Tag Archives: Reply All

Omnibus (week of July 30, 2017)

This week’s North by Northwest segment is a good one, I think. A few overlooked gems by eminent artists. And it’s always a pleasure to do a segment with Margaret Gallagher, who’s guest hosting this week. I’m at 10:25 in this podcast.

21 reviews.

Live events

Cinquecento: Live at Christ Church Cathedral — This was a lovely evening at Early Music Vancouver’s Bach festival, so named for having a lot of Bach, but not only Bach. Cinquecento is a five-piece male vocal ensemble that specializes in the music of the 16th century. This concert, in the resonant acoustic of Burrard Street’s Christ Church Cathedral, focussed on the music of Reformation England. The program was a mix of Thomas Tallis (a name to know, but not a composer I’d really ever looked into), Christopher Tye (who I’d honestly never heard of at all), William Byrd (a favourite of mine) and an encore by Robert Parsons (no relation). Cinquecento sings with otherworldly accuracy and feeling — only the occasional siren from outside the thin shell of the church walls reminded us that we were in fact still participating in material reality. Particularly ethereal were the moments of these pieces when the polyphony gave way to unison singing, in the style of plainchant. It’s almost spooky how together they are in those moments. Funny how when you’ve experienced complexity on basically every musical front, from harmonic to technological, a handful of people singing in unison makes the world stop. It has taken me a long time to develop a taste for renaissance polyphony in more than short bursts. It seems to me that for all of the variation in compositional style between different composers and genres in this period, there isn’t a whole lot of variation in texture — and that’s what you hear first. Increasingly, I think that the way to hear this music is simply to surrender yourself to it, and the best way to do that is to hear it live, in a resonant space. It’s a rare thing that I say any music is better live. But I love hearing early music in concert. I should do it more. In terms of rep: the standouts among the Tallis selections were his “Lamentations of Jeremiah I” and the hymn “Te lucis ante terminum,” which contained the aforementioned world-stopping unison sections. But the real highlight, totally unexpectedly, was the Agnus Dei from Tye’s Mean Mass. I know nothing about this guy, and I wasn’t particularly moved by any of the other sections from this mass. A cursory Google doesn’t unearth any recordings, so I do hope I manage to encounter this music again. In any case, a wonderful concert.

Television, etc.

Twin Peaks: The Return: Part 12 — “Crisco, you been selling your blood again?” As much as I complain about the lack of Dale Cooper in the new Twin Peaks, I tend to prefer episodes in which he has no part at all to the ones that focus on him as a monosyllabic husk of his former self. (Aside from that wonderful shot of Sonny Jim nailing him with a baseball.) This was a pretty fantastic episode, all things considered. I tend to enjoy the Gordon/Albert plotline, and here’s hoping that Tammy gets something to do now that she’s officially on the dangerous Blue Rose task force. But aside from those reliably enjoyable scenes (with one exception, in a moment), this also gives us generous doses of two characters who have been either largely or entirely absent for the bulk of the season. Audrey Horne’s return is as baffling as we had every reason to believe it would be, since Lynch and Frost seem hellbent on putting our favourite characters in situations so unfamiliar to us that they read as functionally different people. But at least we get Grace Zabriskie, stepping back into the role of Sarah Palmer for more screen time than in any prior episode. I love this performance, because unlike many of this show’s reintroduced characters, Sarah seems exactly like you’d expect her to, 25 years after the original series’ events. Which is to say, she seems similar to the way we’re used to her — but moreso. The intense trauma of what happened to her daughter has continued to eat away at her just like it was in the first place, and it’s been like that for decades, now. Zabriskie’s performance has always been one of the best in Twin Peaks. And here, she contorts herself into a person who seems like she hasn’t been calm since a third of a lifetime ago. But also there’s that scene where David Lynch ogles a comically sexed-up French woman. I mean, at least he’s being explicit about it. But I really wish this show was better about not being sexist. The last thing I wanted Lynch and Frost to do with a revived Twin Peaks was demonstrate what out-of-touch old men they are. For some, Twin Peaks’ attitude towards women is likely grounds for dismissal out of hand, and I understand that. Personally, I just wish that a show that’s so radical in so many ways could be a little less ass-backwards in that way.

Game of Thrones: “The Queen’s Justice” — Marvellous. This is Game of Thrones at its talkiest, most political, and best. The long-awaited meeting of Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen is enough to make it classic. It’s a beautifully wrought bit of political drama in which two sympathetic characters are both right in conflicting ways, as are their sympathetic aides. Tyrion and Ser Davos are equally compelling as the two marquee names. In fact I daresay Liam Cunningham wins the scene with his spirited defence of Jon’s worthiness of the title King in the North. It’s nice to see somebody respectable offer a bit of resistance to Daenerys, too. She is glorious, to be sure, but she’s getting ostentatious, and she doesn’t see the whole picture. Nobody south of Winterfell has, yet. That scene is so good that it risks sucking the air out of everything that comes after. But then we get a pair of the best Cersei scenes ever. First, we watch her carry out truly gruesome revenge against her daughter’s killer. Then, in a scene I didn’t know I wanted, we watch her spar with Mark Gatiss, who brought all his considerable smugness to bear. We get Littlefinger the chaos theorist, advocating a model of decision making based on envisioning every branch in a tree of outcomes. We get Sam continuing to be abused in the way of all unpaid interns. And we get the magnificent Olenna Tyrell dying as she lived: with an acid tongue and an impeccable knowledge of her sparring partner’s pressure points. So far, this is my favourite season of Game of Thrones. If it keeps this up to the end, it may yet become a show I mostly like.

Literature, etc.

Ryan Lizza: “Anthony Scaramucci Called Me To Unload About White House Leakers, Reince Priebus, and Steve Bannon” — Even after Priebus got pushed out and made this piece into a previous version of the news (it happens so fast now), I felt I had to read this and I am not sorry I did. Scaramucci is a cartoon character. He is a man with absolutely no self-awareness. He refers to himself in the third person and calls himself “the Mooch.” He is making a concerted effort to come off as some kind of goon/kingpin hybrid and he ends up sounding like a sad man who thinks he’s in Goodfellas. Wild shit. Also, like an hour after I wrote this review, he got the boot. Awesome.

Chris Ware: Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid On Earth — I am about three quarters of the way through this magnificent graphic novel. I daresay I’ve lingered longer on each page of this than I have with any other comic, thanks to Chris Ware’s complex and adventurous page layouts, resolutely quadrilateral-based, but with the panels of sequences arranged in pleasingly counterintuitive ways. And the art itself is basically the platonic ideal of comic art: cartoonish and expressive, with each panel limited in its colour palate, but with an almost schematic attention to the detail of structures and environments. Early in the book, Ware’s layouts are more ostentatious and formalist. Some take on the character of a flow chart, with narratives told through abstract series’ of cause and effect. But as the book proceeds, his approach becomes more direct, befitting the increasing drama of the story. Because for all of the novelty of Ware’s approach, for all of the virtuosity in his artwork, the story he is telling is a brutally sad and often cringeworthy tale of isolation and hardship. I’ll cover my thoughts on the story next week once I’m finished it. But it’s already pretty clear to me that this is soon to join the ranks of From Hell and Phonogram, my other favourite works in this medium.

James Parker: “The Whitest Music Ever” — LMAO where to even start. Firstly, I am grateful to Parker for reiterating the traditional critical line about prog rock in a mainstream publication. With a book like David Wiegel’s The Show That Never Ends on the market, which Parker is reviewing here, I was getting concerned that my love of prog no longer makes me a contrarian and THAT CANNOT STAND. Equally gratifying is the way in which Parker dismisses prog with the general sentiment “but just listen to it its so ugly!” This is by some margin the most defensible negative critique of the genre. It is super weird! Prog is often very unattractive music — fascinatingly so, to those of us who like it. Parker’s got a great line about “the tune” of a piece of music being “the infinitely precious sound of the universe rhyming with one’s own brain.” I find that unbelievably relatable. Except that I feel the universe rhyming with my brain when I listen to “Knots” by Gentle Giant, which Parker, reasonably enough, finds unlistenable. One man’s trash, etc. All the same, Parker’s surety that this music is intrinsically unlikeable carries an unpleasant implication: that those of us who claim to like it do so out of something other than the intuitive aesthetic attraction that draws everybody else to their favourite music. I.e. we are pretentious, and we would have fewer liabilities as cultural consumers if we were normal. That’s real shitty. Dan Fox puts it better than I could ever hope to: “The accuser of pretension always presumes bad intentions. Truth is, more often than not pretension is simply someone trying to make the world more interesting, responding to it the way they think is appropriate. It’s more likely that what you think is one person’s pretension is another’s good faith… To fear being accused of pretension is to police oneself out of curiosity about the world.” I can’t help but feel when I read a critique like Parker’s that I’m being beckoned back to my box. “Don’t enjoy weird shit; it’s unbecoming.” And while I absolutely agree with Parker that the elements of pop music that prog sometimes eschews, i.e. hooks and repetition (though his loathed Magma are plenty repetitious), are valuable and attractive, I don’t think that’s any reason to proclaim the genre “murder, artistically speaking.” It’s insufferably closed-minded to expect all music to conform to any one set of standards. And I don’t think that Parker’s self-acknowledged glibness is at all constructive. Rather, I think it only serves as virtue signalling for his own normalcy, which isn’t even a virtue. Am I being unfun? Probably. But this is bad criticism, and I don’t know how to say that without getting on my high horse. Finally, a word on prog’s whiteness. Prog is super white! This is by no means good, but I’m also not sure that its deliberate distance from the blues is a sin by default. I’ve thought about this a lot, and I’m still of two minds about it. On one hand, you could look at prog’s disavowal of blues as a creepily Brexity refusal to engage with anybody’s culture save for these musicians’ own white, European culture. On the other hand, you can also look at it as a respectful reluctance to engage in cultural appropriation. Of all of the rock music to emerge from the U.K. in the late 60s, prog is the only subgenre whose musicians have consistently acknowledged, in their musical practice and in interviews, that blues does not belong to them and they don’t really have any business playing it. Which of these two interpretations seems more convincing probably depends on how charitable you feel towards the music in general, but I expect the truth involves a bit of both. Personally, I find prog’s enormous whiteness a hell of a lot more palatable than this bullshit.

Movies

Snowpiercer — I don’t know why I didn’t see this sooner. This is a really good movie. The conceit of showing a revolution happening in a class-stratified train is one of those premises that is so elegant from the outset that you wonder why nobody did it long before. (I suppose the graphic novel came out in 1982, but that still seems curiously recent to me.) In execution, all it really has to do is make the journey from the back of the train to the front compelling and varied, which it is. Chris Evans is a bit of a cipher of a protagonist until near the end, when things get really complicated. But in the supporting cast we get John Hurt, Tilda Swinton (with some really great false teeth), Octavia Spencer and Ed Harris, so how can you go wrong. Good fun. The kind of movie I wish we saw more of.

Dunkirk — Seeing Christopher Nolan’s latest in an IMAX screening sits very near the top of my shortlist of great moviegoing experiences. Take note that this is a distinct list from my list of favourite movies, and even from my list of favourite movies I’ve seen in theatres. A movie need not be a masterpiece to be an incredible experience in a theatre. Some of the films I’d put on this list are masterpieces (Mad Max: Fury Road). Some are resolutely not (Avatar). Dunkirk is a truly great film, probably Nolan’s best. But my opinion of it is entirely contingent on the experience of seeing it in film projection, on an IMAX screen. The beauty of IMAX is that it nearly fills your field of vision, encouraging you to forget everything that lies beyond the edges of the screen. So, when Nolan puts his camera in an enclosed space, the hugeness of an IMAX screen makes the scene feel more claustrophobic, not less, because you feel that you’re in that space as well. And when that claustrophobic space, say, the galley of ship, gets hit by a torpedo and fills instantly with water, you feel like you’re going to die. That, in a nutshell, is why Dunkirk is a great film: Nolan understands that cinema is an experience as much as a narrative art form, and he uses his mastery of the craft to put the audience inside of one of the most traumatic and unprecedented chapters in the history of warfare. Nolan’s customary structural game, i.e. telling three intersecting stories in three different timespans, is the only thing serving as a reminder that what you’re seeing is a narrative construction. Nolan’s playing with timelines has been one of the most remarked-upon elements of the movie, which is understandable since it’s basically the only thing connecting this movie’s narrative approach to any previous Nolan film (namely Inception). But the real spark of ingenuity in Nolan’s three-story approach is that the stories in question encompass land, sea and air. Equally thrilling and stressful to the beach evacuation are the sequences of airborne battle, taking place over an impossibly long ocean horizon. This is filmmaking at its most spectacular and affecting. Dunkirk is too stressful to see in theatres twice. But you must see it. On the biggest screen possible. Pick of the week.

Games

Day of the Tentacle — It was on sale, and Rock Paper Shotgun called it the best adventure game of all time. It isn’t. It’s fine, but its dopey comedy tone is extremely trying. I played the remastered version of the game, which modernizes the interface and recreates the original’s pixel art as beautifully rendered cartoon animation, which still studiously maintains the detail of the original. The remaster offers the option to switch to the original version of the game, which I periodically did, just to see the difference. Seems to me that the remaster is faultless, but it can only do so much with the material at hand. Day of the Tentacle’s writing is full of silliness, but light on actual jokes. Its characters are not real characters but ‘types,’ which would be fine if the game did anything at all to undercut those types, but it doesn’t. It just rehearses them by rote. Day of the Tentacle is happy to risk being childish for the benefit of being funny, but it isn’t funny, so its childishness is insufferable. I suppose I shouldn’t gripe about that since it’s for children, after all. But one expects that children’s entertainment that attains this degree of acclaim would at least be admirable on a structural level to an adult. Nope. As for the puzzles, many are extremely clever and satisfying, especially when they involve the game’s time travel premise in their solutions. But just as often, the puzzles in Day of the Tentacle are maddeningly obtuse, in the manner of most point-and-clicks from this time period. In an effort to not spend hours and hours on this silly game that I wasn’t really enjoying, I made moderate use of a walkthrough for puzzle hints. I mention this because there are those who would say I haven’t really played the game if I haven’t arrived independently at all of the puzzle solutions. To those people I say: this review would be far less charitable if I had. This game is adequate. It’s no classic. The Myst games get a raw deal these days for the unfairness of their puzzles and their relative lack of story. But they at least provide an interesting space to explore and play amateur anthropologist. Give me Riven any day over this.

Music

Meredith Monk: Dolmen Music — A wonderful NPR feature on the best albums made by women reminded me that this is something I’ve always meant to check out. Monk is a fascinating composer whose work I’ve heard in bits and pieces in various contexts, but I’ve never sat down with a full album’s worth of her music. This is fabulous stuff, but for my money the first half, featuring music for solo voice and piano is more satisfying than the larger title track that makes up the second side. “Gotham Lullaby” is especially attractive. There’s something to be said for the sound of the human voice when it is divorced from the concrete meaning making of language. A wonderful discovery.

Pink Floyd: Zabriskie Point score — (How odd that the word “Zabriskie” comes up in two different contexts this week.) Noting that a substantial amount of The Early Years volume four contains outtakes from the sessions Pink Floyd did for Michelangelo Antonioni’s psychedelic odyssey (which I’ve never seen, but I’ve heard described by Karina Longworth), I figured I’d best hear the tracks that actually made it onto the soundtrack album. These are a rather astonishing and attractive sound collage called “Heart Beat, Pig Meat,” an unextraordinary acoustic number called “Crumbling Land” and an alternate version of “Careful With That Axe Eugene” retitled “Come in Number 5, Your Time Is Up” that is superior to the previous studio version but can’t touch the magnificent live recording on Ummagumma. But there’s more: four additional tracks made it onto the special edition from 1997. “Country Song” would sit nicely on Obscured by Clouds, the band’s most listenable soundtrack work. “Unknown Song” anticipates the midsection of the “Atom Heart Mother Suite,” i.e. the good part. “Love Scene (Version 6)” is a fairly bland blues jam of the sort that British rock bands were prone to do when nobody sternly told them not to. So far, all of these tracks have been full band credits, but the one remaining track, along with “Heart Beat” the crown jewel of the bunch, is a Richard Wright solo piano number. “Love Scene (Version 4)” finds Wright playing in his pleasingly unaffected fashion, exploring melodies over chords that sway gently to and fro. It’s a trifle, and I expect he thought nothing of it, but it feels like a candid photograph. I quite like it. It’s a mystery to me why all of this stuff wasn’t remastered for inclusion on The Early Years, considering that it’s probably the least familiar of all of Pink Floyd’s officially issued material. These tracks, plus the outtakes in the box set would make up a lost Pink Floyd album that’s superior to More. (Though none of the tracks with lyrics can compete with “Green is the Colour” or “Cymbeline,” both of which deserve to be on a better album.)

Pink Floyd: The Early Years 1965-1972 — Another week, another two volumes of this box set on Apple Music. Volume three focusses on 1969, the year of More and Ummagumma: albums that I mildly dislike, and half like, respectively. All the same, this volume demonstrates that for all the inconsistency in the band’s studio output at the time, they were nonetheless reaching a new peak of creative vibrancy. After a first disc that features some tepid outtakes from More and a couple of live performances that range from fine to good, the second disc gives us a complete recording of the band’s famous The Man and the Journey live show. It’s a conceptual piece, and so it risks coming off as a bit tedious or literal, but as a sound recording it seems mercifully abstract. This is a great performance — everything from the extended “Cymbaline” to the found-object piece “Work” is compelling. It’s tempting to listen in the manner of a trainspotter, locating bits of previous and upcoming pieces of music in this liminal, transitory performance. But you don’t have to listen like that. It sustains a simple listen for its own virtues. Volume four covers 1970, the year of Atom Heart Mother, and thus a problem year. So far, I have not been annoyed with the multiple instances of some key songs, like “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” or “Careful With That Axe, Eugene.” But the three complete versions of the “Atom Heart Mother Suite” on this volume are a bit much to bear. Two of the three feature no orchestra, which one might initially think would remove some of the problems with that misbegotten work. But the band declines to incorporate the melodic material that appears in the horns and strings in some other way, which makes the whole thing feel a bit insubstantial. You can’t win. The John Peel session that features a complete “Atom Heart Mother” is by and large a satisfying listen, but the brass band and choir assembled in lieu of the full orchestra/choir implement shit the bed as badly here as the ensembles on the record do. (Kind of puts a fine point on how bad the studio record is, doesn’t it?) Also, “Embryo” is a weirdly important song in Pink Floyd sets of this time period. It was not good enough to make it onto a proper album, but they play it at every show, seemingly. This volume also features the outtakes from the Zabriskie Point sessions, which are really fun. There’s definitely a full soundtrack album’s worth of music in there. Great stuff.

Podcasts

Radiolab: “Breaking News” — A terrifying tale from the precipice of a dystopia. The team tells the story of a new bit of technology that allows for convincing fake audio and video to be made of famous people. The video that they made with it isn’t actually all that convincing, but we’re fast approaching a point where it will be, I’m sure. Shudder.

A Piece of Work: Episodes 1-3 & 5 — A fun journey through the wonder and weirdness of modern art, with one of the stars of Broad City. What more could you want? The episode on Yves Klein’s monochromes, feat. Questlove, is the highlight. I’m really enjoying this, and it made me want to go look at pictures. I daresay that’s the goal.

The Turnaround: “Louis Theroux” — I kind of wish Jesse Thorn were as willing to challenge Jerry Springer and Louis Theroux as he was Audie Cornish. Because Springer, for all his self-awareness, hosts a trashy show, and Theroux sometimes stirs the pot for the sake of drama rather than understanding. Not one of my favourite episodes of this.

Showcase from Radiotopia: “Introducing… Showcase from Radiotopia” — This is such a good idea. The biggest problem with podcasting that isn’t a problem in broadcasting is that a show idea has to be infinitely self-sustaining, unless it’s something like S-Town or Mogul and has the support of a major player in the industry. So here’s a channel with the support of a major player in the industry, PRX, that focusses on smaller series with experimental approaches. I’m salivating.

99% Invisible: “Ways of Hearing” — John Berger would be proud. I’m counting this as an episode of 99pi, because that’s how I heard it. But it’s actually the first episode in Ways of Hearing, which is itself the first serial on Showcase from Radiotopia. Interestingly, this series on the social impact of digital recording is airing for the first time just as a CBC Radio series on the impact of electricity on music is airing again on Ideas. I’ve been avidly following that, but not reviewing it because it was co-produced by a friend of mine. (Regardless, it is a masterpiece. Listen to it.) This is more specific in its subject than that series and less sweeping in its scope, but it is so far very eloquent in its argumentation — even if that argumentation is basically that technology took something out of music, which is one of those arguments that’ll either be obvious or obviously wrong to you. Or perhaps not, because when I think about it, I’m not sure which side of that debate I land on. I’ll let this sit for a while before offering my final assessment. But I’ll definitely listen to the rest of the series. Oh, and the Jon Brion interview at the end of this is a very eloquent elaboration on a concept that is fairly central to my understanding of pop music: the notion that a song and a performance are two distinct things.

Reply All: “Long Distance, Part II” — An ending that befits the beginning. Wow, is this ever a thrill ride, considering that it started with Alex Goldman personally being the subject of a scam attempt. How wonderful that he works somewhere with the money to sent him across the world with a producer to find the guy who scammed him. Bracing, wonderful stuff.

The Gist: “A Video Came Thoreau Might Play” — Walden, a game sounds like an interesting concept, but I feel like regardless of its distinctive subject matter I wouldn’t be able to help comparing it with Firewatch, which is too awesome to compare to anything. We’ll see.

Ear Hustle: “The SHU” — This is a rough listen. Solitary confinement is a brutal practice, and one that it’s a miracle doesn’t leave a person irreparably broken. Stories worth knowing, though.

Longform: “Maggie Haberman” — This is one of the most astonishing interviews I have ever heard. During the course of this conversation, Maggie Haberman, NYT White House reporter, reports a story. Like, she talks about her job at the same time as she does it. And moreover, she acts as if this is simply not unusual. It’s disquieting, actually. I feel concerned for her. I think she’s forgotten how to be human. I am reminded of the words of the immortal Malcolm Tucker: “This is a fucking husk. I am a fucking host for this fucking job.” Come for the niche interest process story and stay for the bizarre fucking implicit psychodrama. Pick of the week.

Omnibus (week of July 24, 2017)

This was one of those weeks where I watched a whole season of TV. It happens. But I still managed to get a bunch of podcasts in and some truly wonderful music. 25 reviews.

Movies

Blade Runner — The only other time I’ve watched Blade Runner was when I was probably 16. I’m not sure which cut I watched at the time, but it couldn’t have been the Final Cut, which I watched this time, because that didn’t come out until the next year. Regardless, I remembered liking it a lot, but that’s kind of all I remembered. This week, I watched the Final Cut with a friend, in a state of distraction and fatigue. Truthfully, a lot of the story and many of the themes slipped past me, given how little attention I was paying. But the result of this was a unique sort of viewing experience: I feel as though I watched Blade Runner as a painting. Without following the story or attempting to parse the characters’ motivations and identities, Blade Runner becomes a mystifying, entrancing procession of sensations and impressions. If it were possible to photoshop out all of the main characters from Blade Runner and mute all of the dialogue, I daresay it would still be a compelling art film. It would still be a fever dream of a future city: we would still see the magnificent towers occupied by the very privileged, the sweaty masses of pedestrians in the Tokyo-inspired lower quarters, the vast modernist step pyramids where authority lives, and the total dominance of advertising from the street level straight up to the rarified air of the police aircrafts. We would still have Vangelis’s abstract, improvisational score imparting a feel of creeping malaise. We would still see rooms filled with grotesque semi-sentient toys, and beams of golden light enrobing the figure of an owl with a curiously reflective iris. When my friend and I first tried to start the movie, we were disappointed to discover that her HDMI cable had reached the end of its lifespan. (“It’s too bad she won’t live. But then again, who does?”) We rushed to London Drugs for a replacement, and since the store was just about to close, one of the employees in the home electronics section was indulging himself by playing Philip Glass’s score to Koyaanisqatsi over the speakers. A small moment of serendipity, this was. Koyaanisqatsi is an experimental film by Godfrey Reggio that was released the same year Blade Runner was. Inevitably, the music conjured up the film’s narrative-free imagery of late 20th-century cities in my mind, and it remained lodged there throughout the duration of Blade Runner. Maybe that’s part of why I saw it the way I did. Contained within Blade Runner is both a science fiction thriller about human identity and a sort of speculative Koyaanisqatsi. Where Reggio’s film is a study of then-contemporary urban malaise, conveyed through images and evocative music, Ridley Scott’s is the same thing for an imagined near future. The two films never struck me as being of a piece with each other before, but I doubt the connection will ever leave me now. I might watch Blade Runner again next week. I love this movie and I still don’t really know what it’s about.

