Tag Archives: The West Wing Weekly

Omnibus (week of April 8, 2018)

Oh, hey! Thanks for dropping by. May I recommend a podcast that is not in the long list of reviews posted below? That podcast is the North by Northwest podcast from CBC Radio. It is the show that I work on for actual money, and we are trying some new stuff on there. For example, this week I made an alternate version of a radio story I did about a guy who designs yachts, which is more than twice the length of the radio version. In addition to things like that, you will get a whole raft of Sheryl MacKay’s interviews with interesting people in the B.C. arts world, many of whom you won’t have heard of. That’s the fun of it. And occasionally you’ll get me, just talking nonsense about pop culture and spinning weird theories. If any of this sounds interesting to you, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, or wherever else you’re accustomed to listening.

We return you now to your regularly scheduled tedious blather, complete with no fewer than ten podcast episodes pertaining to the Mark Zuckerberg hearings. Brace yourself.

20 reviews.

Literature, etc.

Oliver Byrne: The First Six Books of the Elements of Euclid — I’ve never been a math person. I have traumatic high school memories of standardized tests and interminable homework assignments that haunt me to this day. Now that I’m out of school and making a living, I find myself interested in learning about all sorts of things I wasn’t previously interested in, but mathematics has never been one of them. Nonetheless, I was browsing through a bookstore earlier this week and I found myself unexpectedly transfixed by this volume. It is a facsimile of a 19th-century illustrated publication of Euclid’s Elements: the foundational text of geometry. The printer, Oliver Byrne, has rendered Euclid’s proofs and problems in a remarkable, easy-to-grasp illustrated format made up of blue, yellow, red and black lines and shapes. (The publisher’s jacket blurb points out that Byrne’s colour choices inadvertently prefigure Mondrian’s famous geometric paintings, and thus a great deal of Northern European and Scandinavian design. Accordingly, I’ve shelved Byrne alongside my Mondrian-inspired yellow-red-blue boxed set of the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo books.) With everything laid out visually, I found myself able to follow along with Euclid’s reasoning — and to see the elegance of his methods. Everything he does in the Elements can be proven with nothing more than a straight-edge and a compass for drawing lines and circles. No protractor. You can’t measure angles. Think about that for a second: say you want to draw an equilateral triangle, but you don’t have a protractor. You draw a line that’s 10cm long. You draw another line connected to it that’s also 10cm long. All that’s left is to draw a third 10cm line that connects the two — but since you couldn’t measure the angle between your first two lines, how likely do you think it is that your third line actually will turn out to be 10cm? Not very. Never fear: Euclid found a way. And that’s his first proof. It’s simple, elegant, and it makes you go “huh,” and maybe turn the page. I did turn the page. And then I bought the book. I’ve been reading it in bed, a few proofs a night before I go to sleep. I cannot tell you how calming it has been. If you, like me, associate math with stress and pressure, that is likely because you have never encountered it in a zero-stakes situation. When you read Euclid — and especially when you read Byrne’s illustrated Euclid — you don’t have to solve anything. You’re not expected to come up with an answer to a question. You’re really just watching somebody else do math. Euclid’s got it all laid out for you, and all you have to do is follow along. And if you don’t understand a step, who cares? There’s no exam. This has been a revelation for me. Its complete lack of what we normally think of as narrative or thematic content makes Euclid the best bedtime reading I’ve ever encountered. It is math as self-care. And I feel like I can’t be the only person who would experience this: surely in these times, the most therapeutic thing you can experience is a person saying to you “here are some things that are definitely true, and here is why.” Pick of the week.

