Tag Archives: Judge John Hodgman

Omnireviewer (week of March 26, 2017)

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

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

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

Music

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

Games

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

Podcasts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Omnireviewer (week of Mar. 19, 2017)

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

Movies

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

Television

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

Literature, etc.

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

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

Music

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

Podcasts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Omnireviewer (week of Dec. 25, 2016)

And so, Omnireviewer limps improbably into its third calendar year. Speaking of traditions, for a couple of years now I’ve been compiling a list of my favourite things of the year at the end of January. Not December. I stubbornly insist on not dealing with such things until the year is actually over, and I’ve had a solid month to take stock, and also to fit in a couple more books or shows. (Though, I imagine a certain exceedingly long and strange novel will make the list regardless of the fact that I will be AT MOST halfway through it by the end of the month.) But for now, I have this week’s 15 reviews for you.

Movies

Star Wars: Rogue One — I feel like I was Jedi mind tricked into seeing this. I talked a big talk about how I wasn’t going to go to this, as a tiny protest against the notion of never-ending Star Wars movies. Like I’ve said before, when the Star Wars cinematic canon constituted two trilogies and that’s all, the batting average may have been low — but at least there wasn’t a saturation problem. That’s inevitable now. Perhaps I’m just nostalgic, but I like the idea of movies telling stories that end. It’s what makes them distinct from TV shows. I mean, really, you can even take a few movies to tell your story! That’s fine! But the notion of a cinematic “universe,” as opposed to just a “series” seems like it stems more from the studios’ impulse to make as much money as they can off of recognizable brands than from its value for storytelling. So, I had planned a tiny, personal boycott of the non-numbered Star Wars movies. Especially ones that were getting reviews as mixed as this. Still, I got pulled in by the inexorable force (hahahahahahahahaha) of this unavoidable franchise. I got pulled in by my general amenability towards seeing a movie, any movie, on a night when I wouldn’t be doing anything else. I got pulled in by my uncharacteristically non-antisocial wish to see a couple of friends after having spent a week away. I got pulled in by the fact that I’ve got Cineplex gift cards now, so at least it’s somebody else’s money that’s doing the talking. (Yeah, I know that’s really feeble. And yes, I do hate myself. Go away.) So basically, this movie had a nearly insurmountable task ahead of it if it was going to persuade me not to resent its very existence, and not to resent myself for caving in, and not to resent my friends for convincing me to abandon my principles. This movie did not rise to that challenge. My favourite thing about this movie is that it answered my burning question: “How does Darth Vader take a bath?” Aside from that, I did not enjoy myself. And at this point, we’ve reached the crucial question of the extent to which the movie is actually to blame for that, versus the extent to which my distaste is mine to own. And, without attempting to take the easy way out of that question, I can’t honestly answer it, because I don’t have access to a parallel universe in which I was more favourably predisposed towards Rogue One to use as a point of comparison. What I can say is that there’s nothing I can immediately point to in this movie that makes it the equal of other popcorn blockbusters from the last year, like Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War or Doctor Strange. Those movies have characters with immediately discernible personalities. Rogue One’s characters are blank slates, possessing only the most generically heroic of character traits: tenacity, bravery, etc. Captain America, on the other hand, is not generically heroic but rather follows a moral code that’s well-established enough for his behaviour to be internally consistent — and different from the other heroes in his movie. (Thus the Civil War, you see.) And even Doctor Strange is quippy and fun, which isn’t unique in itself. But his quips are good. The only character in Rogue One that rises above this standard is Donnie Yen’s eccentric blind martial artist, who is unfortunately also a bit of a racist caricature. And aside from that, the actors in this that you’d most expect extraordinary performances from are deeply underwhelming. Forest Whitaker gives his character a completely ridiculous hybrid accent that might work for one of the CGI aliens, but is extremely distracting in a live-action human character. And the brilliant Mads Mikkelsen is completely miscast as a man whose defining quality is supposed to be his inability to lie. We’re told in dialogue a number of times that Galen Erso is a terrible liar, but the fact of the matter is that Mikkelsen delivers his lines with such affectlessness that you can’t imagine how he could possibly fail to fool anybody, at any time. I’m all for seeing him in more heroic roles, but a role that comes down to this specific characteristic isn’t right for him, and moreover, he was pretty much the exact wrong choice for the role. For comparison’s sake, just think back to how much fun Rey, Finn and Poe were in The Force Awakens. That’s the bar. That’s how well you have to do in a new Star Wars movie. It’s a shame that the story features such bland characters and prosaic dialogue (even the funny robot is one of the franchise’s lesser funny robots), because Rogue One does present some unique ideas about what can happen in a Star Wars movie. It is the bleakest film in the franchise, save possibly for Revenge of the Sith, and I daresay it’s a touch more competently made than that. And it offers an intriguing focus on the notion that there are good people working for the Empire because they see it as their only option. That’s uncharacteristically nuanced for Star Wars. But those ideas are wasted in a movie that’s so aggressively unfun to watch. I’m getting tired of writing this review. Rogue One is pedestrian pap that exists only to leverage a recognizable brand so that dummies like me will buy a ticket. I imagine that the actual content of the movie was an afterthought.