Television

Twin Peaks: The Return: Part 11 — Okay, so Shelly has abruptly become much less admirable in the show’s estimation. First, she jumps onto the windshield of a moving car, something no reasonably intelligent person would do, regardless of the circumstance. Then, she instantaneously forgets the moment of family crisis she’s trying to negotiate when her latest criminal boyfriend drops by. I mean, it’s not like she didn’t always have a thing for criminals, but that scene is super weird. One second she’s crying, embracing her off-the-rails daughter, and the next, she’s scampering away from that same daughter as fast as she can to go make out with Balthazar Getty. I am trying hard to maintain my view that Twin Peaks is intrinsically worthwhile by virtue of being unlike anything else on television, but it’s not making it easy. Mind you, if it were making it easy, it wouldn’t be unlike anything else on television.

Game of Thrones: “Stormborn” — Wow, this must be blazingly good for me to not hate it. I always hate the beginnings of GoT seasons. Now I’m actually looking forward to this show’s next episode. I don’t think that’s happened for about three seasons. That’s my highest possible praise for this show, so I’ll just leave it at that.

Downton Abbey: Season 5 — Once you start a season of Downton it is impossible not to finish it that week. I defy anybody to try. Here is the season where everybody’s moral clarity, however misbegotten, gets shot to hell. The situation with Edith’s illegitimate daughter is an absolute minefield. While the constant scenes of her getting turned away by the unknowing foster mother of her illegitimate child get trying, the denouement of that plotline makes everybody a victim. Edith herself is the victim of the social strictures of her time that would see her scandalized if her pregnancy had been revealed, and the foster mother is deprived of the child that she raised because of her inferior class. When Cora finds out, even she is unable to maintain her usual consistency of ethics: she’s deeply offended that Violet and Rosamund kept the secret from her, but once she knows she claims it’s “not their secret to tell,’ even to Robert who by rights has an equal claim to the knowledge as Cora. But of course she’s right to feel he can’t know. Because he’s an ass-backwards jerk. That ought to be the reasoning Cora offers. And he is awfully insufferable this season. One of Downton’s perverse delights is watching as Robert’s way of life is eroded gradually in ways he finds unacceptable and unjust. His misplaced anxiety about his wife’s fidelity is a clever way for the show to demonstrate the extent to which his grip is slipping. But it’s also a clear indication of how much he takes Cora for granted. Elizabeth McGovern walks a fine line in scenes with her would-be illicit lover Simon Bricker: never once implying that she actually wants to have an affair, but happy to be appreciated for once. Meanwhile, Mary maintains her steadfast code of self-interest and remains basically sympathetic due to the extent to which her being that way flies in the face of convention. I’m quite the fan of how this season makes it even clearer that she’s the second coming of her grandmother, with all of the wit and imperiousness that entails. As for her suitor Lord Gillingham, holy smokes what a dolt. I never tire of scenes in which he steadfastly refuses to acknowledge that he is no longer involved with Mary. I have no particular wishes for how the relationships on this show are to turn out, but I’m very happy to see that guy get thrown over. And on the note of Mary’s similarity to Violet: Maggie Smith continues to be the best part of this show, if only because her total insincerity offers a comment on the proceedings that’s in line with those of us who find ourselves watching Downton half in spite of ourselves. Her storyline with Cousin Isabel, and their mutually unexpected reinvigorated romantic prospects is probably the most consistently amusing thing in this season. As for historical context, the first Labour government gives rise to hopes and fears alike among the servants. For Carson, whose identity and what prestige he has is based entirely on the continuing prosperity of the aristocracy, it seems catastrophic. But for Daisy, who still has her life ahead of her, it seems like an opportunity to do something more with her life. It’s an interesting exploration of the double bind that the serving staff are in: reliant upon the class structure for their livelihoods, but held back by it in larger measure. Also, now that we’re well into the inter-war period, I suppose there need to be some anti-Semites in the show. Clever of Fellowes to have Rose fall for Atticus before she knows of his Jewish heritage. That prevents the unpleasant sense that she’s fetishizing his otherness the way she did with her previous suitor, who was black. Altogether, I think this is one of the stronger seasons of the show, if only because it focusses in on its characters and their lives more than contriving schemes and implausible happenstances to elicit drama. But I honestly would have been pretty much satisfied even if it were just nine hours of Lord Grantham getting called “Donk” by a small child.

Music

Buffy Sainte-Marie: Illuminations — One of the great underrecognized classics of the era. This is the album where Buffy Sainte-Marie leaves folkiedom behind in favour of a very idiosyncratic and not-to-be-pigeonholed rendition of psychedelia. She’s cited Morton Subotnick as an influence in the past, probably the only songwriter I’ve ever seen that remark from. And the electronic filigree that links this album’s songs together has Silver Apples of the Moon’s influence all over it. Except it never outstays its welcome. One of the best things about the rock music of the late 60s and early 70s is the fact that all of these musicians were listening to avant-garde classical music, but had the impulse to fold its aesthetic into their music rather than its spirit, which didn’t necessarily always prioritize sounding good. I have no problem with that, but it’s nice to hear the legacy of Subotnick colliding with something I actually love. And the songs themselves are outstanding. “God is Alive, Magic is Afoot” is fun because it’s not a Leonard Cohen cover, but rather a setting of a poem that he himself did not set to music. How lovely it is that we have in the world a song that can be credited to Cohen/Sainte-Marie. The music is pleasingly simplistic: Sainte-Marie has cottoned onto the chant-like character of the text and made that the central inspiration for her music. Among the originals, my favourites are “Better to Find Out for Yourself,” “The Dream Tree,” “Keeper of the Fire” and “Poppies.” The first and third of these feature some of Sainte-Marie’s most aggressive singing. One reason I love her early records so much is because she offers such a compelling alternative to more conventionally pretty folk voices of the time, like Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell. She has that sweet, lyrical character in her voice as well, and it comes out gorgeously on “The Dream Tree.” but that’s only one facet of the voice. “Better to Find Out for Yourself” finds her folding wolf calls into the ends of her phrases and “Keeper of the Fire” is a flat-out hard rock vocal performance with an imitation guitar solo in the voice as well. This is a classic, visionary, haunting album and I am constantly appalled by its overlookedness.

Pink Floyd: The Early Years 1965-72 — Oh man, the audio portion of this box set is on Apple Music now! (Except for the last volume, because they still have to entice me to buy the set somehow. As if the hours of video footage weren’t enough.) This is astonishingly entertaining for a vast set of outtakes and rarities. I’ve gotten through the first two volumes, and I am having a Grand Old Time. Let us go into detail, shall we? Volume one, focussing on the period from 1965 through 67, is the only one in the bunch to entirely predate Syd Barrett’s replacement with David Gilmour. It runs the gamut from bracing to boring, but there’s less of the latter than you might think. It’s in four sections. The first is a set of recordings from 1965, while the band was still calling itself the Tea Set, and had a second guitarist. The sound is excellent, but the same can’t be said of the songs, which find Syd Barrett in the throes of a rhythm and blues obsession that will have long abated by the time Pink Floyd actually releases a record. The performances are surprisingly good, though. Already, this is a band that’s more concerned with how they play than what they play. The second part is a collection of the band’s singles, B-sides, and a few unreleased tracks. Of these, the singles and B-sides are familiar but welcome here as part of the broader picture of this band at this time. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn proves to be a very narrow window through which to view these artists. The unreleased tracks include a few new mixes of familiar tracks, including a “Matilda Mother” with different, funnier lyrics. “There was a boy whose name was Jim / His friends they were very good to him / They gave him tea and cakes and jam / And slices of delicious ham.” God, I love that. But probably the highlight of the volume is the new stereo mixes of the famous unreleased tracks “In the Beechwoods” and especially “Vegetable Man” and “Scream Thy Last Scream.” These last two are in fact among Syd Barrett’s finest songs and in a just world would have become two sides of a single, or maybe showed up on A Saucerful of Secrets in place of, I dunno, “Corporal Clegg” and “See-Saw.” It seems they’ve been regarded as unfortunate symptoms of Barrett’s decline over the years. But with these new mixes, they stand revealed as two of the best early Pink Floyd songs. The second disc of volume one, consisting of the other two parts, is a less triumphant affair. It does feature the archeological diamond of a full live set with Syd Barrett, though the vocals are missing from the mix and only audible through distant mics. Still, it sounds like Syd was having a bad night vocally, so maybe that’s not such a bad thing. It’s weird to hear him sing “Set the Controls” to begin with — let alone so out of tune. And the instrumentals like “Interstellar Overdrive” and the unrecorded “Reaction in G” are as compelling as the band’s early fans would have you think. Volume one finishes with an unused free improvisational film score made for the experimental filmmaker John Latham. This is not great. It’s one of those things that it’s nice to have, just because we’ve all known that it exists for so long. I imagine it’s kind of like finally getting to see the pyramids in person. Except, if the pyramids were shitty. Because this is Pink Floyd doing a sort of free improvisation that they were a bit out of their depth to attempt. Their best semi-improvisational pieces, “Interstellar Overdrive” and especially the sublime “A Saucerful of Secrets” are based around concrete structures, as opposed to just noodling. AMM could make noodling sound good. So could King Crimson. Not Pink Floyd. Still, it’s a pleasure to experience. Volume two is simultaneously worse than volume one and more narratively compelling. It focusses on 1968, a rough year for the band in many ways, though it did see the release of one of my idiosyncratic faves in their catalogue, A Saucerful of Secrets. But for all of their success as an albums band that year, the first section of this disc proves they were creatively spent as a singles band. If Barrett’s “Apples and Oranges” had proven a disappointing follow-up to “See Emily Play,” then Wright’s “It Would Be So Nice” and especially Waters’ “Point Me At The Sky” prove completely unworthy. Their engine of ingenious psychedelic pop was irreparably broken. It now seems obvious that the only feasible direction was towards the very avant-garde. The BBC sessions that close out volume two (one of which delightfully comes with John Peel’s intros and extros intact) finds the band seemingly in denial of this, as they focus on performing their singles. We do, mercifully, get a rather good live “Saucerful of Secrets,” though it is inexplicably retitled “The Massed Gadgets of Hercules.” I say “inexplicably” because the album had already come out when the session was recorded — it can’t have been an early title. Am I wrong? In any case, volume two of this box is endlessly fascinating from an anthropological perspective, in large part because of how bad it is. Can’t wait to hear the rest.

Tom Waits: Frank’s Wild Years — My favourite Tom Waits album. To me, it strikes a perfect balance between the freaky cabaret music on Rain Dogs just before it and the crunchy aggro of Bone Machine shortly after. “Innocent When You Dream” is one of the most heartbreaking songs ever, made moreso by its comedic drunken ugliness. This is a man who hit bottom and smashed through into a dark, parody underworld where nothing seems real but everybody’s still behaving like nothing’s wrong. The same goes for the demented Kander and Ebb pastiche “I’ll Take New York,” which finds Waits at his most openly parodic and nightmarish. The best thing about it is that there’s nothing dark in the lyric. It’s a pitch perfect impression of Kander and Ebb’s civic boosterism. But it’s refracted through the lens of the demented calliope music that is one of Waits’ most profitable standbys. And even when Waits is working on a slightly less heightened level, like on “Temptation” or “Cold Cold Ground,” both among his best songs, he still sounds like he’s living in a pocket universe where the rules of reality are a bit different from our own. This is one of those rare albums that suspends reality. I love it.

Tom Waits: Small Change — I am generally more of a fan of Tom Waits’s post-Swordfishtrombones albums than his 70s material. I like the complex irony of those later albums. It’s like there’s a dark mirror planted somewhere near the year 1980, and Waits stepped through and became a gurning, grotesque reflection of what he was before. But there’s a time and a place for Waits’s more sincere early music. The time is 2:00am and the place is staggering home drunk. Or, in the absence of these conditions, you can simply imagine yourself in that state and it still kind of works. I had previously only known Waits’s earlier music through my longtime favourite Heartattack and Vine and a scattering of tracks from before it. This is my first listen to Small Change, and it is a heck of a lot better than Heartattack. There’s not a single song on this that I didn’t love immediately. While Waits is lacking his later derangement here, he still has the unique wit of a self-romanticizing drunk hobo. “Step Right Up” is a distillation of all of the most familiar slogans in cheap advertising and straightforward swindling into a song. It is substantially virtuosic, and it helps to clarify the difference between Waits’s early novelty songs and his later ones like “Cemetery Polka.” In “Step Right Up” (and also “The Piano Has Been Drinking”) Waits is letting the audience in on a joke he’s come up with. He’s performing a routine. In “Cemetery Polka,” there’s a joke somewhere, but it’s hard to parse and we feel alienated because of it. It’s entirely possible that we’re the brunt of the joke. But most of the album is made up of the sad, lovelorn ballads that Waits is so good at during this period. “Tom Traubert’s Blues” is the clear highlight, with its ripped-off chorus (from “Waltzing Matilda”) taking on more heft in this context than in its original one. It is one of Waits’ great pictures of modern despair and displacement, and one of his very best songs. The same goes for “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart” and “Invitation to the Blues.” This immediately struck me as a brilliant album. I expect to be back to it as frequently as its ultra-specific mood will permit. Pick of the week.

Literature, etc.

Chris Onstad: Achewood — I have read up to April of 2002 in this wonderful, absurd, very funny and often poignant web comic. Evidently I am still a long way off from the good stuff, but I am already very into this world. Ray and Roast Beef are yet to become the central characters (I know enough to know that they eventually will) and Philippe is the current highlight. He is so adorable that it can only be hilarious to see him subjected to the capricious whims of the Achewood universe. Great stuff.

John Errington: Centuries of Sound — I’m trying to catch up with this blog, which includes mixes for every year of recorded sound. It’s a great premise, and the very early years are super interesting, though the mixes are understandably short and abstract. The first of them features a few reconstructed recordings of Édouard-Léon Scott, who made a machine that could record indications of sound in soot. They were never meant to be played back, because Scott couldn’t conceive of such a thing, but of course we’ve found a way. Errington’s mix includes a documentary by Studio 360 about how that came to be. It’s actually crazy to hear, however scrappily, the sound of a voice from 1860 — the voice of a person who might not have thought that such a thing was possible.

Podcasts

The Nod: “Greetings, My Brothas” — Okay, now this is good. There’s something about hearing people laugh at a funny thing that makes it funnier, and these two laughing at a YouTube conspiracy theory about the Jay-Z/Solange elevator incident is start-to-finish hysterical.

Mogul: “How Heavy It Was,” “August 30, 2012” & Uncle Murda cameo — Mogul is a beautiful thing. These last two episodes (I’m not going to deal too much with the cameo, fun though it is) just clinch the whole thing. What I love about this is that the show subtly frames its narrative as a low-key true crime story that culminates in a contested suicide ruling. But the narrative proceeds inexorably to the conclusion that Chris Lighty’s death probably was what it seemed like. The chief contribution of Mogul to the story of Chris Lighty is bringing the mental illness he suffered to light. That’s part of what makes it so vital: it addresses a death that’s regarded as a mystery by framing it in terms of the evidence that nobody wants to talk about. This is so good, and I have become very fond of Reggie Ossé. I don’t know how an Ivy League educated lawyer can be so warm and likeable. The Combat Jack Show has a new subscriber.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Dunkirk,” “Girls Trip” & “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” — I’m liking the new format. Of these episodes, the only one that convinced me to see something was the Dunkirk one, because I was genuinely on the fence prior to this. The other two amount to a “not for me” and a “this sounds awful.”

The Turnaround: “Anna Sale” & “Reggie Ossé (Combat Jack)” — I really admire Jesse Thorn for not cutting the moments in these interviews when his guests don’t know what his question means. Because I can absolutely relate to that. Anna Sale’s interview is a bit rough, since it was the first for this show, but it’s still edifying enough. The Combat Jack episode is a series highlight, though. I’m happy Thorn included him, since there aren’t likely to be any other specialists in a subject area on this show. (Unless you count Brooke Gladstone, but “media” isn’t really a niche.) Since Mogul’s been coming out, I’ve been amazed at how easy it seems for Combat to talk with huge hip hop stars. Turns out, there’s value in being a bit of an insider. He’s a known enough quantity that these artists are comfortable talking to him. But that’s not to say that craftsmanship and intent don’t enter into what Reggie Ossé does. He’s always thinking in broader terms to what just about any generalist interviewing a rapper would be thinking. He’s interested in hearing their take on life in general, rather than just about their art. That’s valuable. Have I done a complete about-face on my opinion of interviewing artists since I started listening to this show? Yes? I dunno. I’m very confused about my own value system. But I know I enjoyed these shows.

Code Switch: “What’s So Wrong With African Americans Wearing African Clothing?” & “What’s Good? Talking Hip-Hop and Race With Stretch and Bobbito” — A pair of preview for shows I’m not super interested in. The Stoop covers interesting territory, but I’m not sold on the hosts. And I’m suspicious of the extent to which NPR is getting in on the personality-driven podcast bandwagon with the Stretch and Bobbito show. Probably I’m wrong.

Theory of Everything: “Private Ear” — I can’t help but feel like the guy this story is about — an aural reconstructor of secret spaces who uses the memories of prisoners as his guide — is a bit dodgy. But it’s very much like this show to introduce me to an artist (because this is what he is, mostly) who works so far outside of the expected arenas.

99% Invisible: “The Trials of Dan and Dave” — ESPN is getting into podcasting, and they’ve already got the Roman Mars bump. Imagine. This is a fun story that’s not really all about the sports, which as far as I know is the 30 For 30 trademark. Nice stuff.

This American Life: “Break-Up” — It’s pretty rare for me to listen to anything from a show’s back catalogue these days. But this is the episode that made Starlee Kine’s career. As a steadfast mourner of Mystery Show, I felt it was necessary to finally hear the famous story where Kine works through her bad breakup with the assistance of one Phil Collins. As a Genesis fan, it’s doubly interesting to hear Collins tell the story of how his first divorce precipitated his transition from being a jazz fusion drummer in his non-Genesis career to an international pop star on the back of several heartrending ballads. This all strikes a personal chord for me, because I went through a shit breakup that was scored by the music of Phil Collins’s one-time bandmate, Peter Gabriel. There was a while there where I obsessed over Gabriel’s Us album for very similar reasons to the ones Kine cites for her love for “Against All Odds.” I am Starlee Kine in the Upside-Down. T’was ever thus.

99% Invisible: “El Gordo” — Ah yes, a story in which only one person in a town does not win the lottery. The world is quite marvellous, you know that?

The Memory Palace: “Elmer McCurdy Rides Again and Again” — It was only a matter time before our greatest author of historical prose poems attempted a rhyming couplet story. It is a mixed affair. Mostly I like it, but I halfway feel that the gimmick gets in the way of a genuinely marvellous story, in which an embalmed human body is mistaken for a wax sculpture and ends up on the set of The Six Million Dollar Man. Still good.

Criminal: “A Bump In The Night” — A terrifying story of a woman who hears sounds in the night that turn out to be something. It ends unsatisfyingly, but so do most things in life.

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: “The Emoluments Clauses” — The most interesting thing about this is the fact that the emoluments clauses of the constitution have been considered so obscure that they’re not even in textbooks, and Trump is the first president so unconventional that he requires them to be taken into consideration. Everything is bad.

The Daily: July 24-28 — My first full week of listening to The Daily reveals it to be a genuinely excellent way to keep on top of the biggest stories, at least as they pertain to American federal politics. I have generally preferred this show when it contains at least one segment that takes place outside of the U.S.A. But there are some genuinely confusing and terrifying things happening in the White House on a week by week basis, so what are they to do? Regardless, this is one of the best shows to launch in recent years, and a genuine innovation.

Reply All: “Long Distance” — The best episode of Reply All for some time. And it’s not like it’s been in a slump. Some schlub who didn’t know what he was getting into tried to scam Alex Goldman and ended up the subject of a piece of playful yet ruthless investigative journalism. Goldman’s imperiousness is hysterical here, and the fact that he doesn’t reveal the consequence of the story at the start is much appreciated. I feel compelled to be coy about this and not spoil it. Listen to it. It is magnificent. Pick of the week.

Song by Song: “Tom Traubert’s Blues (Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen), Small Change, Tom Waits” — I came across this Tom Waits song randomly at work, having never listened to Small Change. (You’ll note from above that I have since listened to the full album and had quite the response.) It is a beautiful thing, and I figured I’d take the opportunity to sample this podcast that’s going through his songs in order, one by one. It could do to be longer, honestly. It feels a bit slim. Fun that they’ve got Jeffrey Cranor, though. Not sure I’ll be back to this.

Omnibus (week of July 9, 2017)

Oh, but it’s a good one this week. We’ve got theatre, a pair of superhero blockbusters, some great new music, the start of a chapter-by-chapter rundown of a truly excellent episodic adventure game, and the most unexpected literary classic of recent years from a sports website. Also a metric tonne of podcasts. I’ve been procrastinating again.

32 reviews. Eat up.

Live events

The Merchant of Venice (Bard on the Beach) — Like The Winter’s Tale, this is not a play that I know well. I know it as Shakespeare’s most fraught play, since it is widely considered anti-Semitic. Given my lack of knowledge of the text itself, I can’t easily judge whether that’s the case, because this production is intensely sympathetic to Shylock. It paints him as a man who insists upon his own dignity in spite of the world’s hatred and disregard for him. It paints his ruthlessness as a symptom of the constant abuse he suffers at the hands of Christians. Mind you, that’s present in the play itself to the extent that it allows Shylock the interiority to know his own intentions and the reasoning for them. The “hath not a Jew eyes” is evidence enough that Shakespeare has some sympathy for Shylock. But that only makes it more perplexing that he goes on to ruin Shylock’s life and write him out of the last act. After watching what happens to Shylock in this production, it is almost viscerally unpleasant to watch the play as it refocuses on the foibles of newlyweds. This is probably intentional: director Nigel Shawn Williams makes clear in his notes that he is more interested in the play’s struggles for dignity and power than with its romances. He associates this theme of struggling for dignity with Shylock, Jessica, Portia and Antonio: the latter two of which I have a bit of trouble accepting — Antonio in particular. But nonetheless, it is the struggle between Antonio and Shylock that really soars in this production, thanks in very large part to excellent performances by Edward Foy and (especially) Warren Kimmel. Kimmel will also be performing in Mark Leiren-Young’s Shylock in September, and I’m going to get my tickets real quick. The lovers are less inspired. This is partially due to the decision to turn the males in these plotlines into insufferable nightlife dudebros, but it’s mostly because some of them really shout a lot more than they need to. Still, on the whole, I enormously enjoyed this. It’s probably my favourite of the three Bard productions I’ve seen so far.

Literature, etc.

Amanda Petrusich: “MTV News, Chance the Rapper, and a Defense of Negative Criticism” — Whither music criticism? “Pivot to video.” Sigh. This is a lovely piece about the importance of the sort of music writing that doesn’t depend on access. I feel it ties in slightly with what I wrote about the first episode of The Turnaround last week, particularly Petrusich’s last graf: “A funny thing about journalism is that it’s contingent upon the willful participation of a subject; a reporter always needs a reliable, talkative source. People agree to coöperate with journalists for reasons of self-promotion or, on rare occasions, moral obligation. But criticism doesn’t require its subject to acquiesce. For anyone accustomed to high degrees of control, this can seem, at first, like an affront. But well-rendered criticism confirms that the work is high stakes. This criticism can be illuminating and thrilling, and might offer an important vantage on a very private experience. It is, at least, less strangulating than a feedback loop of endless, bootless flattery.” Read the rest.