Games

Stories Untold — My feelings on this game are complicated by two kinds of negative responses: technical concerns and story concerns. I’d rather not even write about the technical concerns because they’re boring, but they also defined my experience of this game, so I have to. I’ll save them for last, though. Let’s start with the story. Spoilers, ahoy. Evidently “The House Abandon,” the first of the four episodes that comprise Stories Untold, was released in some form as a standalone entity previously to this. Taken as a thing in itself, “The House Abandon” is a marvel. It presents the player with a game within a game — specifically a text game within a graphical game — and then reveals that the two layers of reality it depicts are linked. The moment when the penny drops is masterful horror: essentially, there’s a point where you realize that what you are typing into the text game is actually happening in another part of the house you’re in. The power goes out at your computer desk; you make your character in the text game turn on the generator; the power comes back on. You make your character open a door; you hear a door open. It’s immediately obvious that the episode will end when you encounter yourself. And far from curtailing the suspense, that grim certitude only makes the game more agonizing as it draws relentlessly to the chapter’s conclusion. “The House Abandon” gave me gooseflesh in the middle of a sunny Saturday afternoon. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. But here’s the thing. None of what is good about it has anything to do with the actual content of the story your character lives through. It’s a story that’s mysterious and vague, and that in no way calls out for clarification. The horror and fascination arise purely from the central conceit: that there’s somebody else in the house, and they’re doing everything you type into your computer. I don’t really care about what happened to this character’s sister or why that door is boarded up. It seems largely beside the point, and anyway I’m content to wonder. So, imagine my disappointment when the final episode of Stories Untold explains away all that ambiguity with the most banal reason imaginable: the entire game up to that point has been a series of psychotic episodes in the mind of a guilt-ridden man who killed his sister and an off-duty cop while driving drunk. This reveal causes a number of things from episodes previous to make sense in a way that completely robs them of their strange imaginativeness. It reduces a fascinating formal experiment to a Very Special Episode. It treats its own narrative as a puzzle to be solved and shelved tidily away, taking for granted that the most important element of storytelling is THE ANSWER. It seems custom-made for people whose brains fell out at the end of Night in the Woods. To sum up: the first episode of Stories Untold is a self-contained near-masterpiece, the middle two are fine, and the final one is a huge disappointment that will appeal only to those with no appreciation for ambiguity or nuance. Which, to be fair, is a large group of people. Let’s move on to my boring technical concerns. Firstly and most my fault-ly, I tried to run Stories Untold well below the minimum graphics card specs (it’s a text game, I thought, how much graphics power could I possibly need?) and by the final episode the main source of tension was not the story but whether or not the game would crash. THREE TIMES I had to restart the chapter because of freezing or crashing. And while I realize it’s petulant to complain about a game’s performance when you’re trying to run it on an old MacBook, a simple autosave feature could have saved me the trouble of having to play through the entire episode from the beginning four times. Stories Untold has no saving mechanism at all, presumably in an attempt to make you play each of its episodes in one sitting. I get that. It’s definitely best that way. But should anything go wrong, tech-wise, you can be set back by as much as an hour’s worth of progress. That sucked. And crap graphics card or no, it needn’t have sucked so bad. Secondly, there are some seriously annoying design choices throughout. At one point you are obliged to read text on a microfilm reader (making this the third game I’ve played this year to feature microfilm, after Night in the Woods and Virginia) and you have to meticulously zoom and focus in on it. This is needless. Also, at a few points you are made to turn a dial until a display shows the correct number. In some cases, the only way (obvious to me) to manipulate this dial is to click and drag for minutes at a time until you hit the correct number. A simple numerical entry would suffice, thanks. No need to make it feel that analogue. Finally, in the first episode, the game insists on teletyping large amounts of text one character at a time. This is valuable for suspense in many cases, but sometimes you have to revisit text you’ve seen before, and surely there’s no suspense in teletyping that. These details make the game actively annoying to play. It’s almost too bad that “The House Abandon” is so brilliant. Because that’s the only thing that could make me waver while advising my fellow horror game enthusiasts to pass this one by.