Television

Downton Abbey: Season 2, episodes 7 & 8 (plus Christmas Special) — I didn’t actually know that this was going to finish with a Christmas special, but it turned out to be a nice thing to watch at Christmas. This season has been really hit and miss. Julian Fellowes’ preference to cut away from any given scene when somebody’s about to say something we already know has the double consequence of ruthless efficiency in his storytelling and also that we never see people’s reactions to receiving news. This, and probably a few other things, results in certain characters’ plotlines taking what feel like extremely abrupt turns within the course of single episodes. Lord Grantham is served the worst by this, but it also finds its way into Mary and Matthew’s plotline. It’s hard to be too disappointed by this, however, since Downton Abbey never really rises above the level of “very, very fun but also extremely silly.” The occasional melodramatic turn is to be expected. I still love this. But I’m going to return to Battlestar Galactica for a while before I move on to season three.

All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace: “Love and Power” — I was entreated to watch this by a friend with whom I’m working on a podcast about what happens when we let the machines make the important decisions. Clearly, Adam Curtis got there first. This BBC documentary series focuses on how computers have failed to free humanity in the way that Californian techno-libertarians assured us they would. The opening episode traces that worldview from Ayn Rand through early Silicon Valley to its mainstreaming with Alan Greenspan — who, as chairman of the Fed under an embattled Bill Clinton, was possibly the most powerful person in the world. It is fascinating to watch, and I’ll for sure have more to say next week when I finish the other two episodes. But for now, I’ll just say it’s great. Pick of the week.

