelling as the details of season one’s story. Military bureaucracy is not as interesting as investigating possible alibis. By and large, Serial season two is a miss. It told some interesting stories, but it weighed them down with a lot of stuff that I just don’t think is important to know about Bergdahl, and which certainly isn’t interesting. All the same, they’re apparently done a chunk of season three already. Maybe it’ll work better. I’m not not looking forward to it.

On the Media: “Is This Food Racist?” — Having also heard the first episode of The Sporkful’s “Other People’s Food” series at the time of writing this (see below), I’m glad that Brooke Gladstone invited Dan Pashman on, if only to explicitly call bullshit on chef Rick Bayless for his total ignorance of white privilege. Not just his own privilege, mind, but the very concept of it. Disquieting.

The Sporkful: “Other People’s Food” — This is a five-part series that I can’t recommend highly enough. Dan Pashman explores how what we think about people affects how we think about their food. There are things in here that you likely won’t have thought about if you’re white and dumb, like me. Like, Americans aren’t willing to pay more than 30 bucks for Chinese food, and when they do, it’s shitty American-style Chinese food. But, they’ll pay a hundred dollars for great Japanese food. That’s in episode two. In episode three, Pashman eats apple pie with Joe McNeil of the Greensboro Four, who helped spark the movement that desegregated restaurants in the south. You should check this out. This is a few commutes worth of fun, thoughtful radio. Pick of the week.

Desert Island Discs, Archive 1991-1996: “Brian Eno” — Bless the BBC for making this archive available. This is what it says it is: notable people come on and play the records they’d take to a desert island. The podcast edition keeps the talking and shortens the music for rights reasons, which might actually make it better. Eno says he’s avoided choosing any records that he had something to do with, which certainly limits things. But it’s a good insight into just how omnivorous he’s always been.

Welcome to Night Vale: “The List” and “The Monolith” — Generally, I don’t like when Night Vale does continuity, but “The List” is based around one specific continuity reference that is unpredictable enough to be really clever. Really, though, I’m not even close to caught up with this, and I’m already feeling like it’s been on autopilot for a while. I keep listening in the hopes that something new will happen, and sometimes it does — like in the two specials I listened to a few weeks back. But by and large, this is all starting to feel the same.

Desert Island Discs: “Gloria Steinem” — Something a little more contemporary, now. This was weird. The interview was good, but not as good as Terry Gross’s from months ago, and it touches on several of the same topics. And given that this is not an interview with a musician, as the archival Eno episode was, the music really doesn’t seem to fit. I dunno about this. Let’s try one more, from the archive and see how that goes.

Desert Island Discs, Archive 1991-1996: “Douglas Adams” — There’s a moment in this where the interviewer, Sue Lawley, is asking Adams about his enthusiasm for computers. He goes on for a bit, and then she basically says “But do you really think they’ll replace the human brain?” And then you remember what 1994 was like. (I do, barely.) This is fun, but I do wish that rather than doing a straight-ahead biographical interview with interspersed records, they’d really dive into what the records mean to the person, in their life and in their creative work. This show seems like a (surprisingly long-lived) missed opportunity to really dig into music as an index for culture at large. It’s still kind of fun, and I’ll probably listen to more. But basically, meh. Also, Adams references that he was working on a Hitchhiker screenplay at the time. How amazing that it didn’t come out until eleven years later, only once Adams was quite substantially deceased.

All Songs Considered: “New Mix: Weezer, The Jayhawks, Colin Stetson, More” — I’ve heard almost no Weezer in my life, and when I heard this Weezer track, even I was like “wow, that’s Weezer.” Both of these hosts like that Colin Stetson thing more than me, but I really am glad they made space for it. It’s certainly interesting, if nothing else.

On the Media: “Behind the Panama Papers” — OTM is so good that first-rate material like this doesn’t even make it into their full shows. The most interesting thing about this is Gerard Ryle’s take on why the Panama Papers weren’t front-page news in America.

Radiolab: “Cellmates” — Ah! The Radiolab of old! For the first time in ages, Robert Krulwich is the key storyteller, with Jad Abumrad just sitting back and leaning into the role of comedically sceptical buzzkill. Plus, the mix is insane and has some great music in it. And crucially, the story is about a scientific insight (okay, theory) with implications so cosmic that no other show would touch it. I’m still going with The Sporkful for my podcast pick of the week, but I’d love to hear more like this.