Podcasts

The Gist: “Zuck Everlasting,” “It’s Regulation Time,” “Tax Cut Conundrum” & “I Never Said That” — Mark Zuckerberg is appearing before congress. That’ll be fun. This chat between Mike Pesca and April Glaser is a good primer on what to expect. If you’re reading/listening after the fact, one expects this will be less relevant for you. Greetings, readers, it’s me: Matthew from a day later than the previous sentence. It has now become clear that Mike Pesca is doing a “Zuck trilogy” this week, the second part of which is an interview with Brooke Gladstone about the history of us blaming media for things. All the same, she’s under no illusions about the fact that social media works differently. It’s good and it’s less time-hooked than the previous instalment. Greetings once again, from yet a third point in time. In the third and presumably final instalment of Pesca’s Zuckerberg hearings coverage, he strings together a bunch of dumb questions from senators. Fun. OH SHIT, here’s number four, because we’ve got to have the coverage of the COVERAGE of the Zuckerberg hearings. Anyway, this has been good. The Gist doesn’t get enough credit for presaging the emergence of daily news podcasts. That’s not what it is, but it’s closer than any other show of its vintage.

The Daily: “Wednesday, Apr. 11, 2018” “Thursday, Apr. 12, 2018” — Here’s what you listen to if you want to know what happened at the Zuckerberg hearings. Michael Barbaro breaks it down with tech reporter Kevin Roose, one day at a time. Key takeaways: I know more about how Facebook works than most senators, and the House smarter than the Senate.

NPR Politics Podcast: “Zuckerberg Faces Congress And FBI Raids Properties of Trump Lawyer” & “More On Mueller, Zuckerberg And Landscape for 2018 Elections” — I came for Zuckerberg, but they couldn’t compete with The Daily on that count. The breakdown of the Mueller investigation developments is great, though. I should listen to this more. This always makes me feel like I know what’s going on. Something about listening to people talk about current events conversationally gives that effect more than a news reporting tone does.

On the Media: “Who’s In Charge Here?” — It’s a decent week for a Bob Garfield solo episode. Lots going on. The Zuckerberg-centric segment goes in a different direction from other more straightforward news and current events shows, focussing on anti-trust legislation and how that may or may not factor into regulation of Facebook. But the best segment is about how corporations have been gaining civil rights since long before Citizens United. Good stuff.

The Media Show: “The Age of Zuckerberg” — And now for some Brits. I haven’t listened to The Media Show enough to have a handle on the format, but this is less a discussion of Mark Zuckerberg as it is a discussion of the various projects that the guest panelists have on the go. I was interested to hear from the new editor of Cosmopolitan about her new strategy, though that’s not necessarily what I came for. I should listen to this more.

The West Wing Weekly: “Hamilton Special (with Lin-Manuel Miranda and Thomas Kail)” — My white-hot Hamilton obsession is long since past, but listening to Miranda and Kail talk about The West Wing brought a fraction of it back. This is a great chat, and it’s fun to hear about what a foundational text The West Wing was for Hamilton’s creators. It’s also fun to hear about their actual encounters with West Wingers both real and fictional. Kail’s story of the original cast’s performance at the White House is worth the listen in itself.

Constellations: “bonnie jones – and if i live a thousand lives i hope to remember one” — Last week’s commentary on this show’s preciousness stands. But Jones’ piece is far more intuitively likeable than some of the other sound art on the show — it’s musical. It’s fun. You should check it out.

This American Life: “The Impossible Dream” — I listened to this as soon as it hit my feed. I knew it was coming, thanks to Zoe Chace’s interview on Longform, but it evidently had a troubled gestation. The episode begins with Chace and Ira Glass talking about why it almost stopped being a story: namely that its protagonist, senator Jeff Flake, resigned before the story reached its logical conclusion. And it’s true that this doesn’t have a conventionally satisfying ending, but that didn’t stop me from listening past the caveat-laden intro, nor did it stop me from enjoying the hell out of this. I realized at some point during this episode that The Story Of Jeff Flake was not actually what I wanted from this, nor was the broader story of Why Congress Is So Ineffective. What I wanted was the Zoe Chace Capitol Hill Story. We’ve heard her on the campaign trail and it was brilliant. It was different from everybody else’s reporting on the Trump campaign. This is the logical next thing. And it is accordingly different from everybody else’s palace intrigue stories about the madness that has taken hold of Congress during the Trump administration. It is well worth hearing.

