Tag Archives: Sorcery

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 Jan. 1, 2017)

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

Television

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

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

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

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

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

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

Games

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

Music

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

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

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

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

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

Podcasts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Omnireviewer (week of Dec. 25, 2016)

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

Movies

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

Television

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

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

Games

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

Podcasts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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