Tag Archives: Song Exploder

Omnireviewer (week of Jan. 15, 2017)

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

Television

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

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

Games

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

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

Movies

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

Music

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

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

Podcasts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Omnireviewer (week of Jan. 8, 2017)

Big week! 31 reviews! I’m working part-time and it feels GREAT. Also, I have some magical new running pants that allow me to run in the cold. So, podcasts! But first, everything else.

Literature, etc.

Ken Doctor: “The Newsonomics of Podcasting” — Doctor’s analysis of the current state of podcasting is probably the most in-depth bespoke piece of journalism out there on the matter at the moment. (I say “bespoke” because the best way to stay informed about the podcast biz remains a subscription to Nick Quah’s weekly newsletter Hot Pod.) There is much here for podcast producers and enthusiasts to be scared about — especially in the fourth of the five parts in this series, which details how dynamic advertising (something that contributed to the web’s current state of dilapidation and skeeziness) will soon be implemented into podcasting at the cost of its current, open RSS-based model of distribution. However, the fifth and final section offers some reasons to be optimistic, as it seems that the people at the heads of the companies responsible for many of the most popular podcasts don’t want to see this industry go the way of commercial radio, or of digital publishing. As long as there are people in powerful positions at big podcasting companies who believe in the primacy of good programming over all other concerns, we’ll be fine. Right? Right??

Jed Gottlieb: “Curtains fall on arts critics at newspapers” — Well, this is intensely discouraging. Still, it’s gratifying to read a quote from a formerly full-time critic that calls the situation for what it is: “It’s all for kids. The papers, the movies and music. There is nowhere to go for smart analysis, beautiful features. Social media means everyone has a voice but what’s lost in the cacophony is that intelligent voice commenting on intelligent art.” Welcome to the abyss.

Olivia Laing: The Lonely City — Another 2016 notable book I’m hurrying through before my end-of-January list. This is unexpectedly cathartic: a study of urban loneliness in American art, and an examination of how that art can help ease loneliness. Halfway between straight art criticism and memoir, Laing’s book sets out exactly the headspace she found herself in when she became obsessed with the art of loneliness. The first chapter focusses on the work of Edward Hopper, whose paintings I have apparently seen plenty of without actually ever knowing who he was. But it also focusses on the way that the experience of loneliness of the acute sort that Laing has experienced, and that I can sympathise with in a much more muted form, has a tendency to further isolate you from the people that you want in your life. Moreover, Laing notes that there’s social science research that details how, once the loneliness subsides, we tend to forget the sensation altogether and fail to recognize and sympathize with it in others. So, for anybody who has experienced what Laing describes and has come out the other side, this is a useful read because it contains a description of the sensation that you may have forced yourself to forget. The appeal of this book lies in the intersection between Laing’s ability to articulate the experience of loneliness and her ability to look at and interpret pictures in interesting ways based on that experience. Familiar Hopper paintings like Nighthawks take on more beauty when seen through the lens that Laing offers. The next chapter’s on Warhol. No idea where she’ll go with that, but I’m looking forward to finding out.

Games

Steve Jackson’s Sorcery!: Part 4 — Not finished yet, but I’m happy to report that this is everything I’d hoped it would be. It incorporates the mechanical improvements of the third instalment into a setting that has more of what appealed to me in the second part: I’ll always prefer a text-based game that takes place in a city to one that takes place in a vast wilderness. Even a vast wilderness with nifty time beacons. So much of what makes me like interactive fiction is getting to interact with NPCs from fictional civilizations. Or fictionalized versions of real civilizations. The other advantage in this game is that the rewind feature is disabled at a crucial point, so that your decisions aren’t reversible and you can’t be tempted to try all of the routes through any given situation: a big part of what sunk the last instalment for me. That said, I’m only just getting to a situation where I wish I could rewind my choices, because I think I might have actually trapped myself somewhere I can’t get out of without rewinding back past the point where the rewind was disabled. My final assessment of this will likely depend on my level of frustration in getting out of this situation. But let’s just bequeath something on this pre-emptively, in case I decide I hate it later for unfair reasons, namely that I’m a terrible and idiosyncratic gamer. Pick of the week.

Television

Battlestar Galactica: Season 1, episodes 5-13 — Okay, so I powered through the rest of this season faster than I’ve watched any show since before I entered the workforce. Here’s a thick slurry of thoughts. There’s something marvellously David Cronenberg about the way that the Cylon spacecraft are semi-organic. I don’t think I’ve seen spaceships that bleed in any other bit of science fiction. Also, those ships’ capacities feel refreshingly analogue: if the humans destroy a fleet of eight Cylon scouts, they’re safe. They haven’t been discovered. For 2004, this feels really pre-internet. What does it say about 2017 that Battlestar Galactica feels like a retreat into a world with less sophisticated surveillance? On the other hand, it’s clear now that Commander Adama has an extremely selective code of ethics. He has previously advocated for leaving behind huge swathes of the remaining human race for the safety of even bigger swathes. But when one of his pilots is stranded on an inhospitable moon, he risks the lives of his entire fleet to save her. It’s a clever decision on the show’s part to make Starbuck that pilot, because she’s far and away the most sympathetic character the show has. It’s the only thing that could make us support Adama in what is increasingly obviously a series of horrible decisions. (Also, it’s telling that Adama gets his way with this in the end — and he also comes damn close to getting his way when the president starts making seemingly awful decisions of her own in the two-part finale. The power of the presidency is dependent on the goodwill of the military.) However, putting Starbuck in that scenario specifically is also a bit of a cop out, because we know that she’s smart enough to find her way out of this situation without Adama’s help. We aren’t genuinely ever faced with a potential consequence, because Starbuck’s survival is never really in serious doubt. Still, “You Can’t Go Home Again” is one of my favourite episodes so far. Ditto for “Six Degrees of Separation,” in which Six appears to have superpowers. I’m generally less invested in worldbuilding and mythology than I am for the actual plotline of a series, but I confess to being fascinated by Cylon spirituality, and I wonder if this will end up being a Game of Thrones situation where one of the religions turns out to be correct and allows its worshippers to do seemingly impossible things. The seemingly prescient nature of President Roslin’s visions only makes the question: which one? Both? Also, intriguingly, given the show’s much vaunted willingness to engage with the ongoing war on terror, the human religion is founded on the belief that time repeats itself. “All of this has happened before and will happen again.” Perhaps the show’s metaphors are meant to be literal recurrences of the early 21st-century sociopolitical events they’re critiquing? (When you consider that there’s a line in “Colonial Day” about how the largest point of speculation at the start of an event regards whether or not two political figures will shake hands, the show seems oddly prescient — and thus backs up its own point.) “Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down” is by miles the stupidest episode in the show thus far. It is only redeemed by Mary McDonnell’s performance of intense suspicion and strained tolerance of Tigh’s wife — about whom, oh my god get this character off of the screen. I think that’s just about all of my thoughts. In any case, it seems like enough. Also, much as I enjoyed Todd VanDerWerff’s Deadwood recaps on the A.V. Club, I halfway think that Sonia Saraiya’s BSG recaps are even better — specifically the one on the Starbuck two-parter. Check that out for sure.

Sherlock: “The Lying Detective” — Bizarrely, I think I liked Mark Gatiss’s episode last week better than this one by Steven Moffat. It’s not that it’s bad, certainly. It’s just that the tension of this episode rests largely on whether Culverton Smith (Toby Jones, at his leering creepiest) is actually a serial killer or if Sherlock is just finally too off his head on drugs to know up from down. That’s not a particularly interesting tension, and it isn’t resolved in an especially interesting way. The huge twist at the end is indeed a huge twist, but it doesn’t have much to do with the actual story of this episode: it’s just laying groundwork for the next one. On the plus side, Amanda Abbington is still in the show, as we all knew she would be. On the down side, Mary is still dead, and seemingly for no good reason.