In Our Time: “Euclid’s Elements” & “Four Quartets” — I recently purchased a rather handsome volume of Oliver Byrne’s 19th-century illustrated edition of Euclid’s Elements. It isn’t normally the sort of thing I would read, but I found myself captivated by it in the bookstore and I’ve been looking through its various, completely understandable proofs before bed at night. In this day and age, it can be therapeutic to sit down with a book that tells you “here are some things that are definitely true and here is why.” Immediately after buying it I realized that this was a thing there was probably an In Our Time episode about, and I wasn’t wrong. The episode is outright fantastic, with all members of the panel expositing enthusiastically on not only the relevance but the joy of reading Euclid. Having heard it will make my reading experience better, and that is all you can ask of a show like this. T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets is a thing I have not read in its entirety, though I’ve read the bit of “The Dry Salvages” that talks about “music heard so deeply that it is not heard at all/but you are the music while the music lasts” more times than I can count. (It’s a beautiful line, albeit one that he undercuts immediately. That doesn’t make it less beautiful or perceptive, though.) The conversation on it is good, but there’s a pervading sense throughout that Melvyn Bragg’s enthusiasm for the poems is such that he barely needs his panel of experts. Fortunately for all of us, he doesn’t bother resisting the urge to speak his mind.

StartUp: Re-runs for Alex, Inc. — I contend that Alex, Inc.’s promotional materials are so awful that I cannot be blamed for assuming it is terrible without watching it. Still, it’s a big moment for Gimlet and for Alex Blumberg, and it makes sense that they’re taking advantage of the potential audience crossover from the terrible sitcom they accidentally begat. For the rest of us, this is an opportunity to revisit the early days of StartUp: a groundbreaking podcast that felt at the time like lightning in a bottle, and that now feels a bit quaint in light of the (relative) behemoth that Gimlet has become. I remember listening to StartUp when it first come out. I remember waiting on bated breath for new episodes in a way I’d never done for a podcast — or any non-fiction narrative — before. That was in 2014: podcasting’s watershed year — the year that also brought us season one of Serial, which I loved, but not as much as StartUp. (I joked in my first-ever year-end wrap that Serial “wasn’t even my favourite serialized podcast, created by a This American Life producer, that starts with the letter ‘S.’”) Since that time, podcasting and my taste in podcasts have both become enormously more diverse. And the early StartUp episodes that hit the feed once again this week seem accordingly less gutsy and revolutionary than they once did. But it’s still incredible to look back to four short years ago and see a version of Gimlet where Matt Lieber expressed transparent disappointment in the equity he was offered, whereas now he’s a beloved trope in Reply All’s end credits and a figure who Jonathan Goldstein is openly scared of. It’s fun to look back at a Gimlet where four stressed out producers were gathered around a computer trying to figure out how to upload the first Reply All episode to what was then still called the iTunes store, whereas now that show is an institution that justifies two full episodes of the Longform podcast being dedicated to it. It’s edifying to think back to the fact that when I first encountered StartUp there was no such thing as Gimlet Media, whereas now I associate the word Gimlet with podcasts far more than I do with alcoholic beverages. Crap sitcom or not, the story of Gimlet is the story of the rise of a medium. And it’s all on tape.

The World According to Sound: “Sound Audio: Year in Food” — Here we have a man listing everything he ate in a year, in alphabetical order, sped up. “Beef sandwich, beef sandwich, beef sandwich, beef sandwich, beef sandwich, beef sandwich. Beetroot salad, beetroot salad, beetroot salad… *deep breath* Bun! Bun! Bun! Bun! Bun! …” This is something else.  

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Barry” & “Antiques Roadshow and What’s Making Us Happy” — Barry is an aspirational watch, should I ever find the time. Antiques Roadshow is an ambient pleasure at best — however, the PCHH episode on that topic is a minor classic of the catalogue, due to the contributions of the very antique proprietor of the Maximum Fun network, Jesse Thorn. He is funny and insightful here, just like everywhere else.