Surprisingly Awesome: “Circle of Fifths” — Disappointment was inevitable. For all that I’ve railed against this show’s assumption that things are mostly boring, the circle of fifths actually is boring. At least to anybody who’s gone to music school, which, granted, is a small number of people. I really don’t know why I listened to this. But: they seem to have toned down the fake boredom significantly since last I listened. That’s promising, and indicates that I may eventually come to like this show in some form.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Batman V Superman and Pop Culture Objects” and “Best Bad Movies and a Quiz” — Thank you Chris Klimek, for helping me decide to be one of the twelve people who doesn’t see Batman v Superman. And, per the second episode: aww, they’re all so happy to have Trey Graham back. So am I, actually. But that quiz was not very entertaining. Ehh.

All Songs Considered: “What Song Changed Your Life?” — Bob Boilen isn’t the sort of person whose book I’d necessarily read. Basically, he’s a companionable guy with really good taste — the perfect tour guide through new releases. But not a writer. Still, I’m glad to have heard this extract from Your Song Changed My Life, even if it does tread willfully along the standard lines of a late 60s musical coming-of-age. (The song that changed Boilen’s life is “A Day in the Life,” because of course it is.) I fanboyed a little when he told the story of his first time in an NPR studio, at the invitation of a young up-and-coming producer named Ira Glass.  

Omnireviewer (week of Feb. 7, 2016)

19 reviews, many good things:

Movies

Hail, Caesar! — I think this is the least good Coen brothers movie I’ve seen. I haven’t seen any outright bad ones, but Hail, Caesar! is hugely inconsistent. There are scenes that are totally brilliant — one near the beginning where Josh Brolin’s gregarious Hollywood producer talks theology with leaders from four religions is primo Coen. But for every scene like that, there’s an unfunny joke that goes on for ages. One of the problems here is that the Coens commit so wholeheartedly to every single one of the fragmented bits and plotlines they threw in. So, if one of them isn’t doing it for you, tough. You’re stuck in it for seven minutes, probably. I will say this: the Coens are the most politically inscrutable filmmakers working. This film’s attitude towards Communism is almost impossible to make out. To take that line of thought further would head into spoiler territory, so would somebody I know please go see this movie and have that conversation with me? Thanks.

The Big Short — This is possibly the saddest movie I’ve ever seen. Civilization is broken and we’re all hopelessly fucked. (To be less emotional about it, this is a big swing of a movie with an aesthetic all its own and lots of unlikely choices. Most of those choices are the right ones, but some of the jokes early on don’t land because of problems with the delivery or editing or something. I have problems with the infamous “Margot Robbie in a bubble bath” scene — how much irony does it take to offset decades of cinematic sexism? But on the other hand, I love that this movie begins as a big broad comedy that revels in its own excess like The Wolf Of Wall Street — to which Robbie is an obvious and intentional connection — only to do what The Wolf failed to do in the end: namely, to condemn the entire financial system in a miasma of sudden bleakness. The Big Short is messy and ambitious and mostly really good and everybody should go see it.)

Television

Doctor Who: “Paradise Towers,” episodes 2-4 — One of the biggest problems with the classic series is that every episode save for the last in a serial needs a cliffhanger. And, while the cliffhangers themselves are often delightful, their resolutions tend to be trite. The Doctor just kind of clevers his way out of a situation so that he can get on with the rest of the story. But when it’s Sylvester McCoy doing the clevering, it makes it easy to ignore the seams in the storytelling. Seriously, this guy is the most underrated of the Doctors by a mile. And everything else about this story is delightful as well. The cannibalistic grandmas are obviously the best part, but the main villain’s wonderful overacting comes in a close second. This is the period in the show’s history where they realized that the budgets aren’t going to increase, and neither is the audience, so they may as well do what they like. It’s all approached with a heavy dollop of irony, which manages not to overpower the actual brilliance of the story. There are actually worse places to start with classic Doctor Who than this, I’d expect.

Lost: “House of the Rising Sun” — There are problems with Sun and Jin’s storyline in early Lost, but they’re papered over by a pair of totally wonderful performances by Yunjin Kim and Daniel Dae Kim. Also, one of the real pleasures of these early episodes is seeing various cast members share scenes for the first time. This episode, it’s Charlie and Locke’s scenes that really pop.

Music

Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy — This is the album that got me into hip hop, and it’s still probably my favourite album of the past decade. (Run the Jewels 2 might be its only competition.) It’s basically psychedelic rap: a giant Dionysian pastiche of colours and lights and hazes and paranoia and regrets. (According to my taxonomy of psychedelia, Fantasy qualifies as a “Pepper.”) It’s a bit bloated, maybe. I’d lose “So Appalled,” cut a bit off “Devil in a New Dress,” and excise Chris Rock from “Blame Game.” But, better to have too much. And if Kanye’s ego makes him insufferable at times, it also gives him intense self-knowledge, which he calls up in every verse on this. It’s amazing to hear such a complex psychology reflecting on itself.