Music

Hans Abrahamsen/Ensemble MidtVest: Works for Wind Quintet — Abrahamsen is responsible for my favourite newly-recorded classical work of the year, let me tell you, a song cycle for the magnificent Barbara Hannigan. I don’t generally write about the stuff I listen to for work on this blog, to avoid cannibalizing myself. But you can find my remarks about that recording at the top of this list for CBC Music. This recording is the only other music of Abrahamsen’s that I’ve heard. Being wind quintet music, it’ll be of limited accessibility to lots of listeners, I’m sure. But I’ve always loved the explicit heterogeneity of wind music, probably because I grew up playing in wind bands. Abrahamsen uses this format to its greatest possible advantage, allowing the instruments to play independent lines that are meant to diverge as much as they’re meant to blend. It’s interesting to note that the two original pieces featured here predate let me tell you by nearly 40 years, because they sound identifiably like they’re by the same person, even if let me tell you is a lot more satisfying. Abrahamsen took a ten-year hiatus in his compositional career, which the history books will look at as a dividing line the same way as they do with Bob Dylan’s motorcycle crash. But as with Dylan, the two sides of that line aren’t as distinct as all that. The latter half of the disc is devoted to Abrahamsen’s transcriptions of Schumann and Ravel, which if they were by anybody else would be derided as curiosities, or mere necessities to pad the limited repertoire of the wind quintet. That’s unfair, of course. But these transcriptions are genius of the same sort as Schoenberg’s orchestration of Brahms’s G minor piano quartet. Schumann has always been my very least favourite of the major composers, and I confess that I enjoy Kinderszenen more in this formation than the original piano version. At least there’s timbral variety in a wind quintet. Abrahamsen’s transcription of Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin is less surprising on account of Ravel’s familiar orchestration, but it is lovely and intimate. The wind players of Ensemble MidtVest comport themselves ably. Nothing’s perfect: especially not wind quintet playing. But this comes acceptably close. I will certainly not be returning to this as often as let me tell you, but it leaves me assured that Hans Abrahamsen is a voice in classical music that I ought to be keeping track of.

Brian Eno: Reflection — This is an excellent alternative to silence. Perhaps that sounds like faint praise, but for anybody who admires John Cage as much as Brian Eno does (and indeed as much as I do), it is among the highest compliments to offer a piece of music. Eno’s ambient music projects fall into two camps. There are the sublime ones like Music for Airports and On Land, which in the midst of their drones and textures contain memorable musical material, spread out judiciously. These records are deeply unobtrusive, as Eno intended, but they still announce their presence in the gentlest ways possible. The melodies on Music for Airports are like supportive friends. Along with Brahms’s German Requiem, it is the most profound musical expression of human compassion that I’ve ever heard. Loving these records so much can tend to make you underestimate the power of the ambient records that fall into Eno’s other camp: records like Thursday Morning and this new one. These records are built differently. They feel like audible spaces as opposed to audible objects. As such, they’re unlikely to be perceived as something so specific as “compassionate,” because they’re seemingly conceived to be neutral. Music for Airports is a record you turn to to lower your heart rate and quiet your mind. Reflection is a record you turn to as an alternative to silence, to bring us back to where we started. Any attempt at finding true silence will inevitably fail. Cage taught us that. But we can substitute what passes for silence for music like this: music that proceeds nearly invisibly, whose musical events possess the seeming uniformity of randomness. Reflection will allow your mind to remain a bit noisy. It can help you get things done. It can help you think in a straight line. It is perhaps a less profound gift than some of Eno’s more intentionally beautiful music, but it is a gift nonetheless.

Daniel Lanois: Goodbye to Language — This construction of ambient sounds with pedal steel is the kind of ambient music that has presence. It feels like a person making sounds with an object, and then making decisions about what to do with those sounds. It isn’t ethereal at all; it’s physical. There are times when this feels like an intentional attempt to bend time. It’s like there’s an early version of Goodbye to Language sitting somewhere that’s a straight line, but the one that got released is full of knots, and swerves and loops. Of the numerous ambient albums from 2016 that I’ve heard, I like this one the best — with the proviso that I don’t consider Tim Hecker’s Love Streams to be ambient.

Esperanza Spalding: Emily’s D+Evolution — Oh, I like this. I really like this. I have nothing against virtuosity. I’m for it. And I do think that it’s a viable end in itself. But personally, I’m more attracted to music with a big plan, these days: an idea. And Emily’s D+Evolution has a plan, and ideas o’plenty. This is virtuosity placed at the service of poetry. And equally, it’s poetry placed at the service of virtuosity. Spalding’s singing and bass playing are both astonishing here, and the lines she writes for herself to deliver with both instruments are worthy of her abilities. That’s not something you come across a lot. This is socially conscious music, delivered through a Bowie/Janelle Monaé-esque constructed persona. And it’s also a record you can listen to for the sheer joy of hearing people play instruments really freaking well. It is equally strong in concept and execution. I’m hard pressed to isolate favourite tracks, because the whole thing is so strong, but I’ll suggest “Good Lava” for its unison lines, “Ebony and Ivy” for its killer lyrics and awesome a capella opening, and also the extended cut of “Unconditional Love” for Matthew Stevens’ shit-hot guitar solo. Truly awesome.

Mitski: Puberty 2 — A good album, but I tend to prefer this kind of messy, grungy indie rock in song-length doses. All the same, there’s plenty of variety here, and the best tracks on the album (“Happy,” “Fireworks,” and especially “Your Best American Girl,” which is staggeringly good) are intensely repeatable. Mitski is a good songwriter and a committed enough rock ‘n roller that she doesn’t let her songwriting skill get in the way of making a gigantic loud noise. I’ll inevitably revisit my favourite tracks more than I’ll revisit the album as a whole, but that’s fine. Not everybody has to be an album artist.

Childish Gambino: Awaken, My Love! — A lovely little divertisment, with some truly impressive range from Donald Glover as a singer. He’s doing something different on nearly every track. The songwriting is a bit whatever, but that’s hardly the point. The point is this beautiful production that’s at once modern and a throwback to the 70s. Miles Davis and Teo Macero would have loved this. I haven’t heard either of the previous Childish Gambino records in their entirety, but what I have heard doesn’t leave me feeling entirely convinced about Glover as a rapper. I can definitely get into him as a person who does weird creative projects like this alongside big things like Atlanta, which I will certainly try to get to eventually. Nice.

Podcasts

All Songs Considered: “Viking’s Choice 2016” — Bob Boilen references Tales from Topographic Oceans! Never thought that would happen. I am so excited for more Lars Gotrich on All Songs in 2017. This guy has the most interesting taste at NPR. For every bit of hardcore that doesn’t connect, there’s a piece of weird synth music that I need in my life. He’s not as articulate as Ann Powers or Stephen Thompson, but he’s got such a depth of knowledge about music on what’s generally considered to be “the fringes” that it makes him essential to this operation. This is a great episode. The tracks by Oathbreaker and Zao were the standouts to me. I’ll at least check out the complete tracks, if not the complete albums.

Song Exploder: “Oathbreaker – 10:56 / Second Son of R.” — I actually like this song less upon hearing it in its entirety. I love the juxtaposition between quiet acoustic music and hardcore, but it doesn’t coalesce structurally in the way that I like. Maybe it would be a grower, but I think I’m past the point where I can listen obsessively to heavy music. Ah, well.

Chapo Trap House: “We Live in The Zone Now” — This show hits me where I live. This is their post-election episode, and it is the second-most indicative podcast episode I’ve heard of that destabilizing moment (the first being the On The Media post-election story meeting tape). I do think that in their (justified) zeal to tear down the DNC and the mainstream media for allowing Trump’s rise, the Chapos downplayed the material role of racism in the election, i.e. a segment of America either doesn’t recognize racist attitudes in themselves and their candidates or openly supports those attitudes. And either way, they were profoundly unprepared to prevent overt racism from overtaking the white house. In a decent world, rule number one ought to be “Don’t vote for a racist. Every other quality is secondary.” (You could also easily replace “racist” with “sexual abuser.” That is an equally valid rule number one.) But regardless, the red hot rage that these guys can articulate against the DNC is refreshing. I have been of many minds about the kind of comedy I want in a post-Trump world. And in spite of what I’ve written in the past, it’s not Samantha Bee. This is closer, at least.