Jon Bois: 17776 — If you’d told me in January that one of the highlights of my pop culture year would be a story about football that came from SB Nation, I… would probably have believed you but also been very surprised. This story of life in the inconceivably distant future is one of the most effortlessly, unassumingly funny, bittersweet and occasionally heartbreaking stories I’ve come across in a very long time. The fact that it’s so surprising and so totally different from anything else I’ve ever seen a major news/sports/culture publication do is only part of the appeal of this. Mostly, it just knows exactly what it is and follows through again and again. I’ll try not to spoil too much, because the novelty and element of surprise are nice. But a certain amount of spoilers are inevitable from here on out. Basically, 17776 is a story about a world where people stopped dying, stopped aging (or, stopped aging involuntarily at least), stopped getting sick, and invented a way to prevent all accidental death and injury. It envisions a world where the people who inhabit earth in the year 17776 are for the most part the same set of people who inhabit the earth now. Having arrived in a post-scarcity world, where even time is not scarce, humanity (particularly the American portion of it) now occupies itself with increasingly long, large-scale and absurd games of football. It is largely told from the point of view of three incredibly loveable protagonists, all of them space probes launched in the 20th and 21st centuries who have over time become sentient. It just took me 126 words to describe the premise of this thing. That should give you some sense of its amazing strangeness. Pioneer 9 is our real protagonist, and our audience surrogate. The story begins with Nine finally attaining sentience and having a whole lot of questions. Fortunately, their little sister (or big sister, depending how you think about it) Pioneer 10 is around to explain the new status quo. The third main character, the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) is the story’s masterstroke. You know that slacker dude you used to hang out with who also might be the smartest person in the world? That’s JUICE. Reading this trio’s banter is an unbelievable pleasure. Each of them is a perfectly defined character who is more than what they seem: more compassionate, more astute, wiser. Jon Bois is a weird writer with his own voice and a sensibility unlike anybody else, but he’s also got the basics down pat, and he knows how to write characters that provide a human throughline in a story that involves really quite a lot of talking about football. Okay, let’s touch on that. I have seen a total of two, maybe three football games in my life and my grasp of the rules is laughably rudimentary. But I ate up the sections of 17776 that are about the gameplay and logistics of future football games. As a work of speculative fiction, 17776 is very whimsical. But as a set of works of speculative football, it is impressively rigorous. Bois uses the premise of the story to propose several wonderful games of borderline Dadaist football, mostly with fields that stretch across several states. In one, the end zones are in Washington and New Mexico, but the field is still just the width of a normal football field, so you have no choice but to climb mountains, jump off cliffs, etc. if you want to move the ball. In another, Bois asks how a contemporary NHL game might evolve if it were allowed to continue nearly indefinitely. He devises a parody of commercial football so absurd that it may well be my new favourite fictional anti-cap parable. Here’s the moment when I fell in love with JUICE, as he explains his love for this game to Ten, lack of apostrophes and all: “this IS capitalism you donk. this is what its supposed to be, this is how it ends. if it isn’t there its only because it isnt there yet. its like youre staring at a cake in the oven and wondering if its gonna be a cake. things went the other direction in america and thank god for that. but capitalism deserves a zoo like this one. it’s a beast of the wild, as wild as any grizzly bear with fawn’s blood in its mouth. i think you see deeds and contracts and bureaucratic bloat and see that something went wrong. something was ALWAYS wrong y’all. i love it. i love to watch it. in a zoo, where it can’t hurt me.” Unspeakably brilliant. This is the same character who waxes nostalgic for Lunchables and spells “Wolverine” as “wolferine.” He’s the best. Jon Bois’ brain works in crazy ways. There are tossed off observations here that for other people would become the premises of whole stories. I’m thinking particularly of a moment where Al Capone and his brother are likened to Greek gods, and then Bois points out that they lived in a town called “Homer.” It’s infuriatingly clever. But we’re yet to touch on the single greatest thing about 17776, which is that it fashions from its premise an idea about humanity’s place in the universe and why we are drawn to aimless, arbitrary pursuits like playing and watching football. The “intermission” section of the story features Bois’ most beautiful writing. Through the mouthpiece of Ten, Bois offers a picture of humanity’s purpose and destiny that outstrips Star Trek by basically inverting it. The humans of 17776 are bittersweet creatures who long ago stopped striving. This is not fine, but there’s nothing to be done. So, they play football. As JUICE says, “the point of play is to distract yourself from play being the point.” As an obsessive consumer of a frankly unwise amount of pop culture, I feel that I can sympathize with the sports fan impulse that produced a sentiment like this. If we really have so much left to accomplish, and such a great destiny, shouldn’t we feel inconceivably terrible about wasting so much time? And even in a world where time is not a factor, it’s hard to look at a passive humanity as anything other than a failure. This is what these characters are grappling with. This is something that the very obsessive among us understand best, provided that the obsession in question is essentially non-generative and consumerist. 17776 is the saddest and most inspiring thing I’ve read this year. It is extraordinary. Also, it is the only work of fiction that will ever make you mourn for a light bulb. I’m serious, Bois turns a light bulb into the most important thing in the universe. This is what the internet was always supposed to be. We need more Jon Bois. Pick of the week.

Television, etc.

Pretty Good: “I Wish Everyone Else Was Dead” — Here is more Jon Bois. Pretty Good is a YouTube series he does “about stories that are pretty good.” This particular instalment is about 24, the single most fucked up show I have ever watched (and liked in spite of myself). 24 is a show that takes suspension of disbelief to an entirely new level. It makes you suspend your entire value system: your entire reality. Bois points to the ruthlessness with which the show kills its named characters and the ways that people die to make a very clever point about America’s Goliath complex and the tendency of the privileged to think themselves persecuted. It also really highlights how incredibly gruesome the show was by cutting together a bunch of its cruellest moments. Other highlights include insights about 24 as a form of post-9/11 wish-fulfilment (it in large part negates the war on terror) and its incredibly fraught relationship with the office of the president. It is frankly unfair that a sports writer should also be this insightful about television. Watch this.

Twin Peaks: The Return: Part 9 — Exactly the episode that we needed after last episode’s abstract freakout. This is the most classically Twin Peaks this series has felt since it returned, mostly because it actually features people figuring things out instead of people treading water as more and more inexplicable things transpire around them. Don’t misunderstand me: I really like the show in the latter mode as well. But now that we’re in the back half of this season, I am ready for things to start coming together. Is it foolish to expect that between Gordon and his FBI cohorts, Truman and his Twin Peaks deputies, and the trio of clownlike Buckhorn detectives, we may have enough investigative advances at hand here to bring the Dougie Jones plotline to an end next week? Because I am still very much in need of Dale Cooper in this show.

Movies

Spider-Man: Homecoming — Third time’s a charm. I grew up a Spider-Man fan, but my enthusiasm for the character flagged with each passing cinematic adaptation. I am far less fond of Sam Raimi’s trilogy (yes, even the second one) than most, and the Andrew Garfield franchise was DOA. But this! Oh, this! This movie is light on its feet! And it’s completely lacking in the ostentatious moralizing that defined previous incarnations! Tom Holland’s Peter Parker is every inch the clever misfit I want Spider-Man to be. The opening sequence of the movie, in which he excitedly vlogs his way through his initial encounter with the Avengers in Civil War, sets the tone of ecstatic joy that the bulk of the movie traffics in. This is what I’ve been missing in superhero movies. Even the last Guardians of the Galaxy sidelined its comic lead in a misbegotten daddy problems plot. (The closest we get to that here is in a plotline with Tony Stark, and frankly it’s him who’s got the daddy problems.) This movie just allows Peter Parker to be a goofy kid trying to get a date while also trying to save the day. Classic Spider-Man. Moreover, the stakes aren’t at the permanently escalating heights of the Avengers movies: this is primarily a movie about your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. He negotiates curfews with his super cool Aunt May. (Casting Marissa Tomei was a masterstroke: she’s the last person you’d expect to play that role, which revitalizes it completely.) He helps an old woman and gets a churro for his troubles. He raises the ire of a housing block by setting off a car alarm. I love all of this. And I really love the film’s brief excursion into the suburbs, which are not Spider-Man’s natural habitat. The film’s weak moments are its huge action setpieces, which feel like they could come from any other Marvel movie with any other combination of heroes and villains. But these are refreshingly far apart, and they’re enlivened by a Michael Keaton performance by Michael Keaton who continues to play wingèd super persons, even after having parodied himself for doing just that. Having the villain of the first movie for this Spider-Man be small potatoes like Vulcan was a great call. It further localizes Spider-Man as a non-international superhero, and a street level personality, without the gigantic platforms of a Tony Stark or a Steve Rogers. But as fun as Keaton and Tomei are, Homecoming’s best supporting performances come from its ensemble of convincingly teenage teenagers, from Peter’s crush Liz, the classic overachieving senior, to his would-be tormentor Flash (played by Tony Revolori; I kept hoping he’d get captured so I could shout “GET YOUR HANDS OFF MY LOBBY BOY!”). The movie’s absolute MVP is Jacob Batalon as Peter’s best friend Ned. This guy is so exactly the guy who should be Peter Parker’s best friend that I can’t believe anybody ever thought James Franco fit-for-purpose. I really hope Ned doesn’t turn out to be the Hobgoblin. There are too many delightful moments in this to get to. I haven’t mentioned Donald Glover, who plays straightman to Holland in one of the film’s funniest scenes. I haven’t mentioned Peter’s rapport with the strangely empathetic yet bloodthirsty AI who talks to him in his suit. All of it is good. This is now tied with Civil War for the title of my favourite Marvel movie. I still resent universes and franchise juggernauts, but every so often Marvel makes a movie good enough to make me forget about that.

Wonder Woman — Now that awkward moment after giving a great review to the SIXTH Spider-Man movie where you admit to having mixed feelings about the ONLY major superhero movie with a female protagonist. My general thoughts are that Wonder Woman is fantastic, Gal Gadot is fantastic, and the movie’s take on the character is solid. It makes her comical without undermining her power, and powerful without being stolid and bland like the other DC heroes are these days. But I wasn’t a big fan of the straightforward punch-em-up war movie that she finds herself in here. The third act is particularly bland. But fuck my opinion. This is utterly necessary. The acclaimed no-man’s land sequence is pretty magnificent, and should become a cultural touchstone, at least until we get a better Wonder Woman movie, which I trust we will.

Music

John Luther Adams/The Crossing: Canticles of the Holy Wind — Another lovely offering from new music’s poet of the elements. Though this choral piece is not entirely original — some of the best moments are also present in his wonderful piece for strings, Canticles of the Sky — it feels like a new direction for Adams, whose music does not generally revolve around voices. However, with the new national prominence of The Crossing, the extraordinary Philadelphia chamber choir who astonished even more thoroughly on Ted Hearne’s record from earlier this year, he’s got access to an ensemble with the chops for his often sustained and minimal music. But the choral medium alone isn’t the only new innovation here. Adams also takes advantage of the extraordinary voices at his disposal to write music that relies on the play of birdsong against silence. I’m not sure there’s anything else in Adams’ recent oeuvre that is as staccato and abrupt as “Cadenza of the Mockingbird,” nor can I think of anything he’s written that requires the same level of ostentatious virtuosity from the musicians. That said, it isn’t a highlight of the work. High voices imitating birds wears out its welcome more quickly than Adams thinks. And there are other weak points: “The Singing Tree,” with its ceaseless triangle tinkling crosses the line from a genuine conjuration of the majesty of nature to nature boy drum circle nonsense. My impression of this might change with repeated listens, but I generally come to Adams for music of peace and majesty (The Light that Fills the World for the former, the world-destroying magnificence of Become Ocean for the latter). Canticles of the Holy Wind presents a picture of nature not only in all its majesty, but also all its banality. This is a worthwhile thing to do, especially with access to as versatile an ensemble as The Crossing. But it makes for a rougher listen than some of Adams’ other music. Still, there is much to marvel at here, and I far prefer it to 2015’s percussion music recording with Glenn Kotche.

Offa Rex: The Queen of Hearts — This is as great as I’d hoped, though to be fair, the feature episode of All Songs Considered on this from a while ago dropped enough hints at its greatness that it was a relatively sure bet. I likely wouldn’t have listened to this if not for the Decemberists’ involvement, but it is much more Olivia Chaney’s album than it is theirs. Mind you, they sound great, and the notion that they’d be involved in an English folk revival… revival album is entirely in character. But I challenge you to not get a bit miffed when Colin Meloy starts singing on the his two vocal features. Chaney’s voice is an incredible instrument, but better still she knows what to do with it. On the title track, listen to how she gradually sings more and more with the lead guitar throughout the song, eventually harmonizing with it. And the best track has no Decemberists on it at all, as far as I can tell: Chaney’s harmonium-adorned rendition of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” Say what you like about the Roberta Flack version, and there is much good to be said. But Chaney’s version strips everything about the song, including the chord progression, down to the most basic possible version of itself. And the way she delivers the melismas at the ends of the lines is just chilling. At the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s “Sheepcrook and Black Dog,” which is the album’s best evocation of the more rock and roll side of the English folk revival. It even gestures towards Jethro Tull at times: shades of “No Lullaby” and “Velvet Green.” I’m still waiting for somebody to write something detailed about the provenance of each of these songs. I’d really like to do a deep dive into this, and listen to some of the 60s and 70s recordings of these, as well as earlier acoustic versions, if they exist. But some are obvious. For now I’m going to listen to “The Old Churchyard” again. One of my favourite albums of the year.

Steeleye Span: Hark! The Village Wait — Is it wrong to like this more than Liege and Lief? Because on first listen, I do. “The Dark-Eyed Sailor” and “Lowlands of Highland” are particularly attractive. It’s just old folk songs performed well, with electric instrumentation. It’s sort of undeniable. I can feel myself sinking into a British folk rock phase. Thanks, Offa Rex.

Games

The Dream Machine: Chapter 1 — I realized recently that the sixth and final chapter of this magnificent game came out two months ago! How did I not hear? In any case, it’s been long enough since I’ve played this that I think it’s wise for me to play it from the beginning again, which will be a pleasure anyway. I’m going to take this one chapter at a time, like I did with Kentucky Route Zero when the most recent episode of that came out. The first chapter of The Dream Machine isn’t really demonstrative of what’s great about it: it doesn’t really come alive until you encounter the dream machine itself. But its visual aesthetic is instantly impressive — the headline for The Dream Machine is that it’s a handmade point-and-click adventure game, where every image is constructed from cardboard, clay and found objects. That is astonishing in itself, though the built environments are better in episodes that aren’t so tied to the apartment complex that is the game’s primary setting. But visuals aside, on a second playthrough, it’s really clever how this episode plants seeds of the themes to come throughout its relatively simple story. Starting the game in a dream is an obvious, but profitable choice. Firstly, it establishes what the game’s primary modus operandi: namely, cardboard and clay constructions of dreams. Secondly, it offers a crash course in the psychology of our protagonist, Victor. Should you allow the conversation to drift in a particular direction, Victor’s wife Alicia will be kind enough to do the armchair psychoanalysis for you. Victor’s dream of a desert island is an escapist fantasy that allows him to get away from his doubts about the new life he’s about to embark upon in a new apartment with his expectant wife and regress to a situation where his own self is the most important thing in his world. And indeed, there are plenty of indications throughout this chapter that Victor Neff is a bit of a man-child, from his self-assurances that he’ll start up his music career again once the apartment is set up to the ever-present conversation options that imply he can sometimes be a bit of a selfish jerk to Alicia. This is very clever exposition, since The Dream Machine is shaping up to be a sort of delayed coming-of-age story for Victor. (Bear in mind that I’m yet to play the final chapter.) He’ll be spending subsequent chapters tramping through other people’s subconsciouses (including Alicia’s, which is teased in this chapter), which is as direct a way to learn empathy as exists. That’s what I love most about The Dream Machine: it doesn’t just contrive a roughshod frame narrative as an excuse to make you solve puzzles inside of dream worlds, it actually works as an arc for its protagonist as well. Throughout The Dream Machine, Victor finds the tools to get out of his own head by literally getting inside the heads of others. Having not played the final chapter yet, I can only conjecture, but I assume this will assuage some of his fears and doubts about starting a family. The appeal of this is coming back quickly. A couple of additional observations: another theme that first emerges near the end of this chapter is voyeurism. (The game’s tagline positions this front-and-centre: “an award-winning game about dreams and voyeurism.”) Alicia thought the camera above the bed was creepy. Just wait. Also, the dream sequence at the start of this is my first bit of evidence for a personal crackpot theory: that The Dream Machine is a long and detailed enactment of the Brian Eno song “On Some Faraway Beach.” I’ll develop this theory in later reviews, as I gather more evidence. But to start, I’ll just point out that the song is a work of deliberate escapism to a place where there are no other human souls around to care for or to rely on. And I’ll also mention that the devs confirmed their Eno fandom to me on Twitter. So that’s a start.

The Dream Machine: Chapter 2 — This is where things really get going. Mr. Morton’s dream is the first proper one in the game, but nonetheless one of the most abstract. Where subsequent dream sequences will convey something close to a possible physical space (though Edie’s dream deconstructs this observation and Willard’s contradicts it entirely), Morton’s takes place in an abstract world seemingly constructed entirely of the anxieties and traumas brought upon him by a lineage of flawed and obsessive forebears. We meet the three previous male members of the Morton lineage as huge stone heads, and we learn about their relationships to each other. We learn that our Mr. Morton was coddled by a sympathetic father as an antidote to the abuse he received from his grandfather. Victor doesn’t even know what’s going on yet and already the dream machine is teaching him about parenting. This theme will become less explicit in future episodes, but it behooves the game to lay its cards out at this early stage. In terms of gameplay, this is also where we get our first substantial puzzles, with the dream journal sequence, getting each statue to talk, and finding Mr. Morton. From the start, I thought that this game had some of the best puzzles I’ve ever encountered, if only because they are fair. A moderately skilled puzzle solver won’t get stuck very much in The Dream Machine, which is good, but the puzzles still require you to observe closely and think through possibilities. (I recall chapter five’s puzzles being several levels harder, but we’ll get there.) The only problem I had with the puzzles in this chapter, this time, was that it took me a while to realize (indeed, remember) that there were hatches on the sides of the statues. They’re hard to see, and it always sucks when your failure results from a design element being virtually invisible. But it’s a vanishingly minor quibble, and honestly, the meat of the game doesn’t really start until the next chapter. The first two chapters are thematic and narrative exposition and throat clearing. They’re wonderful, but the best is yet to come. Now, what you all came for: more evidence for my theory that this entire game is actually about the Brian Eno song “On Some Faraway Beach.” Only one piece this time, but it’s the first substantial one: the title of the song — phrased exactly that way, with the word “some” rather that “a” or whatever other article — is one of the key repeating phrases in Morton’s dream journals. This isn’t the last time it’ll be namechecked in the game. But, as I implied in the chapter one review, the game and the song do have a compelling thematic link. “Given the chance,” sings Eno, “I’ll die like a baby on some faraway beach.” This is Victor’s attitude at the start of the game: jealous of his unborn child, and wishing to revert back to a pre-adult state. I also see a hint of Mr. Morton in some subsequent lyrics: “Unlikely I’ll be remembered/as the tide brushes sand in my eyes I’ll drift away.” Morton was thrust into his family’s legacy from early childhood, against his will. Even in old age, he still was unable to come to terms with that legacy, or the extent to which it had eaten up his life. Morton dies childless, breaking the cycle and providing a useful negative role model for Victor. And Morton’s final wish is for his life’s work, and his family’s, to be destroyed. Better to be forgotten than to be remembered for something hideous.

The Dream Machine: Chapter 3 — I am remembering now that this is my least-favourite episode of The Dream Machine, though it is still, on balance, excellent. This is the episode where the puzzle structure is most obvious: complete three tasks for three different people, then complete three more tasks for those same three people to get to the endgame… the wires are on display here a little more than in other episodes. Plus, it contains fewer areas to explore than other chapters. But the puzzles themselves are delightful and the premise of the episode is solid. Here, Victor finds himself inside his wife’s recurring dream — and face to face with a gaggle of clones of himself, each of them one of Alicia’s subconscious impressions of a facet of Victor’s personality. In spite of the fact that nearly all of the characters in this chapter are clones of the player character, they’ve all been given different postures to reflect their different personalities. The dreamer’s resting position is looking up at the sky. The pompous one has his arms behind his back at all times. The player character just keeps slouching his way through the game. It’s the small details that make this game great. I especially love it once it turns into a detective story. Investigating Victor Eleven’s disappearance is a great opportunity for the writers to show different elements of the same story through the voices of very different characters. The conspiratorial busboy is the highlight of the episode, for me. You can tell from the way that others talk about him that he’s the sort of guy who’s always got a conspiracy theory, but it just so happens that this time he’s right. Psychoanalytically, this is a harder one to parse than the first two episodes. But I think my central contention that this game is about a man learning empathy pulls through, here. This is literally a case of Victor seeing himself as somebody else sees him. Fortunately for his ego, the person whose eyes he’s seeing through is somebody who loves him, and who also knows him well enough to know that he contains multitudes: hundreds of Victors who vary from moment to moment in intelligence, self-sufficiency, leadership, and the propensity for ambition, pretension, paranoia and good humour. Another person’s dream of Victor might have been more disillusioning. Also, boy, does this ever get creepy at the end. This is The Dream Machine’s equivalent of the mid-album slump, but we’re right on the precipice of some of my favourite moments in any adventure game. If memory serves, Chapter Four made me all verklempt last time. Alas, no further evidence for my crackpot Brian Eno theory in this one. Will report back.

The Dream Machine: Chapter 4 — This isn’t the most formally inventive chapter of The Dream Machine; that’s chapter five (bearing in mind that I still haven’t played the final chapter). But it may be my favourite. This is the point where the segments between dream sequences start to really work. The sequence of puzzles that allows you into Edie’s dream is ingenious, and by far the hardest thing in the game so far. It took me ages to figure out the first time. But as with the previous two chapters, the main event is the dream sequence itself. Edie’s dream is my favourite in the game’s first five chapters. The kind old lady’s mind, as Mr. Morton tells us in chapter one, is not as sharp as it once was. And indeed, her memories are literally fraying around the edges. The people she once knew, and the person she once was, are aloof spectres in her subconscious. The fragility and mutability of the dream is moving in itself, but it’s made deeper by what we learn about Edie’s life from the tableaus that we see in each room of her dream apartment. And again, the focus is on family. Edie spent her younger years in a not entirely happy marriage with a very pious man. Her husband, whoever he was — his dream self is a fading cipher from Edie’s past — has parental issues to match Mr. Morton’s. The bulk of this dream deals with the end of life and the death of Edie’s mother-in-law, a stern and ruthless figure who haunts her so much that the dream machine takes on her form. The most telling moment occurs in the bathroom of the dream apartment, which Edie’s subconscious has repurposed as a memorial for two late family members: Edie’s mother-in-law, and her child, who presumably died in infancy. When you shoehorn Edie’s younger, spectral self into this room along with the ghost of the mother-in-law, they stand together by the child’s grave. And the latter says “Sin brings forth death.” Which is, just, an incredibly shitty and unkind thing to say. And it’s the kind of thing that sticks with you, because it prompts guilt. And, in one of the game’s very best images, we see that Edie’s elderly self is tethered to her memories by the image of her mother-in-law. So, if it’s guilt and regret that are keeping her in this decaying, dilapidated mental space, perhaps it is best to let go. The ending of chapter four is the most affecting moment in the first five chapters of The Dream Machine, because it finds Edie drifting away from her memory palace, presumably losing that part of herself forever — but also losing the trauma that comes with those memories. It is perhaps the most gentle and loving portrayal of a person with dementia I’ve seen in a work of fiction. And as with everything in The Dream Machine, it has profound emotional consequences for Victor. His final exchange with Edie is the closest thing he has to a specific moment of epiphany. He realizes, with Edie’s help, that he’s doing something extraordinary for the sake of his family. It isn’t just the implicit nature of dreams that’s helping Victor to accept the forthcoming new phase of his life as a father, it is also the explicit threat that the machine poses to his family. This is the moment when all of Victor’s character development in the first three episodes comes to a head. For the first time he realizes consciously that something has changed inside him. And the fact that this change is finally expressed among the detritus of Edie’s regrets — all of which are risks for Victor: the risk of a child’s death, of a failed marriage, and of not escaping your own lineage — just heightens the effect. And Edie caps it all off with yet another explicit Brian Eno reference: “We’re just sandcastles, Victor. I’m sure some part of me will reform on some faraway beach somewhere down the line. Perhaps we’ll meet again there.” Edie, in the end, is alone. Her bridge club can hardly substitute for the relationships that, for better or worse, defined her earlier life. Victor started this story dreaming of some faraway beach where he could be alone and life could be simple. Now, with Edie’s bittersweet farewell, he sees the lonely side of that fantasy and he’s ready to return to reality. If memory serves, chapter five is less explicitly concerned with Victor’s character arc, which is fine. Putting this crucial moment at the end of chapter four allows the devs one episode to just indulge in some intense formalism before getting back to the story’s main thrust. But unless chapter six unseats it, this right here is the defining chapter of The Dream Machine.