Games

Steve Jackson’s Sorcery!: Parts 1 & 2 — Here beginneth the playing of the sixteen games I bought for thirty bucks during the Steam winter sale. Even as an avid fan of Inkle’s 80 Days (I would count it among my top five favourite games), I had planned to give their Sorcery! series a miss. There are a few reasons for that. Firstly, it’s not written by Meg Jayanth, whose incredible script is responsible for almost all of 80 Days’ appeal. Secondly, it’s an apparently straightforward adaptation of a gamebook, which is a lot less ambitious than, say, an interactive adaptation of a Jules Verne novel that expands the text by hundreds of thousands of words and also goes out of its way to correct that text’s misogyny and pro-colonialist stance. And finally, I have a limited tolerance for high fantasy bullshit. It’s just not an aesthetic that works for me. But after the fourth instalment of Sorcery! started to get raves, I figured that maybe this is the sort of series I might do well to pick up cheap. The beautifully designed opening sequence of Sorcery! part one can’t quite match 80 Days’s “It would seem… he is a gambling man.” (That moment gives me chills just to think about.) This continues to be the case: this Sorcery! two-parter can’t measure up to its esteemed successor. But it does what it does extremely well. Once you get past the relatively slight first episode, this expands into a pleasing (if not especially literary) adventure game. Inkle’s games have that quality about them that the best of the old parser-based interactive fiction titles did: they give the sense that there is a truly massive world set out before you, and that any course charted through it will be unique and will leave the vast bulk of the territory undiscovered. Also, it’s hard. There’s a mechanic baked into the second part that allows you to go back in time to a certain point on your journey and pick up crucial story elements that you missed. (This is in fact a necessity for finishing the game — unless, by some miracle, you get everything you need on your first pass through.) I had to use it twice to get ahold of some crucial clues, and I died a lot on all three of my journeys through the game. This in itself is not frustrating: the game’s difficulty never feels unfair, and the constant deaths made me feel more satisfied when I did eventually find my way out of a tight spot that had killed me numerous times already. What is frustrating, though, is the game’s almost-but-not-quite open world approach. (This is a problem I understand is solved in the third instalment, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing how it works.) If the player were simply allowed to roam freely and backtrack at will, the time travel mechanic wouldn’t be necessary at all. And that would be preferable, because that mechanic causes some untoward bugs when coupled with the game’s other rewind mechanic, which allows you to actually rewind the gameplay itself, extra-diegetically. (Wow, that is a confusing sentence, even for me. But what are you gonna do? Writing about time travel is hard. Play the game and it’ll make sense.) Aside from those little nitpicky details, this is pretty extraordinary. By the end of it, I even managed to overcome my high fantasy allergy and look at the story on its own terms. Much of this takes place in Kharé, a city populated by thieves and tricksters, where traps lie everywhere and the city itself forms a massive trap for all those who live there. That is an absolutely delightful sort of environment to spend a bunch of time wandering around. I expect to enjoy the coming instalments more than this, but I’ll miss Kharé. Lovely stuff.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Favourite Podcasts of 2016” — I’m taking this as an opportunity to start listening to Judge John Hodgman. Most of the other podcasts mentioned here are either ones I don’t like very much, or ones I’m interested in checking out, but not interested enough to overcome the inertia.

StartUp: “MAGIC” — This isn’t one of the this season’s best episodes, and it isn’t a perfect ending, but this has been a pretty good season of StartUp overall. There’s nothing really wrong with not having a great ending to your nonfiction story. That’s part of what was weird about the way Serial season one was received: people didn’t accept that in journalism, you can just say “We’ve been at this for long enough. Now we stop.” Same goes for this.

Reply All: “Past, Present, Future 2” — The unquestionable highlight of this is Breakmaster Cylinder’s update on how his beat harvesting is going. But this series of updates on the year’s stories is a lovely thing to have become an annual tradition. It’s like Reply All’s own miniature Undone. Could’ve done without Alex Goldman’s Gollum impression, though.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “2016 Favourites and Unfinished Business” — These wrap-up episodes are always good fun. There’s probably a lot of stuff that was mentioned here that I should check out, but who has the time. (hehehe) Glad that Stephen Thompson favourited O.J.: Made in America, even if he did frame it as “the welcome return of Marcia Clark!” which is a weird way to frame anything. Also, it’s nice to have Sam Sanders on here, partially because it’s always nice to hear him on this show, but also because he’s been around less often, so his favourites come as a bit more of a surprise than some of the more frequent fourth chairs.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Westworld” — Absolutely lost. This is one of those things that I listen to for the sake of completion alone. Can’t let this be the only PCHH of the year that I didn’t hear. But I haven’t seen Westworld, I’m not likely to ever watch Westworld, and I haven’t the slightest clue what Glen Weldon and Audie Cornish are on about here. Ah, well.

Homecoming: Episodes 3-6 — This is really good for the most part. I can’t say I’m completely overwhelmed by it the way I had hoped to be overwhelmed by a podcast with the budget to hire several movie stars. The biggest issue here is the plot twist about the true intentions of the shady corporation at the centre of the story. It’s not that I predicted the exact nature of the reveal, so much as I knew it would be something sort of like what it actually turned out to be. I could discern the general shape of it. And in a way, that’s worse than being outright predictable, because it betrays a certain lack of specificity in your premise. “Shady government contractor… is, in fact, bad!” There’s something about that that just sort of makes me go, “right, okay,” and then file this away under the heading of “things I liked, but won’t be thinking very hard about.” It’s great that Gimlet is big enough to do something like this, now. But it would have been nice for the first podcast featuring performances by movie stars to actually be obviously much better than other scripted podcasts, and I don’t think this is. I’m looking forward to season two of Limetown far more than I’m looking forward to season two of this. Still, I’m content to merely damn it with faint praise. And with the knowledge that this is what I’m doing here, I’ll happily backpedal and say it’s well worth a listen. It is, after all, a podcast. And therefore free.

