Tag Archives: The Wicked and the Divine

Omnibus (week of June 18, 2017)

Yeah, I changed the name. I never liked the old name. Onwards.

The second instalment of the NXNW segment aired yesterday on Radio 1, and it is a whole level weirder than the first. Basically, I tried to convince Sheryl MacKay that the central tenets of medieval alchemy are still alive and well and living in pop culture. Every so often I make something I’m really proud of. This second segment is for sure one of those. I’m at 1:22:34 in this podcast of the show.

Ran a 5K this morning. Boy oh boy were there a lot of people in that. You’ll see more podcasts here than there have been in weeks, because I figured even a 5K shouldn’t be approached with a totally cavalier attitude. Many kilometers were run, and many hours of audio accompanied them. If you’re new to this, this instalment is a bit closer to my usual approach than recent weeks have been: lots of podcasts, shorter reviews. 38 of them, to be precise.

Television

American Gods: “Come To Jesus” — After last time, I didn’t actually expect Jesus to be played for laughs. But there is honestly nothing funnier than seeing a whole herd of diverse Jesuses just milling about. Except for the bit where Wednesday refers to them collectively as “these assholes.” That’s funnier. This season finale is actually my least favourite episode of American Gods so far, but that’s a very relative thing to say. Mostly, I’m just mildly peeved that the story hasn’t gotten to a point where the supporting deities like Nancy and Czernobog are relevant to the story on a consistent basis. I’m as happy as I thought I’d be to see Nancy again, but it would have been nice to see him do more than offer exposition for another character. (I miss the story about tiger balls from the book.) Also, the somewhat overwrought segment where Wednesday reveals his real name to Shadow is the first sequence in the show that hasn’t worked for me. Partially it’s just the Michael-Bay-spinning-cameraness of it all, but mostly I just find it hard to accept that Shadow, or any portion of the audience, would be surprised to learn that a one-eyed god who goes by “Wednesday” would actually be Odin. (This is a problem the show inherits from the book.) On the other hand, this episode makes two substantial improvements on the book. One is in the relationship between Bilquis and the Technical Boy. I suppose it’s still possible that Technical will kill Bilquis at some point, but that moment was one of the most jarring parts of the book, and I’m very glad that she’s survived their first meeting. The other improvement is Kristin Chenoweth’s Easter, who is angrier, funnier and altogether more ruthless than her book analogue. I especially love the way she listens to her adorable messenger bunnies, only to invariably respond “oh, shit!” I realize that throughout these American Gods reviews, I’ve focussed an awful lot on the relationship between show and book. Probably that’ll subside next season, at which point I will have read the book substantially less recently. But I still think that American Gods is as compelling an act of adaptation as a show to be taken on its own merits. Between this and Hannibal, I think Bryan Fuller has confirmed himself as the master of the modern television adaptation. Benioff and Weiss wish they were this good. Season one of American Gods has been some of the best television of recent years. I can’t wait for the next season. Hope it’s longer.

Better Call Saul: “Lantern” — Sometimes I start to write these reviews before I’m finished watching the episode. Here is a brief passage from what I’d written before I watched through to the end. “Chuck. Is. Noxious. The writers of this show, and Michael McKean, should pat themselves on the back for creating such a convincing yet completely insufferable character. The thing that makes him so hard to take is a simple juxtaposition of two traits: he has no compassion at all, and he always perceives himself to have the moral high ground. This episode features one of the most painful scenes in the show so far, in which Chuck intentionally tries to hurt Jimmy, and feels entirely justified in doing so because Jimmy colours outside the lines. He feels no complicity in the rift between the two of them. This is the worst kind of person, and this is a kind of person who exists. I know these people and so do you. Chuck is scum. Chuck is irredeemable.” At the end of the episode, I softened my view rather dramatically. In his more loathsome moments, Chuck makes it easy to forget that he is not at the peak of mental wellness. In retrospect, he might be the highlight of this season, because of the way both McKean and the story emphasize his uncompromising cruelty and his struggle with mental illness at the same time. The show even gives us a handy yardstick by which to assess the reasonableness of our hatred for Chuck: Howard Hamlin. Since the season one reveal that he actually isn’t that bad, Howard has been one of the most sympathetic characters on Better Call Saul.  And even he would rather part with millions of his own hard-earned dollars than work with Chuck any longer. He has become genuinely impossible, and well and truly cruel. He was also in a lot of trouble. And he completely alienated his one-man support system, who to be fair, is a person with no small amount of flaws himself. I expected this episode to be all about Kim after last week’s cliffhanger. And while it is bittersweet to see her finally realizing that she needs to take time to breathe, her season arc basically ended with her car crash. This episode belongs to Chuck. But its subtext belongs to Jimmy. It’s easy to read Chuck’s suicide as a final “fuck you” to his brother. This is only a small part of an inevitably complex equation, but think about this: their last conversation consisted of Chuck telling Jimmy that he would always hurt people and he might as well embrace it. Then he kills himself. Meanwhile, Jimmy has alienated himself from the elder law practice that could have been his saving grace. (I’m delighted that Mrs. Landry is okay.) The path to Saul Goodman has never been clearer than it is now. Pick of the week.

Twin Peaks: The Return: Parts 3-7 — Okay, the internet was right. This Dougie Jones business needs to stop. At first, I was amused — not so much by Kyle McGlaughlin’s performance, which finds him working substantially below his pay grade, but by the constant way that everybody around him basically fails to acknowledge that there’s something really wrong. Particularly wonderful is Naomi Watts as his wife. The fact that she’s not more concerned really makes you wonder what kind of shit-for-brains asshole the real Dougie Jones was. I love the idea that this might not actually be that out of the ordinary. Suppose that’s what you get for marrying a homunculus. But after four episodes of this, I’m ready to have Coop back. I don’t even need to hear him talk about coffee and pie. I don’t even need a thumbs up. I just want him to be here so that the show has a central intelligence in it again who can start to put together the disparate threads that are remaining maddeningly allusive without him. In general though, I’ve really been enjoying this. I don’t have that much to say about it because it’s still got its cards super close to its chest. I’m definitely hoping that we’re not done with David Lynch’s modernized, expanded take on the Black Lodge. The sequences that take place there are truly terrifying, and among the most compelling television I’ve seen in recent times.

Doctor Who: “World Enough and Time” — Okay, now we’re cooking. This is classic Steven Moffat, operating in “hey here’s a fun idea” mode. In this case, the idea is that there’s a huge spaceship right by a black hole, so time works differently at one end of it and the other. The real storytelling masterstroke, though, is stranding the Doctor at the slow end of the ship, so that the situation seriously escalates before he’s able to formulate a plan. Aside from that, this is notable as a real return to Moffat’s signature horror. You could say that the monks constituted horror, as did the notion in “Extremis” that the entire universe is a projection and you cease to exist if you step outside of the beam. But nothing since “Listen” has really gone whole hog into horror territory the way that this does. The scene with the volume dials is one of the most disturbing things Moffat has ever written. And the patients in general, all on their way to becoming Cybermen, are terrifying in that existential way that the Cybermen manage to be when they’ve got a good writer behind them. (Unless that good writer is Neil Gaiman, in which case they still don’t work.) And all that good stuff happens even before we get the big reveal of John Simm. Which, I mean, we all knew he was going to be in this, but am I stupid for being INCREDIBLY FUCKING SURPRISED that character was him? Am I? Come on, be honest. This was an amazing episode: straightforwardly the best of the season. Can’t wait to see what comes next.