Literature, etc.

Alejandro Jodorowsky/Moebius: The Incal — I enjoyed this a lot, but I don’t know if I’d actually recommend it. I’m fascinated by Jodorowsky’s esotericism as it pertains to the Kabbalah and Tarot. But here, his belief system seems to mostly revolve around the idea that “there’s light and there’s darkness and you can’t have one without the other,” which is such a drug cliché of an observation that I can only roll my eyes. Much of the dialogue is terrible, and a lot of the sex in this seems to have been shoehorned in, just to ensure that we all know this is an “adult” comic, and only ends up making it seem adolescent. Also, in terms of sequential art technique, there are a lot of moments where it kind of seems like there are key story beats or transitions missing between panels — in a way that doesn’t seem intentional. Plus, there are instances on nearly every page where it’s unclear in what order to read the speech balloons. This all stems from bad decisions and inexperience on Jodorowsky’s part. Fortunately, he’s only half of the team. Moebius is a nearly peerless illustrator, and it’s almost worth picking up The Incal just to bask in the colours and details of the world he draws. Almost. If you have a relatively high threshold for sci-fi bullshit and new-agey nonsense, this is something you should probably check out.

Jorge Luis Borges: “Blindness” — I have a wonderful book called The Art of the Personal Essay that I’ve read just over half of. It is much better than its bland title would suggest: it is a selection of wonderful personal writing by some of the greatest authors in history — people like George Orwell and Virginia Woolf — edited by Phillip Lopate. I go back to it very occasionally and read a few of the essays I haven’t read before. This one is a wonderfully companionable account by Borges of being appointed director of a national library, ironically just as he’d gone blind. I had never read any Borges, having been slightly scared of him, but I think I may have been missing out and will add Ficciones to my already unmanageable reading list.

Hubert Butler: “Beside the Nore” — Another personal essay, this one by an Irish writer that more people should probably know. This is a short, simple account of several elements of old, rural life in a riverside town in Kilkenny. It is presented unpretentiously, without a framing device or thesis statement. It’s just some lovely writing about a charismatic place. At the very end, Butler appends a few extra sentences, to say that he believes local history to be far more important than national history, which has no impact on the vast majority of people — thereby justifying his entire enterprise. Really nice.

E.M. Cioran: “Some Blind Alleys: A Letter” — This is an essay about how insufferable writers are and how meaningless the international community of people of letters is. It’s about how only an incredibly egocentric person would dare take on a career as a writer, and about how narcissistic it is to assume that other people want to read about what you think. Hi there. You reading this? Good, then we’re fine.

Kieron Gillen/Jamie McKelvie: The Wicked and the Divine, vol. 3 — Now for some actual smart comics. I was wary of the idea that this entire trade volume would diverge from the main WicDiv story, but these issues featuring the supporting cast of the main story add such depth to the world of this comic. Each one is probably among the best stand-alone stories that Gillen and McKelvie have ever done. The issue featuring Woden (the jerk-ass Daft Punk god) is particularly impressive, being a sort of remix issue, made up of scenes from prior issues of WicDiv. Also, there is a cat goddess in this who looks like Rihanna but acts exactly like an actual housecat: getting distracted by laser pointers and such. A comic that does complex formal experiments and also has Rihanna getting distracted by laser pointers can only be a straightforwardly good thing. Pick of the week.

David Day: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Decoded — I read the introduction to this a while ago and got sidetracked. I’m still kind of sidetracked, honestly. But this is what I’m reading, now. The tiny bit of this I just read was fascinating — the politics of Christ Church College at Oxford is more compelling than you’d think.

Podcasts

Fresh Air: “‘Mad Max’ Director George Miller’” — Listening to this guy talk makes a bunch of connections become immediately clear. If it seemed incongruous that Mad Max and Babe were made by the same guy, consider the extent to which Babe is a conventionally Campbellian hero’s journey. If it seemed like The Road Warrior and Fury Road have no precedents in action movies, look beyond that to Buster Keaton’s The General. I’m disappointed that Terry Gross wasn’t around to do the actual interview. I’m sure she would have probed into his feminism more deeply. Still, Dave Davies acquits himself admirably. Anybody who likes Miller should check this out.