Welcome to Night Vale: Episodes 63-65 — “There Is No Part 1: Part 2” is a single joke stretched too thin. But the following two episodes are excellent, and I’m very much enjoying the plot arc about Cecil periodically losing consciousness only to find upon awaking that he’s saved the mayor yet again. I have a suspicion about who purchased Cecil as lot 37 at that auction, which is verifiably either right or wrong, considering how behind I am on this. Nonetheless, here it is: I think Cecil purchased himself. I think he got tired of only reporting on the struggles of his loyal friend and former intern Dana, and decided that he could only get involved if he could do so under the pretense of unconsciousness. This will preserve his journalistic integrity, and also allow him an extra measure of bravery. I’m not clear on the mechanism by which he purchased himself. Maybe it has something to do with time travel. Maybe he’ll go visit Carlos in his desert otherworld, and time will turn out to work differently there in such a way that future Cecil can purchase past Cecil at a bygone auction. Just a guess. Anyway, I’m backed up on podcasts again, so who knows when I’ll actually get back to this and discover whether I’m right.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: The Golden Globes” — This appears to be all of the Golden Globes 2017 that I could possibly need, i.e. eleven minutes of recap on a podcast, plus Meryl Streep’s speech on YouTube. Jimmy Fallon is the worst host on late night, so it stands to reason that he’d be awful here as well. I couldn’t care less about who won or lost, save that I’m disappointed Kenneth Lonergan didn’t win in one of his two categories. But WHATEVER.

The Gist: “The Secret to Meaningful Work” — Not Pesca’s most revelatory interview, but it’s nice to know that there are people doing research on how work does and doesn’t relate to personal self-worth.

Longform: “Terry Gross” — The most revealing moment in this great interview with America’s interviewer-in-chief is the bit where she talks about how she gradually became more willing to do media herself. As recently as a year ago, when she went onstage with Marc Maron, she seemed deeply uncomfortable with the idea of talking about herself. To be fair, that was in front of a live audience, whereas this is an intimate conversation in her Philadelphia office. But there’s something reassuring about hearing Gross talk about her own process and why she does what she does. It makes it clear that she’s not just a disembodied consciousness with above average levels of empathy. I also admire her approach to interviewing politicians. They’re the only group of people who don’t get the option to take back something they say or to refuse to answer a personal question. And hearing that clip from her Hillary Clinton interview again made me remember just why she sets my teeth on edge.

Twenty Thousand Hertz: “From Analogue to Digital” — If Twenty Thousand Hertz’s episodes thus far were compiled into an album, this would be filler. It doesn’t really have much to say about the value of analogue sound technology other than that it’s different from digital sound technology in ways that everybody is entirely aware of: i.e. there are rituals associated with analogue music that have died off. No matter, this show’s batting average is still high.

NPR Politics Podcast: “Obama’s Farewell, Russian Intel Reports, Senate Hearings” — Oh my god there is so much news right now. The real value of podcasts like this is that sometimes you only have time to catch the headlines of things that happen. On days when you’re not inclined to trawl through news articles, you can turn to this show instead and they’ll shove context and analysis directly into your head. It’s nice! It’s a good feeling. Makes things make sense. Well, no it doesn’t. But it allows me to be aware of the nonsensical, inexplicable things that are happening in the world, and also sometimes the reasons for them.

99% Invisible: “Mini-Stories: Volume 2” — I’ve enjoyed these two episodes because it’s nice to hear unscripted conversation on this show. Not as a usual thing, but every so often it’s nice to hear the facade drop away.

The Gist: “How the Onion Remade Joe Biden” — Joe Biden has been the best character on the Onion for a while now. It’s interesting to hear the editor talk about how the character came together, and particularly how they handled the death of Biden’s son. Lovely stuff.

The Heart: “Twirl” — A very promising start to the new season, which I suppose is going to be about femininity in male-identified people? Anyway, this particular episode where Kaitlin Prest interviews her exes (and her current boyfriend) about their feminine aspects is as thoughtful and intimate as the show always is. The high point is the conflict between Prest and her current boyfriend about whether his aversion to being thought of as having feminine traits is masked misogyny or not. It’s much deeper than “yes it is,” “no it isn’t.” Pick of the week.  

Imaginary Worlds: “Atari vs. The Imagination Gap” — I had no idea that the culture at Atari was so intense. I suppose the madness of the videogames industry goes back right to the start. That aside, the most interesting thing about this is the notion that the packaging and promotional materials surrounding janky old Atari games served a purpose beyond marketing: it helped to fill in the gaps left open by the games’ primitive graphics. I happened to flip through the book mentioned in this, The Art Of Atari when I found it at my comics shop the day I listened to this, and it really is some fantastic stuff. Worth checking out.

Fresh Air: “Why More Americans Are Giving Up On Banks” — I came to this thinking that it would be about credit unions and all that: people who are leaving their banks as a protest against their investment in fossil fuels, etc. It’s not that. It’s actually about people who use cheque cashing services and payday lenders. Which is interesting in its own way, but I should have read the description more carefully. Still, one thing about podcasts as opposed to actual radio is that you don’t often hear something by accident. This isn’t the sort of interview I’d normally listen to, and I learned something. Maybe I should institute a further element of randomness to my listening practices.

NPR Politics Podcast: “Trump’s Press Conference, Tillerson’s Hearing” — Once again, there is too much news. Also, has anybody else noticed how dangerously interesting the world is these days? Would I be paying attention to senate approval hearings if Clinton had won? No, I wouldn’t, because they’d be dull. Which, to be clear, I’d definitely prefer. And also, I don’t deny that this speaks to my insufficiency as a citizen. Though I do have an ironclad excuse where American politics is concerned: I’m Canadian. In any case, this is good. I don’t so much recommend this episode as I recommend that you definitely listen to whatever episode of this show is most recent when there’s a lot happening in American politics and you feel the need to make sense of it.

On The Media: “January Surprise” — Brooke Gladstone breaks down the ethics of Buzzfeed’s publishing the unverified Trump dossier with a Slate writer. It is what it is, and what it is is intensely valuable.

Code Switch: “Obama’s Legacy: Callouts and Fallouts” — Part two of maybe Code Switch’s best project yet: their wrapup of the Obama presidency. This one is about the various ways in which he failed people of colour during his administration. Especially interesting is the final interview with the immigration advocate who called him the “deporter-in-chief.” This offers a bit of necessary context to that remark, i.e. she was responding to allegations that Obama wasn’t enforcing the current policies. There’s more. You should listen to this.

Reply All: “The Reversal” — When I heard that Reply All had an ALS-related story, I assumed it would be about the ice bucket challenge, but it is mercifully not. It is actually about a doctor who set up a site by which he found that every so often, there’s a person who seems to recover from ALS. And by the providence of the internet, he may yet be able to find enough people to do a study on why it happens and whether it can be used as a treatment. Fascinating.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Hidden Figures and One Day at a Time” — I love Brittany Luse on this podcast. I hope they bring her back again before she’s utterly consumed by whatever her big new secret Gimlet project is. I never liked Sampler, but that’s because the premise was dumb. She was great on it, and I’m confident that whatever is replacing it will be better. Also, this show is about two broadly admirable things that I don’t have a lot of interest in. Maybe Hidden Figures. We’ll see. But I’ll definitely go to Hell or High Water, given Stephen Thompson’s intense enthusiasm and the fact that Glen Weldon agrees with him. I wouldn’t have thought it would be something that either of them would like. Good sign.

Omnireviewer (week of Jun. 26, 2016)

23 reviews. Again!

Literature, etc.

Matt Fraction & Chip Zdarsky: Sex Criminals, Volume 3 “Three The Hard Way” — I love this comic so, so much. I love how it manages to be deeply insightful about modern sexuality and relationships, while also being hilariously immature. There’s an issue in this collection that pretty much offers a microcosm of the whole comic. The story intercuts a lecture, given in a lecture hall, about feminism and the suppression of female sexuality with a scene where the protagonists fight a character that is honest to god actually referred to as a “semen demon.” It is exactly as head-spinning as it means to be. Also, Jon and Suzie continue to have possibly the most believable relationship in current serialized fiction. The supporting cast is really getting fleshed out now as well. If I have one complaint, it’s that in two subsequent issues, Fraction avoids writing a difficult scene by going meta. The first time it happens, it’s brilliant and contains some top-notch Zdarskyana, but when it happens again one issue later, you can’t help but think that Fraction’s using the jokey tone of the book to avoid specific writing challenges. It’s a minor quibble, though. I love this comic so, so much.

Music

SebastiAn: Total — Having spent a fair bit of time with Justice at this point, I was exceedingly happy to listen to some dance music with less shitty mastering. Which is only halfway a dig — I still love both of those albums. I love this, too. M.I.A.’s guest vocal was always going to be a high point, but I also love “Jack Wire,” “Love in Motion” and of course “Tetra,” because I love anything vaguely Baroque-sounding. There will be more listens in the future.