Games

King of Dragon Pass — So, the Steam summer sale is on, but I realized that I’m not actually even close to finishing the games I bought during the Steam winter sale. Because *some of us* like to go outside sometimes, amirite? At this point I think the Half-Life series is a lost cause for me. I was so terrible at the first one, and the story is so minimal, that I’m forced to conclude it is literally the opposite of what I appreciate in a video game. Moving on to King of Dragon Pass, then: another classic of an entirely different sort. This is dated, and its high fantasy aesthetic isn’t really my thing, but I’m compelled regardless. Basically, it’s a text-based resource management game with elements of choose-your-own-adventure. So, it’s kind of Sunless Sea before its time. Except that the writing isn’t anywhere close to that level. It has its moments, mind you. I quite like this: “Your men whooped with Orlanth and drank the Eight Known Drinks, so that your heads would hurt during the ceremony.” Also unlike Sunless Sea, its representation of women oscillates between fairly progressive and a bit, erm, medieval. But there’s enough in this to compel me. I’m particularly fond of the way that your progress is compiled into a document called “the Saga,” which actually reads a bit like an Icelandic saga, given that those stories basically are just lists of accomplishments. So far, this seems like the sort of thing I’ll probably play until I manage to beat it on the easiest setting and then I might put it aside. Still, it’ll probably grow on me.

Literature

Jorge Luis Borges: “The Lottery in Babylon” — A substantially simpler and more direct story than some of the others I’ve read recently. Still brilliant, and the way that Borges casually drops details into the framework of ideas that makes up the narrative reminds me once again of how much Neil Gaiman owes to him. Look at this bit: “A slave stole a crimson ticket; the drawing determined that the ticket entitled the bearer to have his tongue burned out.” This comes at a point in the story where it’s been established that owning tickets can result in terrible things happening to you as well as good things, but the specifics have been vague. Borges just drops this punishment into a sentence that’s actually a rumination on what’s supposed to happen in the case of the theft of a ticket. His narrator doesn’t make a big deal of it. That, more than anything in this story, gives the sense of a fully-formed world with defined parameters that are simply taken for granted. I continue to be astonished by this writer.

Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie: The Wicked and the Divine, Volume 4: “Imperial Phase, Part One” — I don’t know how anybody reads this issue-by-issue. When the trade collections come out, I wolf them down in one sitting and I still feel like I need more. This is probably the most exciting collection so far from this perpetually exciting comic. The real showstopper is the the first issue in the collection, formatted as a (beautifully designed) fan magazine in which members of the Pantheon are interviewed by actual journalists (with Gillen filling the role of each god at the other end of a chat window). The best of them is Laurie Penny’s piece on Woden, who is self-evidently the shittiest god. Having read Penny’s piece on Milo Yiannopoulos, it just felt right. My favourite part of the story in this issue is the way that the Pantheon is forced to reorganize and rally behind their logical leaders, Baal and Urdr, in the absence of Ananke. The dynamics between all of these characters just keep getting more interesting. Persephone in particular is the best thing going on in this book right now. Love it.

Kelefa Sanneh: “The Persistence of Prog Rock” — An excellent piece on the contemporary reception of 1970s prog, with reference to David Wiegel’s recent book on the subject. I’m reminded that I need to eventually finish the books cited by Edward Macan, Bill Martin and Will Romano, though I think all of them (especially Romano’s) are quite bad. The most interesting idea raised here is that progressive rock was parochial. This is something that I struggle with. It definitely was parochial — the most recognized bands in the genre were such idiomatically British eccentrics that albums like Selling England by the Pound almost seem a bit Brexity in retrospect. On the other hand, that means that prog largely avoided the garish spectacle of cultural appropriation that a lot of other British rock proffered. The Rolling Stones and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers seem a hell of a lot more retrograde in retrospect than ELP does. And ELP, lest anybody forget, was the band whose use of classical music in their performances was meant to get the kids listening to “music that has more quality.” The mind reels. I sympathize with Lester Bangs’ distaste for this sentiment. But I’m not sure he ever really saw the other side of the coin. I’ll be reading Wiegel’s book very soon.

Music

Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner & James McAlister: Planetarium — Well, it doesn’t make it easy for us. Planetarium is enormously ambitious and enormously long. Every song on this gave me the sense that I’d definitely like it a lot more next time I listen to it. Honestly, that’s one of my favourite reactions to have to a piece of music, but this does meander a bit. I’m curious to know more about the process of this: I’m familiar enough with Stevens, Muhly and Dessner’s work (the latter only as a composer, admittedly — I’ve never liked the National) that I feel like it should be easier than it is to isolate their particular contributions. They seem to have genuinely merged into a many-headed beast. My personal highlights here are “Jupiter” and especially “Mercury,” which has a melody worthy of Carrie & Lowell. But I’ve now heard “Saturn” a few times and it has grown on me from the point of initially leaving me cold to the point where now I actually bring up Apple Music to listen to it specifically. And the 15-minute “Earth” hits my prog rock structural pleasure centres, but there’s too much in it to take in for me to assess it yet. I think this is really good. I’ll probably check back in about it when I listen to it a bit more.

Neil Young: Live at the Riverboat 1969 — Like the Canterbury House instalment of Neil’s archives series, this is most notable for his amusingly awkward, stoned audience banter. I wish I’d been at one of these early acoustic shows, but I wasn’t born until 21 years later. Anyway, I’m actually pretty happy to be moving past the pre-Crazy Horse segment of my quest to hear the Complete Neil Young. Solo acoustic guitar music gets tiresome.

Neil Young: Live at Fillmore East 1970 — Ah, now we’re talking. What’s most notable about this is how much it sounds like Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. Crazy Horse has always sounded really live in the studio. All the same, the presence of an audience makes “Cowgirl in the Sand” pop a bit more, with the band really trying to ratchet up the tension to keep them into it. I suspect 1970 is the year when things really get interesting. I’ve enjoyed my exploration of Buffalo Springfield and the late-60s limbo state from which the self-titled album emerged. But it’s with the foundation of Crazy Horse and Neil’s induction into CSNY that the phase of his career we know him for really began.