Out of the Blocks: “200 W Read St, part 1: The Greenwich Village of Baltimore” — This is the best new podcast I’ve listened to in I don’t know how long. It’s made by an NPR affiliate station in Baltimore, and it’s based on a delightfully simple premise: each episode is devoted to a single city block in Baltimore. The host visits people who live and work on that block, and hears their stories of the past and present of the neighbourhood where they live. It’s all set to a marvellous original score, and it feels warm like you wouldn’t believe. Most of my favourite podcasts these days are rather thinky affairs: stuff about big ideas and abstract notions. But this is straightforward, out-in-the-world radio in the tradition of the Kitchen Sisters and Studs Terkel, and it’s absolutely marvellous. This episode on “the Greenwich Village of Baltimore” was a good starting point for me, so it likely will be for you too. Two more episodes to go on this block, apparently, and I can’t wait. Pick of the week. 

All Songs Considered: “New Mix: Ólafur Arnalds, Khruangbin, Whyte Horses, Ari Roar, More” & “New Music Friday: April 13” — Nothing much appeals in this week’s New Music Friday, alas. But I really love that Ólafur Arnalds track in the main episode. I’m still waiting for this year’s Let’s Eat Grandma moment on this show. Nothing has bowled me over. I guess there’s a new Let’s Eat Grandma album on the way, though. There’s always that.

Arts and Ideas: “British New Wave Films of the ‘60s” — A fun discussion of British kitchen sink dramas, i.e. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, both of which I saw in a film studies class and never thought about again. Frankly it’s not my speed. But I recognize its importance as a movement. Also, we get a wonderful segment on the bizarre, bad literary contributions of infamous dictators. God save the BBC.

99% Invisible: “Lessons from Las Vegas” — A good, old-fashioned Avery Trufelman architecture episode. This show is on a hot streak right now, and I’m inclined to think it’s because of a return to first principles. This story is primarily about a well-known architecture textbook and the relationship that begat it. It takes twists and turns you wouldn’t expect, and it explicates some big ideas you may not ever have had to consider before. Lovely stuff.

Song by Song: “Straight to the Top (Rhumba)” — A brief and perfunctory episode on a song I like a lot more than this show’s hosts, who have been guestless for two episodes. Wonder what guests they’ve got lined up. I feel like guests would be nice.

Code Switch: “Location! Location! Location!” — Code Switch tackles housing segregation, and it’s as complicated as you would think. If you do not listen to this regularly, begin.

Advertisements

Omnireviewer (week of Mar. 19, 2017)

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

Movies

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

Television

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

Literature, etc.

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

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

Music

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

Podcasts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Omnireviewer (week of 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.

Omnireviewer (week of Oct. 2, 2016)

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

23 reviews.

Television

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

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

Movies

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

Games

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

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

Music

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

Literature, etc.

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

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

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

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

Podcasts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Omnireviewer (week of Sept. 25, 2016)

If you’re interested in being frustrated by me more frequently and for shorter periods at a time, I’m now doing this on Tumblr as well. I post the reviews as I write them. I’ve got three followers already! Two of whom I don’t even know IRL!

17 reviews.

Literature, etc.

The Book of Tobit — I read the version of this that can be found in the “Shorter Books of the Apocrypha” volume of the New English Bible, along with the commentary provided therein. I know nothing about whether or not this is a good way to read Tobit. It’s just what my library had most conveniently at hand. It’s the first Biblical reading I’ve ever done, aside from a brief teenage tear through Revelation. Odd choices, I’m sure. An apocryphal text and a fever dream. But I’m now the proud owner of a copy of Alan Moore’s Jerusalem, and I understand that the demon from this Biblical story makes a substantial appearance there. Might as well do my homework. So, how was it? Well, I learned that the Grateful Dead got their name from one of the folktales sourced in Tobit. Also near the start, Tobit is blinded when a sparrow poops in his eyes. Also there’s a bit where the archangel Raphael appears in disguise, and talks about his friend “Gabael.” Seriously, Raphael? You might as well have said “Schmabriel.” You are bad at subterfuge, and I bet your disguise is just Groucho Marx glasses. Also a huge fish tries to swallow a man’s foot, but the book never says whether it tried to bite it off first. Odd phrasing. Very hard to swallow a foot when it is still attached to a leg. So basically, laffs o’plenty.