Serial: “Adnan Syed’s Hearing,” days 1-3 — I’m glad Sarah Koenig was there to report on Syed’s hearing, because she’s probably the most knowledgeable person about his case. But what this is actually going to do is remind everybody how much more invested they were in season one of Serial than season two. In any case, these three mini-episodes are great, and feature Koenig and Dana Chivvis speaking extemporaneously for longer than I think they ever have on the show — which is great, considering that they both know the case inside out. I’m still unconvinced of Syed’s innocence, but convincing people one way or the other has never been the goal of Serial, in spite of what certain critics might say.

All Songs Considered: “Andrew Bird Gets Personal” — This sounds like a great record, but wow, this is an awkward conversation. Bird does NOT want to talk about these songs. I’m excited to hear more of this considering Blake Mills is on guitar, and his guest spot with Vulfpeck last year was one of my favourite performances I’ve heard on a record in a while.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch Super Bowl 50” — All due respect to Beyoncé, but was I the only person who thought Bruno Mars stole the halftime show?

The Heart: “Ghost: Bobby” — A totally mundane breakup story that’s told well enough to be worthwhile. The sort of thing that only The Heart can do.

WTF With Marc Maron: “Danny Boyle” — Still catching up on episodes from December, apparently. But this is great. I like Maron with filmmakers. He’s such an insightful film geek that it’s easy for people like Boyle and Todd Haynes to talk to him.

Fresh Air: “Filmmakers Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson on ‘Anomalisa’” — “I have a tendency to read about syndromes,” says Charlie Kaufman near the beginning of this interview, to nobody’s surprise. I need to see Anomalisa.

WTF With Marc Maron: “Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson” — It’s interesting to hear Terry Gross and Marc Maron interview the same people about the same things. Since hearing that wonderful episode where Maron interviewed Gross, I’ve looked at them as two sides of the same coin. On one side, you get the bare-bones story of a thing from Gross, and on the other side you get self-psychoanalysis by proxy from Maron. It shouldn’t be about picking a winner, but in this case Maron wins. Apparently Kaufman was scared to go on this show because he was uncomfortable with how deep Maron probes. But Maron keeps this one relatively light, and just gives Kaufman the opportunity to be funny. It was also a really good decision to do a segment with Kaufman alone before bringing in Duke Johnson to talk about Anomalisa, which I really need to see. (Also, how weird to hear an ad for Blackstar that was clearly recorded before Bowie’s death but released after.) Pick of the week.

Things I loved in 2015: Nos. 25-21

Being that this is the second time I’ve done this, I suppose we can call my year-end list an annual tradition. A key part of this year-end tradition is that it always happens well after the year has ended. Whatever. Timeliness isn’t everything.

I’m doing things a bit differently this year. First off, I’ve decided to rank the entries. This is, of course, foolish. It’s not so much that it’s like comparing apples to oranges; it’s more that it’s like comparing apples to oranges to kiwis to ribeyes to Chanel No. 5 to Chevrolets to ravens to clouds. But that is exactly the fun. Throughout this list, you’ll find things that have absolutely nothing in common, except that I enjoyed them. Their ranking is nothing more than an index of my goodwill towards them in the weeks immediately preceding this one.

And speaking of weeks, I’m ramping up the suspense by breaking my top 25 down into five separate posts: one per day until Friday. In practice, this is because I’m never going to have time to write the whole thing at once. But it may also be fun for the six of you who’ll read this.

Speaking of you six loyal Omnireviwer readers (bless you), you’ll have gotten to know my tastes by now. Specifically, you’ll know that they are capricious and semi-arbitrary, and that my experience of the year’s media, while extensive by normal person standards, is far from complete. This list is compromised and imperfect, but hopefully idiosyncratic enough to make for decent reading and introduce a few things you might have missed. 2015 was a good year, much like all the rest of them.

Today, we’ve got an album, two movies, a TV show and a podcast. Let’s begin:

No. 25 — CHVRCHES: Every Open Eye

This is the album that I was most disappointed to see overlooked on so many major year-end lists. I loved CHVRCHES’ debut album, as did everybody, but Every Open Eye is self-evidently a more assured and consistent record. I periodically go back to the singles on the debut, but I tend not to want to listen to the whole album. Whereas, Every Open Eye is a unified 42-minute catharsis. And Lauren Mayberry’s voice sounds even better this time around.

There are albums that I’m leaving off this list that I think are possibly more accomplished than this one, and certainly more important. But this is an album that I lived with, this past year. Don’t deny yourself joy. Go listen to CHVRCHES.