Podcasts

Ear Hustle: “Cellies” — This podcast is a beautiful idea. It’s also staggeringly ambitious. I can only imagine the logistical nightmare it must be to produce a podcast in prison. But these are stories that don’t get told. And when they do, they sure aren’t told by the inmates themselves. This premiere episode introduces some fun characters, including two brothers who ended up as cellmates and nearly drove each other out of their minds. I’m also rather endeared by Earlonne Woods’ resistance to his non-incarcerated co-host’s attempts to apply relationship metaphors to cellmates. He ought to know what metaphors are and aren’t apt. This is the most promising addition to Radiotopia since Song Exploder.

The Pitch: “Babyscripts” — Not for me. This has a solid premise that’s basically guaranteed to yield drama: it’s basically Dragons’ Den. But I’m just not interested enough in business to be interested in these kinds of conversations. Worth a shot if you are.

StartUp: “Life After Startup” — A catch-up session with some of the people in previous StartUp episodes. Most notably, we revisit Dating Ring, the company followed in the show’s underrated second season. I really found the ending of that season heartbreaking, so it’s good to know that even though the business didn’t pan out, the founders are living happy lives these days.

Imaginary Worlds: “Imagining the Internet” — It’s a common refrain among science fiction critics that the internet is the modern technology that the genre failed most egregiously to predict. But this provides a corollary to that view by, in part, bringing Mark Twain into the fold. One highlight of this is hearing the actor who does the readings adopt the personas of their respective authors. I’m especially struck by how similar his Twain is to the genius voice actor that I brought in to do Twain at the end of the last episode of the Syrup Trap Pod Cast. I guess he’s just a voice that people have a sense of.

In Our Time: “The American Populists” — A pleasingly contentious conversation about the short-lived party that briefly promised to offer a real alternative to the Democrats and the Republicans. So no, it’s not about Donald Trump. Trust In Our Time to remind you that history is worth knowing about, and it doesn’t always have to be covered with explicit reference to current events to be relevant.

Love and Radio: “Relevant Questions” — A middling episode of one of the best shows around, so quite good. It’s about the first polygraph operator to speak out against its use. But he’s not straightforwardly heroic, even if he sees himself that way. It’s got a twist that’s done cleverly, in a similar way to the twist in “A Girl of Ivory,” but that’s not a comparison that does this any favours because that episode was a classic. Still, pretty great.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Wonder Woman And The Tony Awards” — Okay, I’ll see Wonder Woman. I was kind of going to anyway, in spite of my serious superhero fatigue. This is different. Man, the Tonys seem to have nothing for me this time around.

Radiolab: “The Gondolier” — This is a good story by the standards of recent Radiolab episodes, but I can’t help but hear the Love and Radio episode that could have been. It’s a story about a person who was touted internationally as “Venice’s first female gondolier,” which turned out to be super wrong because he’s a trans man. That last sentence is almost a spoiler, because this episode actually treats Alex, the main character, as a woman for a portion of its duration, in accordance with the reporters’ misunderstanding of his gender identity. The media has traditionally been Alex’s enemy, and this is supposed to provide an antidote to that. I’m not at all the person to judge how it succeeds at that, but I do feel like this is a case where the Love and Radio approach of cutting out the reporter’s voice altogether would be useful. I’d love to hear the version of this story that’s just Alex telling his own story. But Radiolab’s gonna Radiolab, so we have to have a certain amount of ponderous processing and deconstruction. It’s fine.

Home of the Brave: “The Continental Divide” — One of the things I really like about Home of the Brave is that Scott Carrier will sometimes release one of these brief missives in between proper radio projects. I sympathize with his inability to talk to people who disagree with him right now, but I admire his decision to give it another go.

Fresh Air: “Jay Z” — An old interview, from just after the release of Decoded. Terry Gross sounds slightly uncomfortable interviewing Jay Z because she kind of thinks he’s sexist. But Jay is charming and indulgent, even if he does get super defensive when Gross actually brings up sexism. Mostly a very good interview.

This American Life: “Say Anything” — The bulk of this is taken up by a tape that a guy made for his suicidal friend, without ever intending for it to end up on radio. It’s very affecting. But the real highlight is a list of fears written by a developmentally disabled man. It is both funny and insightful. A cameo from Jonathan Goldstein is always appreciated as well.

Fresh Air: “Roxane Gay” — A marvellous interview about Gay’s new book, which sounds like a deeply insightful, really rough read. She’s one of those articulate people you’ve just got to be thankful for.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin” — To some extent, this is shameless self-promotion for GLOW, the new show he’s in. But it sounds like a really great show, and I’m always in for an Alison Brie interview. She is completely charming. I didn’t realize that I knew Betty Gilpin, but her American Gods performance is really hilarious and the way she describes it as a wilful misunderstanding of the tone of the whole show is amazing. A good listen.

It’s Been A Minute: “Hey Y’all” — I’m reservedly excited about this. I love Sam Sanders. He’s always been one of my favourite guests on Pop Culture Happy Hour and I miss him on the NPR Politics Podcast. I just hope it doesn’t keep explaining ordinary idioms like “it’s been a minute” to me.

Sampler: “Introducing The Nod!” — Thank god Gimlet found something for Brittany Luse to do. She’s brilliant, and she was always above Sampler. Looking forward.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Sofia Coppola” — This has its moments, and Maron clearly admires and understands Coppola’s filmmaking. But did he have to talk about her dad so much? Surely she’s sick of that. In any case, Sofia Coppola is a genius and I can’t wait to see The Beguiled.

99% Invisible: “You Should Do A Story” — A roundup of miscellaneous stories that didn’t become full episodes. It’s worth hearing for a few simple descriptions of household design solutions from specific places.

The Heart: “Doing Time” — I heard an interview with Kaitlin Prest on a great podcast I don’t review called The Imposter where she said that the launch of Ear Hustle and the themed episodes Radiotopia did for its launch resulted in a hurried finish to the “No” season, which doesn’t actually come off in the last episode, but it sucks. In any case, this brushed-up episode from the back catalogue is perfectly fine.

Code Switch: “What To Make Of Philando Castile’s Death, One Year Later” — This won’t help you process the acquittal of Philando Castile’s killer, but it does feature an interview with a friend of Castile’s that is heartbreaking.  

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: “Pardon Power” — Is this presidency really so unprecedented that we’re entertaining the notion that a sitting president could pardon himself? Guys this is not normal.

The Gist: “Scaachi Koul on Surviving the Trolls” — Scaachi Koul is one of the funniest and best writers about sexism and racism. If you don’t read her on Buzzfeed, what are you even doing. I’m really looking forward to reading her book. This interview isn’t one of Mike Pesca’s best moments, but it is plenty good on Koul’s part. He gets all tone policey and she doesn’t let him get away with it. Satisfying in a way.

StartUp: “How To Invent A New Sport” — This is about a guy who made a new version of basketball. The best part is the story of a pitch meeting in China. Listen for that alone.