Podcasts

All Songs Considered: “New Mix: St. Vincent, Mogwai, Benjamin Clementine, My Bubba, More” — This finds Bob Boilen in a distractingly mellow mood, frankly. I’m all for chill, but Boilen’s side of this mix is very very chill. I came to hear the new St. Vincent song, which is very lovely but doesn’t really offer any insights about what a hypothetical forthcoming St. Vincent album might sound like. The standout here, if only for its total commitment to its own weirdness, is the Benjamin Clementine track. I didn’t know this guy, and I can’t say I’m entirely sold on the basis of the track they played here — it’s really overwrought, though possibly intentionally so. But it is definitely not like anything else, and considering that my favourite music from last year included John Congleton and Let’s Eat Grandma, I’m sort of starving for that right now.

The Daily: July 11-12 — I have been meaning to check out this new trend of daily news podcasts for a while, and this seemed to be the one. NPR’s entry into the budding canon sounds like a newscast, which is not a thing I like or see the point of. And I’m aware of The Outline World Dispatch. I may in fact have neglected to review an episode or two of it, but I am generally fond of it. However, the New York Times’ rendition of this evolving new form is the clear current gold standard. Michael Barbaro is a personable and smart host, and the one-two story format serves the listener well. The two episodes I heard this week dealt with the Donald Trump Jr. emails, and was a great way to get my head around that story. There is an element of “behind the story” to Barbaro’s approach here, which is welcome given the extent to which the Times is a major player in the way that events have transpired with this. Other stories about the devastation of Mosul and the reintegration of thousands of rebel fighters into Colombian society make it reassuringly clear to me that this is not going to be all Trump all the time, or even all American federal politics all the time. And thank god, because there’s a whole world out there. This is one of the great innovations in the recent history of podcasts, and shame on the world’s public broadcasters for letting a newspaper perfect it first.

Love and Radio: “The Boys Will Work It Out” — WOW this is something. Our main character is a prolific author of Lord of the Rings slashfic and an enthusiastic sexual roleplayer as Elijah Wood. Through the magic of radio, we’re even treated to an enactment of one of those fantasies with Elijah Wood and Dominic Monaghan soundalikes. Listen advisedly.  

StartUp: “Building the Perfect Cup of Coffee” — Worth listening to for the delight of hearing a cup of coffee described as “plump without being… portly.” But man, has this season of StartUp ever evaporated on impact. This is one of the shows that kicked my obsession with podcasts into high gear. First there was Radiolab and 99pi, then there was season one of StartUp. Amidst that company, Serial doesn’t even register. The thrill of listening to Gimlet coalesce in real time was and is one of the glories of the medium. And I enthusiastically stayed onboard for season two, the Dating Ring season, which I idiosyncratically consider season one’s equal. Season three’s non-serialized format didn’t do much for me, but Lisa Chow brought the show back in magnificent fashion for season four, the story of the fall and rise of Dov Charney. The lesson here ought to be that this show is best when it’s serialized, and particularly good when it’s serialized in real time. I’d gladly listen to another season in the vein of season two, about a company that is in the midst of its startup struggles. But failing that, I think I might have to reduce this show to sometimes food status.

Criminal: “The Procedure” — A marvellous entry in the “crimes of conscience” category of Criminal episodes. This is about a network of clergy who would help women safely get abortions in places where they were illegal. Wonderful stuff.

The Sporkful: “Why Lefties Buy Less Soup” — Aww, I thought it was going to be about why liberals buy less soup. That would have been interesting. Still, a fun episode, though I remember most of this from the introduction of The Flavor Bible, which posits that flavour is the result of a confluence of factors above and beyond mere taste. Visual stimuli and social context, just to give two examples, also affect your experience of food. Also I am SO HAPPY to hear that Dan Pashman favours the inside-out pizza folding technique. I do this as well, and it is so good that I feel like I am constantly surrounded by idiots: outside-in folding assholes who are just rubbing bread all over their tastebuds instead of the delicious cheese and sauce alternative that’s RIGHT THERE on the other side of the slice. THANK YOU, Dan.

Home of the Brave: “The Continental Divide, Part Two” — I am so conflicted about these “talking to Trump voters” stories. On the one hand, you can trust Scott Carrier not to be condescending or self-abnegating, both of which are death in these contexts. But even if the conversations are civil, which these are, how do you make headway with a person who constructs reality in a way that’s entirely different from you? On one hand, I can accept that a guy who’s been involved in fracking for decades knows more about it than I do. Much more. But I’m also inherently suspicious of that person’s perspective, because the practice is normalized for him. I know this territory very well, given that I am a current, self-identified coastal elite who nonetheless grew up in a blue-collar oil town where everybody is delusional about climate change. Where I grew up, the notion that the Alberta oil sands are somehow sinister is laughable. It’s not because anybody especially takes pride in the industry — though in these divided times, that pride appears to be taking root retroactively, as a defense mechanism. It’s because the oil sands are normal. When I talk about the negative impact of the oil industry with friends and family from Fort McMurray, I may as well be telling them that shoes are evil, because the collective impact of all our human stomping is making the earth uninhabitably small. Global shrinking. It’s a ridiculous notion because shoes are too normal to be harmful. I’m getting off topic. My point is that Carrier is right to think that the two sides of divided America need to be able to talk to each other, but I don’t actually know what he or I is supposed to learn from that exchange. Ultimately I still think that systematic learning and teaching that can be expressed in statistics, research and reasoned argument in both academic and media spheres is the way to draw conclusions about the world. And the fact that at least two of the people Carrier interviewed expressed doubts about the value of education relative to the value of their specific lived experiences makes me crazy. Anecdotal experiences are valuable, but if you shape your worldview around them in opposition to the best available information (which happens every time poverty comes up in this program), you’re just wrong. And I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with that.

The Heart: “People Who Need People” — Lovely. This rerun is The Heart at its simplest: a relationship forms in the crucible of a difficult moment of somebody’s life. That’s the whole of it. But it’s worth revisiting in light of recent events in the characters’ lives.

The Turnaround: Episodes 2-6 — Okay, I’ve fallen into this in a big way. In spite of my previously-stated doubts about the necessity for so many interviews of artists in the world, I do think interviewing in general is an absolutely fascinating craft, and this is the deepest dive into it that I’ve heard, though Longform is often about interviewing also. Let’s take these one at a time. Susan Orlean’s interview is most notable because she’s so completely different from Jesse Thorn in the product she’s trying to make. She can go down rabbit holes with very little hope of getting anything useable because ultimately interviewing is an exploratory process for her. She’s learning what the story is as she goes. The Marc Maron episode is one of the highlights for basically the opposite reason: he’s probably the closest of all of the interview subjects so far to Thorn’s method. And this actually made me realize that Maron has a way of getting around the arts interview pitfall that I identified in my last post on this show (i.e. that there’s no way for the journalist’s insight to factor into an interview without making the guest superfluous). Maron goes into every interview with an idea of why people are the way they are and why they do what they do. And in the interview, he takes the opportunity to present an artist with his impression of them and have them either confirm or deny it. Or, more likely, just to complicate and deepen it. It’s a way he has to get past the branding. That’s valuable, and I guess it’s what makes Maron my favourite interviewer of artists. Audie Cornish is probably the guest on this program whose work I am least familiar with (Pop Culture Happy Hour notwithstanding), just because I’m Canadian and we have our own daily news programs up here. But her episode is the highlight of The Turnaround so far. It gets a bit contentious when Thorn presses her on the supposed dispassionate delivery of NPR hosts, and she kind of schools him. It obviously affected Thorn’s thinking profoundly, because he brings up that moment in nearly all of the other interviews. The Larry King episode is the least valuable, partially because he’s the worst interviewer on the show and partially because Thorn lets him get sidetracked from the topic of interviewing. But, I mean, he’s Larry King. What are you going to do? And then there’s Brooke Gladstone, who is simply the most valuable person in the entire American media. Hearing her talk extemporaneously is incredible because she is preternaturally gifted with the ability to put complicated ideas in a logical sequence. It’s really similar to listening to Reza Aslan talk. The only reason it’s not the best episode of the show is that she did a longer interview on Longform a while back that covers some of the same ground. The Turnaround is some of the most fascinating radio of the year. Can’t wait for the rest of it. Pick of the week.

WTF with Marc Maron: “GLOW Writers & Creators” — A nice nuts and bolts process sort of interview with some folks Maron worked with on GLOW. I haven’t really had room for TV binges in my media consumption schedule lately, but once I do this will be among the top priorities.

99% Invisible: “Repackaging the Pill” — A design story that is also about undermining the paternalism of the mid-20th-century medical profession. Nice stuff.

Reply All: “Minka” — Sruthi Pinnamaneni is so valuable on this show, which is very silly very often. It’s always refreshing to have her come in and do a real, reported story about something very consequential — in this case, nursing homes and how terrible they are.   

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Spider-Man: Homecoming and Tour de Pharmacy” — I am so onboard with Audie Cornish when she says she’d trade this incarnation of Spider-Man for the Tobey Maguire movies. Also man oh man, you can pretty much be certain that when Andy Samberg does something, this show will make note of it. Maybe it just seems that way. But if they talk about a comedy, there’s a pretty solid chance it’ll either involve Samberg or Paul Feig. That probably says more about the world than about this show.

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: “Presidential Immunity” — Oh man, I guess it might be impossible to sue the president. That sounds really bad and I hope it doesn’t stay that way.

Judge John Hodgman: “Live in Chicago at Very Very Fun Day 2017” — The couple at the centre of the main case here didn’t turn out to be the best: one has a tendency to show instead of tell, which works for the live audience, but not the podcast audience. And the other is a jerk. The swift justice segment is better.

Imaginary Worlds: “The Book of Dune” — I never really got Dune. I recall having read it the summer that I read 20 novels at my boring summer job. And I just found it a bit of a slog. (I also ready Paradise Lost twice that summer, so, one man’s trash etc.) But I never stopped to think about the influence of real-world religions, and especially Islam, on the text. I wouldn’t have known enough to notice it. So, this is a fun crash course in Frank Herbert’s relationship with Islam, including a discussion of its classic “white saviour” narrative. I wonder how (and if) Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation will reckon with that? Maybe by not casting a white person as Paul? I’m not even sure that would be enough, since it’s still a story about a high-born outsider saving a marginalized people. I guess we’ll see. Anyway, it’s bound to be an improvement on the available adaptations. I don’t think I ever actually finished the TV series, and the David Lynch movie is infamous. (Personally, I think it has its charms, but it’s been a while so maybe it’s worse than I remember.) In general, I’m inclined to believe that the best version of Dune is the one that exists inside of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s head. And even that is almost certainly much better than the movie he would actually have made.

Ear Hustle: “Looking Out” — The warden is already my least favourite character. But hey, good on him for approving a story even though he thought it was bad. This is the lighter side of Ear Hustle, so far. But I guess that’s part of the prison experience too?

On The Media: “Three-Dimensional Chess” — Good decision to focus a large part of this episode on Raqqa and Mosul, in the week of the Don. Jr. email scandal. America is only part of the world.

Omnibus (week of July 2, 2017)

Greetings! Here’s the latest radio segment. I’m at 27:27. It didn’t occur to me until sometime after we’d taped it that a theme connecting the three things I talk about could be “uncharted territory” — both in the sense that all of these things come from media that I hadn’t covered on the show yet (movies, games and podcasts) and in the sense that each one of them deals with characters who are attempting the seemingly impossible. I dunno how I missed that. Anyway, it’s out there now.

29 reviews.

Live Events

The Winter’s Tale (Bard on the Beach) — Far and away the better of the two mainstage productions at Bard this year. This production has one big setpiece at the end of the first act, and aside from that they just do the play. Which is all I want out of life. The production itself doesn’t really have its own premise: it’s just sort of set in a pretty-looking, abstractly ahistorical Sicily and Bohemia. The story plays out of its own devices. The setpiece, by the way, is “exit, pursued by a bear.” Since this is the only Shakespeare play whose best-known quote is a stage direction, that moment has to pay off. We paid to see a bear, and a man exiting pursued by it. This production employs a wonderful and impressively large puppet for the bear. Aside from a couple of adorable, simpler, sheep puppets, that’s the only bit of complex stagecraft employed here. Lovely of director Dean Paul Gibson to just let the rest of the play exist. The Winter’s Tale is the first Shakespeare play I’ve seen on stage or film without having read the script first. Frankly, its unfamiliarity to all but the most enthusiastic Shakespeareans is probably part of what makes The Winter’s Tale easy to stage straightforwardly. Save for the bear, there are no memes in this play. No “to be or not to be,” or “double, double, toil and trouble,” or even “O, that way madness lies.” Nothing to emphasize or undercut, in anticipation of the audience’s familiarity. I feel like this was a good introduction to the play, and I enjoyed the story quite a lot in spite of certain structural oddities. Namely, the first half of this is straightforwardly a tragedy and the second half is straightforwardly a comedy. The comedic half took the edge in this production because Bard’s company has an excellent roster of clowns, with Ben Elliot especially standing out as Autolycus the pickpocket. But the first half packed enough clout that by the end of the play, I hadn’t forgotten the tragedies that befell the characters in the early story. So, when the story ends on the note of “a sad tale’s best for winter” — which a casual perusal of the script just now finds not to be the case in Shakespeare’s original — it feels like an earned moment. I totally enjoyed this. Now to read the play.

Movies

The Beguiled — So far, this is second only to Get Out in my personal 2017 movie sweepstakes. Sofia Coppola’s rethink of an evidently somewhat dated Clint Eastwood vehicle from the ‘70s is a brilliantly twisted exploration of what happens when toxic masculinity meets the more discreet consequences of patriarchy. But that makes it sound deathly boring, which it isn’t. Rather, it’s a tense and thrilling coiled snake of a movie with uniformly wonderful performances and some of the most beautifully composed shots outside of Wes Anderson’s filmography. The premise is simple: a seminary school full of women loyal to the south is shaken by the arrival of a rather dashing but grievously injured Union soldier at their doorstep. Nicole Kidman particularly stands out as the matriarch of the seminary: the decision maker who is wise enough to be slightly more resistant to the northerner’s charms than her younger charges, but who is nonetheless afflicted with the loneliness of war. But Colin Farrell is a match for her. He never allows his charming soldier character to seem like a deliberate temptor or sly devil. Rather, he behaves politely and graciously, and efficiently manipulates each of the women around him differently. Coppola’s best decision in the whole movie is to never have the camera cast suspicion on Farrell, nor to allow his performance to attract suspicion intentionally. Instead, a sceptical audience will come to distrust him simply because of the fraught nature of this setup. And then, about halfway through, when a cataclysmic event changes the movie drastically, we’re made to think differently of him once again. Never once does the movie lose sight of the fact that this man has just come from a brutal, traumatizing war. And never once does it lose sight of the fact that the women in it are deeply subject to social iniquity. The exploration of the resulting power dynamic in the film’s third act is totally riveting. And it contains maybe the single most jaw-dropping smash cut to black since The SopranosPick of the week.

Music

Fairport Convention: Liege & Lief — I’ve been really enjoying the tracks from the upcoming Olivia Chaney/Decemberists collaboration, which have been slowly coming out over the past months. (The record is due out this week.) So I figured I should finally get informed about the British folk revival that inspired it and the bulk of the Decemberists catalogue. I’ve been aware of Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, the Pentangle and all the rest of them for ages, largely because Jethro Tull flitted on the edges of that scene. And I’ve heard assorted songs of all of these bands. But never a full album, that I can remember. So, Liege & Lief, the most acclaimed of the bunch. I have to say I’m underwhelmed. There’s a lot of great stuff on this, but there’s nothing that reaches out and grabs me the way that the tracks from the Offa Rex record have, or even the way that the select tracks from the Pentangle have. This is a clear case where I need to hear more of this sort of thing before I can really appreciate this album specifically. So, I’ll do that, and report back then.

Literature, etc.

John Hermann: “Why the Far Right Wants to be the New ‘Alternative’ Culture” — A persuasive though fairly basic account of the appeal of the specious “alternative” label to Trump supporters and assorted Nazis, from my favourite analyst of the internet. Hermann has toned his voice down since moving from the Awl to the Times, but he’s still always worth reading.

Jorge Luis Borges: “A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain” — Much like “The Approach to Al Mu’tasim,” this is a quite simple iteration of Borges’s central notion that a story can entail an essay about fictional books. One of the things that I love most about him is that he knows his strengths and he knows his voice. Borges is a genius for premises, but he knows that if he were to actually try and write any of the books he describes here, they would be subject to the same muted and occasionally negative criticisms that he levels on them. Far better to simply state the premises outright. If the central idea is the whole point, why belabour it?

James Errington: Centuries of Sound — Errington’s blog was featured on the A.V. Club this week, and I’m delighted by this. It feels like old school, pre-social internet fare, except with impressive professionalism. Basically, Errington is making a mixtape for every year of recorded sound. He’s in the nearly prehistoric phase of the project at the moment, dealing with Edison phonographs and all that. But he started out with a two-hour mix of music and sound from 2016 as a proof-of-concept, and boy what a thing it is. If you care to relive the trauma of that year, with a newfound awareness of just how inseparable from that context all of the music is, I highly recommend it. I’ll be making an effort to catch up on this so that I can follow Errington’s progress as he goes along.

Harold Bloom: Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human — I revisit this every time I partake in a new Shakespeare play. Or so I thought, but as it turns out I never read the entry on Cymbeline, which I rectified this week before turning to his chapter on The Winter’s Tale, which is genuinely new to me. Bloom’s take on modern literary criticism and theatre has its obvious problems, but I am an absolute sucker for his readings of the texts themselves, and particularly of the way he never fails to see the whole future of culture in Shakespeare. He even manages to hear a magnificent insight in the mouth of one of Cymbeline’s least memorable characters: “Through Posthumus, I hear Shakespeare observing that the action of our lives is lived for us, and that the desperate best we can do is to accept (“keep”) what happens as if we performed it, if but for ironic sympathy with ourselves. It is another of those uncanny recognitions in which Shakespeare is already beyond Nietzsche.” I’m also quite amused by Bloom’s suggestion that the openly comical second half of The Winter’s Tale was designed specifically to infuriate the trite moralizer Ben Johnson. Indeed Bloom, usually a deeply melancholy critic, never seems happier than when he’s writing about the great knave of The Winter’s Tale, Autolycus. I’ve now read enough Bloom that I’ve started to regard him as a literary character, and though he is a problematical one (to borrow his preferred form of that word), I seem to wish him happiness nonetheless. I continue to stubbornly find him essential reading on Shakespeare.

Alex Ross: “The Occult Roots of Modernism” — “As an orchestra plays Wagner, the women fall to worshipping a giant phallus.” Man oh man, there was something in the water in the late 19th century. This is a wonderful feature about Joséphin Péladan, the occult lunatic/charlatan who took Paris by storm and inspired and collaborated with artists from Eric Satie to Ferdinand Hodler. He also wrote novels, one of which contains the scenario quoted above. Ross’s feature is a great reminder that beneath the supposed rationality and distance of the modernists there lay an irreducible weirdness of a spiritual sort. I’m particularly gratified to see Ross contextualize Schoenberg in this light. People often characterize him as a chilly mathematician, at least after he abandoned his passionate atonal idiom for the twelve-tone method. But numbers meant something different to Schoenberg than they do to the rest of us: he was a devotee of Kabbalistic number symbolism. It’s that sort of thing that fascinates me so much about the art of this period.

Games

King of Dragon Pass — Okay, I’m done my first playthrough. It ended badly. And, more out of frustration than disappointment, I think I may not return to this. Given that the game is almost entirely text-based, I thought I could expect something substantially more story driven than this actually is. The truth is that it’s much more a simulation/resource management game than an interactive story. There is a story, of course, and there are even characters who behave consistently. But in general, the choices you make are not a matter of where you want the narrative to go, but rather what’s best to stay afloat. Contrast this with Sunless Sea, for which this is a clear forerunner. In Sunless Sea, there are storylines to pursue, and these are fully integrated with the resource management and stat boosting tasks that are that game’s form of “progress.” And it goes without saying that Sunless Sea has better writing and worldbuilding, but credit where it’s due: King of Dragon Pass does a more than passable pulp fantasy novel impression. I realize that I frequently make this same perverse complaint, where I play a game and get frustrated by the “game” elements. This is why I suspect I’ll always feel like a tourist in this medium. It is not where I live. But that’s fine. Also, I think I got this for a dollar. So, no harm done. I hear The Dream Machine’s finally finished. That sounds like it’ll suit my mood a bit better.

Podcasts

The Truth/Theory of Everything: “Influencers” — The issue I often have with The Truth’s stories is that they’re just so on the nose. But Benjamen Walker’s particular kind of on the nose is a kind that I like a lot. This is a really fun story that touches not just on the president’s acrimony towards the media, but also on the ludicrousness of the idea that social follower counts connote influence. It’s also about the fact that the most well-intentioned in our society are often the least able to ascertain what’s really going on. A worthy crossover.

It’s Been A Minute: “They’re Still Here” — Two things can be true: Sam Sanders and his panelists are wonderful, and this show is overproduced. I don’t tune into podcasts for a parade of segments. I’m entirely comfortable with conversations dragging on a bit, but I’m not fond of the whiplash that the format introduces into this show. This is the point where I’ll duck out of this for a while and wait for it to find its footing. Still, it’s promising.

Arts and Ideas: “Canada 150: Sydney Newman and British TV; Vahni Capildeo; Shubbak Festival 2017” — This is well worthwhile for the Sydney Newman segment alone. What I love about this is that without necessarily meaning to, the BBC has broadcast the perfect Canadian arts story here. They’re probably just trying to localize Canada’s 150th as something with relevance to British audiences, so they chose a Canadian figure with a huge influence on British television. But what they’ve actually done is tell an iconically British story about the BBC itself that’s all about how an exodus of Canadian talent to the U.K. helped define British television, while completely impoverishing Canada itself of similar talent. The story of Sydney Newman is the story of the rise of British television and the perpetual shittiness of Canadian television. Happy Canada Day.

Reply All: “Friends and Blasphemers” — P.J. Vogt tells the story of how Russia killed LiveJournal, and Alex Goldman is mortified to reveal the writings of his 21-year-old self on that platform. Good thing I don’t ever write anything on the internet to be embarrassed of later.

Imaginary Worlds: “World War EVE” — This is a fun story about a world I knew nothing about. It also manages to say what’s specifically extraordinary about EVE as a virtual world, distinct from others like World of Warcraft. (I love the idea that EVE has a whole in-universe news reporting infrastructure.) Which is all to say that there’s just enough explanation in this for a neophyte. I’m consistently impressed by Eric Molinsky’s ability to walk this fine line. One of the key things that makes this show work is the extent to which he’s a curious semi-outsider to the cultures he explores. He assumes a position that isn’t so far outside of the culture that he’s required to offer condescending explanations, but he also manages not to alienate me by assuming a higher calibre of specialized geek knowledge than I have.  

Homecoming: “Season Two: Coming Soon” — “Hum three ascending notes into your phone” is what the first season of this was missing. Just, some weirdness to detract from the portentousness of it all. Also, Chris Gethard’s in it now. Looking forward.

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: “The Spending Clause” — One of the most consistently fascinating things about the history of law is how tiny, seemingly inane things have huge consequences later on. Like weak beer, for instance. This is good stuff.

On The Media: “The American people elected a fighter” — Sometimes the only thing that keeps me going through the news cycle of the Trump era is Bob Garfield’s essays about what a catastrophe it all is. This is a good one.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Pop Culture Summer Stories And ‘Playing House’” — The Playing House segment contains a frank discussion of these writers’ decision to deal with an illness that affected their lives in their show. That’s great, but the real reason to hear this is more live stuff. The summer stories segment features Glen Weldon at his most curmudgeonly and Stephen Thompson as his most adorable.

On The Media: “What Ails America” — This starts with a segment where Stephen Marche explains how Canada is better than the U.S. because we’re less patriotic up here. It’s a nice idea, and I’d certainly love to live in that version of Canada, but he’s wrong and we don’t. Canadian patriotism is a bit of a joke, sure. But it does exist. We don’t know what we’re celebrating, but we sure love to go through the motions. And since we’re so uncertain about what patriotism is supposed to look like, we look abroad (mostly south) for cues. And today, Canadian conservatives are gradually cottoning on to the Trump/UKIP/National Front model of patriotism, i.e. nativism. And yet we’re still getting this barrage of American stories about how this is not happening in Canada, when it is. Marche cites the gigantic defeat of Kellie Leitch in the Conservative leadership race as supporting evidence for his insufferable neoliberal smugness. But it’s not just Kellie Leitch up here. It’s Stephen Harper’s divisive campaign in the last election, it’s the clowns in Alberta’s Wildrose Party (and whatever they’re about to morph into), and it’s the Rebel: a Canadian version of Breitbart that has a small readership but that we should ignore at our peril. Canada is not a liberal paradise. It is slow-motion America. But it’s not Bob Garfield’s fault that he doesn’t know that; he doesn’t live here. I dunno what Marche’s excuse is.