Yes: Relayer — Another old friend. I spent many years liking this more than Close to the Edge, but I can’t say I did this time. It’s really wonderful, no question. But Jon Anderson’s lyrics on “Gates of Delirium” are, if anything, a little too comprehensible. Almost trite, in places. I love him best at his most obtuse, and his most indifferent to grammar. Which is not to say there’s not great stuff in there: “burn their children’s laughter on to hell” is a compelling line, for instance. And the entire outro — “Soon,” as it’s called in its single edit — is one of the most beautiful moments in the Yes discography. “Gates of Delirium” in its entirety is possibly the farthest point out on the thin peninsula of post-60s Flower Power. Anderson apparently wrote the bulk of it at a piano, but you can imagine most of it strummed on an acoustic guitar, sung to an audience of Vietnam war protesters. I do think Relayer has a better side two than Close to the Edge, though. Patrick Moraz’s playing on “Sound Chaser” might be the best keyboard performance on any Yes recording. And “To Be Over” is pure catharsis. Speaking of catharses, I saw Jon Anderson on a solo tour shortly after he’d been booted out of Yes. He’d been in the hospital the previous night for a resurgence of his respiratory ailment. It was October in Edmonton: not really the best place for a person in delicate health to travel to. But he sang beautifully. He even managed to pull off “Long Distance Runaround” transposed up a couple semitones, because he’d forgotten to take his capo off. He could only last about half an hour, but when the audience gave him an ovation, he came back out and sang “Soon,” which he said is the song he’d written that had been the most helpful to him throughout his life when he needed to heal from something. It was a hell of a moment. I think of it every time I listen to this.

Fiori-Séguin: Deux cents nuits à l’heure — I can’t speak to how this record is remembered in French Canada, but in my neck of the woods, this collaborative record by Harmonium’s Serge Fiori and the songwriter Richard Séguin is entirely forgotten. Which is a shame, because, it’s probably the best Canadian prog album I’ve heard that isn’t by Harmonium or Rush. The pair of them both have great voices: Fiori’s being more strident and Séguin’s being a bit more fragile. And their songwriting style is entirely complementary, and lent cohesiveness by the arrangements, written by Harmonium’s road band. Every track on this is great. It bears a certain resemblance to Harmonium’s L’Heptade, but it’s lighter. I’d highly recommend this to anybody who likes the more pastoral side of prog — early Genesis, Fairport Convention, the Pentangle, or even the Canterbury scene. This is the definition of a buried gem.

Games

The Walking Dead: Michonne: Episodes 2 & 3 — This has everything that the previous seasons of the Walking Dead game has: great characters, fantastic writing, a gripping story and somewhat superfluous combat. Yet it isn’t as successful as it predecessors. The weakest part of this mini-season is the addition of a psychological horror element. Normally, I’d be all for that. And it does illustrate the effects of Michonne’s emotional trauma. But the actual deployment of the psychological horror is the same as in pretty well every game ever, which is that the camera shakes and changes colour to differentiate a hallucination from reality. In its most effective moments, Michonne jumps between reality and somewhat fanciful flashbacks by hard cuts. Whenever other devices are used, it gets a little clichéd. I’d still recommend it if you like the series and can find it on sale.

Jazz Jackrabbit — There are shreds of my childhood that I can’t quite get ahold of as an adult, because they fall outside the narrative of my life that I’ve spun for myself. I recall that as a child, I was not allowed to play games like Jazz Jackrabbit: a PC platformer that shamelessly rips off both Sonic the Hedgehog and Super Mario Brothers in equal measure. And yet, I clearly did play it. When I was a kid, computer games were a matter of what my mother deemed edifying and what my father deemed affordable. On my mother’s authority, I played mostly Learning Company edutainment games. They ranged from unimaginative (Treasure Cove) to pretty compelling (Gizmos and Gadgets) to treasures of the PC gaming canon (Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego?). An honourable mention ought to go out to Sierra’s The Incredible Machine 3, which remains a game I wish I could find a way to play again. These occasionally limp but well meaning programs are the video gaming experience that I have chosen to define my childhood. Together, they represent a substantial moment in the origin story of the persnickety infosponge that I’ve grown into. But on my father’s side of the equation, there was an entirely different and equally prevalent experience: games like Hugo’s House of Horrors, Heroes: The Tantalizing Trio, and Skunny: Return to the Forest. These were shareware titles, often made by tiny DIY studios, that my dad had no idea were moderately to substantially subversive. What mattered is that they were cheap. They came 50 to a disc, and those discs couldn’t have cost more than a few bucks apiece. Jazz Jackrabbit was one of the better executed and more conventional of those games. Revisiting it now on the Internet Archive brought back a wave of the best kind of nostalgia — nostalgia for something you’d nearly forgotten. Something you’d intentionally forgotten, wrongly. 

Television, etc.

Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared — Oh jeez. Pretty much at a loss, here. This is thoroughly unsettling and mysterious, and I am not likely to put it all together in the near future.

Last Week Tonight: June 26, 2016 — The Brexit debrief outshines the doping scandals feature, but I’m not complaining.

Game of Thrones: “The Winds of Winter” — If not for the first few minutes this would be a typically un-‘splody Game of Thrones finale. But that opening sequence, I tell ‘ya. It unfolds with all the clockwork inexorability of its Philip Glass-inspired score (the reprise of which at Cersei’s coronation is ingenious). The fallout of that opening sequence (pun intended) is brilliantly portrayed. And from there, this episode contents itself with watching the dust settle. And that’s a mode that I especially love in Game of Thrones: people examining the consequences of things. That scene with Daenerys and Tyrion is just a shimmering gem. It feels like the flipside of the famous trial scene from season four, and it can join that scene among Peter Dinklage’s best moments. Taken in combination with the previous scene with Dario, it’s one of Emilia Clarke’s best as well. And Lena Headey, my perpetual favourite cast member, finally gets to revert to evil mode. How gratifying. This is a great finale to a season that turned out shockingly well, considering its weak start and the low calibre of the season that preceded it. Game of Thrones is over for another year (or whatever), yet I’m starting to feel like it’s back.

Orange is the New Black: Season 4, episodes 5-13 — Boy does this season ever hold its cards close to its chest. Nearly everything that happens in the first ten episodes is part of a huge invisible clockwork machine that’s setting up the events of the last three. Like every season of this show, there’s plenty here to shock and appall and move you. There’s an almost unfair number of excellent performances in it. But what sets it apart is the way that the various seemingly unrelated components of its story are all set up to lead inexorably to a conclusion. The way that this season examines consequences of decisions that are made on an institutional level — the macro story feeding into the micro story — reminds me of nothing more than The Wire. That’s maybe most obvious in Sophia’s storyline, which is remarkably the most dramatic that character has ever had, even though Laverne Cox gets substantially less screen time than in any prior season. Having a central character’s season-long arc occur nearly entirely offscreen is a masterstroke, and it’s only one of many. I’m trying to decide whether I like this better than season two. I have rosy memories of that season, but thinking back, it’s mostly just Suzanne’s arc that I’m attached to. Every strand of season four is extraordinary. I’m really happy we’re getting at least a few more seasons of this, because it seems far from tired out. Pick of the week.

Podcasts

WTF with Marc Maron: “Neil Young” — Neil’s in an obliging mood for this one, which is good. Because on an ornery day, he would have eaten Maron alive. As a Neil Young fan, there are a lot of moments where I felt like a great question was staring Maron in the face and he didn’t ask it. But for the most part, this is an engaging conversation that even touches on some of the less well-regarded stuff in Neil Young’s catalogue (Trans, Everybody’s Rockin’). It also made me halfway think I should probably listen to his new album. It sounds ambitious, if nothing else.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch” The Outs with Adam Goldman” — The Outs sounds great, but I will likely not get around to watching it. On the other hand, hearing Glen Weldon interview somebody is fun.

The Gist: “Billboard Hits From 1964” — I’m really getting into this show. This episode is a lot of fun, focussing as it does on the British Invasion in the week of the Brexit. I have an infinite capacity for Beatlemania chart statistics, but I do suspect that many people who don’t might also enjoy this. Also, in Pesca’s post-Brexit breakdown, he makes the single most gratuitous Yes reference I’ve ever heard. (Actually, to be specific, it’s not even a Yes reference — it’s an Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe reference, which is way geekier.) That makes me wonder what references in the other episodes I’ve heard flew past me.