Jeph Loeb & Tim Sale: Batman: The Long Halloween — Superhero comics aren’t really my speed, these days. But a friend leant this to me and I LOVED it. It’s less of a conventional superhero story than it is a crime drama, and its clearest reference points outside of the Batman canon come from The Godfather and The Silence of the Lambs. Tim Sale’s art is both stylishly noirish and practical in its storytelling — many things are illustrated that did not actually happen, but it is always clear what they are. There are a lot of bad guys in this story, and while shoehorning in multiple antagonists has hurt movies like Spider-Man 3 and The Dark Knight Rises, Loeb finds a way to make each iconic villain’s appearance serve the main thrust of the narrative. Indeed, the structural device of “iconography of a major holiday + recognizable villain + grisly murder by an unknown hand” in each issue makes for nearly perfect serialized storytelling — especially when the structure begins to break down in the Riddler chapter. I laid down on the couch to start reading this early on a Sunday afternoon, and did not get up until I was finished. That’s the mark of a good suspense story. Pick of the week.

Tanya Gold: “A Goose in a Dress” — This Harper’s feature from last year addresses the shitty side of the culture war by way of lacerating, hilarious food criticism. A selection of top-tier New York restaurants is made to exemplify what is wrong with America’s cultural elites, and products made for ostensibly refined tastes are exposed as a consequence of intense anti-intellectualism. This can apply to so many elements of “high culture.” Intellectual laziness is easily bred in environments where an artistic idiom’s value is held up as unquestionable (see also: classical music, Shakespeare). This is why you cannot learn anything worthwhile about the world from reading Gramophone magazine, but you can learn plenty from reading reviews of Kendrick Lamar records. Gold’s piece is the necessary (and hugely satisfying) negative side of poptimism applied to food. For the positive spin, look no further than the Sporkful podcast: a labour of love on behalf of the full spectrum of culinary experience. This feature is incredible. Read it. There’s a line about Charles Foster Kane that is so brilliant you’ll eat your computer.

Adrian Tomine: Shortcomings — I don’t quite know how to respond to this. I was totally involved in the story and completely believed the characters, but I came out of it without a clear sense of what I was meant to take from it. I’ve never been one of those people who writes off a story because of unsympathetic characters. Which, you just can’t be if you’re going to get anything out of this. The protagonist is an unrepentant jerk with zero self-awareness. But I feel like it’s going to stick with me. And I like that feeling — when there are just thoughts swirling around, and eventually they may coalesce into a broth. And that’s basically what this blog is: just a record of that process in something close to real-time. But where this comic is concerned, it isn’t happening fast enough for me to have anything much to say. I do think it’s probably very good. It’s definitely engrossing, in a soapy kind of way.

Television

Last Week Tonight: September 25, 2016 — One joke format that I love when it is delivered well is the “ruthless overkill” joke. John Oliver saying “fuck you” to an eight-year-old Ron Howard is exactly what I mean by that. Also, this show’s occasional compilations of ads for WCBS News features are always hysterical and remind me why I mostly hate television. The main course was especially relevant since I watched this immediately after subjecting myself to the first presidential debate. More than any specific factual misrepresentation or shameless dogwhistle, I found myself enraged at the general tenor of the debate, which was light on policy and heavy on accusations of scandal. This helps put a lot of that in perspective, but it is still absolutely not what I want to hear the candidates talk about. And I think we can expect more from exactly one of the two.  