StartUp: “Ask Alex” — This is most notable for featuring Alex Blumberg’s take on the upcoming ABC sitcom where he’ll be played by Zach Braff. Evidently, he and Gimlet have no input into this and will not see much money from it because they made a mistake that they’ll not be making again. Still, I can’t help but think he must be happy he can say he had no input. The trailer for Alex, Inc. looks absolutely dire. It looks like a gag gift somebody really rich made for Blumberg’s birthday.

Mogul: “Rice Pilaf” — The story of the signing of Warren G and the resulting confrontation between Chris Lighty and Suge Knight. Mogul is completely thrilling. I won’t describe this, I’ll just say go listen from the beginning. This is second only to S-Town in my 2017 podcast sweepstakes thus far. Pick of the week.

The Memory Palace: “The Taking of Tom Sawyer’s Island” — Nate DiMeo tells the story of a left-wing youth protest at Disneyland, and manages not to undermine their correctness when he points out that they were also ridiculous and willfully misunderstanding the point of Disneyland. He’s especially good at evoking both the wonder and the extreme creepiness of Disneyland itself. Lovely stuff.

The Turnaround: “Ira Glass” — This is Jesse Thorn interviewing Ira Glass about interviewing. That’s obviously going to be worthwhile for those of us interested in that craft. But there’s one especially great moment in it that got me thinking. Thorn and Glass are talking about Terry Gross, when Thorn accidentally draws the interview to a momentary halt by starting to exposit about something Glass said about Gross and how it reflects on his own practice on This American Life. Glass’s whole project, Thorn says, is trying to get his guests to offer examples. They’ll want to answer in an intellectual, theoretical way, and Glass tries to pull examples out of them so that what they say can fit as part of a story. Thorn finishes his analysis, and Glass is simply left with nothing to say. He comments, jokingly, that he has no illustrative example to give, because Thorn has just analyzed the situation with total accuracy and tied it up with a nice little bow. Thorn’s solo trip is possibly the closest that this episode gets to defining what’s great about This American Life. The rest of it is brilliant at exposing elements of how it is made, but that is a completely different question. And that leads me to a conclusion that I’ve been threatening to reach for some time: interviewing creative people is not actually a very good way to try and understand creative products. (I will henceforth use the term “art,” though I suspect Ira Glass would be uncomfortable hearing This American Life referred to as such. However, his role in this interview, as an “artist” who is creating something is exactly analogous to any interview with a songwriter, filmmaker, etc.) I am an arts journalist myself. I don’t do a lot of interviewing these days, but when I did I always found myself wanting to do the thing that Thorn does in this interview that leaves Glass with nothing more to say. If you’ve heard or seen a lot of a given artist’s work and you’re a reasonably clever interpreter of art, as anybody who gets a job as a radio host should be (and Thorn is), then you already know what the artist wants to communicate. The most valuable thing you can do, in my view, is to unspool the meaning that you derive from the art itself. Art is condensed meaning. A journalist’s job should be to un-condense it. As an interviewer you can ask an artist what they mean by their art, but they’re not obligated to tell you, nor are they guaranteed to even know. You can also just offer up your analysis freely during the course of the interviewer, but the only question that could really be leading towards is “do you agree with that?” which is not really a question at all. You’re plunging headlong towards that exact same moment Thorn had with Glass. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been faced with putting together an interview piece where the format precluded me from offering any insight of my own, even though the artist I interviewed had nothing to say. Granted, this is at least partially a result of me not being a very good interviewer. But in my defence, what interests me above all else is what art means. And I don’t think that the fact I can’t get at that in an interview is entirely my fault, because I’ve never heard anybody else do it either. I’ve heard plenty of great interviews that get into the process by which art is produced or the human stories that lead artists to make it. These are both much more suitable ground to cover in interviews. Song Exploder is the gold standard for process stories about art. And a number of interviewers including Marc Maron, Terry Gross and, yes, Jesse Thorn are very skilled at getting artists to talk about the lives that led them to make what they make. But those stories don’t get me any closer to understanding art: they make me understand people. They’re not arts stories, really; they’re just normal human interest stories. And honestly, I’m not convinced that famous artists are actually more interesting or better storytellers than any other random people. I’m not sure that WTF would be any worse a show if Maron just interviewed whoever happened to be walking past his garage instead of comics and musicians and the president. It would definitely be less popular. And that, ultimately, is what I suspect the real motive is for most arts journalists to want to do interviews rather than focussing on analysis: this is an industry that places the ultimate premium on the “get.” If you can have a big name on your show, or get a big profile in your magazine — maybe shoot a bit of video that’ll autoplay as people scroll down their feeds and pull in those coveted attention economy eyeballs — people will take notice. This is fine, but it doesn’t really contribute to the discourse in my view. And those interviews are boring as often as they’re exciting. This is why I sometimes skip ahead to the ending of episodes of Bullseye, the “Outshot” segment where Thorn just takes a moment to exposit on something he likes. These are always great because Thorn is clever and funny and has great taste, and I’d rather hear him be that way without anybody else in the room to distract from it. So yeah, this is probably a really idiosyncratic take, but I genuinely think we should have fewer arts interviews in the world. I don’t mean to denigrate the entire practice, because as I’ve said I find some value in much of it. (And yes, I’m acutely aware that I’m currently a regular contributor to a regional radio show that mostly consists of interviews with artists. But I’m safe in that case, because I genuinely believe that show is brilliant — in large part because it isn’t about the “get,” it’s about the stories.) I think people who interview artists as their main bread and butter shouldn’t necessarily stop in their tracks, but they should have a long, hard think about why it’s a worthy use of their time. I realize this has not been a review of this episode. If anything, it’s a review of Jesse Thorn’s other show, Bullseye. So I’ll quickly say that I think The Turnaround is a fantastic idea, because it does focus on craft and process so much. And this was a great first episode that obviously got me thinking about some stuff.

Mogul: Cameos and exclusives — This week we got three tiny episodes of Mogul, which are all a lot of fun. One featuring Maseo is pretty straightforward, but it’s fun to hear him and Reggie Ossé talk about clothes. The Fat Joe exclusive has him telling a great story about getting shot. But the extra bit of Warren G’s interview is the highlight of the three, because it involves Chris Lighty locating Warren’s missing sister.

Arts and Ideas: “Thinking: Food” — This is virtuoso radio. By that, I mean Matthew Sweet makes a prawn cocktail while interviewing three writers. This is really what I love about the BBC. Sweet is a bubbly and approachable host who is nonetheless not afraid to assume a certain amount of familiarity on the listener’s part with the works of David Hume. This is the only interview about food that you’re likely to hear this week that contains the sentiment “we can talk about the moral element in a bit, but I do want to stick with aesthetics for now…”

99% Invisible: “The Pool and the Stream” — A globetrotting design story about the kidney-shaped swimming pool from Avery Trufelman. Very nice stuff. The script is really good in this one. I love the way it ties the opening back in at the end.

On the Media: “It’s the End of the World and We Know It” & “Apocalypse, Now” — Bob Garfield is away this week so we get to step away from the tornado for a while and let Brooke Gladstone do some big thinking for us. The main episode is about science fiction’s recent turn towards intense pessimism in the age of climate change. It’s depressing, but compelling. And there’s a great extra in the feed right before it featuring Gladstone’s interview with Ben Winters, whose books deal with a more sudden but less deniable threat to humanity. Both are worth your time.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Baby Driver and When Auteurs Meet Film Franchises” — This is as essential as this show gets. The live segment about auteurs and franchises features Glen Weldon at his very very best, and Stephen Thompson trying in a wonderful way to follow him. I’ve got to see Baby Driver stat.

Code Switch: “The Supreme Court Decides In Favor Of A Racial Slur… Now What?” — This is crazy. It’s the story of a guy who tried to register his band’s name as a trademark, but it was denied because it’s a racial slur. (It was a reclamation effort, but good god, why trademark it?) So he appealed all the way to the Supreme Court. And he won, so now people can trademark racial slurs. Because there is never any middle ground. Ugh.

Omnireviewer (week of June 11, 2017)

It strikes me that we’ve got a few new readers since the radio segment started. (Listen for another one coming up this weekend!) So, I figured it might be a good time to casually restate the premise of this blog.

Basically, I write discursive blurbs, which I charitably refer to as reviews, about every podcast episode, album, movie, comic, short story, novel, nonfiction book, television episode, concert, art exhibit, feature article, comedy special and video game that passes through my life. The idea was to put all of my unformed thoughts about the massive amount of media I consume into one easily avoidable place so that I wouldn’t feel compelled to talk so damn constantly. Didn’t work. But I’m having fun, and now I’m doing this on the radio also!

I have a few tentative guidelines for myself that I established at the start of this project. I generally don’t review:

  • Stuff made by people I know, or people who people I know know. I’m doing this for fun, not to make my life awkward.
  • Fragments. If I listen to a single song on the way to the grocery store, no. If I listen to a whole album walking home from work, yes. If I watch a John Oliver segment on YouTube, no. If I watch a full episode of Last Week Tonight, yes.
  • Blog posts/articles/essays etc. This accounts for a lot of what I read in any given week. But actually reviewing that stuff seems needlessly far down the rabbit hole, even for me.

For things that will take me more than a week to get through (i.e. books and games), I’ll give them a mention when I start them, review them when I’m finished them, and give updates periodically in between. That’s unless the book or game breaks down logically, like episodic games or collections of short stories. In that case, I’ll review each part. Also, in the event of binging on anything serialized (esp. TV and podcasts), I will often cover multiple episodes in one review. You’ll see a lot of that in this week’s podcasts section, because I had fallen behind on a few favourites.

Not everything I review will be new, nor will it all even be new to me. I revisit old favourites as frequently or more than I seek out new favourites — especially where music’s concerned. But I’ll only review something in an Omnireviewer post once. Subsequent revisitations will occur anonymously.

Finally, none of what I’ve said above constitutes “rules.” By which I mean: I reserve the right to break them at my convenience.

Other things you should know: I also post my reviews on Tumblr, where they come with better formatting, videos, audio embeds, links, and all that good stuff. But every Sunday I gather all of the week’s reviews here, where I sort by medium but leave them as austere walls of text. So, pick your poison. The Sunday omnibus posts are also the home of my picks of the week. I award two of these per week, one to a podcast and one to something else. (This is the rule that I break most frequently. Sometimes I can’t help awarding three.)

Finally, consider this your one and only spoiler warning. I am categorically against the idea of spoiler warnings, because I’m dubious on the idea that it’s possible to spoil something. (I am overstating my case for effect. But only by a little.) In general, I’m told that these reviews are more valuable to those who are already invested in the thing in question. So, I tend to spoil away, in the interest of parsing my own reactions to what I’ve seen. I promise if there’s ever something that is obviously better unspoilt, I will not spoil it. But I can only think of a handful of examples. You’ve been warned.

This week, we’ve got 28 reviews, including a gigantic podcast catch-up (this is how you know I’ve been running a lot), two weeks’ worth of television (I shamefully didn’t finish my reviews last week) a bit of literature, and an odyssey through the music of Tool, who I also saw live on Thursday. Let’s start with Tool, shall we?

Music

Tool: Lateralus — With this, possibly only my second or third ever full listen to Lateralus, I am properly excited to see Tool live. That’s happening in three days, as I write this. There’s no good reason why I haven’t listened to this album more. 10,000 Days was my way into Tool, and I didn’t get around to anything else by them until near the tail end of my first metal phase. So, Lateralus has gotten short shrift from me in spite of being objectively much better than 10,000 Days and generally one of the best metal albums ever. Tool sounds unlike any other metal band, and not just for the reasons that get trotted out endlessly, like the odd time signatures — though they are a few levels odder than most prog metal bands’ metric adventures. Tool sounds different because there’s a transparency to the way they write for and record their instruments. This is heavy music, and it has its moments of crushing chords and big loud climaxes. But in general, Tool’s music is made up of four distinct musical lines being performed by four musicians with the highest possible premium placed on clarity. Every decision that went into this record — from the choices of guitar and bass tones (fairly restrained, in general) to Adam Jones’s preference for melodic lines over chords in the guitar, to the way that Maynard James Keenan’s voice is mixed so you can understand every word — demonstrates a commitment to clarity above all else. That’s rare, if not unique in heavy metal. The result is metal that beckons you to come to it, rather than bowling you over with an unavoidable flood of sound. (My favourite metal band, Opeth, can serve as a useful corollary. Blackwater Park is a flood of a record, if ever I’ve heard one.) Lateralus is an overwhelming album, but it isn’t overwhelming in a visceral way. It isn’t Mahler symphony overwhelming. It’s intellectually overwhelming, like listening to Glenn Gould play Bach. There really is something Baroque about Tool, and I don’t mean “baroque” in the sense of it meaning “needlessly complicated.” What I mean is that, like the artists of the Baroque, Tool seems to strive towards a rational ideal of beauty that provokes an intense emotional response from having been so perfectly wrought. The title track is the obvious apex of this, given its famous reliance on the Fibonacci sequence, which is associated with the Golden Mean, and therefore beauty itself. Throw in lyrics that touch on alchemical themes of boundless self-improvement and you’ve got one of the most classically ambitious metal songs ever. This ties in with something that has surprised me in my recent rediscovery of the last two Tool records: they constantly undermine their image as a band obsessed with the dark and grotesque. Sure, there are lyrics and videos that support that notion of the band. But Lateralus is a striving, nearly celebratory record in a lot of places — a piece of art that seeks to find the best way to be human, and through its intense discipline, demonstrates one possible answer. Even in a song with a title like “Schism,” the key line is “I know the pieces fit.” That’s very hopeful. And if they undermine themselves through striving and celebration on Lateralus, they do it again on 10,000 Days with intimacy. The “Wings for Marie” songs are as human as anything in this genre. I feel as though Tool is falling into place for me at the perfect moment. This is going to be a good concert. But I’ve still got some cramming to do, because I haven’t heard any of the early stuff at all.

Tool: Ænima — After the fawning encomium I just wrote about Lateralus, it kind of sucks to come back to this, which is a very good album that I’d be super happy to hear some stuff from at tomorrow’s concert. But it’s definitely not Lateralus. One of the downsides of writing about everything you watch, read and listen to is that you get really good at intellectualizing specifically why you like something. And I determined that the thing that sets Lateralus apart and makes it a metal album that I would put in my top tier of metal albums is its clarity and transparency — and also its latent hopefulness. Realizing that and framing it in writing makes it difficult not to judge other Tool albums by those incredibly specific standards, which is a terrible way to judge anything and basically means that I’m no longer taking non-Lateralus Tool albums on their own terms. So, listening to Ænima and finding it to be a level louder, more distorted, more opaque and more cynical was naturally disappointing. But I think it’ll grow on me. I’m already fairly fond of “Stinkfist,” “Forty-Six & 2” and “Third Eye.” Though, in the case of the latter, I could do without Bill Hicks. I really don’t like Bill Hicks, because he thought that having a point was the same as having a joke. And that ties in with the one thing I really don’t think will ever grow on me about Ænima, which is the smugness of it. Maynard Keenan is extremely convinced of his moral rectitude, here. He spends a lot of time putting down people that aren’t him. I prefer him in learning and growing mode. This is a solid, and extremely ambitious metal album, but its magnificent successor doesn’t do it any favours.

Tool: Opiate — In an effort to effectively cram for tomorrow evening’s Tool concert without ruining the setlist for myself, I looked at the setlist.fm entry for their latest show, and scrolled past the actual setlist as fast as I could to just see the album breakdown. Looks like it won’t be an issue that I’ve never heard Undertow, but this even earlier EP will surprisingly be represented. I’d say it’s more promising than good, but hearing them play music from this alongside stuff from Lateralus and 10,000 Days is going to be awesome.

Live events

Tool: Live at Rogers Arena — I’ve deliberately left some time between this concert and this review, because I wanted to avoid having the post-concert glow affect my assessment. Let’s begin with some general observations. Firstly, Tool puts on an amazing show. The musicianship is second-to-none, and the spectacle is Pink Floyd calibre. In fact, this show made a case for Tool being the closest thing to a modern-day Pink Floyd. (The standard point of comparison between Tool and classic prog rock tends to be the mathy, mid-70s output of King Crimson. But the spectacle, psychedelia, catharsis and mood painting of their live show evokes a hybrid of Pink Floyd’s Wall period and their pre-Dark Side avant-guardism. All fed through the lens of heavy metal, of course.) Through the course of the show, I found myself switching back and forth between concentrating on the details of the music and just getting lost in the H.R. Giger-in-the-summer-of-love visuals that were projected onto the vast screen behind the band. I’m sure there are those who feel like this kind of spectacle is a cop-out and that bands like Tool should just grow some charisma. But this is a band whose lead singer has taken lately to standing in the darkness at the back of the stage and never emerging from the shadows. Watching the band themselves is clearly not supposed to be the point of this show. (For what it’s worth, it was never the point of a Pink Floyd show, either.) The setlist was basically pretty solid. I confess that I enjoyed the material from Aenima a lot more in a live setting. They even solved the biggest problem with “Third Eye” by excising Bill Hicks altogether. That made it substantially less smug than its studio counterpart, and it turned out to be one of the best songs of the night. I would have liked to hear more from Lateralus. They started the show with a triple shot from that album: “The Grudge,” followed by “Parabol/Parabola” and “Schism.” But they didn’t return to it afterwards. I would have really loved to hear the title track, and maybe “The Patient.” But we did at least get two of the best songs from 10,000 Days, a very underrated record in my opinion. “Jambi” is one of my two or three favourite Tool songs, and has been since it came out when I was sixteen. It was massively cathartic to hear it live, even if Maynard James Keenan’s voice did give out in the middle of a line. He’s getting older, but he still sounds great. It would have been nice to have him a bit higher in the mix, but given his onstage place in the shadows, I wouldn’t want to impinge on the whole self-abnegating thing he’s got going on. “The Pot” gave an opportunity to hear him a bit more clearly, and even though it’s been transposed down, it was still a powerful vocal performance. (And it was fun to remember the summer I spent stocking shelves on the night shift of a grocery store, when “The Pot” would be the only song that ever came on the radio that I liked.) But the aural portion of the evening really belonged to the instrumental trio. Danny Carey is a godlike drummer. His solo, backed by a ⅞ arpeggio pattern on a modular synth he just happened to have on hand, was one of the grooviest, most musical parts of the evening. And the frontline of guitarist Adam Jones and bassist Justin Chancellor is less like a lead/accompaniment relationship than like the two hands of a pianist playing a Bach fugue. The show’s second half was needlessly brief; they needn’t have taken an intermission. (Though its twelve-minute duration, marked by a countdown clock projected on the screen, seemed pleasantly arbitrary.) But this is quibble territory. Again, Tool puts on a great show. Allow me a broader observation: there were a whoooole lot of dudebros at this concert. Which is not to say that there were no women. Women represented a small but enthusiastic component of the audience. But there was a particular type of dude who seemed prevalent at this concert that I didn’t see so many of at the other metal concerts I’ve been to, which were both Opeth concerts. I’m talking about rowdy dudes. Drunk, shouting dudes. There were people who were drunk and shouting at the Opeth concerts too. (Full disclosure, I got kicked out of one of those before Opeth even started, for being under 18 and standing in the wrong place.) But I got the sense that there are a lot of introverts at Opeth concerts, and that’s their release. The vibe at the Tool show was a lot different. It was kind of aggro. Not aggressive. Just aggro. There’s a difference. I get the vague sense that there were probably people at that show who really love Richard Dawkins and really hate feminists. The presence, real or imagined, of this kind of people at the show made for a moment of cognitive dissonance for me. I had somehow expected Tool fans to be quiet, thoughtful people because the Tool music that I love the most (Lateralus and 10,000 Days) is thoughtful music, the aggression of which belies a deeper commitment to discipline and contemplation. But the Tool fans I observed at this show were a mix of Lateralus personified (these folks are not unlike the Opeth fans) and Aenima personified. Aenima, while undeniably accomplished, is not a record I especially identify with. And I couldn’t help but think as I looked around me, heard snippets of conversation, and realized that the one woman seated in the row in front of me had seemingly been forced out of her seat, that Aenima might not be a great album to have in your DNA. Aenima has many sides, and it reveals a different side of itself on every listen. But one of its sides is smug, self-righteous pseudo-intellectual, dudebro stoner rock. Concerts have a way of making you step outside your own idiosyncratic relationship with a given piece of music. They have a way of making you hear music through the ears of others. And sometimes it doesn’t sound as good that way. Maybe that’s why I don’t go to many concerts. I really do prefer to think of music as a thing that only exists in my own head. That way it can be anything I want. Solipsism aside, this was a great show.

Literature, etc.

Jorge Luis Borges: “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” — A masterpiece. I’m hard-pressed not to say that this is my favourite Borges story I’ve read so far, but I won’t go that far. The only reason for that is I definitely need to read it again, because it is both longer and denser than any other Borges story I’ve read. Where my other favourite Borges story, “The Library of Babel,” is basically one self-contained thought experiment, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is several thought experiments shoved into one incredible story. Most notably, of course, there’s the idea of a civilization that so radically adheres to Berkeleyan idealism that they deny the existence of empirical reality. This big thought experiment leads to many smaller contentions, my favourite of which is the idea that, for this civilization, groups of things don’t come in specific amounts — they only acquire amounts once they’ve been counted by somebody. But there’s more to this than just that one thought experiment. There’s also the idea that if a cadre of people invented a fictional country or planet with enough detail, it could actually come into being. (I especially like the way Borges relates this to the origins of Rosicrucianism, which apparently owes its existence to an older, fictional order of that same name.) Those two ideas are basically the same idea, actually: ideas are potentially more powerful than empirical reality. The ending of this story, which I won’t spoil because it’s amazing and I want everybody to go read this, really drives that home. It’s hard to believe that this was written in 1940 — Borges has effectively predicted the world of alternative facts and the sense of unreality in which we currently live. Pick of the week.

Neil Gaiman, J.H. Williams III & Dave Stewart: The Sandman: Overture — It has been long enough since I read the original run of Sandman that I can’t reliably say how this stacks up against it. What I will say is this: on Gaiman’s part, it is a big ambitious story that I enjoyed very much. But the star of this collection is J.H. Williams III, whose art is maybe the most astonishing comic art I’ve ever seen. I haven’t actually encountered him before, though I’ve meant to read Promethea for ages. At no point in this book is there a page with anything resembling a conventional panel layout. The story is told through dense, fluid drawings that take up full pages, folding time and space into each other in a more dreamlike fashion than I remember any artist managing in the original run of Sandman. The worlds of Sandman: Overture are full of impossible staircases, cities made of light, and non-linear time. (There’s also a fabulous riff on the gatefold design of the Dark Side of the Moon album cover.) Gaiman’s real accomplishment here is just giving Williams the seeds of ideas for crazy stuff to draw. It is visual storytelling of an incredibly virtuosic standard. Don’t read it if you haven’t read the rest of Sandman. But it’s definitely another reason why you should read Sandman if you haven’t.

Television

American Gods: “A Murder of Gods” — So hey, America sucks. It really does! One of the things I’m loving about American Gods is how little patriotism there is in it. I actually like Neil Gaiman’s more pro-America passages in the novel, because they’re always about rinky-dink, out-of-the-way bits of Americana like roadside attractions and diner food. But the time has come and gone for Gaimanesque whimsy in tales of modern America. Bryan Fuller and Michael Green know this well, so they created a new version of Vulcan, the god of fire. And through him, they offer an extremely blunt but completely identifiable critique of American militarism and gun culture, with a side order of labour exploitation. It’s a fantastic sequence, and it resonates nicely with the brutal opening of the episode, in which immigrants crossing the border are gunned down by vigilantes whose weapons bear the inscription “Thy kingdom come.” Another great addition to the show’s cast: Jesus. Best of all, the most notable thing he does in this episode is die. Clever. Don’t worry, I have a feeling he’ll be back. I’m not sure this episode works for me as well as “The Secret of Spoons” or “Git Gone” on a scene-by-scene basis. But it might be the most focussed episode of the series so far, thematically. This is an episode about prayer: the reasons people do it, what people get out of it, and what the gods they pray to get out of it. Prayers to Vulcan are particularly disturbing at this point. (“Every bullet fired in a crowded movie theater is a prayer in my name. And that prayer makes them want to pray even harder.”) But this show’s attitude towards faith is not wholly critical. We unexpectedly meet Salim again in this episode, and his attitude towards prayer is one of the more beautiful and uncynical sentiments in the show. I’m really looking forward to seeing how the relationships between Salim, Laura and Mad Sweeney evolve. Last week, I noted that it was a good idea to have Laura and Sweeney in a scene together. This week confirms that, indeed, it is a good idea to have them share an entire plotline. And making Salim a series regular, and the third in their motley posse, can only be good. This show. I tell ya.