Theory of Everything: “sudculture (part II of II)” — It’s ToE at its most straightforward, but sometimes that’s a good thing. This nicely problematizes elements of the craft beer revolution, like the herd mentality beer bros who will follow delivery trucks from one liquor store to the next so they can stockpile small batch sours and IPAs. The most interesting moment comes near the end when a pair of craft brewers talk about the time their art professor asked them if brewing was art. Which, firstly, fuck anybody who thinks that’s even a worthwhile question. That professor sounds like an insufferable professor. But their response that producing a good flavour can’t be an art because it’s supposed to be straightforwardly pleasant is compelling. And I’m inclined to agree, if only because they’re right to place the power to answer that question in the hands of the audience (the beer drinker) rather than the artist (the brewer). The production of beer may be as subtle and complex as painting or sculpting, but the optimal response is different. And while that prof is still an asshole for bringing it up, at least it gave Benjamen Walker an opportunity to end the episode on a really ToE note.

99% Invisible: “Home on Lagrange” — This is one of the best episodes they’ve done in ages. It’s about Gerry O’Neill, the scientist who made actual designs for human settlements in space. And rather than straightforwardly tell his story, the 99pi crew offers up a kaleidoscopic vision of all of the inspirations and implications of his work, including his intellectual offspring in the modern world. Fascinating.

Code Switch: “I Don’t Know If I Like This, But I Want It To Win” — I hope we get more of Gene Demby and Kat Chow co-hosting this show. I know them both from Pop Culture Happy Hour, and to some extent, this is just that with PCHH’s three regulars excised. It’s good to know that there will be pop culturey episodes of Code Switch, because this is really good. And the thing that sets it apart from other pop culture shows is that it’s a story. Kat Chow takes us through this crazy saga of Asian-American television, wherein an Asian-American critic, Jeff Yang, writes a review that’s credited with the cancellation of All-American Girl, a not-very-good sitcom about an Asian-American family. In the risk-averse television industry, an event like that can have terrible consequences. Namely, there were no more network television shows starring predominantly Asian casts for 20 years. The next one to be greenlit was the currently-running Fresh off the Boat, which in a drastic twist of fate, stars Jeff Yang’s 12-year-old son Hudson. You couldn’t make that up. The interviews with both Yangs are totally compelling and raise interesting questions about how a critic should deal with television that reflects a possible positive change in the industry, but just isn’t very good.

Song Exploder: “CHVRCHES – Clearest Blue” — This isn’t one of the most interesting episodes I’ve heard, but this is a great song, and it was fun to hear CHVRCHES talk about the rules they established for themselves when they were writing this — it should be laid back, and have only two chords — which they swiftly broke.

All Songs Considered: “New Mix: Bellows, Cornelius, Keaton Henson, A-WA, The Wild Reeds, More” — This contains a lot of music that I don’t especially care to hear again, but I’m glad I heard once. I think I may have written this exact review before…

In Our Time: “Songs of Innocence and Experience” — I’ve decided I love this show. I’ve decided that because I’ve realized that it’s the only podcast I’ve ever listened to that never condescends to me. Jad Abumrad, Ira Glass, and even more idiosyncratic hosts like Benjamen Walker and the Reply All guys all present stories in a way that assumes limited knowledge in the audience. But in lots of areas, my knowledge is not especially limited. Melvyn Bragg is the opposite of everything that North American media types think of as a good radio host — he interrupts his guests, he opines, he’s not afraid to show off his own knowledge, and he mumbles. In short, he’s an intelligent person first, a radio personality second. (Probably the closest thing to Melvyn Bragg in American media is Mike Pesca, and even he feels the need to throw in dodgy jokes and a dumb signoff phrase.) In Our Time is uncompromisingly smart, and probably really alienating to a lot of people. It’s pretty much my ideal for what public broadcasting should be like. This episode on William Blake demonstrates everything that I find enthralling in this show. It tackles ideas head-on without sugar coating them, and takes for granted that its subject matter is interesting, which of course it is. I hope the BBC recognizes what it has here. This sort of thing is what makes it the best public broadcaster in the world. Pick of the week.

Love and Radio: “The Neighborhood” — I love hearing non-standard, non-narrative approaches to audio production. This collage is the sort of impressionistic thing that I can only take in small doses, but it’s pretty brilliant, actually. Scott Carrier has a great ear for interesting tape, and that’s enough to carry this short piece about the neighborhood where he lives. Maybe I need to start listening to Home of the Brave. Grumble. Another one. Great.

StartUp: “Up in Flames” — This season has picked up rather dramatically. This story is told in a very NPR fashion — interviews, narration, music and basically no field tape — but the story is incredible. It’s about a man whose business decisions drove him out of his mind, so he burned down his yogurt factory. You should listen to this.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Finding Dory and Great Voice Acting” — Stephen Thompson’s 11-year-old daughter is one my favourite minor characters on this show (along with Glen Weldon’s husband Faust, and producer Jessica Reedy). At the start of this episode Thompson refers to her as a “sullen crank,” which is a hilariously aggressive descriptor for one’s own daughter. It’s the little things that make this podcast.

Invisibilia: “The Personality Myth” — This is an hour of radio about how people don’t have fully fixed personalities and how it’s all actually very much more complicated than that. I was unaware of the specifics, but I think that when you listen to a lot of podcasts and just generally consume a lot of media, at some point you become inured to the idea that things are more complicated than they seem. So, when somebody tells you that, you just sort of say “oh, of course,” and get on with your day. I reached that point about seventeen Radiolabs ago. So, unless a given commonly-held belief is oversimplified in a really interesting way, I kind of don’t see why I should listen. And this episode explores the notion of fundamental human change in the most predictable way possible: through the lens of incarcerated criminals. Maybe I’m just Orange is the New Blacked out, but that seems facile to me.

Omnireviewer (week of Jan. 24, 2016)

20 reviews, and I seem to be gradually getting back on track with podcasts. Only 26 episodes to go before I’m caught up with my subscriptions. Also, I finally finished Three Moments of an Explosion and can now finally begin writing up my favourites of 2015. So, you know, look for that eventually. These things take time.

Literature, etc.

China Miéville: “Listen the Birds” — There are two or three tiny stories in Three Moments of an Explosion that are formatted as scripts for movie trailers. The trailer is a medium that Miéville is particularly adept at, it turns out. Because, a trailer introduces a premise and a sense of mystery or suspense, and leaves you with lingering uncertainties, so that you might like to see the film. And that’s kind of the same way that Miéville’s stories work. I don’t mean to say that they end unsatisfyingly, but there’s a sense in which resolution is sort of beside the point. The stories in Three Moments are all sort of like trailers, actually. But of the ones that actually go for that explicitly, this is far and away the best. I’d love to see the trailer produced. It would take a profound genius to actually make the movie, though.

China Miéville: “A Mount” — Occasionally, a writer manages to reproduce my own thought processes on the page, with added clarity and purpose. This guy does it an awful lot, including here. It makes me very, very jealous.

China Miéville: “The Design” — The final story in the collection, and one of the most remarked-upon in reviews. It is one of the most simple stories in its telling, but one of the most beautiful for the relationship between its narrator and its protagonist. It also contains one of the most beautiful sentences I’ve read recently, which will not spoil the wonderful premise of the story by my quoting it here: “I sat alone in the kitchen, in a world in which beautiful, elegantly wrought secrets lie hidden less than an inch from sight.”

Television

Mildred Pierce: Parts 4-5 — In its last two parts (which aired together on HBO), Mildred Pierce finally becomes one of those Todd Haynes works that makes you go, as Marc Maron put it, “Shit, I’ve gotta reckon with this.” Now that Veda’s grown up into an entirely different actor (Evan Rachel Wood), she’s an amazing character. Still deeply frustrating, but in a good way. Without revealing too much, there is a scene in this in which we watch several people listening to the radio, and it is the most compelling moment in the entire series. Mildred Pierce is a flawed television program, but since there are only five episodes, and two of them are these excellent ones, I’d recommend it for sure. Pick of the week.

QI: “Medieval and Macabre” — Apparently, Air Singapore has “corpse cupboards” on their planes to store people who die in-flight.