The Gist: “Do Radicals Change the World?” — Jeremy McCarter is familiar to me from the Hamiltome, but this new book doesn’t sound like something I’ll especially enjoy. I’ll take China Mieville’s 1917 book, thanks. He’s got no doubts that radicals change the world.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “GLOW And Lena Waithe” — Hmm, here are two shows that make me wish there was more time in a day. I’m finding it hard to commit to the idea of watching GLOW and Master of None. The former has a bunch of people I love involved, but I’m not sold on the hype. And Master of None sounds like it’s got a slow first season and a killer second. That’s a stumbling block. You’d never think it from reading this blog sometimes, but I’ve got to be judicious in my choices. Even I only have so much time to allot to this stuff.

It’s Been A Minute: “Likes Don’t Matter” — I don’t know how to feel about this. Part of me wants to think that it’ll find its legs, but it’s also totally clear that this has been given dry run after dry run, so it’s already got a fair bit of mileage behind it. Sam Sanders is one of the cleverest, most magnetic people at NPR. But this feels kind of forcedly colloquial to me. I liked Sanders a lot on the NPR Politics Podcast, where they had a mandate to really get into the grains of it, because Sanders was the guy who could inject a bit of air into the proceedings. He was as good at talking politics as the rest of the panel, but also funnier. In a less explicitly focussed situation, I’m not sure what to make of him anymore. I’ll keep listening, because I really do think he’s great. But I have reservations.

Beef And Dairy Network: “Gareth Belge” — Ahh, I like this. I like this show a lot. This features a hilarious segment about how cows act as body doubles for actors more than you’d know. That’s this show in a nutshell. Beautiful.

Mogul: Episodes 1 & 2 — I resisted this at first because it came out initially on Spotify, and I’m dead set against windowing in the podcast world. But I had to hear this story. It is magical. It is the story of Chris Lighty, the powerful hip hop executive: how he rose to prominence and how he died. Combat Jack hosts (going by his birth name here, Reggie Ossé), and he brings a level of expertise on this topic that probably nobody else in the world could top. The joy of listening to this is not just in the character-driven story of Lighty, nor is it even in the brilliantly rendered history of hip hop’s evolution. It’s in Ossé’s intense engagement with the material. I’ve always known somebody would make a podcast like this sometime — a show that deals with the history of music in a story-driven, audio rich way. Song Exploder isn’t quite it. This is it. I’ve been waiting for this. If you have any interest at all in hip hop or in knowing something about the music of the last forty years, check this out. It’s a beautiful thing. Pick of the week.

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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 Feb. 7, 2016)

19 reviews, many good things:

Movies

Hail, Caesar! — I think this is the least good Coen brothers movie I’ve seen. I haven’t seen any outright bad ones, but Hail, Caesar! is hugely inconsistent. There are scenes that are totally brilliant — one near the beginning where Josh Brolin’s gregarious Hollywood producer talks theology with leaders from four religions is primo Coen. But for every scene like that, there’s an unfunny joke that goes on for ages. One of the problems here is that the Coens commit so wholeheartedly to every single one of the fragmented bits and plotlines they threw in. So, if one of them isn’t doing it for you, tough. You’re stuck in it for seven minutes, probably. I will say this: the Coens are the most politically inscrutable filmmakers working. This film’s attitude towards Communism is almost impossible to make out. To take that line of thought further would head into spoiler territory, so would somebody I know please go see this movie and have that conversation with me? Thanks.

The Big Short — This is possibly the saddest movie I’ve ever seen. Civilization is broken and we’re all hopelessly fucked. (To be less emotional about it, this is a big swing of a movie with an aesthetic all its own and lots of unlikely choices. Most of those choices are the right ones, but some of the jokes early on don’t land because of problems with the delivery or editing or something. I have problems with the infamous “Margot Robbie in a bubble bath” scene — how much irony does it take to offset decades of cinematic sexism? But on the other hand, I love that this movie begins as a big broad comedy that revels in its own excess like The Wolf Of Wall Street — to which Robbie is an obvious and intentional connection — only to do what The Wolf failed to do in the end: namely, to condemn the entire financial system in a miasma of sudden bleakness. The Big Short is messy and ambitious and mostly really good and everybody should go see it.)

Television

Doctor Who: “Paradise Towers,” episodes 2-4 — One of the biggest problems with the classic series is that every episode save for the last in a serial needs a cliffhanger. And, while the cliffhangers themselves are often delightful, their resolutions tend to be trite. The Doctor just kind of clevers his way out of a situation so that he can get on with the rest of the story. But when it’s Sylvester McCoy doing the clevering, it makes it easy to ignore the seams in the storytelling. Seriously, this guy is the most underrated of the Doctors by a mile. And everything else about this story is delightful as well. The cannibalistic grandmas are obviously the best part, but the main villain’s wonderful overacting comes in a close second. This is the period in the show’s history where they realized that the budgets aren’t going to increase, and neither is the audience, so they may as well do what they like. It’s all approached with a heavy dollop of irony, which manages not to overpower the actual brilliance of the story. There are actually worse places to start with classic Doctor Who than this, I’d expect.

Lost: “House of the Rising Sun” — There are problems with Sun and Jin’s storyline in early Lost, but they’re papered over by a pair of totally wonderful performances by Yunjin Kim and Daniel Dae Kim. Also, one of the real pleasures of these early episodes is seeing various cast members share scenes for the first time. This episode, it’s Charlie and Locke’s scenes that really pop.

Music

Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy — This is the album that got me into hip hop, and it’s still probably my favourite album of the past decade. (Run the Jewels 2 might be its only competition.) It’s basically psychedelic rap: a giant Dionysian pastiche of colours and lights and hazes and paranoia and regrets. (According to my taxonomy of psychedelia, Fantasy qualifies as a “Pepper.”) It’s a bit bloated, maybe. I’d lose “So Appalled,” cut a bit off “Devil in a New Dress,” and excise Chris Rock from “Blame Game.” But, better to have too much. And if Kanye’s ego makes him insufferable at times, it also gives him intense self-knowledge, which he calls up in every verse on this. It’s amazing to hear such a complex psychology reflecting on itself.

Literature, etc.

Alejandro Jodorowsky/Moebius: The Incal — I enjoyed this a lot, but I don’t know if I’d actually recommend it. I’m fascinated by Jodorowsky’s esotericism as it pertains to the Kabbalah and Tarot. But here, his belief system seems to mostly revolve around the idea that “there’s light and there’s darkness and you can’t have one without the other,” which is such a drug cliché of an observation that I can only roll my eyes. Much of the dialogue is terrible, and a lot of the sex in this seems to have been shoehorned in, just to ensure that we all know this is an “adult” comic, and only ends up making it seem adolescent. Also, in terms of sequential art technique, there are a lot of moments where it kind of seems like there are key story beats or transitions missing between panels — in a way that doesn’t seem intentional. Plus, there are instances on nearly every page where it’s unclear in what order to read the speech balloons. This all stems from bad decisions and inexperience on Jodorowsky’s part. Fortunately, he’s only half of the team. Moebius is a nearly peerless illustrator, and it’s almost worth picking up The Incal just to bask in the colours and details of the world he draws. Almost. If you have a relatively high threshold for sci-fi bullshit and new-agey nonsense, this is something you should probably check out.