No. 24 — The Revenant

It’s big and ambitious and prestigious and self-serious and Oscary, and I loved it so much.

Common wisdom around The Revenant seems to be that it’s bleak and difficult — a movie you “should” go see, rather than one you “have to!” go see. And it is bleak, and it is graphic and visceral and painful at times. It’s Alejandro Iñárritu. But it is also a hell of an experience. I’d gladly see it a second time.

A lot of that is down to Emmanuel Lubezki, the most distinctive cinematographer alive, and the man who will once again prevent Roger Deakins from winning his Oscar this year. Lubezki’s immaculately choreographed long takes remove all of the artifice from the movie’s action scenes — that bear fight, and especially the battle at the start of the movie, which is one of the best battle scenes ever. His approach puts you right there. Plus, he has an unparalleled eye for a staggering vista.

Lubezki’s photography and Ryuichi Sakamoto’s beautiful score tone down the terrors of the story and Leonardo DiCaprio’s impressively committed performance. The Revenant is horrifying, yes. But it isn’t unrelenting. It’s watchable. Beautiful, even. If it won Best Picture, I wouldn’t be especially disappointed.

No. 23 — Doctor Who

The latest season of Doctor Who divides conveniently into its first half, an extended failure to ignite, and its second half, which blazes magnificently. If we were to separate those two halves, the first wouldn’t place on this list and the second would probably be a lot higher. In that latter string of excellence, head writer Steven Moffat, returning favourite Peter Harness and newcomer Sarah Dollard all offer top-flight Doctor Who scripts, and even the series’ longest-dangling dead weight, Mark Gatiss rises to the occasion.

Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman both give their best performances of the series in Harness’s Zygon two-parter, and they (especially Capaldi) keep it up through Moffat’s two-part season finale. And what a finale. First, in “Heaven Sent,” Moffat offers one of his signature high-concept scripts like “Blink” or “Listen,” which is a sort of drama that no other show can do. Then, in “Hell Bent,” he gives us the best episode of Doctor Who in giant, explosive, plot-heavy mode since “A Good Man Goes To War.”

Altogether, series nine is a lesser season than its predecessor, Capaldi’s debut series. But, there are at least five hours of the best Doctor Who since 2005 in here somewhere. It’s a shame that Moffat’s tenure has to come to an end, and a bigger shame that it’s not Harness replacing him. But Doctor Who has had 53 years to prove that it can weather pretty much any change in the long term. And there’s still one more series that’s bound to be a corker.

No. 22 — Spotlight

There’s no way to prepare yourself for how good Spotlight is. That trailer sure as hell doesn’t suggest it. No matter how many people tell you this movie is great, and no matter how many positive reviews you read, Spotlight still seems like it’s going to be a well-made, soft-spoken, mid-budget movie for grown-ups. It looks boring. Pedestrian. Sophisticated. But actually, I don’t think I’ve been so consistently excited by a movie that’s almost entirely talking since The Social Network.

The screenplay hits a perfect balance where it lets you be thrilled by the twists and turns of its journalism procedural storyline while also never forgetting that it’s a movie about child molestation. It’s sensitive to the details of the story that the journalists are telling, while also realizing that it’s own story is not that story — it’s the meta story: the story of the story.

The really great thing about this movie is that while it celebrates the extraordinary work these journalists did, it doesn’t shy away from also implicating the entire institution of journalism for letting the abuse in the Catholic Church go unexamined for so long. As much as anything, Spotlight is a movie about how systems turn a blind eye to themselves.

In that sense, it reminds me of The Wire. What more can I say?

No. 21 — Love and Radio

This podcast feels like a different show every episode, which makes each episode essential almost by default. The producers of Love and Radio episodes find people with stories and perspectives that fall outside most people’s experience and then say, “we’re just going to listen to this person for a while.” Host Nick van der Kolk and his team are generally present, but off-mic. It’s like every month, Love and Radio has a different host. It empowers voices that would otherwise never have that kind of power.

This totally changes the power dynamic of the radio interview — for better and worse. Sometimes, people say horrifying things on this podcast, which can be troubling given that the interviewer’s voice is made subordinate to the guest’s. (See this year’s fabulous and infuriating A Red Dot.) But, the underlying philosophy is that it’s better to listen to people than not to, and I agree.

The episode I’ve embedded above is certainly in my top three podcast episodes of the year. Hit play, and feel every feel you possess.

The countdown will pick up with no. 20 tomorrow. There’ll be two more shows, a movie, an album you might have missed and our first comic.