Games

The Last Door: Season 1 (Collector’s Edition) — This game offers proof of concept remarkably quickly. In its opening scene, it shows you something extremely disquieting, rendered in its self-described “lo-fi” 8-bit aesthetic, and the juxtaposition of that terror with the lack of detail in its illustration is intensely effective. It’s like what Scott McCloud writes about the power of cartoons: you can impose yourself onto a figure without much detail. It’s a tremendously effective technique to draw on in a horror game, because it makes the terror that much more visceral. The key reference point in most reviews seems to be H.P. Lovecraft, but as ever, his influence is overestimated compared to that of Poe. Sub out crows for ravens and you’re halfway there. Lovecraft rears his head in the form of a Thing That Lies Just Beyond Our Senses That Is Incomprehensible And Ruthless, but the aesthetic of this is firmly in Poe’s Romantic idiom. It is so unsettling. I’ll play through the second season as soon as I get the chance.

Music

Margo Price: Midwest Farmer’s Daughter — You know, it scratches an itch. Country music is a sometimes food, but Margo Price is the real deal: a hard living, mistake making modern human with a killer band and a capacity to express hard personal truths with directness. I’m not sure I love this as much as some of Price’s biggest fans, but — and I never thought I’d say this — it’s possible that I’ve listened to more country music than some of this record’s cheerleaders. So it isn’t revelatory, so much as merely excellent. I love “Hands of Time.” This has no weak tracks, but that one is an instant classic.

Miles Davis: On The Corner — Jeez, let me tell you, listening to this in the grocery store makes for some odd juxtapositions. Hearing John McLaughlin soloing over tablas and Miles’ wah-wah treated trumpet while you sort through the onions for a firm one just feels wrong. In spite of its prosaic title, this album isn’t the sort of thing that pairs well with real life. The music of On the Corner sounds like it couldn’t have happened in a place, no matter how hard that title tries to wrangle it down to earth. It is artificial music — fictional music. No doubt that’s the result of Miles, a person who came up in a musical idiom where whatever happens in front of the microphones is what goes on the record, actively swerving as far as he could to the other end of the spectrum. Bitches Brew may be more adventurous; Jack Johnson may be more rock and roll. But On the Corner marks the farthest point out on Miles’ electric peninsula. I love it. It might be my favourite Miles Davis record.

Podcasts

Radiolab: “The Primitive Streak” — Jad is clearly not taking his vacation seriously. Still. This is one of the best Radiolab stories in recent memory, maybe partially because it strongly resembles the Radiolab from two or three years ago that I remember so fondly. No media outlet does the “science deals with a difficult ethical question” story as well as Radiolab does. And good luck finding one with such glorious eerie synth music.

The Gist: “Rapid Response: The First Presidential Debate” — It’s as good as it can be. Of course I’m going to listen to recaps like these, but I’m just tired. What’s there to say anymore?

NPR Politics Podcast: “The First Presidential Debate” — This podcast is incredibly useful, in that it features people who I can stand to listen to talking about people I can’t stand to listen to.