Jorge Luis Borges: “Blindness” — I have a wonderful book called The Art of the Personal Essay that I’ve read just over half of. It is much better than its bland title would suggest: it is a selection of wonderful personal writing by some of the greatest authors in history — people like George Orwell and Virginia Woolf — edited by Phillip Lopate. I go back to it very occasionally and read a few of the essays I haven’t read before. This one is a wonderfully companionable account by Borges of being appointed director of a national library, ironically just as he’d gone blind. I had never read any Borges, having been slightly scared of him, but I think I may have been missing out and will add Ficciones to my already unmanageable reading list.

Hubert Butler: “Beside the Nore” — Another personal essay, this one by an Irish writer that more people should probably know. This is a short, simple account of several elements of old, rural life in a riverside town in Kilkenny. It is presented unpretentiously, without a framing device or thesis statement. It’s just some lovely writing about a charismatic place. At the very end, Butler appends a few extra sentences, to say that he believes local history to be far more important than national history, which has no impact on the vast majority of people — thereby justifying his entire enterprise. Really nice.

E.M. Cioran: “Some Blind Alleys: A Letter” — This is an essay about how insufferable writers are and how meaningless the international community of people of letters is. It’s about how only an incredibly egocentric person would dare take on a career as a writer, and about how narcissistic it is to assume that other people want to read about what you think. Hi there. You reading this? Good, then we’re fine.

Kieron Gillen/Jamie McKelvie: The Wicked and the Divine, vol. 3 — Now for some actual smart comics. I was wary of the idea that this entire trade volume would diverge from the main WicDiv story, but these issues featuring the supporting cast of the main story add such depth to the world of this comic. Each one is probably among the best stand-alone stories that Gillen and McKelvie have ever done. The issue featuring Woden (the jerk-ass Daft Punk god) is particularly impressive, being a sort of remix issue, made up of scenes from prior issues of WicDiv. Also, there is a cat goddess in this who looks like Rihanna but acts exactly like an actual housecat: getting distracted by laser pointers and such. A comic that does complex formal experiments and also has Rihanna getting distracted by laser pointers can only be a straightforwardly good thing. Pick of the week.

David Day: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Decoded — I read the introduction to this a while ago and got sidetracked. I’m still kind of sidetracked, honestly. But this is what I’m reading, now. The tiny bit of this I just read was fascinating — the politics of Christ Church College at Oxford is more compelling than you’d think.

Podcasts

Fresh Air: “‘Mad Max’ Director George Miller’” — Listening to this guy talk makes a bunch of connections become immediately clear. If it seemed incongruous that Mad Max and Babe were made by the same guy, consider the extent to which Babe is a conventionally Campbellian hero’s journey. If it seemed like The Road Warrior and Fury Road have no precedents in action movies, look beyond that to Buster Keaton’s The General. I’m disappointed that Terry Gross wasn’t around to do the actual interview. I’m sure she would have probed into his feminism more deeply. Still, Dave Davies acquits himself admirably. Anybody who likes Miller should check this out.

Serial: “Adnan Syed’s Hearing,” days 1-3 — I’m glad Sarah Koenig was there to report on Syed’s hearing, because she’s probably the most knowledgeable person about his case. But what this is actually going to do is remind everybody how much more invested they were in season one of Serial than season two. In any case, these three mini-episodes are great, and feature Koenig and Dana Chivvis speaking extemporaneously for longer than I think they ever have on the show — which is great, considering that they both know the case inside out. I’m still unconvinced of Syed’s innocence, but convincing people one way or the other has never been the goal of Serial, in spite of what certain critics might say.

All Songs Considered: “Andrew Bird Gets Personal” — This sounds like a great record, but wow, this is an awkward conversation. Bird does NOT want to talk about these songs. I’m excited to hear more of this considering Blake Mills is on guitar, and his guest spot with Vulfpeck last year was one of my favourite performances I’ve heard on a record in a while.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch Super Bowl 50” — All due respect to Beyoncé, but was I the only person who thought Bruno Mars stole the halftime show?

The Heart: “Ghost: Bobby” — A totally mundane breakup story that’s told well enough to be worthwhile. The sort of thing that only The Heart can do.

WTF With Marc Maron: “Danny Boyle” — Still catching up on episodes from December, apparently. But this is great. I like Maron with filmmakers. He’s such an insightful film geek that it’s easy for people like Boyle and Todd Haynes to talk to him.

Fresh Air: “Filmmakers Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson on ‘Anomalisa’” — “I have a tendency to read about syndromes,” says Charlie Kaufman near the beginning of this interview, to nobody’s surprise. I need to see Anomalisa.

WTF With Marc Maron: “Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson” — It’s interesting to hear Terry Gross and Marc Maron interview the same people about the same things. Since hearing that wonderful episode where Maron interviewed Gross, I’ve looked at them as two sides of the same coin. On one side, you get the bare-bones story of a thing from Gross, and on the other side you get self-psychoanalysis by proxy from Maron. It shouldn’t be about picking a winner, but in this case Maron wins. Apparently Kaufman was scared to go on this show because he was uncomfortable with how deep Maron probes. But Maron keeps this one relatively light, and just gives Kaufman the opportunity to be funny. It was also a really good decision to do a segment with Kaufman alone before bringing in Duke Johnson to talk about Anomalisa, which I really need to see. (Also, how weird to hear an ad for Blackstar that was clearly recorded before Bowie’s death but released after.) Pick of the week.

Things I loved in 2015: Nos. 15-11

How do you follow up prison planets, drunk horses, West African minimalism, Jonathan Banks in a tollbooth, and BIG WIDE 70MM SUPER CINEMASCOPE? Like this:

No. 15 — Mystery Show

The twin notions that everything is connected and that there must be a conspiracy are classic engines for genre fiction, from Lovecraft to From Hell to Welcome to Night Vale. But I’m not sure that it’s ever been taken up in non-fiction with such total aplomb as on this podcast.

Mystery Show is ostensibly about actual, real-world mysteries with actual real-world solutions. But each story is told according to the semi-ironic non-logic of real-world Dirk Gently, Starlee Kine. So, the plotline of Must Love Dogs becomes crucially important to finding a forgotten video store. The life story of a guy who works for Ticketmaster customer service could yield crucial clues to discovering Britney Spears’ reading habits. And the members of the Phoenix Culinary Association could (and do) prove invaluable in the quest to find the owner of long-discarded belt buckle.

Mystery Show is funny, sure. And it’s presented with one eyebrow at least halfway raised. But, it also makes you feel like we all live in a world where there are amazing stories beneath every rock — as long as you take for granted that it’s the most important rock in the universe.