Doctor Who: “Paradise Towers,” episode 1 — It’s been a while since I sat down with some ropey old classic Doctor Who. This is unambiguously fantastic. Much of it looks like a crap 80s video, but the premise is super and the acting is frequently hilarious — and not in the way that classic Doctor Who sometimes is, where you expect that the actors aren’t in in the joke. As a general rule, the McCoy era is one of my favourites. For all of its shortcomings in terms of production (let me reiterate that this looks completely terrible), the writing was more consistently sharp than in any other era and its taxpayer-funded anti-Thatcherism is a wonder to behold. There will be more to say specifically when I’ve finished the serial. But for now, suffice it to say that it’s one of the funniest stories I’ve seen that isn’t “City of Death” or “The Ribos Operation.”

Podcasts

All Songs Considered: “New Music From Ray LaMontagne, Lucius, A Bowie Cover From Glen Hansard, More” — This is essential for Hansard’s “Ashes to Ashes” cover alone. It’s at the beginning. Just start listening to this episode to hear it, then keep it going, because there’s a bunch of awesome, huge sounding pop on it by people like Lucius and Theo and the Get Down Stay Down. I’d heard of neither of them, but loved both.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Giant Foam Finger: How Do You Choose Your Favourite Team?” — This is PCHH’s occasional sports themed edition. I listen to these not because I’m a sports person at all, but mostly just because they show up in my subscriptions. I do enjoy them, though, because it’s not “sports people talking sports” — it’s an NPR music guy and the lead blogger for Code Switch talking sports. (Everybody go check out Code Switch. It’s NPR’s blog about race and culture, and it’s really good.) Stephen Thompson and Gene Demby are such culturey types that they’re more interested in sports as a phenomenon than as an actual thing with its own mechanics to discuss. This one’s basically about the concept of fandom, which I’m totally on board with. So basically, this is the proof that there’s nothing Pop Culture Happy Hour can do to lose me.

Fresh Air: “From ‘Lost’ To HBO’s ‘Leftovers’ Show Creators Embrace The Unknown” — Damon Lindelof is a thoughtful guy, but I’m still not going to watch The Leftovers. No matter how much awesome, moody Max Richter music there is in it.

Slate’s Culture Gabfest: “Lazarus Edition” — I think I’m just about through my Bowie mourning podcast playlist. (Though you may have noticed that I’m not reviewing any music lately. That’s because it’s still pretty much non-stop Blackstar.) This is the perfect example of how this podcast is less fun than PCHH. Everybody present has smart, interesting things to say — especially Carl Wilson: the best music journo in all the land. But they don’t seem to have any interest in what the others are saying, or what it says about those people’s tastes and personalities. This is fine. It’s really only ever fine.

All Songs Considered: “Our Top Discoveries At globalFEST 2016” — A solid 8/10 for picking interesting music from all over the world. About a 5/10 for having anything interesting to say about it.

The Memory Palace: “Below, from Above” — This starts off as “Nate DiMeo does 99% Invisible,” which actually works really well. But no podcast except this one could conjure the labour and misery of working for weeks at a time at the bottom of the East River, building the Brooklyn Bridge. Also, it’s nice to hear that DiMeo has been able to hire another producer the help out with the audio. The more time DiMeo can spend writing, the better. 

Song Exploder: “MGMT — Time to Pretend” — I don’t know this band, but the snippet at the end of the last episode pulled me in. This is fun. It’s especially interesting to see how the final version of the song evolved from an earlier version that the band made on a crap laptop in college.

99% Invisible: “The Fresno Drop” — This is a story about how credit cards started with an experiment in Fresno. It goes through a bunch of different early iterations of credit cards and why they worked and didn’t. It’s a lot more interesting than I’m making it seem. But if you listen to this show, you’ve learned by now that everything in the world is interesting.

The Heart: “The Wrath of the Potluck” — A charming, funny story of a dude getting what he wants at exactly the wrong moment. As always, trying to write about The Heart is making me bashful. Just, everybody go listen to an episode of The Heart.

99% Invisible: “Fish Cannon” — I think I’d heard about the Salmon Cannon on John Oliver, but I didn’t know about the opposition from anti-dam activists who claim that it’s treating a symptom of a larger problem. Really interesting. Although, Roman Mars does this thing sometimes where he starts an episode talking about a totally different thing than the episode is about, and when the episode is about shooting fish out of cannons, you wonder why he wouldn’t lead with that.

Reply All: “Raising the Bar” — I love this show’s “Yes Yes No” segment, and I also love how frequently “Yes Yes No” involves Alex Blumberg wading unknowingly into the most horrible, hateful parts of the internet and subsequently feeling dirty and awful about humanity. But the actual story in this episode is one of Reply All‘s best: the tale of why Twitter’s only black engineer in a leadership position quit. It’s for all the reasons you might expect, by the way, but this story (reported by the brilliant Alex Goldman) dives into the actual math of diversity in workplaces and emerges with an incredibly compelling conclusion. Pick of the week.

Reply All: “PSA: Hidden Trove” — Even when these guys don’t have a story and they’re just telling you about a thing they used to make for a couple of minutes, they’re still entertaining.

Serial: “The Captors” — I love that there is now a popular platform whereby a great journalist can go into way more detail on a story than journalists are normally afforded. But I can’t say that the details of Bowe Bergdahl’s story are interesting me as much as Adnan Syed’s. I’m sort of waiting for the part where he gets home and finds himself the subject of intense controversy. I guess it’s weird that I find that more interesting than the story of how he survived captivity, but I’m really starting to feel like the part of the story that takes place in Afghanistan has run its course, now. All the same, I got more out of this episode than the previous one because the Haqqani network is really interesting and I didn’t know anything about it.

Serial: “Announcement: New Schedule” — It’s no “PSA: Hidden Trove,” but what is?

Omnireviewer (week of Jan. 17, 2016)

It was a week of trains, busses and airplanes. That explains why there are more podcasts and stories than usual, and also why some of the reviews barely reviews at all. Regardless, there are 23 of them:

Movies

The Revenant — I was expecting this to be a joyless slog, and most of the people I went with seemed to come away from it with that impression. It is possible that I am a monster, because I actively enjoyed this from start to finish. It’s the second most visually stunning movie I’ve seen this year (next to another film with Tom Hardy in a supporting role). My initial reaction to the first few shots of this was “Well, here comes another year in which Roger Deakins will not win an Oscar.” But even through this movie is super dark, I found it totally thrilling. Part of that is just the effect of Emmanuel Lubeski’s long takes, but it’s also that the movie really puts you on DiCaprio’s character’s side — not through characterization, but just by making you a witness to his willpower and ruthlessness. I’m almost ashamed of how badly I wanted Tom Hardy’s character to bite it by the end. This is a big, messy, gorgeous, ambitious, singular sort of movie and you should see it in whatever format costs the most. Pick of the week.

Television

Mildred Pierce: Part 3 — It’s a rare moment in scripted television where there’s a fist-in-the-air moment that comes out of the intricacies of front-of-house restaurant management. In this, that moment comes courtesy of an actress named Mare Winningham, who I don’t think I’ve ever seen in anything but is my new favourite person. (Oh, wait. Apparently I’ve seen her in Torchwood and 24. I feel bad now.) Mildred’s daughter Veda is still intolerable and every scene with her in it is a slog. (I wonder if the direction “furiously plays the Can-Can” appeared in the screenplay anywhere?) Also, aside from Mare Winningham and Melissa Leo’s characters, Mildred lives in a universe of awful people. Truly terrible people. I am not one of those dummies who can’t watch anything that’s got unlikeable characters in it, but this is toeing the line, even for me.

QI: “Menagerie” — The average number of legs for an animal, when you take into account all of the animals is approximately none.

Literature, etc.

China Miéville: “Covehithe” — I’ve mentioned a bunch of times before how Mieville’s greatest strength is his premises. But the flipside of being able to come up with limitless unpredictable premises is the ability to make them not seem ridiculous. This is a story about decommissioned oil rigs coming to life and walking ashore to take their revenge. It’s a brilliant thought, but it shouldn’t work in a story that’s not played as broad satire. But Miéville makes it work through brilliant description, making the live oil rigs into impressively scary monsters. This seems to have been one of the stories from this collection that made the largest impression on the critics, and I can see why. Though I can’t say it’s one of my favourites.

China Miéville: “The Junket” — In which China Miéville impersonates a smug, mediocre magazine writer. He’s still fun when he’s slumming. Also, as usual there’s a clever structural trick. Miéville’s narrator talks about a controversial, fictitious movie for half the story without ever revealing its title or subject matter. When the penny drops, so much becomes clear.