In Our Time: “Zeno’s Paradoxes” — This is marvellous, easily the best episode of In Our Time that I’ve heard. It is propelled forward by Melvyn Bragg’s total fascination with the hysterical, raving absurdities of paradoxes like Achilles and the tortoise, and Zeno’s arrow. His guests are articulate enough to make you genuinely think twice about the notion that a line could possibly be made of discrete points. This sort of abstraction is totally fascinating to me. References to the Weeping Angels in Doctor Who are just a bonus. Okay, that’s the end of the review, but this made me remember a story I feel compelled to relate. Once, way back in grade 11 chemistry, our teacher Ms. Agnew was trying to demonstrate pipetting. The chemical reaction she was undertaking required a super specific amount of a solute to be added to a beaker of some solvent or another. She asked for a volunteer to attempt the feat, and when only the usual suspects raised their hands (yours truly, and a few of my friends), she forced the stoner in the back row to step up. I can’t remember his name. Let’s call him Jordan. Just a listless troglodyte of a teenager. He dragged his knuckles up to the front of the room and started going through the motions of the demonstration, as Ms. Agnew instructed. When he had just about added enough of the solute and the solvent had still failed to change colour, like it would with the proper amount, Ms. Agnew told him “just add half a drop.” Jordan froze. He turned his head slowly, and uttered more words than any of us had ever heard him say before: “you can’t have half a drop.” Agnew brushed him off and told him to just try and add the tiniest bit more to the solution, but he wouldn’t be dissuaded from this question that now occupied him. “No, wait — it’s not possible to have ‘half a drop.’” Agnew asked what he meant. Thus began the pantomime. Jordan put his right hand to his forehead and raised his left index finger, eyes clamped shut as if in mental agony. “A ‘drop’ is however much water falls out of that thing. If I try for ‘half a drop,’ that’s still just a drop. A smaller drop.” Ms. Agnew was running out of class time, but this was a train she couldn’t help chasing. “No, the pipette can dispense sort of average-sized drops, and if you’re really careful, it can do half-drops.” Jordan would not relent. The rest of our class was spent watching this debate, which was not unlike the conversation on this episode of In Our Time. After 15 years of semi-sentience, this ontological impossibility had hit Jordan in the brain so hard that it roused him from catatonia. It was a thing to behold. Pick of the week. 

You Must Remember This: “The Blacklist Part 5: The Strange Love of Barbara Stanwyck: Robert Taylor” — When this podcast promises “secret and/or forgotten” stories from Hollywood (god, how I wish she’d quit with the and/or thing) it certainly delivers. This episode reveals not just how a now forgotten actor typifies the attitudes of blacklist-era Hollywood conservatives — it reveals how the HUAC hearings may have been the direct result of his participation. This is consistently outstanding stuff.

The West Wing Weekly: “Special Interim Session (with Aaron Sorkin)” — I don’t really understand why this is now a member of Radiotopia, aside from it being Hrishikesh Hirway’s other show. It’s not story driven or audio rich: it’s really just a discussion show, and a niche one at that. Which isn’t to say it isn’t good. As a huge West Wing fan, I really enjoyed this discussion of the gap between the first and second seasons with Sorkin himself. I’ll probably listen again when they discuss my particular favourite episodes. (“Two Cathedrals” is coming up pretty soon.) So, all well and good. Just, it’s going to be Radiotopia’s strange fish from here on out.

Code Switch: “The Code Switch Guide To Handling Casual Racism” — Code Switch inherits a proven formula from On the Media. The panel gives several examples of times when they either have or have not called out casual racism when it occurs, and use that as a starting point to figure out when it’s best to say something, versus just leaving it alone. News you can use. Code Switch is awesome.

All Songs Considered: “Brian Eno Sings, New Dirty Projectors, Leonard Cohen, More” — I didn’t love the track by the Gift that features Brian Eno the first time I heard it. I found the first two minutes generic, and it only picked up when Eno took the lead vocals. I’ve since listened to it a few more times and seen the video, which is amazing, and I’ve warmed to it enough that I might check out the album. The Gift has a female lead singer who sings in a baritone register. It’s an amazing sound. And that moment when Eno comes in hits me right in the Here Come the Warm Jets centre of my brain. Dirty Projectors’ new song is a four-minute abyss gaze. I loved it. And oh boy, am I ever excited for the new Leonard Cohen record. I’ve skipped a couple, but the title track from You Want it Darker is brilliant.

Desert Island Discs: “Joyce DiDonato” — Considering what my job is these days, I don’t know why I decided I wanted to listen to an interview with an opera singer in my spare time. (These days my job is producing a podcast/radio show of opera-related interviews.) But Joyce is special. Before I heard her recital disc of music from Naples, I’d never really been wowed by an opera singer before. Operas, yes, but never a specific musician. She is probably my favourite classical singer working right now, and it is so wonderful to hear about how her total virtuosity was built on a foundation of hard graft as much or more than natural ability. She’s coming to Vancouver soon, and I have only been this excited to see a classical recital maybe twice before in my life.