No. 14 — Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt 

If you’re not completely sold on this show on the basis of its theme song, we cannot be friends.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is on this list primarily because it made me laugh and laugh like a big dumb idiot. It’s like Tina Fey and Robert Carlock decided that 30 Rock just wasn’t quite packed-full-o’jokes enough, and they’d have to do better next time.

But what I really remember most fondly about my embarrassingly fast binge of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is the first two minutes. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a show establish its premise and characterize its lead quite so efficiently before. That theme song certainly does a lot of the heavy lifting, but really watch Ellie Kemper’s performance as she emerges from the bunker where Kimmy’s been kept for 15 years. There’s not a shred of anger or resentment about what she’s missed out on — just overwhelming joy that the world outside still exists.

I’m not saying it’s psychologically realistic, but in that moment you realize that this is a character you want to spend a lot of time with.

Even if Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt hadn’t given us the profound gift that is “Peeno Noir,” it would still be my favourite new comedy in ages.

No. 13 — Kieron Gillen/Jamie McKelvie: The Wicked and the Divine, vol. 2

WicDiv2

Do you ever get the feeling that the intended audience for a thing is specifically you, and nobody else? It probably happens to me more than a lot of people, to be fair. But I’m not sure there has ever been a narrative premise that is such obvious Parsonsbait as “a pantheon of gods from various mythologies are periodically incarnated as rock stars.”

The first volume of The Wicked and the Divine bowled me over, but this second one, “Fandemonium,” is where things really seem to be picking up. We learn more about the history of the pantheon, our protagonist’s story takes some completely unexpected twists and turns, and — best of all — we meet a genderfluid incarnation of the Sumerian love god(dess) Inanna who dresses like Prince.

Also people trip out at a rave hosted by Dionysus.

This comic is bonkers and beautiful and I’m more invested in it than almost any other ongoing serial narrative. I’m picking up the third trade collection later this week, and will devour it immediately.

No. 12 — Inside Out

I tend not to watch kids’ movies — not out of a lack of respect for them, or out of self-consciousness; it’s just that my reaction is usually something like “Boy, I wish I could have seen this when I was ten.”

Not Inside Out. This movie hit me straight in the 25-year-old feels. First off, the premise of exploring the changing psyche of a young girl by way of personified emotions is brilliant. And the casting is spot-on. But it’s specifically the exploration of sadness’s role in maturity that makes Inside Out one of the most thoughtful children’s movies I’ve ever seen.

No. 11 — Björk: Vulnicura

Björk’s creative peak is lasting a ludicrously long time. Vulnicura is, to my ears, as good an album as she’s ever made. It’s certainly a mode we haven’t seen her in before. And with an artist like Björk, the best you can possibly hope for is yet another new direction.

Sonically, Vulnicura could be seen as a retreat to the barren, strings-and-drum-machines-only timbres of her acclaimed Homogenic. But this time, that timbre doesn’t make her seem tough: it leaves her exposed. Which is apropos, since this is Björk’s breakup album. I think it’s destined to become both a classic of that minor genre and of her discography.

“Stonemilker” is pure catharsis, and one of my favourite songs of the year.

More whiplash tomorrow, as we enter the top ten with a beautiful movie, a beloved show, a kaleidoscopic podcast, a disappointingly overlooked album, and the list’s first non-comic book.

Things I loved in 2014

So, 2014 had its ups and downs, hey? All the same, the year’s movies, music, TV, games, comics and podcasts helped keep me happy, provided necessary diversion, and helped put my puny problems in perspective.

Here then, in as random an order as I could meticulously devise, are twenty things that I loved in 2014. I should note that, for other-people’s-interest reasons, this list is limited to stuff that actually came out in 2014. However, if I’m being honest, the thing that made me happiest this year was probably the Zombies, the thing that diverted me most ably was probably Bioshock, and the thing that best helped me put my problems in perspective was, as ever, Mahler 9.

Still, it’s a pretty killer list.

Birdman

To me, this is what filmmaking looks like when everybody does everything right. By maintaining the illusion — and it is an illusion — that the bulk of the film is one continuous take, Alejandro Iñárritu and his cinematographer, the always astonishing Emmanuel Lubezki, have devised a premise by which the wonder of live theatre is translated to film. Because, in the theatre world, it’s always one take. And then, by taking that wonder and incorporating illusions only possible in contemporary film, he reprocesses it through the entirely different wonder of movie making. All kinds of wonder, all at once.

And, on a smaller level, every aesthetic choice that was made here, from the jazz drum score, to the set dressing worked for me. Plus, it’s super funny. Plus, it’s got at least three of the best performances of the year (Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton). Plus, everything.

Wood Works — Danish String Quartet

Back in 2011, I fell utterly in love with the movie Hugo. To me, it seemed to reaffirm in the clearest terms possible why movies are something we need. It’s an odd comparison, I know, but this album by the fantastic Danish String Quartet came closer than anything since Hugo to giving me that same feeling of renewed appreciation for a particular medium.

Wood Works features heart-melting arrangements of Scandinavian folk music. The miracle of the album is that these arrangements are always idiomatic to the string quartet, without ever feeling “classical.” Because these are fiddle tunes and that would just be wrong.

The quartet is confident that these folk tunes are not mere kitsch, and that confidence allows them to veer perilously close to that, but they know where the line is and they stop short of crossing it. Instead, they land right in the elusive sweet spot where music can be sentimental but not mawkish. The ensemble’s rich tone and togetherness shine through especially well in these clear and simple tunes.

This album is a reaffirmation of the fact that string quartets are a good idea. It’s my favourite chamber music release of the year.

Also, you’ve got to check out their NPR tiny desk concert.

Louie, season four

Season four of Louie was barely even a comedy. Louis C.K. has reached a level of confidence as a writer/director/actor where he doesn’t have to do jokes all the time. And, this was still the funniest season of TV I watched this year.

The scene above is maybe not the most talked-about scene of the season, but it typifies what I love most about it. Louie and Janet’s argument about whether or not to send their daughter to private school is as much of a slice-of-life as you get on TV, but without any of the self-conscious mundanity that cliché usually implies. The turn that the scene takes around the two-minute mark is just flat out one of the best things that C.K. has ever written.

StartUp

So, podcasts had a Matthew McConaughey-like 2014. It probably seems perverse not to include Serial on this list, so let me assure everybody that I did in fact enjoy Serial, and will surely gulp down the second season with unbridled delight.

That said, I don’t feel it was a standout among the many podcasts I followed this year. In fact, it wasn’t even my favourite serialized podcast, created by a This American Life producer, that starts with the letter “S.”

StartUp, Alex Blumberg’s podcast about starting a podcasting company, is just so much fun. This is a high-stakes personal story about a guy who dropped everything to pursue a dream, and wants to tell you about it in real-time. From the cringe-inducing botched pitch to a major potential investor in the first episode, to the moment when Serial rudely intrudes on StartUp‘s narrative in the tenth, this is essential. And, the recent announcement that the show will continue to use the serialized format — focussing on a different startup each season — bodes incredibly well for the future.