Doctor Who: “Empress of Mars” — Okay, I mean, it has problems. The Doctor’s plan to crash the ice cap down on everybody is total nonsense, and I’m a little miffed that a character got to say something to the effect of “Hey, don’t judge British imperialism on the basis of one bad apple!” But basically this is a fun, silly story of exactly the sort I tend to dislike in really good seasons, but which seems to be what I’m into this year. I like the Victrola horn on the Victorian spacesuits. I like how dumb and B-movie-like they continue allowing the Ice Warriors to be. I don’t really like much else, but it was fun watching this dance in front of my eyes for an hour. Evidently, my standards are dropping. By Gatiss’s standards, it’s fine. Take from that what you will.

American Gods: “A Prayer For Mad Sweeney” — Beautiful. Here’s the point where the makers of American Gods finally focus in on the sweetest moment of Gaiman’s novel, thus producing a marvellous corollary to last week’s particularly dark and cynical instalment of American Gods. This contains maybe the most outwardly pro-American utterance in the show so far: the idea that in America, you can be whoever you want. It’s a statement that has an element of truth in it, and is all the same pleasantly simple to problematize. Thankfully, even in its more charitable moments, American Gods maintains its troubled attitude with the country at its heart. I’ve been asserting for weeks that this show is surpassing its source material, and I continue to think so. However, the one thing that Neil Gaiman always brings to the table that Bryan Fuller does not is a sort of heartstring-tugging expressiveness. Think of Dream’s wake in Sandman, basically any random page in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, or “I wanted to see the universe, so I stole a Time Lord and ran away.” American Gods, the novel, has less of this than much of Gaiman’s work, but the segment about Essie Tregowan, the clever Irish woman who uses her wits and her abiding belief in the Irish legends of the fairyfolk to make her way in America, is the one moment in the novel that reflects that side of Gaiman. It is a beautiful story, with a heartstopping ending. Fuller, Michael Green and screenwriter Maria Melnik need not really do much with the story to make it resonate in exactly the way it does in the book. But of course, they do make alterations, because they’re pros who don’t mind working for their living. And the changes made do generally fall under the category of “Bryan Fuller complicated formalism.” But the formal idea at the core of this adaptation — the Essie Tregowan story is also the story of Mad Sweeney’s arrival in America, and the relationship between those characters resonates through time with the relationship between Sweeney and Laura — actually heightens the emotional resonance of Gaiman’s powerful original. Pablo Schreiber’s Sweeney gets to take this opportunity to reflect on the way that his present-day travelling companion is in some way connected, if only in his own head, to the brave woman who believed in him centuries earlier. Which, of course, complicates the fact that he was responsible for her death. The moment where we see Sweeney decide to resurrect Laura, voluntarily giving up the lucky coin that’s his whole reason for travelling with her to begin with, is one of the best in the series so far. So is the moment right after that, where Laura punches him and sends him flying. This is Emily Browning’s best episode so far, with her double-casting as both Essie (renamed “MacGowan,” for some reason) and Laura showing her range, but also the distinct personality she’s drawing on in this show. It was a good decision to leave the other main characters out of this episode altogether. There’s no Shadow here, and Wednesday is only around by implication: Sweeney talks to his messenger crows. Ian McShane would needlessly take up oxygen in this episode if he were in it. But, to its credit, this episode picks two characters and runs with them. Even Selim gets dismissed at the start of the episode, so we can really focus on Laura/Essie and Sweeney. (But given where Selim’s off to, I’m sure we’ll see him again.) This is, by my estimation, the third stone cold classic episode of this show, which is only seven episodes old. A couple of final notes: for those fascinated by the character of Mad Sweeney, I highly recommend Flann O’Brien’s novel At Swim-Two-Birds. It’s a complicated, many-headed beast of a novel, but one of the many things going on in it is an interpolation of O’Brien’s own English adaptation of Buile Shuibhne, the old Irish tale in which Sweeney first appears. At Swim-Two-Birds bears comparison to American Gods in the sense that it also explores the impact, or lack of impact, of old stories on contemporary life. And both novels choose Mad Sweeney as one of their points of reference. Also, here is the start of a whack-a-doo theory. This episode uses the song “Runaround Sue” by Dion, which is a fantastic song, first of all. What a voice. It’s also the lesser known single of a singer known for a song called “The Wanderer.” “The Wanderer” is also a moniker for Wotan in Wagner’s Ring cycle. (Wotan is the Germanization of Odin.) I dunno where I’m going with this. But if Dion makes another musical appearance, I daresay it’ll be with respect to Mr. Wednesday, and it’ll be “The Wanderer.”

Better Call Saul: “Slip” & “Fall” — “Slip” is an endgame preparation episode without any particularly outstanding scenes. It’s nice to see Jimmy threaten to sue the guy who keeps refusing him his community service hours, but that’s a fairly straightforward play without any of the specific manipulative genius that makes watching his best schemes so much fun. And while I appreciate the time taken to build suspense for Nacho’s switch-up of Don Hector’s pills, this plotline is ever so slightly straining my credulity at this point. I can always get behind a byzantine Jimmy scheme because it’s part of his personality. And Mike’s schemes usually have an elegant simplicity to them. But “scheming Nacho” is a difficult thing to pin down, and around the time he disconnects the restaurant’s AC, I started to think maybe this was going a little too far down the rabbit hole. But “Fall” recovers completely. It does this amazing thing where it has one scene involving Kim, a car, and the audience’s sudden and intense anxiety — but then, nothing bad happens. And then it invokes the same combination at the end of the episode, in a basically unrelated situation with no cause/effect relationship with the earlier car mishap, and pays it off. It’s a weird sort of half-application of the Chekhov’s gun principle. That sustained sense of dread that something’s going to happen to Kim is excruciating. She’s probably the TV character that I’m most emotionally invested in. This position that the writers have consistently put her in, where she does everything right but she’s at constant risk of being pulled off the rails by the people around her is such a good source of tension, and Rhea Seehorn is consistently incredible. Also, sometimes I’m not sure I’m supposed to love Howard as much as I do, but I definitely still love Howard. I love how willing he is to think people will be reasonable, even when all of the evidence suggests that they are innately unreasonable people. The scene of him starting to plan Chuck’s retirement party before he’s even opened the envelope he wrongly assumes contains Chuck’s resignation is a magnificent penny drop moment, because we as the audience know Chuck well enough to realize that Howard is wrong before he does. Also, back on the subject of byzantine schemes, I don’t think this show has ever come up with anything on the level of Jimmy’s manipulation of poor Irene. The whole sequence of this adorable old granny becoming isolated gradually is somehow the funniest thing Better Call Saul has ever done.

The Simpsons: “Itchy and Scratchy and Marge” — A classic. This is one of my favourite Simpsons episodes because it’s such a wonderful bit of metafiction. It’s ostensibly a parody of the idea that cartoons (and television more broadly) can exert a negative influence on children — a criticism that The Simpsons came in for in spades during the Bartmania of 1990. (As below, so above. I’ll elaborate on next weekend’s NXNW segment.) And it certainly demonstrates why violence and conflict are necessary for good TV storytelling (the declawed Itchy and Scratchy segment is one of the episode’s best moments). But it goes further than that. This episode could have just stopped at the contention that television requires an unsavoury element to be compelling. But instead, it goes on to suggest that a world without compelling television might actually be better. Speaking as a person who has reviewed five-and-a-half hours of television so far this week (and more to come), I wonder if maybe that’s true. Certainly, the very best part of this episode is the sequence in which Springfield’s bleary-eyed children step away from their screens and reintegrate with the real, tangible world in front of them. This isn’t even played for laughs. It’s just a beautiful mini-ballet, scored with Beethoven’s sixth. That segment is the lynchpin of the episode for me. The episode’s critique of censorship, its discussion of what constitutes art and what you should be able to show on television is all beautifully undermined by the idea that maybe we put too much emphasis on those questions anyway, and we should probably just go outside — children and compulsive bloggers alike. I might even take my own advice. But first I’ve got Twin Peaks to review.

Twin Peaks: The Missing Pieces — Alright, one more thing before I move on to the new series. I only just learned of the existence of this meticulously constructed collection of outtakes from Fire Walk With Me. And while “outtakes from Fire Walk With Me” might not sound like a promising premise, I actually enjoyed watching this disjointed set of barely related scenes more than I enjoyed Fire Walk With Me. It actually feels a lot more like Twin Peaks than Fire Walk With Me does. That’s partially because it actually features the bulk of the returning cast, whose scenes were largely cut from the movie. But it’s also because it shares television’s tendency to juggle plotlines and throw unrelated scenes one after the other. Fire Walk With Me is very much a movie, focussing first on the Theresa Banks investigation, and then the final days of Laura Palmer. The movie is so focussed on these two stories that the stuff that doesn’t pertain to either of them but still made the final cut (e.g. the infamously confusing scene with David Bowie as Phillip Jeffries) really feel like they shouldn’t be there. But The Missing Pieces fleshes out the narratives that were only tantalizingly suggested in the original movie, particularly where Bowie’s character is concerned, and also with respect to Agent Cooper’s status in the Black Lodge. The “sequel” element of Fire Walk With Me was always subjugated to the “prequel” element. The Missing Pieces shifts the needle ever so slightly in the other direction, setting up what I assume will be the starting point of the new series, albeit with the passage of 25 years. And while the continuity-heavy stuff is the real highlight, it’s also well worth watching The Missing Pieces for the smaller moments. The stuff involving Truman, Andy, Hawk and Lucy never really gets off the ground, but that’s really the only stuff that isn’t great. There’s some lovely stuff with Norma and Ed. There are a few extra scenes for Kiefer Sutherland’s overeager toehead, who I really enjoy. (He even gets to meet Coop, who is unimpressed as all get out.) There’s an extended scene with Frank Silva and Michael J. Anderson as BOB and the Man From Another Place, just being creepy and laughing backwards. And best of all, there’s some incredible moments with the Palmers. Sarah’s constant smoking causes her a hilariously choreographed problem in one of the best mother/daughter scenes in the movie. And best of all, there’s a scene where Leland tries to teach his wife and daughter to introduce themselves in Norwegian, ending in the whole family laughing hysterically, in a way that’s both genuine and creepy in a way that only David Lynch can conjure out of actors. I love Grace Zabriskie so much in this scene. The say she makes Sarah sort of half try to say her name with a Norwegian accent just kills me. Basically, this seems like it should be the definition of superfluous. But it’s super not. For all its inevitable disjointedness, this is top-flight Twin Peaks, on par with the good parts of the TV series and superior to the movie from which these scenes are outtakes.

Twin Peaks: The Return: Parts 1 & 2 — Wow, Bob, wow. I know that I absolutely loved this, but I have no idea what to make of it. The fact that it spends most of its duration on new characters in places that aren’t Twin Peaks is both gutsy and a bit of a callback to the less successful elements of Fire Walk With Me. And the fact that Kyle McLaughlin is primarily being tapped to play Coop’s evil doppelganger and the taciturn version of good Cooper who appears in the Red Room is, at this point, making me long for the return of the cheery version of that character we know and love. But I’m burying the lead, which is that Twin Peaks in 2017 WORKS. David Lynch can still direct, and it is possible to convey the alienating strangeness of the original series’ best moments in the context of modern prestige television. The surreal elements are what’s working best for me as of yet, with the sequence in the Red Room with the electric arm tree (if ever there were a way to compensate for the absence of Michael J. Anderson, it is this) and its doppelganger emerging as an early highlight. But I’m going to reserve judgement about this, because it’s holding its cards so close to its chest that I basically have nothing to say about it yet. Except that it’s good and that I’m entirely willing to contemplate the notion that it will be straightforwardly the best iteration of Twin Peaks we’ve seen so far. If you’re farther along than me, don’t tell me otherwise. Please.

Doctor Who: “The Eaters of Light” — A modest highlight of a middling season. It is kind of remarkable that this is the first time in the new series’ history that a classic writer has been invited back. But Rona Munro is a good choice, given that her first Doctor Who story turned out to be the very last Doctor Who story until the TV movie. And what a story it was! “Survival” is an idiosyncratic favourite of mine, from a period in the show’s history that I wish more new fans would check out. It’s a high bar to clear, even given the extent to which the general standard of Doctor Who has risen in the new series. And I’m inclined to think that it does not clear that bar. But that’s not what anybody should be concentrating on. We should think about what it is, not what it isn’t. And what it is is a story about a light-eating alien monster that inserts itself into the story of the massacre of the Ninth Legion. That is a thing that only Doctor Who can do, and it is the sort of thing that makes me remember that Doctor Who is always a good idea and always has been, even during the bits of its history where it isn’t quite so inspiring. Still, big ‘splody Moffat story coming up! My hopes are undimmed.

Podcasts

Code Switch binge — One of my periodic catch-up sessions. I listened to the one about Master of None (which is sounding distressingly like a show I need to make time for), one about the Japanese Americans who effectively exiled themselves to Utah to avoid the internment camps during WWII, a fascinating episode on what the hosts call racial imposter syndrome, and best of all, an episode about the way that white DJs have co-opted black identities for various bullshit reasons. This last episode is actually maybe the best episode of Code Switch. Maybe I’m just saying that because I’m a music geek and I’m really interested in how something as abstract as sound can come to mean very specific things. But this is probably one of the best pieces of music journalism I’ve encountered in the last year or more. And I consume a metric boatload of the stuff. That episode is called “Give it Up For DJ Blackface!” Extremely worth your time.

Imaginary Worlds: “The Real Twin Peaks” & “Do the Voice” — Eric Molinsky’s Twin Peaks episode is interesting enough, but it’s not subject matter that he’s able to wring the best material out of, like Harry Potter or H.P. Lovecraft were. On the other hand, his audio drama collaboration with The Truth, “Do the Voice,” is pretty marvellous. I’ve always been dubious about The Truth. I admire its tendency towards experimentation, and I love that its short-form stories allow it to be a bit of a storytelling laboratory. But I just never like the writing. Surprisingly, Molinsky has turned out one of the best scripts I’ve heard on The Truth, in spite of not being primarily a fiction writer, to my knowledge. It helps that the premise of the episode is based on a cartoon show, which allows for a certain amount of contrivance in the dialogue. Worth a listen.

Crimetown: Post-season bonus episodes — The episode about the soundtrack is worth it specifically to hear Rosaleen Eastman’s awesome cover of “Rhode Island is Famous for You” in full. The live episode is fun, but in general I’m still suspicious of this show’s attitude towards the charm of gangsters and the charisma of the life. We do get one moment in there where a former gangster explains how his family background led him down the pipeline to a life of crime. But there’s a disconcerting sense here, and throughout Crimetown, that regardless of those circumstances, these ex-mobsters’ recollections of their tenures in organized crime are filled with wistfulness and nostalgia as much as regret for the lives they ruined — or ended. I’m not okay with that. But it is finally addressed in the bonus episode about Ralph DiMasi, an armoured car robber in the Patriarca crime organization who the producers allow to reminisce fondly about his crimes in front of the microphone, only to undercut him with an interview of one of his victim’s wives. If Crimetown season one had been that circumspect all the time, I’d be more likely to tune in for season two. As it stands… jury’s out.

The Heart: “No,” episodes 2-4 — This is some pretty brave radio, right here. The Heart is always intimate, and it always pushes against the boundaries of social taboos, but in this series, Kaitlin Prest has exposed her own most uncomfortable, sometimes traumatic moments in the interest of talking about consent. And it isn’t just a piece about the consent breaches that we call rape, or sexual assault. (Though, there’s a really thoughtful discussion in the fourth episode about why somebody might or might not choose to use those labels.) It’s also about the ones that fall into what Prest calls “grey areas.” The third episode is radio that, speaking as a cisgendered straight dude, every man should hear. That’s the one where Prest interviews people, mostly men, who’ve perpetrated consent breaches of one type or another with varying levels of remorse and subsequent understanding. One of these interviews, without going into detail here, is a masterclass in negation and defensive bullshit. It’s good to have a model for how not to be. Listen to the whole series. Pick of the week.

Radiolab: “The Radio Lab” — Aww, this is fun. For Radiolab’s 15th birthday, they go right back to the early days of the show. And then they fast-forward to the days that were early but also good. I actually have heard the episode that they play at the end of this — the one they say people probably haven’t heard. I think this may actually be my third time through it, in fact. I tend to be a little hard on Radiolab in these reviews, because I do think it’s a little past its prime. But the reason I hold it to such a high standard is that it was the first radio I ever really listened to, and it blew my mind. I don’t mean the first podcast I ever listened to, by the way. I mean, before I went to grad school for journalism and somebody told me about Radiolab, I’d pretty much never listened to radio in any form. I think it may also have been before I discovered podcatcher apps, so I was listening to the show on my laptop, with huge headphones and a long cord plugged into it on the kitchen table while I did my dishes. (Still how I do a fair amount of my podcast listening.) And while the episode about time may have fallen off of iTunes a while ago, I’m certain that it was on their website when I initially binged the bulk of the back catalogue. And to be perfectly honest, listening back to it now, I like this version of Radiolab better than the one that exists today. I like the sense of untethered curiosity about difficult questions, and I like the bonkers sound design. That old version of Radiolab still feels like mad science. There is even today nothing that sounds like it. On the other hand, it’s hilarious to hear the version of the show that existed before Robert Krulwich joined up. Jad Abumrad sounds ponderous, insufferable, and unbelievably stoned. This is well worth a listen, if only to demonstrate why this show was once the very best in nonfiction audio storytelling.

Memory Palace binge — I could listen to this show forever. This catch-up session found me listening to an episode about the U.S. Camel Corps (which existed), one of Nate DiMeo’s Met residency episodes about a room in the museum that he doesn’t like (which contains the memorable line “If you have to be a floor, be a dance floor”) and a year-later rebroadcast of “A White Horse,” DiMeo’s beautiful tribute to the oldest gay bar in America for the week after the Pulse nightclub shootings. But the highlight of this clump of episodes was “Cipher, or Greenhow Girls,” a story about the Confederate spy Rose O’Neale Greenhow and her daughter. This is one of those episodes where DiMeo isolates and fleshes out a historical character about whom little is known (the daughter, not the mother). It’s quite beautiful, and the last line is breathtaking.

Fresh Air: “David Sedaris,” “Giancarlo Esposito Of ‘Better Call Saul’” and “Former Vice President Joe Biden” — Three great interviews by the radio host that Marc Maron called ”the industry standard.” Esposito is the highlight of the three, if only because interviews with David Sedaris are easy to come by. Hearing about Esposito’s family (his mother sang with Leontyne Price!!!) is really fascinating, and hearing him talk about inventing the character of Gus is maybe even more fascinating. Honestly, it’s just fun to hear him talk out of character. It isn’t just the hint of a Chilean accent that distinguishes Gus’s speech from Esposito’s own — it’s the care and intensity with which every word is spoken. Esposito is not a cold person. Not remotely. This David Sedaris interview sticks out from the pack because of the book he’s promoting, which is a collection of his diaries. So, there’s more of his life even than usual on the table. As for Biden, he’s charming and soulful, but still very much a politician.

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: “Judicial Legitimacy” & “The Appointments Clause and Removal Power” — Okay, so this promises to make the Trump administration a bit less head-spinning, if not any less horrifying. The premise of learning about the constitution through the lens of a president who is challenging it in heretofore unseen ways is a good one for a podcast. I confess some of the details of these first two episodes slipped past me because I was on a particularly tiring run at the time. But I’m legitimately excited about this.

Reply All: “Fog of Covfefe” & “Black Hole, New Jersey” — I think it’s possible that Reply All brings more joy into my life than any other podcast. I just really enjoy listening to Alex Goldman and P.J. Vogt talking to each other. Wonder what Sruthi Pinemeneni’s up to? Been awhile since we’ve heard from her, so probably something complicated. In any case, the two hosts can easily fill the time with segments, if need be. “Fog of Covfefe” is a deep dive into the Twitter overdrive that was covfefe night, dressed up as a Yes Yes No. Two notes. One: it’s nice to see that Google Docs, in which I’m currently typing this, still does not recognize covfefe as a word. Yes, language is fluid and subject to serendipity, but there must be standards. Thank you, Google Docs. And two: I’m happy that Yes Yes No still exists after Alex Blumberg’s audible discomfort with being perceived as a Luddite in the phishing episode. “Black Hole, New Jersey” is a somewhat anticlimactic Super Tech Support episode. I still had fun.

All Songs Considered: “Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly And Bryce Dessner On Creating ‘Planetarium’” — Nico Muhly is a really clever guy. He has as much of a handle on what this project is actually about as Sufjan Stevens does, even though Stevens is the guy who had to make it explicit through lyrics. The snippets of the album that are featured here are more promising than what I’d heard previously. Now I’m actually kind of excited to hear it.

Desert Island Discs: “Rick Wakeman” — Rick Wakeman was my first childhood idol. I know, I know, it’s a weird idol to have. But something about the image of a guy with waist-length hair in a sequined cape playing an implausible number of electronic keyboards just made me think “that’s what I want to be.” I even dressed up as him for Halloween. My obsession has abated over the years. With the occasional exception of The Six Wives of Henry VIII, I can’t tolerate any of his solo albums. And his post-Going For The One contributions to Yes have tended to be lukewarm as well, I’d wager. (It’s mostly been live shows, though his digital keyboard sounds do appear on the Keystudio record, and are the worst thing about it.) But I continue to admire Wakeman for his wit and warmth, and there’s plenty of that here. His choices of records are made mostly for autobiographical significance, one suspects, though Verdi’s anvil chorus does seem like something he’d hold up as a musical ideal.

The Kitchen Sisters Present: “Warriors vs Warriors” — A very short but very lovely story about the Golden State Warriors’ tradition of playing periodic basketball games against the San Quentin Warriors, a team made up of San Quentin inmates. Particularly amusing is a short interview with an inmate who cheers on the Golden State Warriors just for variety.

The Moth: “The Moth’s 20th Anniversary Special” What’s with podcasts and birthdays this week? Anyway, it’s been awhile since I listened to The Moth, but whenever I return to it I’m pleasantly surprised by how entertaining its low-rent premise is. The three stories told here in front of live audiences are all wonderful. I’m particularly fond of the second, told by Jessi Klein, which is about how a breakup became much much more difficult than it would otherwise have been because of Google. It’s funny, she’s funny, and the rest of the episode is fun too.

99% Invisible: “In the Same Ballpark” — Another sports story! But actually it’s an architecture story, so I enjoyed myself just fine.

Omnireviewer (week of May 14, 2017)

25 reviews. Seems like these are getting longer. Got to do something about that. Maybe? Nah.

Television

American Gods: “Head Full of Snow” — Wonder if Scott Thompson begrudged Bryan Fuller for not giving him a gruesome death in Hannibal? Anyway, this episode finds the main plot in “taking care of business” mode, so we get a bit more than usual of the shorter vignettes about gods in the supporting cast. The sequence about the Djinn who drives a cab is a particular highlight, and I was struck by how closely they kept to the way it plays out in the book. Nice to know that this show, while always willing to riff on Gaiman’s central premise, is also willing to adapt him straightforwardly. The newly-invented sequence introducing Jacquel/Anubis highlights the other side of that coin. Also, wow, they left it later than I thought they would to introduce Dead Laura. I was really starting to wonder if they’d completely written her plotline out of the show and relegated her to dreams and flashbacks. Glad they didn’t. I also want to highlight one of my favourite lines in the show so far: “Delusions feel real, okay? That’s why it’s a delusion. None of this feels real. It feels like a dream.” What a magnificent observation, Shadow! If only Will Graham had been so insightful, he might have saved himself some serious psychosis. My favourite way to describe the tone of Hannibal is that it took place in a viscous jelly. At least, when it got really good it did. The police procedural elements of that show look like a police procedural, but as soon as Hannibal starts messing with Will’s head, the show goes gothic and the air gets thick. Fuller’s (and Green’s) approach here is becoming similar. Everything moves weirdly in American Gods and the light doesn’t work like it should. Shadow’s journey into the world of the gods is depicted in a similar way to Will’s dissociative states. It’s working. Also, the top-hatted shadow figure in the security footage is maybe the creepiest thing this show has done so far.