China Miéville: “Four Final Orpheuses” — One of the shortest stories in the book: too short to make much of an impression. But the idea of posing alternate theories about why Orpheus looked back is a good one. Because it’s never made any sense.

China Miéville: “The Rabbet” — Nightmare-inducingly scary. Miéville doesn’t reveal his premise until about halfway through, so to say too much would be spoiling it. But this is definitely one of my favourite stories in the collection, even if it isn’t one of the most accomplished. Just because it’s so damn frightening.

Podcasts

Fresh Air: “David Bowie” — Not really a very good interview. It’s 2002, and Bowie isn’t in the mood to talk — especially not about the 30th anniversary of Ziggy Stardust, which is what he’s there to talk about. It’s a half-hour of Bowie rejecting the premises of Terry Gross’s questions, and Gross never quite catching on to the game he’s playing.

StartUp: “Disorg Chart” — Lisa Chow tries really hard to put Alex Blumberg’s feet to the fire in this, but he’s still her boss and it shows. Time for StartUp to move on to another new company. I don’t understand the people who actually think this show is better when it focusses on Gimlet. This mini-season has been fine, but the Dating Ring season is the best thing this show has done so far.

Sampler: Trailer — Normally I would think this is a bad idea. Shows that just stitch together bits of various podcasts the producers like have been done before by companies that shall remain nameless, and it’s dumb. But I already love Brittany Luse as a host, and I suspect she has sufficiently left-field taste that I’ll discover some crazy stuff through this that I’ll want to subscribe to. Or, maybe I’ll discover some crazy stuff that I definitely won’t want to subscribe to, but am glad I at least heard once. A sort of All Podcasts Considered, you might say. I am tentatively excited for this.

Reply All/Radiolab: “The Cathedral” —  Firstly, it’s about time Reply All got a plug on Radiolab. It’s been a better show than Radiolab for a year. This is a story about the making of That Dragon Cancer, a game that’s famous in some circles, about dealing with having a one-year-old son with cancer. The game sounds more emotionally draining than I’d like to deal with. But hearing the story of its development, and the story of how the family who made it dealt with their loss, is totally worthwhile. Sruthi Pinnamaneni is one of my favourite radio producers anywhere. I liked this enough that I listened to both cuts: the Reply All cut and the Radiolab cut. Which one you should listen to depends on whether or not you feel you need a crash course in the concept of “grown-up” video games. If so, go with Radiolab. If not, go with Reply All. However, the best line comes from Abumrad: “How do you finish a game where you don’t have many choices and you can’t win?” Pick of the week.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Comedian John Mulaney” — Audie Cornish is good at talking to funny people, and John Mulaney is one of the funniest. That is my review of this podcast.

The Heart: “Samara+Kelsey” — I’ve really enjoyed this season of The Heart. They’re technically incredible radio producers with an ear for great characters. But it’s kind of difficult to describe what makes it good. Just go listen to this, and you’ll either like it or not.

99% Invisible: “Best Enjoyed By” — News you can use, from 99pi. Basically, the dates on groceries aren’t related to food safety. Didn’t we kind of know that, though?

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “American Idol and People We’re Pulling For” — Two panelists I’d never heard before! This show does have new tricks!

Reply All: “Perfect Crime” — This is another of those clever things that only Reply All can do, where they tell a story that doesn’t actually have anything to do with their stated intent of making “a show about the internet,” but then present it in a way that says something to a web-steeped audience. This is ostensibly a story about an off-Broadway play that nobody likes, but it’s actually a story about our need for validation, on- and offline.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Hateful Eight and the Evolving Theatrical Experience” — I love this podcast because it always forces me to pause it and talk to myself. Regarding The Hateful Eight, I’m totally on-board with Linda Holmes’s reservations regarding the treatment of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character, but I’m confused by the fact that everybody on the panel seemed to find this movie a brutal slog of the “accomplished but difficult” persuasion. I don’t think Tarantino means for the violence to be difficult to watch, certainly. He takes a perverse delight in cinema violence. I normally don’t, but in Tarantino films (with some very notable exceptions) his delight tends to rub off on me. That was mostly the case with The Hateful Eight, which I found tremendous good fun. And as for “the evolving theatrical experience,” I felt the need to rush in and offer the “millennial perspective”: I don’t think that whole idea of the home movie experience getting better and better and thus cinemas becoming obsolete is really valid anymore. I know too many people who watch movies mostly on their computers to buy that.

Fresh Air: “Critics Pick The Best Film & Television of 2015” —  Yeah, I’ve got a lot of catching up to do with podcasts. The time has come to for god’s sake start running again. I recovered from my cold weeks ago, and my rolled ankle months ago, so really. Come on, Parsons. Anyway, when that eventually happens, there’ll be a lot of obviously old episodes of things showing up here. But for now there’s just this, which is really not that interesting and I’d skip it if I had my time back.  

Fresh Air: “Jennifer Lawrence” — I downloaded this before I learned Joy was bad. But Gross doesn’t dwell on it too much, and Lawrence is a totally fascinating person to listen to. She’s in a more businesslike mood here than we’re used to seeing her on late night shows, and whatnot. Because, I mean, it’s NPR. That makes it really worth listening to because she gets more of an opportunity to be thoughtful than she does elsewhere.

Radiolab: Year-end specials #2-4 — I have too many podcasts backed up to actually listen to these producer-chosen reruns, but I did scan through them to at least see which episodes the producers picked as their favourites: “Guts,” “The Bad Show,” and “Galapagos.” Of those, “The Bad Show” is certainly among my favourites. I can’t believe nobody picked “Inheritance,” “Stochasticity” or “Lost & Found” though. Those are three of the most sublime hours of radio ever made.

Song Exploder: “Courtney Barnett — Depreston” — I hadn’t loved a lot of what I’d heard of Courtney Barnett’s much-admired first album. But the thing about Song Exploder is that it really makes you pay attention. Isolating the vocal on this really brings out the (actually really obvious) fact that the lyrics are incredible. I think I’ll check out the rest of the album.

Theory of Everything: “Holy War” (parts I and II) — I really do appreciate that there’s someone as radical and willing to be divisive as Benjamen Walker in Radiotopia. If not for his incredible skill, he’d seem like the sort of person who would be kept away from mainstream podcast networks at all costs. That’s why I love him. This two-part speculative fiction satire of America’s Christian right is one of the outright angriest things he’s ever written, but Walker also actually engages with the specific faiths of his characters, especially in the second half. His critique of Christian America is stronger than his critique of religion more broadly — near the end of the first part, things veer uncomfortably close to Richard Dawkins new atheist territory, though he does pull back at the last minute. I used to sort of consider ToE just basically WireTap methadone. But stuff like this and “New York After Rent” would never have flown on that show. Benjamen Walker is more heretical than Jonathan Goldstein ever was.

Bullseye: “John Cleese and Dee Dee Penny” — I should really listen to more Bullseye. Damn, this is a good show. As for this specific episode: Cleese can be a real dick sometimes, but he’s in a good mood here. Jesse Thorn pulls great clips to facilitate the conversation, and they dive into Cleese’s early years. It’s amazing to hear how tentative his first steps into comedy were. He was on track to be a lawyer. Imagine. I admit I kind of spaced out during bits of the Dee Dee Penny interview. But I love some of the tracks Thorn pulls.

Omnireviewer (week of Dec. 13)

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

Television

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

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

Games

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

Podcasts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Omnireviewer (week of Dec. 6)

A week full of lovely things, really. 22 lovely things.

Music

The year-end lists are coming out, so I was going to spend the week going through the stuff I missed. But then I got waaay more obsessed with this first one than I’d anticipated. It’s nearly embarrassing, but actually no it isn’t at all.