Catch up now, so you can follow the story as it unfolds.

Under the Skin

(Okay, it got a wide release in 2014, so it counts.)

You know who I really miss? David Lynch. I know he’s been making music, or whatever, but the fact that there hasn’t been a David Lynch movie since 2006 is just absurd. So, it stands to reason that two of the things that made me happiest this past year were the announcement that Twin Peaks would be returning with Lynch in the director’s chair for every episode, and Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin.

The standard comparison to draw when discussing Under the Skin seems to be Kubrick rather than Lynch. But, while it’s certainly true that it’s more linear and far less symbolic than Lynch’s finest moviesUnder the Skin is the first movie since Inland Empire that conjures the otherworldly dread that I so crave in films.

Plus, Mica Levi’s electro-Penderecki-with-drum-machines score is my pick for best of the year. Reznor and Ross are mere pretenders.

Mahler Lieder — Christian Gerhaher & Kent Nagano

Of all of the “classical” albums on this list, this is the only one that features conventional, straight-ahead readings of fairly standard repertoire. (Although, you’ll find a very honourable mention of Joyce DiDonato’s Stella di Napoli, below.) Honestly, not many recordings like this hold my interest, these days. The way I see it, if you’re going to record music that’s already been recorded more times than anyone can keep track of, you damn well better give an 11 out of 10 performance.

And Christian Gerhaher absolutely does, here. Until this year, I was fervently devoted to Thomas Hampson, where Mahler’s concerned. Now, I can’t imagine anybody singing the Wayfarer songs as well as Gerhaher. It feels effortless. That’s a hell of a trick.

Note: The video above isn’t from this specific recording and features the Berlin Philharmonic with Simon Rattle, rather than the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal with Nagano, but it’s enough to illustrate the point, which is that holy crap can this guy sing.

Sex Criminals, volume one — Matt Fraction & Chip Zdarsky

sex-criminals-vol-01-releases

This, if you haven’t heard of it, is a comic about a young couple that literally freezes time when they have sex. And, as the back-cover copy of this first trade collection puts it: “they do what any new young couple having sex and freezing time might do: they rob banks.”

Frankly, that premise ought to be enough to sell this. If it isn’t, how’s this: it’s explicitly about the sex lives of young people without being a lurid, misogynistic mess.

Read this.

Interstellar

I am willing to forgive a lot if a movie shows me something I’ve never seen before. Sure, Interstellar‘s pacing is a bit dodgy and the female characters aren’t especially fleshed out. (Okay, yeah, that bothers me. Still, hear me out.) But, ultimately, this is a movie that adopts the logic of contemporary astrophysics as the basis for its storytelling. It demonstrates how time travel might be possible and the toll it could take. It conceives a visual representation of a tesseract. It’s got the most gloriously naff robot since the creation of the Daleks.

To me, those sorts of stunts make a movie automatically worthwhile. As such, Interstellar narrowly edges out Boyhood from my top five movies of 2014. That film’s got a different kind of ambition, admittedly. But I’ll take “a realistic depiction of the cosmos” over “twelve years of suburban white people” any day. (I still love Boyhood.)

Polonium — Motion Trio

This was the year’s most unexpected pleasure. I was aware of Poland’s Motion accordion trio because of their fantastic 2009 album with Michael Nyman. But, if you’d asked me what kind of Polish music they were most likely to tackle, I probably wouldn’t have said Penderecki.

Nonetheless, here we are with Polonium, an album of 20th-century Polish classical music by some of the most revered and challenging composers in recent memory. Their rendition of Gorecki’s Concerto for Harpsichord and String Orchestra, adapted for piano and three accordions, practically renders the original superfluous. They make similarly convincing essays of Penderecki’s Chaconne In Memorium John Paul II and Lutosławski’s Bucolics.

But the real stunner is an original work co-composed by Motion Trio founder Janusz Wojtarowicz and fellow accordionist Jacek Hołubowski: Sounds of War. You won’t believe those are accordions.

The Walking Dead, the game, season two

2014 marked my rediscovery of video games. I hadn’t played much of anything since the days of Majora’s Mask, but after several friends eloquently enthused at me about the amazing things that were happening in the video game world nowadays, I had to check it out.

It’s incredible how far that rabbit hole went.

There aren’t going to be many games on this list, because most of the games I played this year were the highlights of the past two or three years: Bioshock: Infinite, The Stanley Parable, Gone Home, FEZ, and of course the first season of the video game iteration of The Walking Dead. I was bowled over by how involved I became with this game’s characters, and the original story far outpaces the one season of the television show that I’ve watched.

I gulped down the game’s second season as soon as all five episodes were available, and contrary to popular opinion, I think that the strongest moments of season two are even more harrowing and involving than the first season. Perhaps it’s a tad less consistent, but come on: this is a game that forces you to make choices on behalf of an eleven-year-old girl that inform not only whether she survives the zombie apocalypse, but also what form her evolving moral code takes. Considering the ambition of that, all stumbles are forgiven.

The Wicked and the Divine, volume one — Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie

The_Wicked_and_The_Divine_Promotional_Picture_from_January_2014

It seems like having a great premise is everything when it comes to new comics, nowadays. In the case of this one — possibly the most acclaimed comic of the year — it’s “gods getting reincarnated as young pop stars.”

Again, that premise ought to sell this outright. If not, I’ll elaborate: one of the pop stars is Kate Bush (well, basically). Go forth and buy this trade collection.

For the time being, Sex Criminals is my favourite ongoing comic. But, I feel like this has the potential to become a major work on the level of The Sandman or Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing.

Run the Jewels 2 — Run the Jewels

I have very little to say about this album that everybody else hasn’t already observed. Suffice it to say that I love it as much as everybody else seems to.

Animism — Tanya Tagaq

My favourite non-classical album of the year. The lion’s share of the attention that’s been devoted to Animism since its well-deserved Polaris win has focussed on Tagaq herself. Which, fair enough. She’s probably the most extraordinary musician in Canada, right now. The breadth of unexpected sounds she can conjure from her throat is shocking. Plus, she’s got a lot of important things to say.

But, to me, this album succeeds the same way that great jazz albums succeed: as a collaboration between musicians who know how to make fascinating sounds at the spur of the moment. The album’s core trio consists of Tagaq, violinist/producer Jesse Zubot, and drummer Jean Martin — who gives one of the great instrumental performances of the year. Listening to the telepathy happening between those three provides moments of joy on an album that deliberately resists being loved.

Well, I love it anyway. Animism is difficult, alienating, troubling and spiky. I wish more music were like it.

Note: The Pixies cover above is emphatically not the best track on the album (that would be “Damp Animal Spirits”), but it deserves to go down in history as one of the most revelatory covers ever.