The Office (UK): “Interview” — I go back to this episode from time to time to remind myself why this is my favourite television comedy ever and that Ricky Gervais wasn’t always insufferable. I always come back to this primarily for the slow build to the “don’t make me redundant” scene, which is still Gervais’s best onscreen moment. I’m not sure any actor has even had a more intuitive understanding of a character than Ricky Gervais had of David Brent. Initially, anyway. When he revived the character on YouTube years later it really didn’t ring true. But that’s doesn’t reduce his achievement in the initial series. Throughout the whole series, David Brent is a man who is trying to hide his complete desperation and he’s only succeeding in hiding it from himself. The thing that makes his last few scenes in this episode so extraordinary (starting with the one where he doesn’t get the job as a motivational speaker, moving onto the silent one where he lashes out at his office furniture, and culminating in “don’t make me redundant”) is that we get to see the moment where he finally fails to fool himself. It is maybe the saddest thing ever shown on television. And it is so brilliant that it makes me forget about the other amazing element of this episode, which is Martin Freeman as Tim. Freeman’s performance as the only guy in the office who recognizes that he’s playing a role in a farce comes to a head here in a scene I had entirely forgotten about, where he tries to convince his boss’s boss to hire Gareth as acting manager instead of him — while Gareth’s Dirtie Bertie doll is making lewd noises in the background. It’s perfect. Tim’s arc in this episode is so flawless. We see him act like a normal human in an office full of insufferable people, reminding us why we root for him. We see him make the decision to stay where he is in life, and not “roll the dice” hoping to upgrade his three to a six at the risk of rolling a one. The complacency sets in mid-episode, and just as he’s explaining it direct to the camera with his dice metaphor, we see him change his mind. That whole sequence where Tim stands up from his mockumentary interview to finally tell Dawn how he feels, breaking the format of the show in the process, is such a thrill. And it makes the moment when he turns his lapel mike back on to say “she said no” into another of the saddest moments ever on television. This is a staggeringly sad, beautiful, wonderful masterpiece of television. I should really watch the whole series again. Pick of the week.

Better Call Saul: “Off Brand” — The most satisfying part of Better Call Saul is going to be when Jimmy quits his job at the Cinnabon and gets reunited with Kim, putting an end to two television series’ worth of misfortune. Too optimistic? Okay. Well, the most gutting part of Better Call Saul is going to be when Jimmy parts ways with Kim. It’s going to be even more gutting than when more conventional fictional couples are torn asunder, because their relationship is so complex and with so much unspoken. I mean what even are they???? Anyway, this is necessarily a come down after last week. But it has a bunch of smaller moments in it that make it still a lot of fun. Howard Hamlin continues to be my second favourite person in the Sauliverse, next to Kim Wexler. The moment where he sits down on Chuck’s doorstep and waits for him to open up is one of the most straightforwardly decent things anybody has ever done on this show. I love that he was originally made out to be the villain and now we’re seeing this side of him. And I love how Bob Odenkirk plays Jimmy’s refusal to help Rebecca rouse Chuck from his despondency. This is exactly how the last straw is supposed to look. And Rhea Seehorn plays Kim as admirably non-judgemental of Jimmy in that moment. It’s those moments that make this episode, though I’m sure many will remember it for the moments that carry the weight of continuity — most notably the first invocation of the name “Saul Goodman,” but also Gus’s investigation of the familiar laundromat that will come to be Walter White and Jesse Pinkman’s torture chamber. This is fun in the “ooh look!” way that continuity is always fun. But I continue to appreciate that this show isn’t primarily about that. I’m toying with the idea that Better Call Saul is the best prequel ever made. And if I decide that’s true, then it will largely be because it managed to avoid leaning too heavily on Breaking Bad’s canon of stories and imagery. Future prequel makers take note.

Twin Peaks: “Pilot — Northwest Passage”  — (This one’s so long I actually employed paragraph breaks over on Tumblr. But not here. Never here.) I’m both excited and apprehensive about the imminent return of Twin Peaks. Excited because the entire new series is being co-written and directed by David Lynch, who we haven’t seen any substantial screen-based output from since Inland Empire in 2006. Apprehensive because my recollection of Twin Peaks from when I watched it a few years ago is that it’s a massively innovative, intermittently brilliant, but deeply flawed and often infuriating piece of television that doesn’t quite live up to its reputation. And I don’t really understand how Twin Peaks in 2017 is going to work. Because Twin Peaks is very much a thing from 1990. But I’m definitely going to watch it. So I’d best refamiliarize myself with the gigantically convoluted and inconsistent canon of the original show. I’m not going to commit to rewatching the full series because frankly Twin Peaks tries my patience even before it gets to the inarguably terrible second half of season two. The AV Club was decent enough to provide a recommended five-episode crash course for those who need a refresher. I’ve decided to do as they recommend, but I’m going to add every other episode that has either a writing or directing credit for David Lynch. It was always the Lynchian element that I most appreciated in this show, so that’s what I’m going to return to. I recall that the year I watched Twin Peaks was also the year that I watched Lynch’s entire filmography. I like them all. Even Dune. The stuff that pisses me off about Twin Peaks isn’t the David Lynchiness of it — the creamed corn/garmonbozia free associative stuff that lots of people stumble on. Nor is it the staginess of some of the writing and the performances. (I recall actually quite liking Fire Walk With Me, if that tells you anything, though we’ll see whether I agree with my younger self on that soon enough.) What I can’t get into is the soap opera that those classic Lynchian elements are stuck in. I don’t care half as much about the inhabitants of Twin Peaks and the ins and outs of their daily lives as I do about Agent Dale Cooper (still one of television’s greatest protagonists) and his unorthodox investigation into the occult secrets that the townsfolk aren’t aware of. This pilot, for all its virtues and idiosyncrasies — and they are numerous on both counts — only begins to hint at the elements of this show that I love. At times it’s hard to decide whether the inauthenticity of some of the performances here is the result of bad acting or if it’s just David Lynch casting and directing this show for maximum alienation. On one hand, early 90s television wasn’t a utopia of acting competency. On the other, sometimes Lynch’s stories and themes require deliberately inauthentic performances (this is why Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive is one of my very favourite screen performances). But here, it’s hard to say whether that’s what he’s going for or not. Bobby Briggs, for instance does not work at all for most of this episode’s duration. But when he starts barking maniacally like a dog in his prison cell, he’s suddenly compelling and the rest of that actor’s performance makes more sense. And in the cases where the actors clearly know what they’re doing (for instance, Ray Wise and Grace Zabriskie), they’re often undermined by Angelo Badalamenti’s score. Badalamenti’s music is still praised as one of the show’s major accomplishments, but it has aged very poorly, and not just because of the bad synth sounds. The music almost never stops, it’s made up of three or four recognizable cues used over and over, and it’s enormously overbearing. The theme music in particular tends to crop up in especially emotional scenes, and it doesn’t allow the performances to speak for themselves. Badalamenti is back for the new season, and I really don’t know whether to be happy about that or not. This is probably one of my more heretical opinions about Twin Peaks, but I really think Badalamenti’s score is horrible. On the other hand, like the acting, it’s sometimes hard to discern whether the score, too, is trying to keep us at arm’s length. So I’ll give Badalamenti the benefit of a doubt and see if I feel the same after hearing what he does with (I hope, oh god I hope) access to an orchestra, or at least a more modern set of electronic instruments. But for everything here that doesn’t work or hasn’t held up over time, there’s something staggeringly brilliant and unique, that couldn’t happen on any other show. Some of these are subtle things, like the way in the first episode that everybody close to Laura seems to intuit that she’s died before they’re even told. It happens first with her parents — note that Sheriff Truman never actually tells Leland what happened to Laura in that scene at the Great Northern. He just knows. Same with Sarah Palmer, and with James and Donna in the scene at the school. Bobby, not so much. That’s super Lynchy. Remember, this is a man who is known to intuit screenplays, rather than actually thinking them through. Stands to reason that his most sympathetic characters would demonstrate that same trait. Speaking of which, we should talk about Cooper. First off, we don’t actually meet him until 34 minutes in, which is an interesting choice. Agent Cooper is the outsider in this show: the first and always the most significant character we meet who doesn’t actually reside in Twin Peaks. Most storytellers’ instinct would be to introduce this character at the start and use him as an audience surrogate: he learns about the town along with the viewer. But Twin Peaks shows us the town’s response to Laura Palmer’s death without the benefit of a surrogate. We get to see the citizens of the town acting like they do when they’re among their own and nobody’s watching. And while my interest in this show is really tied up with the element of weirdness that Cooper introduces (and unearths) in the town, I appreciate the languid, contemplative pacing of this. Nobody’s willing to take their time like this today. Still, it’s hard to deny that things really take off when Coop arrives. Lynch and Frost immediately knew how to write for this character. “Gotta find out what kind of trees these are.” Also, this is maybe a personal connection that most people wouldn’t make, but I can’t help seeing in Coop a prototype for the way that modern showrunners have characterized Doctor Who — especially the Eleventh Doctor. The juxtaposition of his outsiderness and esotericism with his friendliness and enthusiasm for the mundane is something that I can’t think of a precedent for, but which Matt Smith seems to have channelled as surely as he did Patrick Troughton. We won’t really get to know Coop until the next couple of episodes. But Lynch has other ways of pointing out the strangeness of Twin Peaks without diving straight into the lore about Bob and the Black Lodge and the Man From Another Place. A kid in high school dances away from his locker, out of frame. He isn’t even with anybody. The hotel concierge will not stop shouting “the Norwegians are leaving! The Norwegians are leaving! The Norwegians are leaving!” The lights in the morgue flicker creepily: “I think it’s a bad transformer.” There’s a deer head sitting on the table: “Oh, it fell down.” There’s a lady who carries a log: “We call her the log lady.” These are the moments where Twin Peaks really anticipates modern television: small moments, derived as much from the framing of shots and direction of performances as from the script, that convey a distinct mood and sense of place. There are many things about Twin Peaks that are not good. But it’s worth a watch for that alone. Lovely to be back to a place both wonderful and strange.

Doctor Who: “Extremis” — These are the sorts of Doctor Who episodes I usually love: Steven Moffat complicated clockwork stories. In my view, the following stories belong to this subgenre: “The Girl in the Fireplace,” “Blink,” “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead,” “The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang,” “A Christmas Carol,” “The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon,” “Listen,” “Heaven Sent/Hell Bent,” and now “Extremis.” Of the previous, “Extremis” is the only one not to blow my mind. The other eight stories I listed are basically the reason I love Doctor Who. Episodes like “Blink “ and “The Big Bang” are why I’m willing to sit through episodes like “Fear Her” and “Knock Knock.” So it’s not a good sign that this episode by the Doctor Who writer I love most, in which he does the thing I love him best for, didn’t work for me. The premise of “Extremis,” that an alien civilization has created a perfect simulation of Earth to practice conquering it, and that the versions of our main characters we see after the title card are AIs in that simulation, is not anywhere close to as imaginative as the premise of “Heaven Sent” — to pick one of many possible excellent examples — when you consider that this episode’s plot is something that Elon Musk actually believes. I kept waiting for the other thing to happen. Waiting for another twist that never came. When “we’ve been in a simulation this whole episode” turned out to be the extent of it, I was more disappointed in Moffat than I’ve been since series seven. But this is a broad critique. There’s much to love in the details, here. Firstly, the Veritas and the way that the drunk CERN employee explains it to Bill and Nardole is brilliant and fairly chilling. The actual mechanics of the simulation, with projectors arranged in a circle, projecting a whole reality out onto a wall, is magnificent. The simulation-Doctor’s resolution of the problem — sending the real Doctor an email — is a properly great way to finish the story. And the bit with the Pope in Bill’s bedroom is one of the funniest scenes Moffat has ever written. So, this definitely did what Doctor Who almost never fails to do: entertain me. But given Moffat’s legacy, I don’t think I was wrong to expect more from this episode. And it didn’t deliver. Still, it’s a promising setup for next week, when Moffat teams up with Peter Harness who, along with Sarah Dollard, is maybe my second-favourite person writing for Doctor Who right now.

Literature, etc.

Alex Tizon: “My Family’s Slave” — This is the story of how the author’s family kept a woman as a slave in America for decades. It is the most appalling, viscerally upsetting thing I’ve read in some time. Tizon (who died recently, it seems) outlines how Lola came to be his mother’s slave, how he grew up not entirely understanding what that relationship was, and the rift that grew in the family when he finally realized it was an atrocity. It’s a quick read and an incredible story. Also worth taking note of: the backlash against Tizon’s actions in this story and the backlash against that backlash. This is not simple.

Games

This War of Mine — I had a sudden recollection that I’d never actually beaten this, and with it came the urge to play it again. It speaks volumes that such an urge can exist, given that this is a mighty dark game. It’s dark to the point of almost not being fun. But it is dramatic, and that offers its own kind of satisfaction. If I describe this as The Sims in wartime, it’ll probably sound like I’m being glib. But I actually think that’s a pretty damn promising premise, and This War of Mine delivers on it. It’s punishingly hard, as it should be, because it is a simulation of civilian life during civil war. Your characters can become hungry, tired, sick, wounded or, perhaps most dangerously, depressed depending on the choices that you make on their behalf and your efficiency and proactivity in managing their resources. I did in fact make it to the “good” ceasefire ending on this playthrough, and it felt like an accomplishment. I was busy being proud of myself for the way I’d managed the late phase of the game, with my two remaining characters cruising past the finish line with a surplus of scavenged food and valuable medicine, and a profitable cigarette manufacturing operation going on in the basement of the shelter. But in the epilogue, I was reminded of some of the things that had happened throughout the 40-odd days of the war: the neighbors in need that my characters decided not to help, the characters who died from wounds they had no bandages for, and the one character who committed suicide after a brief period of grief-stricken catatonia. It’s a rare thing for a successful game ending to be so sobering. This belongs alongside Papers, Please in the ranks of games that make you understand things better. Play this.

Music

Buffalo Springfield: Buffalo Springfield Again — I really wasn’t expecting to love any of these Buffalo Springfield albums, but this was a pleasant surprise. First off, and most relevant for our purposes, this album features the first great songs by Neil Young. None of them were new to me, since they’re all on the Decade comp. But they’re more fun in context, since Stephen Stills is also quickly maturing into the musician who’d bring us “Carry On.” His acoustic guitar performance on “Bluebird” is properly astonishing. Richie Furay’s contributions are less effective, but they do rise to the level of the lesser Stills tracks on the previous album. (Except “Good Time Boy,” which is unintentionally hilarious enough that I love it anyway.) I’m not sure if this has actually aged better than the first Buffalo Springfield album or if it’s just more straightforwardly in my musical wheelhouse, i.e. it’s waaaay more psychedelic. Fantastic record. “Mr. Soul” is an enduring Neil Young classic. “Expecting to Fly” and “Broken Arrow” point the way towards the sort of maximalism he would embrace on his debut solo album and immediately abandon. But they’re a bit weirder and thus better than most of that album. “Bluebird” and “Everydays” mark a material progression forward from “For What it’s Worth” for Stills. (Though I prefer the version of the latter on the second Yes album.)

Buffalo Springfield: Last Time Around — Ooh, just listen to that contractual obligation! The weakest Buffalo Springfield album by a country-rock mile, this contains the most tepid Neil Young contributions out of any of them — one’s a collaboration with Richie Furay, one’s credited solely to Neil but sung by Furay and the other is “I Am A Child,” which is the first in a long line of gentle, liltingly country-tinged Neil Young songs that most fans like but I don’t. And considering that Furay has never been a major songwriting asset to the band, we’re left relying on Stephen Stills. And he’s not sounding quite as inspired on balance as he was on the last record. “Uno Mundo,” in particular, might be the worst track on any of the three Buffalo Springfield studio albums. It’s interesting to hear the seeds of “Carry On” in “Questions,” though. The relationship between those two songs demonstrates the extent to which Stills matured in the time between Buffalo Springfield and Déjà Vu. This isn’t a great way to go out. I’ll save my final appraisal of this band for after I’ve heard all of the outtakes, which, yes I am going to do. We’re aiming for completion, remember. Total completion. Accept no compromises.

Buffalo Springfield: Odds and sods from various compilations — Specifically, everything previously unreleased on the four-disc Buffalo Springfield box set and the long version of “Bluebird” on the Buffalo Springfield two-record set from 1973. The latter really proves that Stephen Stills was the real deal on guitar. Hearing him play with such precision and Neil Young play with such abandon makes me wish we had more tape of them playing together in a more instrumental-focussed setting than CSNY. Here’s something interesting: this band’s demos and outtakes make for better listening than two of their actual albums. This highlights two things that are I think are crucial to note about Buffalo Springfield. One, that they never really give a solid impression of being a band so much as a petri dish for three nascent songwriting talents to mix stuff into. And two, that Buffalo Springfield is first and foremost of archival interest. Given that Neil Young is rock and roll’s most compulsive self-archivist, it makes sense that he compiled this set. I really enjoyed the Buffalo Springfield box set. It’s like a document of a scene as much as a document of a band. Having heard the entire Buffalo Springfield corpus now, I feel like the first Neil Young album (which I listened to for the first time a couple weeks ago) makes more sense. Neil started off as Buffalo Springfield’s resident maximalist. It’s fascinating to hear different versions of “Down, Down, Down,” which would eventually morph into the extremely complex, multi-part soundscape “Broken Arrow.” What’s really interesting is that the early, stripped-down versions are way more satisfying. The same applies to the early acoustic rendition of “The Old Laughing Lady” that’s featured here. I feel like I understand the moment of clarity that Neil must have had between his debut and Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere now. Maybe it wasn’t that he radically changed his musical goals, but that he just realized his songs were becoming less rather than more effective the more he fussed with them. The Buffalo Springfield demos are a document of that. Marvellous listening. This might be the first collection of demos that I actively return to.

Soundgarden: Superunknown — I hate being that guy who checks out an artist for the first time right when they die but I’ve got a couple of friends who are distressed enough about Chris Cornell’s death, which is objectively heartbreaking given the circumstances, that I figured I should try and learn something about why he was such a beloved figure. I went into this knowing next to nothing about Cornell’s music or Soundgarden. I think maybe “Black Hole Sun” was the only song of theirs that I knew. But it is a really fantastic song. I’m a sucker for the sound of a guitar run through a Leslie speaker. (Check out the Stones’ “Let It Loose” for maybe the archetypal example.) And the way the song transitions in and out of the solo is really smart. Given the ingenious construction of “Black Hole Sun,” I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised by how elaborate Superunknown is. I was expecting something that sounds kind of like Nirvana, and what I got was halfway between that and Tool. Check out “My Wave,” which starts off in four, transitions ostentatiously to five when the band comes in, and somehow ends up in three. And Cornell’s voice has many more facets to it than “Black Hole Sun” can accommodate. “Like Suicide” is an unsettling track to listen to this week, clearly, but it’s the best demonstration of Cornell’s vocal virtuosity on this record. Hard to say whether I’ll check out more Soundgarden, or maybe look into Audioslave, but listening to this makes it clearer why Cornell’s death is such a devastating loss.

Sufjan Stevens: Carrie & Lowell — It strikes me that I’m only now discovering the artists I should have been listening to when I was in high school. In the last month or two alone, I’ve discovered the Mountain Goats, the huge bulk of the Decemberists catalogue that I hadn’t heard before, and now Sufjan Stevens. Illinois came out when I was 15, but I was too suspicious of anything new (let alone anything bearing the label “indie”) to actually listen to it. I have a physical copy here in my apartment. It’s one of the rare ones with Superman on it, because it was a promo copy sent to a radio network into whose employ I came some ten years later. When they were ditching their physical music library I made off with some choice selections. But I still haven’t listened to it. I’m glad I didn’t listen to it before I heard Carrie & Lowell. This album is two years old, as opposed to twelve. Its recent live release came up in my YouTube suggestions and reminded me I had meant to check this out ever since being gobsmacked by “Fourth of July” and “Blue Bucket of Gold” on All Songs Considered. “Blue Bucket of Gold” has actually become one of my go-to songs when I sit down at the piano in the evening, and still I hadn’t heard the whole album. If I’m regretting abstractly that my 15-year-old self didn’t hear Illinois, I am very glad that my 26-year-old self heard this. Carrie & Lowell finds Sufjan Stevens looking back, semi-woundedly, at a childhood that sounds far worse than mine ever was. It’s a delicate, raw album, but not a haphazard one. Parts of it were recorded on an iPhone, but those tracks are layered with gossamer ambience and close-miked multi-tracked vocals. It feels like flipping through a water-damaged old photo album. The album is at times desperately sad: Stevens’ mother was devastatingly afflicted with a number of mental illnesses. But there’s something about the conversion of past trauma into present beauty that makes art like this cathartic rather than oppressive. In any case, it must be good. I’m writing like I’m drunk and I haven’t been drinking at all. Next stop, Illinois.

Podcasts

99% Invisible: “The Modern Necropolis” — There is a city in the United States that is primarily full of cemeteries. More than one, I would imagine. This is the sort of thing you’d think you’d know. The town that this episode focusses on has the most darkly self-aware town motto ever: “It’s great to be alive in Colma!” I LOVE that.

The Heart: “The Real Tom Banks” — Listening to this ABC production from a few years back (which The Heart played as part of its off-season), it’s hard to believe this was made by somebody other than The Heart’s team. The resemblance to their aesthetic and subject matter is uncanny. It’s a lovely story about a guy with cerebral palsy trying to get a date on Grindr. It’s sad, hopeful, and beautifully produced, with several voice actors being used to make Tom’s speech more intelligible — and more crucially, to convey the multiple identities he can inhabit online that he’s cut off from in real life.

You Must Remember This: “Dorothy Stratten (Dead Blondes Part 13)” — I can’t shake the feeling that Karina Longworth never quite managed to connect her narratives to her themes in this season. “Dead Blondes” started off with a discussion of what blondeness represents in American culture. That discussion basically only paid off in that first episode, the one about Barbara Payton, and this final one. But Longworth does manage to do something subtler here, which is to demonstrate how the long shadow cast by Marilyn Monroe (and earlier movie blondes like Carole Landis, but Monroe is significant enough to justify three episodes) brought Hollywood to a point where it ate up and spat out women who looked something like her at an alarming rate. And Longworth does this just by telling their stories. This episode brings that narrative to its logical conclusion by introducing the infuriating, self-righteous, toxic masculinity of Hugh Hefner into the mix. Hefner is ostensibly the secondary villain in this story, given that it was Stratten’s shitsack ex-husband who actually murdered her. But Hefner’s the one who got to go on being a shitsack afterwards. This episode is fantastic; this series as a whole has been good.

The Heart: “Advance” — The new season of The Heart is not what I expected it to be: it’s a mini-series that is specifically autobiographical. It’s Kaitlin Prest’s coming-of-age story. Like every story that promises to involve consent in some way, this has dark moments. But this episode basically tells the story of high school-aged Prest learning how to say no — as in, what’s actually involved in doing that. I wonder where this is going.

Crimetown: “The Prince of Providence” — This season of Crimetown has been frustrating and unfocused most of the time. But it when it has managed to stick with Buddy Cianci, it has been completely transfixing. This final episode brings that story together with a tidy little thematic bow that makes Cianci a synecdoche for Providence in general. I daresay it’s the best episode Crimetown has done, though its impact is dulled slightly by how far afield the show went between Cianci episodes. This is still amazing radio in itself.

Radiolab: “Henrietta Lacks” — This is classic Radiolab. It’s Jad Abumrad before he learned restraint. Sometimes I like him better that way. The story of Henrietta Lacks and the impact that her immortalized cell line had on her family is an incredible one, and I’d bank on this being a better way to experience it than the upcoming HBO movie.  

The Gist: “Chasing the Bauble With Brooke Gladstone” — I am dying to read Gladstone’s new book, and I will do that as soon as the ebook is available in Canada. Meanwhile, it provided an excuse for her to go on The Gist and talk to maybe the only radio presenter who thinks as fast as she does. I remember hearing her refer to Mike Pesca as the smartest person she ever worked with (or something close to that) on her Longform interview. Nice to hear this mentor/mentee pair reunited for some ruminative radio magin.

Radiolab: “Funky Hand Jive” — If the Henrietta Lacks rerun was classic Radiolab, this new episode is vintage Radiolab. It seems different from other recent episodes because it stems from Robert Krulwich’s childlike curiosity, which isn’t as much in evidence as it once was. The question he poses is whether it’s possible that he still has some bacteria on his hand from the time he shook hands with J.F.K. as a kid. And he takes part in an experiment to try and determine whether it’s possible. In the process, he wins the award for “most gratuitous use of Neil Degrasse Tyson’s time.” This is a lot of fun.