Judge John Hodgman: “In Moto Parentis” — I dunno. For one of the supposed crown jewels of comedy podcasts, this episode (a recommended starting point from no less an authority than Linda Holmes) left me cold. Hodgman is a great presence because he comes off as crusty and cold, but when pressed reveals warmth and humanity. The human drama of whether or not a teenage boy should be allowed to have a motorcycle was actually pretty fascinating. But the laugh count was low. So, I think I’ll leave this for a while and maybe come back when somebody else recommends me another possible way in.

Twice Removed: “Dan Savage” — This is such manipulative treacle. Good god, I haven’t heard a host try to make somebody cry this hard outside of the reality television shows that are occasionally on as ambient noise in my mom’s house. The stories that are presented, all based around members of Dan Savage’s extremely extended family, are fine in themselves. But the structure is so contrived, and so specifically manufactured to wrest emotion out of the guest that I almost didn’t make it through this episode. The strings were obscuring my view of the puppets. I’m unlikely to listen again, and if I do, it will only be to cement my opinion that this is the worst show Gimlet has produced thus far.

Theory of Everything: “The Fairest of Them All?” — Benjamen Walker goes to a surveillance museum! Well, not quite. It’s an art exhibit about modern surveillance. It sounds like a great exhibit, which is a good thing, because this episode lives and dies based on the descriptions of the premises and objects that come into play as you walk through it. And it’s great. I’ve loved every instalment in this surveillance mini-season, and while this may not be quite as earth-shaking as the last one, it’s keeping pace nicely, and I’m continuing to get more and more scared of the future. 😀 😀 😀 😀

Love and Radio: “Blink Once for Yes” — There’s a review to be written about this episode where I use it as a stick with which to beat the episode of Twice Removed I just reviewed. The argument of that review would be that this is how to actually elicit emotion: by simply asking people about things that make them unavoidably emotional, and playing the resulting tape. No fancy footwork required. But I’m not going to write any more of that review, because Love and Radio always deserves to be taken on its own terms. One of the things that I love about this show is its willingness to just be incredibly sad. Three of the four saddest podcast episodes I’ve ever heard have been on this show, “The Living Room” being the obvious number one, but also “Welcome to Coney Island,” and now this one. (The non-Love and Radio one is Radiolab’s “Gray’s Donation,” if you were wondering.) In this documentary, producer John Facile interviews his whole family about the debilitating brain injury and subsequent death of his brother. I won’t say any more about the story, because you really should just listen to it and hear how it unfolds for yourself. But the thing I love most about it is how it demonstrates how a large number of people (there were five kids in the family, plus the parents and a couple of devoted caretakers) react in their own specific, different, yet inevitably human ways when presented with an absolute horror. Facile is confrontational in his interviews at times, but never for the sake of narrative conflict: he is always actively trying to come to terms with difficult emotions and differences of opinion with his family. I listened to this while doing laundry, and there was a stretch of four or five minutes where I was just standing by the dryer, about to put the load in the basket, but I was too involved in this podcast to do anything but stand there blankly. My building has a public laundromat, so I imagine it looked seriously weird. That’s how good this is. Pick of the week.

Code Switch: “A Chitlins Christmas: Bah Humbug!” — This is worth the time just to hear Kevin Young’s reading of his “Ode to Chitlins.” This is a worthwhile Christmas postscript to a year of great podcasts about food and race — mostly from The Sporkful, honestly. But it’s good that Code Switch has waded in. I hope they do more on food, because I don’t think there’s a single social concern that can’t be addressed through that lens.