Gone Girl

At the Parsons Oscars, David Fincher would have been nominated for best director, Gillian Flynn would have been nominated for best adapted screenplay, Ben Affleck would have been nominated for best actor, Jeff Cronenweth would have been nominated for best cinematography, and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross would have been nominated for best score. (Sure, they’re not as good as Mica Levi, but they’re still great.)

Oh, and Rosamund Pike would still be nominated for best actress.

99% Invisible

Before Serial, the biggest podcasting success story of 2014 was 99% Invisible. This was their first full year of weekly episodes — a feat made possible by a pretty impressive Kickstarter campaign. We got a new, surprising, audio-rich story every week; we were introduced to a new regular producer in Katie Mingle; and host Roman Mars’s warm bonhomie got even warmer for the gratitude he evidently feels for his generous listeners.

And then, as a result of an even more impressive Kickstarter campaign, we got Radiotopia: a constellation of other intricately-produced podcasts that share funding and cross-promote. Before podcasts were suddenly a thing, these people were working really hard at making podcasts a thing.

99pi is still the highlight of the bunch, though. It’s a show about design, in the broadest sense possible. The entire human-constructed world is grist for the mill. This year, they tackled everything from Ouija boards to Penn Station to tunnels for cows. They made me laugh; they made me cry. They reinvigorated my love for audio storytelling once a week. This, for me, was the podcast of the year.

Orange is the New Black, season two

So, remember what I said about Interstellar and how I love stories that I’ve never seen before? Orange is the New Black does that exact thing, one episode after another — probably in a more profound way than Interstellar.

I’ve never seen a show with so many fully-realized characters. From Vee (*grr) to Red (*punches the air) to Miss Rosa (*sobs), I became massively invested in all of their stories, this season. Taylor Schilling’s performance continued to be wonderful — and continued to be not even the highlight of the show.

Side note: that Zombies song I linked to at the beginning (this one) is totally going to close out this show’s series finale. I’m absurdly confident in this.

Become Ocean — John Luther Adams

John Luther Adams’s Pulitzer win for Become Ocean seemed a long time coming. I fell in love with Adams’s mesmerizing, textural compositions after reading Alex Ross’s profile of him in his book Listen to This. But, Become Ocean really does feel like a new peak for this composer. A 42-minute sound tapestry of gradually rising and falling tension, this piece uses the massive sonic palate of a symphony orchestra more completely than anything I’ve heard in a long time.

Adams sums up the piece’s thematic premise in a short, beautifully crafted statement in the CDs liner notes: “Life on this earth first emerged from the sea. Today, as the polar ice melts and sea level rises, we humans face the prospect that we may once again, quite literally, become ocean.”

The statement reminds me of another strangely moving pronouncement of doom, accompanied by arhythmic droning: the tape that precedes the rendition of Peter Gabriel’s “Here Comes the Flood” on Robert Fripp’s Exposure album. Both pieces of music deal — however obliquely — with ecological disaster, and both of them remind us that we will never have enough power over the natural world to keep it from killing us all when things get bad enough.

Become Ocean, to me, is the album of the year. No matter what you normally listen to, you should hear this.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

It’s like Buster Keaton, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick and Terry Gilliam made a movie together. And that movie is my favourite of 2014. It’s a tough pick between this and Birdman, but ultimately, I’ll go for the one that I could not keep myself from seeing in theatres a second time.

This is the movie that once-and-for-all puts the lie to the notion that Wes Anderson’s artificiality gets in the way of the feels. It’s true: everything in this movie is ostentatiously crafted and adjusted by Anderson, from the highly choreographed jaunts through the titular hotel to the aesthetically pleasing single tear that was carefully applied to F. Murray Abraham’s face in the dining room scene. But none of this prevents the movie from having the intended effect, be it laughter or a bit of a twinge, at every turn. Because it’s not a filmmaker’s job to feel things. It’s the audience’s. And I don’t see why a movie presided over by an aloof, aesthete’s eye should affect me less directly than one produced with a more improvisatory approach. As I said on Twitter at the time, sincerity be damned. Give me craftsmanship any day.

Also, nothing in movies or on TV made me laugh harder this year than “She’s been murdered. And you think I did it.” *runs*

Doctor Who, series eight

This second year of my Doctor Who obsession was slightly more sedate than the first. The frenzy of discovery that led me to gulp down the first seven series of the rebooted show and a pretty significant chunk of the classic one in a matter of months seems to have abated, now. So, it is with a rational and balanced mind that I can proclaim OMG TWELVE IS TOTALLY MY DOCTOR.

This series has certainly been the most consistent one since Doctor Who rebooted. Its highlights (“Listen,” “Dark Water/Death in Heaven,” “Kill the Moon”) don’t quite reach the heights of previous series (there’s no “Human Nature/The Family of Blood” or “The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang”), but “Listen” comes awfully close.

And, more crucially, there are no clunkers here. Every episode feels like it’s building to the themes that showrunner Steven Moffat would pay off in his spectacular two-part finale. But every episode is still allowed to be its own self-contained story — which is really important, because what’s the point of a show about a magical box that can take you anywhere if all of the stories are the same?

We saw a different, more ruthless and conflicted Doctor in Peter Capaldi. We saw new dimensions in Jenna-Louise Coleman’s performance as Clara (although, as blogger Caitlin Smith convincingly argues, they were probably there before and we just didn’t notice). We saw Nick Frost as Santa Claus.

We are waiting in agony for more.

Blood and Laurels — Emily Short

Since the storied elder times of Zork, text-based gaming has been on something of a low simmer. Plenty of fantastic hobbyists have been making absolutely stellar works of interactive fiction in that tradition — the one where you type commands and the computer responds, when it understands — for more than twenty years, now. But, it was a niche community, to say the least.

Now, with games like Device 6 and A Dark Room making a stir in mobile gaming, it seems like the world may be ready for more word games. After all, what do we spend all of our time doing, nowadays? We spend it reading text on screens.

2014 saw the release of one of the most promising platforms for interactive fiction, going forward. Versu is a massively more flexible new version of the Choose Your Own Adventure. Basically, you read text and make choices at critical points (or, for that matter, whenever you’d rather intervene than stand idly by). Choices can be as simple as making one gesture instead of another, or as sweeping as siding with one character in an argument over another. Versu’s artificially intelligent non-player characters react in kind.

The platform’s launch title, Blood and Laurels is by one of the most acclaimed authors of interactive fiction in recent years: Emily Short. It’s a story of intrigue in Ancient Rome. I don’t even want to think about how many endings it probably has. It’s a fantastic story, but what’s most exciting is the potential of this format. My prediction for 2015: this will be big, soon.

Honourable mentions: Salad Days — Mac DeMarco; The Ambassador — Gabriel Kahane; Stella di Napoli — Joyce DiDonato; Lamento — Romina Basso; Mad Men, season seven, part one; Last Week Tonight, season one; Game of Thrones, season four; Serial; Radiolab; Philip Sandifer’s blog; Boyhood.