On the Media: “Shiny Objects” — This is particularly worthwhile for a fantastic interview with NYT White House reporter Glenn Thrush. It’s a follow-up to an interview with Jay Rosen, who cleverly and somewhat mischievously (one suspects) suggested that certain basic phrases used in federal politics reporting don’t apply in the Trump era. Like, for instance “the White House” as a synecdoche for the executive branch. Thrush agrees on that point, saying that in every story written about federal politics, “the subject is the proper noun Donald Trump.” But he diverges with Rosen on other points, and is open about his uncertainty about how to reach people who don’t consider factual reporting on Trump credible. It’s really compelling radio, and also helps make sense of the world. OTM at its best. Pick of the week.

Radiolab: “Null and Void” — Here we are in Jad Abumrad’s legal period. (I.e. like Picasso’s blue period.) While I’ve been generally dissatisfied with the direction Radiolab has taken in the last couple of years, because it now sounds basically the same as many other public radio shows and podcasts (some of which predate it), I actually think that legal stories are a good way for Abumrad to channel his ability to unpack very complicated concepts without resorting to the sorts of sound design gimmicks that he used to do, which I liked so much. This listens like More Perfect, except without explicit involvement of the SCOTUS. It’s great. These days, I like More Perfect better than Radiolab.

Theory of Everything: “Droning for Dollars” — I love these conspiracy theory episodes of TOE. This episode manages to, within fifteen minutes, shoehorn in two of Benjamen Walker’s greatest anxieties (the gig economy, Trumpism) and one of his favourite satire targets (“the deep state”). Very nice.

On the Media: “The Trouble With Reality” — Oh god I need to read this book. It’s short, so I might put aside October for it, once the ebook is out. I read physical books slower. That won’t do.

Reply All: “What Kind of Idiot Gets Phished?” — In which Phia Bennin decides to phish the entire staff of Reply All, plus Alex Blumberg. And in which, when Alex Blumberg subsequently gets very mad, she phishes Matt Lieber. This is glorious, though I wonder if Blumberg’s mounting discomfort with being portrayed as credulous and tech-unsavvy will lead to the end of Yes Yes No. But maybe he’s just had a bad week. Did you see that ABC trailer where he’s played by Zach Braff? Good LORD I’d die of shame.

Omnireviewer (week of May 7, 2017)

23 reviews. My most frequently-occurring number of reviews, I’d wager. I don’t know why that is. I just seem to do 23 reviews a lot.

Television, etc.

American Gods: “The Secret of Spoons” — Wow, it got better. This episode is, on balance, less flashy than the first. Though it has its moments of visual splendor, such as the way Chicago’s dot on the map of America crossfades to Zorya’s padlock, the tumblers of which are then juxtaposed with a slot machine (foreshadowing of the coming fateful checkers game). But by and large, this is a less cinematic, more theatrical episode of television than “The Bone Orchard.” They always used to say television was a writers’ medium, but in a post-Breaking Bad — and indeed, post-Hannibal — world, that’s becoming a more dubious claim. David Slade has directed both of those shows, and his style is abundantly evident here. Still, the measure of this second episode comes from the writing and acting, much more so than the first. And that starts in the opening scene, which introduces a radically different, much more interesting version of Anansi than the one readers will know from the novel. (I loved the version of Anansi in the novel, but he’s too nice for 2017. Better by far to have him be angry, sardonic and powerful.) Orlando Jones may be my favourite thing about this show so far, which is not nothing when the show also has Ian McShane in it. Everything about this scene is perfect, from the writing for Anansi to the prayer that his supplicant speaks to summon him, to THE SUIT OH GOD THE SUIT. What’s amazing about this scene is that Anansi, without saying a single untrue thing, tricks his followers. He tricks them into sacrificing themselves so that he could find his way ashore to America. (And how great is that shot of the spider — whose colouring is as flamboyant as its human form’s wardrobe — creeping off of the floating plank and onto the shore?) But he’s also not wrong that the sacrifice is potentially more meaningful than what many of the captives on the boat had ahead of them. This is not only a better version of Anansi than in the book, it’s also more thoughtful and up-to-date take on the Middle Passage than the one in the book. This scene would be an effective short film in itself, with absolutely no other context from American Gods. And it basically functions as one in this episode, since Anansi doesn’t enter the main story until later. Still, its themes resonate with the aftermath of Shadow’s lynching (an unexpected valence to add to the image of Odin hanging from the world tree; yet another addition on the part of the show) and the extremely uncomfortable conversations he has with Czernobog. Oh, yes, can we talk about Czernobog? Peter Stormare is third of three perfect casting choices for this show’s main trio of Old Gods. Given that I am primarily familiar with him from his famously taciturn performance opposite the famously verbose Steve Buscemi in Fargo, it’s nice to hear him get some dialogue to wrap his mouth around. And they’ve really made him look disgusting. His grubby, blood-soaked wife-beater is as brilliant a costume choice as Anansi’s suit (OH GOD THE SUIT). I am very much looking forward to the part of the story where we get to see Czernobog, Anansi and Wednesday together, because these actors are everything I love about television. I’m also extremely fond of Cloris Leachman’s performance as Zorya, and I hope the show contrives to give her more to do than in the book. And as if this isn’t enough, we’ve got Gillian Anderson doing “sinister Lucille Ball,” which is the role she was born to play. What I’m trying to get at here is that sure, American Gods is proving itself to be a televisual feast worthy of the creator of Hannibal. But this episode proves that the basics are so solid you could just take these actors and this script and play it out on a stage and it would still work. Easily my favourite episode of TV I’ve seen so far this year. Pick of the week.  

Better Call Saul: “Chicanery” — My wish for the Jimmy/Chuck/Kim plotline to move forward was granted. This is the side of the show that I’m usually close to 100% confident in. Jimmy’s transformation into Saul was always the impetus for this show’s existence, story-wise. I sometimes feel as though the presence of Mike, and now Gus, is only to maintain Better Call Saul’s connection to the violent, shocking world of Breaking Bad, where crime is right in front of you and not a matter of courtroom litigation. But this show has always been good at making a comparatively everyday story into something with equal dramatic weight to the sordid tale of Walter White. This week’s episode is maybe the best the show has ever done, and it’s basically a straightforward courtroom drama. What’s most satisfying here is seeing the two drastically different legal strategies of Jimmy and Kim employed in tandem. Kim’s meticulous and strategic in her cross-examination and Jimmy employs a pickpocket. (Huell!!!) The moment when Chuck realizes that he’s genuinely betrayed himself at the end of the episode is one of his best character beats in the show so far. Like courtroom dramas often do, this offers an opportunity to put this story’s conflict in the starkest relief it’ll probably ever get. Jimmy: the compassionate grifter. Chuck: the ruthless champion of justice. Outstanding stuff.

Doctor Who: “Oxygen” — Not bad. I always like the feel of Doctor Who episodes that take place on a spaceship/station with plenty of emphasis on the void of space. (“Kill the Moon” comes to mind in particular.) I dunno what I find intrinsically compelling about the void of space, but I to tend to like stories that take place there. I also like critiques of capitalism. And I love the note tacked onto the end of this that indicates the events of this episode were the impetus for some sort of space communist revolution. But I can’t help the feeling that the monster-based horror of this episode is awfully familiar from last season’s (awful) “Before the Flood.” This show is contriving more and more ways to do zombies without doing zombies these days. Fun to have Nardole actually on a TARDIS trip. I like him in limited doses. I’m curious about how the Doctor’s blindness will factor into the series’ main plot arc, which I”m hoping will start in earnest next week. But that final line, “I’m still blind!” was a bit much, wasn’t it? May as well have been followed by a huge DUN DUN DUUUUUUHHH. This was alright. Better than “Knock Knock.” Much better, in fact. But not a destined classic.

Bill Wurtz: history of the entire world i guess — I guess there is a point to YouTube. The cosmic stuff at the beginning of this is the highlight. Wurtz is funny, obviously. But he also manages to convey the inconceivable weirdness and complexity of the universe having at some point been empty and timeless. The closer we get to society, the easier a job he has. But he doesn’t hue too closely to the usual narratives and makes sure to not just do European history. I already feel like I’m taking this too seriously. I’m going to stop now.

Movies

The Darjeeling Limited — Hmm. Well, it’s got some really good stuff in it. Adrian Brody, Jason Schwartzman and Owen Wilson are three actors who are wont to give excellent Wes Anderson performances. This is a very particular kind of performance. You have to be really good at listlessly staying in the same place. You can’t move your face too much. All three leads do this very well. Also, the movie is very distinctly not in these characters’ camp. Not entirely, anyway. The film is set in India, and is a Western portrayal of India, but doesn’t convey India as a fountain of exoticism for its white protagonists to dip into. The protagonists themselves certainly see it that way, which is the source of much of the movie’s humour. Still, I retain some suspicions about whether the more sincere moments in the movie (especially the young boy’s funeral) are accurate. If not, then I think this film is making some assumptions about its audience that it probably shouldn’t. Still, I don’t have the information to make the final judgement. Dramatically, I liked this as much as The Royal Tenenbaums (which I very much wanted to enjoy more than I did), but not quite as much as The Life Aquatic, and certainly not as much as my two favourite Anderson movies: Moonrise Kingdom and the spectacular masterpiece that is The Grand Budapest Hotel. But I’m a sucker for Anderson’s brand of intensely mannered filmmaking and this fits that bill.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 — Basically, I enjoyed this. I like these actors, these characters, and the general tone of these movies. But this isn’t quite as fleet-footed as its predecessor. The issue isn’t just repetition; it’s that this movie doesn’t execute its jokes as thoughtfully as the first Guardians did. There’s nothing here that rivals that movie’s most iconic shot: the slow-motion corridor walk where instead of stoically staring ahead, they’re yawning and crotch-scratching and whatever. The joke being, they’re doing a thing that people only do in movies, except they’re all acting like they’re not in a movie. This has ideas that come close to that, but it doesn’t really follow through on them. The opening credits have a similarly promising premise: the Guardians fight a giant space monster, out of focus in the background while Baby Groot dances adorably in the foreground. But that’s the whole of the joke, basically. There aren’t really any beats to the scene except for the other characters getting thrown towards the camera one at a time. If we could actually follow the battle and watch it get progressively more disastrous as Groot dances, that would have been funny throughout its duration, instead of just at the start. The monster should be dead by the end of the credits. Then we should see the Guardians up close for the first time, exhausted and covered in goo. And somebody should snark about how Groot used to be helpful. Or something. I’m not a screenwriter. I’m just saying, that’s the definitive way that scene should have worked. The rest of the action-comedy in the movie is often fun, but I couldn’t shake the feeling after a while that in its action sequences, this movie only has one joke, and it’s basically “terrible violence is wrought upon villains to a sunny, 80s soundtrack.” Contrast with the master, who has scores of specific, bespoke jokes in every fight. Other problems! Chris Pratt can’t do feelings! Chris Pratt can do banter. That’s what you’re supposed to hire Chris Pratt to do. The story makes no sense! Why did Kurt Russell give Chris Pratt’s mom brain cancer? He didn’t have to do that! And at what point was it explained that Chris Pratt would lose his short-lived god powers if he killed his dad? How does that even work?!? Also, the characters are all split up so we don’t get to see any of the relationships between them! This is an observation I semi-nicked from Pop Culture Happy Hour, but the panelists there are definitely right about it. We don’t really get to see the dynamic between the members of the team we got to know in the first movie, because every one of them gets paired with a minor character instead. This hurts Zoe Saldana the most, because she gets lumped in with the not-reliably-brilliant Karen Gillan. But it doesn’t really do Pratt any favours either because he gets stuck in an emotional arc with a Kurt Russell character who does not crack wise, thank you very much. Rocket and Drax fare better with Yondu and Mantis, respectively. (Evidently, the less humanoid you look, the more likely I am to refer to you by your character’s name.) But I miss the Rocket/Pratt dynamic from the first movie a lot. Also! There are platitudes o’plenty in the screenplay, and not all of them get comedically undercut by Drax! They should. “I control the arrow with my heart” is one of the most unforgivably shitty sentiments ever to be allowed into a Marvel shooting script. And if I see one more genre film where the entire resolution rests on the intrinsic nobility of humanity I will lose my mind! Ahem. But it’s not all bad! Dave Bautista is consistently hilarious as Drax, and steals this movie to a much larger extent than he did the first one. Baby Groot is adorable! But they would do well to retire that version of the character now (as it appears they will), since his entire characterization is based on a single gag in the first movie’s post-credits scene. That cannot hold for long. There are a number of very funny jokes! That is much appreciated. There is a spaceship with lasers that roll around its exterior on tracks! It’s hard to describe, but it’s a lovely bit of design that spices up the huge space battles substantially. There is a certified dank special effect where their faces go weird from doing too many hyperspace jumps! I love that. There is Cat Stevens! I love Cat Stevens. So basically, there are many problems with this. But the Guardians of the Galaxy remain a pretty solid second place among my favourite properties in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (next to Captain America). I’ll watch Vol. 3, and I won’t even complain about it, probably.

Comedy

Maria Bamford: The Special Special Special — This is distinctly less excellent than her more recent special that I watched last week, but I think I’m pretty much always on board for Maria Bamford at this point. This is the special that she shot for an audience of only her parents. I confess that while I appreciate this choice as a joke in itself (and I certainly appreciate Bamford’s ability to talk openly about the darkest elements of her inner life right in front of her parents) I’m not sure it shows her material in its best light. I do generally prefer comedy specials to be as verité and sketch-light as possible — incursions of surreal sketch comedy mar specials that I otherwise love by Chelsea Peretti and Zach Galifianakis, for example. And to a certain extent, this entire special is a sketch with standup in it. Old Baby also has elements of this, but for the bulk of its running time, Bamford is at least telling jokes to a crowd large enough to have a homogenous reaction to those jokes. No such luck with the ‘rents. The material’s still awesome, though. The bits about Paula Deen and the double standard that applies to mental vs. physical illnesses are both perfect demonstrations of what’s great about Maria Bamford. But on balance, I think she stepped it up for this year’s special. It’s actually nice to find that an artist you’ve recently discovered is on an upwards trajectory rather than a downwards one. It doesn’t usually work that way for me because I’m wilfully late to every pop culture party. But yeah, this cements Maria Bamford among my top three or four comics, probably.

Chris Gethard: Career Suicide — I really like listening to somebody just tell a story. That’s ultimately why I like Mike Birbiglia so much, even though I generally think his jokes don’t rise to the level of some of my other favourite comics. Neither do Chris Gethard’s. But that doesn’t stop this from being wildly compelling viewing. This is a 90-minute (!) account of Gethard’s lifelong journey through intense mental illness. Gethard’s gift is that he can see how the following two things can both be true: depression is awful and has taken him to some truly dark places, and the experience of being depressed has provided him with some objectively funny stories. This is also a really excellent corrective to certain specious narratives about mental illness, especially the one about antidepressants taking your creativity away. I’ve watched three new comedy specials so far in 2017. It speaks to the caliber of the first two that I would rank them as follows: Maria Bamford, Chris Gethard, Louis C.K.

Literature, etc.

China Miéville: October — China Miéville’s self-admittedly partisan history of the Russian Revolution is off to a good start. That said, as a fan of his fiction, it is almost offputtingly straightforward. Aside from a few words necessitating a quick Google (ogee?) Miéville has basically put aside his most obscurantist tendencies here. And I confess, I always kind of loved him for those. I’ve read the first chapter of this book, and so far, Miéville’s introductory portraits of Lenin and Trotsky are the most promising elements. Though, the best single moment in this opening chapter is Miéville’s marvellous, withering depiction of Nicholas Romanov: “Absence defines him: absence of expression, imagination, intelligence, insight, drive, determination, élan. Description after bemused description turns on the ‘otherworldliness’ of a man adrift in history. He is a well-educated vacuity stuffed with the prejudices of his milieu — including pro-pogramist antisemitism, aimed particularly at revolutionary zhidy, ‘yids’. Averse to change of any kind at all, he is wholeheartedly wedded to autocracy. Uttering the word ‘intelligentsia’, he makes the same disgusted face as when he says ‘syphilis’.” So, yeah. He doesn’t hold back. And even in a comparatively simple idiom, Miéville’s use of English is still impressive. This bodes well.

Games

Fallen London — With last week’s encomium to Sunless Sea, I inspired myself to go back to the original. I found Fallen London a few years ago when I was really into interactive fiction in general — Twine, parser-based stuff, the whole works. Fallen London stuck out to me for all of the reasons I’ve already praised Sunless Sea, i.e. the prose is incredible. But it’s been a while. I can’t remember where I was at in the game and it’s taking me awhile to figure it out. But that’s fine! Because everything you do in Fallen London is a delight. It’s clear to me that a huge amount of the mythology that underlies Fallen London is still a mystery to me. (What the hell even is the Bazaar???) At first, I thought that the aura of mystery was the whole of the game and that you’re never really meant to get past the protective coating that sits on top of all of the lore. Certainly, most of the characters walking around seem to have just as incomplete an understanding of what the hell is going on as I do as a player. But playing a bunch of Sunless Sea made me realize that there are answers to the questions. Some of them, anyway. I’m looking forward to learning them. Also! There’s an app now! And it’s really pretty. Way prettier than the browser game. Now this feels like a bespoke product the same way Sunless Sea does. It’s a cosmetic thing, but cosmetics are important.

Music

Buffalo Springfield: Buffalo Springfield — Ah, fuck it. If I’m doing a Neil Young binge, I’m going to do it properly. From here on out, we’re going for completion. I’m defining that as “everything that’s been officially released by Neil Young or an act he was a member of.” This includes official and archival lives, and rarities on odds and sods collections. This is going to be taxing, but I’m experiencing a severe compulsion that I don’t think I’m going to best. Buffalo Springfield is not a bad album by any means, but it is first and foremost a period piece. It is interesting primarily for being an early work by Neil Young and Stephen Stills, both of whom would go on to do work that has aged much better than this. (The former in particular, obviously.) But I am always in favour of listening to things that are of primarily historical interest. In general, Neil’s songs are more adventurous and interesting than Stephen Stills’, but Stills penned the obvious standout, “For What it’s Worth.” It was tacked on in the second pressing after it became a hit. It would be a far poorer album without it, honestly. That’s how much better and more iconic it is than anything else on here. And the track it replaced, “Baby Don’t Scold Me,” is about as good as its title promises it will be. Neil’s songs don’t quite sound like Neil Young songs except for when he sings them. (Everything sounds like a Neil Young song if he’s singing it. Even if it’s a Beatles song.) And he only sings two of his own songs here. “Burned” is the stronger of the two, but I know from the Decade compilation that Neil’s best contributions to the Buffalo Springfield oeuvre will come later. Strangely, this record’s most notable “oh, Neil Young’s here!” moment isn’t on a track that he wrote. His guitar playing on “Leave” is remarkably similar to the way it’ll sound four years later in the outro of “Woodstock” with CSNY, or on “Southern Man.” A really interesting and intermittently good album.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and W. Kamau Bell” — Sounds like Guardians 2 is basically what everybody expected it to be. (He says, having written this before he saw the movie, which he reviewed above.) I’m in. (He says, not knowing he’d see the movie within the same week as this review, and that this would later read really weirdly because of my structural choice to always put podcasts last.) W. Kamau Bell is very funny.

Reply All: “The Silence in the Sky” — Nice to hear something where P.J. Vogt did the reporting. Seems to me that’s rarer than Alex Goldman-reported segments, but I don’t have the stats in front of me. I agree with Vogt that “Across the Universe” is not the best Beatles song.

The Media Show: “Secrecy and whistleblowing, Times Literary Supplement editor Stig Abell, Radio style guides” — Ah, good, there’s an excellent media-focussed show on BBC Radio 4. I love BBC Radio 4. I got linked to this from I can’t remember where and listened to it to hear the segment on the Times Literary Supplement. Maybe I’ll subscribe to a literary magazine. I could see myself doing something like that.

WTF with Marc Maron: “John Michael Higgins / Maria Bamford” — Too bad the Maria Bamford spot is so short. I need to go back into the archives and listen to previous Maron/Bamford conversations. These two understand each other. John Michael Higgins is not a person I know (the only Christopher Guest movie I’ve seen is, wait for it… Waiting for Guffman) but he’s super interesting and Maron’s good at getting him to tell the story of his crazy road through showbiz. Fine listening.

Every Little Thing: “Rapture Chasers” — Not bad, but not as substantially different from Surprisingly Awesome as I’d hoped it would be. If your premise is basically “things are great when you look into them,” you’d better have some serious personality in your show. Because that is essentially the premise of all journalism that isn’t hard news. This is the sort of show that I think will likely produce a lot of great episodes, but I’m having the same sort of hard time figuring out why it exists as I had with Undone, and we all remember how that worked out.

Beef and Dairy Network: “A Tribute to Paul Kitesworthy” — A segment based around a slightly predictable joke: the dead guy isn’t really dead; he just owes everybody money. Still funny and well-made. If I wasn’t so behind on my subscriptions, I’m sure I would have gulped this whole thing down.

Code Switch catch-up — Wow, I just listened to six episodes of Code Switch. (The most recent six.) I am sad and confused! Highlights include a segment in the mailbag episode where the problems with the Native American hunting rights episode get addressed (thank god), Audie Cornish talking about writer/comic John Leguizamo, and the entire episode about the L.A. unrest (as relevant a topic as ever). But the real standout episode is the most recent one, co-hosted by Shereen Marisol Meraji and Kat Chow, about Miss Saigon. This is the musical where, the first time around, a bunch of the characters were played in yellowface makeup, but now they’re not, but it’s still an intrinsically problematic piece because of “fragile Asian woman” stereotypes, etc. Maybe this is only the standout to me because this comes up frequently in the opera world (Miss Saigon is based on the same text as Madame Butterfly) except it’s even worse in the opera world. Yellowface is still considered acceptable at many (most?) opera houses and the drama of Madame Butterfly is so wrapped up in shitty racism of the century-old variety that it is actually not a good opera anymore. (Well, I mean, it never was. But I can understand why an early 20th-century audience in Italy might have thought it was.) I’m not sure if this applies to Miss Saigon or not, but Madame Butterfly has a protagonist that we’re expected to sympathize with and feel bad for in spite of the fact that she has absolutely no strength of character. We’re expected to feel gutted at her fate because she can’t help being the sort of person she is, because of her race. If Butterfly had been a white character and acted the same way, nobody in the opera’s original audience would have believed it. And yet, here we are today, still believing it. I really hate Madam Butterfly. And I think I hate Miss Saigon by extension now.

The Memory Palace: “Met Residency #5: Temple” — Fun to hear Nate DiMeo do one of these Met episodes that’s a little bit critical of the Met. Basically he follows a timeline posted in the Met’s reconstruction of an Egyptian temple and points out the interesting bits (and the boring bits). Not one of my favourites of these stories, certainly. The one about Prince Demah Barnes is still the best one, followed closely by the one about John Vanderlyn’s panorama. But this is probably number three.

The Memory Palace: “Notes on a Plaque, Still Imagined” — This was one of the first Memory Palace episodes I heard, back before I was completely sold on it. Listening again, I don’t know what I was thinking. This is a beautifully written proposal to affix a big, gaudy plaque to a statue commemorating the military record of a racist. And not just any racist: the first Grand Wizard of the KKK. Nate DiMeo muses about how the plaque should be designed and what it should say to convey the message that this statue of this man is a product of its time, and of a morally inexcusable value system. Beautiful stuff.

The Memory Palace: “The Year Hank Greenberg Hit 58 Home Runs” — Outstanding. This is that rare thing: a story about American Nazism in the years prior to Pearl Harbour. Which was very much a thing and quite a popular one, though it’s been conveniently scrubbed from American history. Nate DiMeo finds his way in through two sports figures: the Jewish baseball virtuoso Hank Greenberg and the Jewish strongman Joseph Greenstein (“The Mighty Atom”). Most satisfyingly, it features said strongman beating up some Nazis with a baseball bat. What kind of baseball bat? Listen to the episode. It’s a more satisfying revel than you might think. Also, on the show’s website, DiMeo tagged this episode “Richard Spencer sucks,” just in case the subtext wasn’t clear. Pick of the week.

99% Invisible: “Sounds Natural” — Way to be buzzkills, 99pi staff. Honestly, I’ve always wondered how nature documentaries get such clear sound. But I never looked into it because I feared that the answer would be “it’s all fake,” which it is. I don’t really mind, but I’m going to be conscious of it now.

99% Invisible: “Reversing the Grid” — A strangely compelling policy story about how governments should deal with the phenomenon that power meters are reversible: i.e. they go backwards when you put power back into the grid. Like with solar panels.