Lin-Manuel Miranda: Hamilton, An American Musical — They made a hip hop musical about the establishment of America’s national bank. Just when you thought Broadway was all superfluous Disney adaptations. This is incredible for so many reasons. It shifts seamlessly from convincing hip hop to straight-ahead showtunes about arcane political processes. And that’s not the only tonal shift it manoeuvres: it’s incredible how this flits back and forth between funny and tragic, arch and sincere, and from straight-ahead storytelling to meta-commentary. It is totally self-aware about its own unlikely subject matter, but it doesn’t let that self-awareness get in the way of its story, which you can get lost in to an extent that you seldom see in works of musical narrative. Unlike most cast albums, this works brilliantly as a bespoke object. As a concept album, it has a narrative thrust that keeps you listening to the words, even when the music threatens to beguile you away from the piece’s themes. And it’s bewilderingly allusive: it’s well worth listening to this with the Genius annotations (some of which come straight from Lin-Manuel Miranda himself) within arm’s reach. Miranda has everything. It’s not just that he can rap and sing and write a catchy hook and verses that lodge in your head, he also has something interesting to say about Alexander Hamilton as a historical figure and about how who tells the stories from history affects how we think about it. There are nothing but good things to say about this. I don’t care if you like musicals or not, listen to Hamilton. Pick of the week.

Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp a Butterfly — If it seems perverse to give pick of the week to a musical rather than what looks increasingly like the consensus best album of 2015, know that it’s only because I’m totally obsessed with Hamilton right now. To Pimp a Butterfly is as good as everybody says it is, and I would imagine that out of the two, it’s what I’ll be coming back to more frequently in 2016. If only to figure out what he’s on about. This is some seriously challenging stuff.

Africa Express/Terry Riley: In C Mali — I’m a huge fan of California minimalism in general, and Terry Riley specifically. But, his most famous piece, In C, was never one that I found myself listening to very much. Until I heard it played on African instruments when this thing came out earlier this year. Then I listened and I listened and I listened. Nice to revisit again after a few months.

CHVRCHES: Every Open Eye — Here’s something I’m not seeing on nearly enough year-end lists. CHVRCHES’ music is pure catharsis and people who don’t like it hate joy. This album is significantly better (or at least more consistent) than their first, which critics were all about. What gives? “Make Them Gold” is a clunker of a single, if we’re being honest, but the rest of the album is perfect pop.

Television

Deadwood: “Reconnoitering the Rim” — I don’t know where this show is going, but damn, Ian McShane can act.

QI: “Marriage and Mating” — Why am I reviewing an episode of QI? Tell you what, I’m not.

BoJack Horseman: “Hank After Dark” — According to my own rules, I’m not technically obligated to review this, since it’s my second time watching it in the course of this blog — and, in fact, in a fairly short span of time. I just felt obligated to pop back in and reiterate that this is one of the best episodes of comedy television I’ve ever seen. Okay? Okay.

Lost: “White Rabbit” — Reasons I don’t understand people who like the first season of Lost best: (1) Shannon and Boone are unwatchable; (2) Sawyer is a prick — and not in a way that any reasonable person should find charming, although the show sure seems to sell him like that; (3) it’s galling to see Jack take such a large role in the story when you know he was supposed to die in the first episode in what would have been the most brilliant bait-and-switch in television history, had the writers followed through. Jack’s story has more “it’s so hard to be a handsome rich hero dude” than I’d like. We wouldn’t have had to sit through that if they’d just done the right thing and killed the handsome rich hero dude. And that cliff dangle is ridiculous. I still basically like this, though. The hallucinatory manifestation of Jack’s daddy issues is properly creepy.

Literature, etc.

Alejandro Jodorowsky/Moebius: The Incal — A very thoughtful birthday present from some wonderful friends. I think I’m going to enjoy this. So far, Moebius is impressing more than Jodorowsky, whose writing has a lot of sci-fi clichés, and the juxtaposition of text and image sometimes seems arbitrary and lacks clarity. But this is a good yarn with some damn pretty pictures.

China Miéville: “Dreaded Outcome” — Here’s a narrator that Miéville can really sink into: a jargon-dropping therapist. I put this story down right at the point where a massive twist happens, then when I picked it back up, I didn’t even recognize it. This is good.

Lucas Adams: “An Illustrated Account of the Great Maple Syrup Heist” — This short comic about a thing that honest to god actually happened will make you very excited about the Jason Segal movie that Sony Pictures is honest to god going to make about it.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “A Conversation with Trevor Noah” — I haven’t gotten around to watching any of Trevor Noah’s Daily Show, but I think I will now. In this interview with Linda Holmes (who should really do more hour-long podcast interviews; she’s fantastic) he proves to be refreshingly circumspect. There’s an awkward moment near the end when he’s talking about “things you’re not supposed to say,” but at least he’s willing to own up to his mistakes and learn as he goes.

Imaginary Worlds: “Origin Stories” — The superhero origin story imagined as a psychological necessity. Excellent.

Song Exploder: “Wilco – Magnetized” — This is my favourite song on the new Wilco album by a fair margin, so it’s great to hear it exploded. I love that Glenn Kotche’s drum part was inspired by Jeff Tweedy’s son’s drumming. But I still kind of think he’s just imitating Ringo.

On The Media: “Lies, Lies, Lies” — No tragedy this time, except for Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy. On The Media is a really dark show, sometimes. Throughout this episode, you realize gradually that the demonstrable truthfulness of a statement doesn’t really have that much to do with whether or not people are swayed by it. Let us all collectively shudder.

Serial: “DUSTWUN” — Back into the weeds we go. Look, I love Serial, and I love Sarah Koenig’s journalism. But this is one of those situations where it can be difficult to keep the thing itself separate from the phenomenon of the thing. The response to season one of Serial was huge and weird and bad. I remember it being compared to True Detective which is just wrong. Serial is not a fictional detective show; it’s real journalism about people who exist out in the world. The widespread disappointment in the ending of the season was naive and ruthless — you can’t just end a true story however you want. And while I’m a devoted listener to a great many non-fiction podcasts, some of which tell serialized stories, it’s distressing to me that the story of Adnan Syed ended up being fetishized by people in the same way that I fetishize, say, Doctor Who. So, Serial: the breakout podcast phenomenon is a thing I have very mixed feelings about. BUT, Serial: the longform non-fiction storytelling project is a thing I really love. So, this new season is properly exciting — especially given that it’s about a story that got international TV news coverage, and now we’ll get a totally new lens on it. Instead of people filing stories in a day, we’ll get one of the most ruthlessly detail-oriented journalists in the world, plus her team of producers, PLUS screenwriter Mark Boal (of Hurt Locker fame and Zero Dark Thirty infamy) all on the case and making no compromises to time. And if that last line is any indication, the next episode is going to be a corker. Let’s all keep our heads, though. This is actually happening. Pick of the week.

Reply All: “I Love You, I Loathe You” — Reply All is that rare podcast that focuses on fussy, meticulous, reported stories but can also pull off just having its hosts banter with each other for a whole episode. In that sense, it may be the “most podcast” of all podcasts: it combines the pre-taped public radio approach of shows like This American Life and On The Media (where both hosts once worked) with the podcast-native approach of people talking to each other into microphones with little adornment (à la Stop Podcasting Yourself, etc). There’s no reported story in this episode of Reply All, but it was still fantastic and still Reply All. This is Gimlet’s best podcast and it would take something staggering for them to top it. (Jonathan Goldstein, perhaps.)

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Creed, Men Crying At Movies, and Visceral Responses” — I find I seldom have much to say about regular episodes of PCHH, but don’t be fooled: I love this show. It will likely take a slot on my year-end roundup of best podcasts for its sheer reliability in delivering insight and joy. And Gene Demby sounds so happy to be back.

The Moth: “Amir Baghdadchi & Dameon Wilburn: StorySLAM Favourites” — Two outstanding, riotously funny stories about travel, both distinguished more for the quality of the telling than by the story itself.

99% Invisible: “Pagodas and Dragon Gates” — These days, there are good episodes of 99pi, and “fine” episodes of 99pi. This is one of the good ones. It’s about why San Francisco’s Chinatown looks like it does architecturally, in spite of the fact that pagodas and dragon gates were long out of fashion in China when those structures were built in Chinatown. It’s more of a story than you might anticipate.

StartUp: “Pitch Perfect 2” — Alex Blumberg is absolutely pathological about playing that tape of him bombing a pitch over and over. This is super interesting, and I’m so happy that Gimlet has a new partner who shares Blumberg and Matt Lieber’s vision. I can’t wait to hear their new shows — especially Jonathan Goldstein’s. That guy is a master.

Fresh Air: “Historian Mary Beard Tackles Myths about Ancient Rome” — Research about antiquity is catnip to me. This interview (with Dave Davies, filling in ably for Terry Gross) contains such wonderful tidbits as Caligula hating being called Caligula, because it was a diminutive nickname from his childhood — “Bootikins,” essentially.