Tag Archives: This American Life

Omnireviewer (week of May 21)

This is mostly Twin Peaks, honestly. But I’m gradually starting to catch up with podcasts as well because my cold is nearing its end, as is the general malaise that comes with that illness. More chores are thus being completed and pretty soon, universe willing, I might even go for a run! Prepare for a cavalcade of podcast reviews next week, as I once again begin adulting. In the meantime, here are this week’s 19 reviews.

Television

American Gods: “Git Gone” — Either the best or second-best episode so far. Since episode one, my favourite things about the show have been the ways in which it diverges from the book. As satisfying as it is to see Ian McShane play Wednesday pretty much exactly as I’d envisioned him and Gillian Anderson play Media pretty much exactly as I’d envisioned her, it’s been particularly gratifying to see the updates made to the Technical Boy, Anansi (!), and to a certain extent Shadow, though the latter seems more a result of Ricky Whittle’s magnetic performance than of the writing. But this reimagining of Laura is probably the best adaptive decision the show has made so far (though Anansi could still emerge as the show’s ace in the hole when he finds his way into the main story). In the book, Laura doesn’t really come into her own as a character until near the end. And even then, her story is basically about atoning for her infidelity. I don’t think this reinvented Laura is going to feel the need to do that. At least, not out of any traditional sense of remorse or reciprocity. This Laura’s entire inner life is different from the one in the book, because her actions are underpinned by a current of depression. And her relationship to Shadow is different from in the book because she doesn’t really love him. Or, she didn’t when she was alive. I love this dynamic. It’s a relationship that’s going to end up making both characters more interesting. This is our proper introduction to Emily Browning’s performance, which is fantastic. She’s got all of the acerbic wit that Whittle’s Shadow doesn’t. And I really love that her decomposition is being played for laughs, because she’s very funny. The decision to let Audrey in on Laura’s plotline is worth it for the bathroom scene alone. Betty Gilpin’s performance is hilarious for the extent to which she manages to still be really wrathful in spite of the fact that there’s an animated corpse sitting on her toilet. The gallows humour in American Gods is more farcical than Hannibal’s was, but it’s good to see that same sensibility out in full force. It’s not really a tone that Neil Gaiman goes in for much in the book, and it’s yet another welcome addition. To be clear, I really like the book. But this show would have to screw up pretty badly at this point to dissuade me from the view that it’s a substantial improvement on its source material.

Twin Peaks: “Traces to Nowhere” & “Zen, or the Skill to Catch a Killer” — Twin Peaks starts to pick up steam in “Traces to Nowhere,” which doesn’t have the benefit of David Lynch behind the camera, but which is our first full episode featuring Agent Cooper. Suddenly, now that our high school-aged characters are peripheral figures in a murder mystery and not just characters in a dodgy teen drama, they’re watchable. Bobby Briggs still stretches credulity at times, but the more I get back into this, the more his truculence seems like an exaggerated expression of the town’s id. The same applies, albeit with conditions, to Leo. The conditions are mostly that Eric Da Re is absolutely awful. But I’m finding him less obtrusively bad this time through than I did the first time. Can’t say why. Also. There was a fish in Jack Nance’s percolator. Let’s move on to the main event. “Zen, or the Skill to Catch a Killer” is the essential Twin Peaks episode. I daresay it is the first, and highest, of the show’s two peaks. (I’ll decide what the other one is later.) Obviously this is remembered best for the Red Room scene, which is straightforwardly the best scene in the show, and one of the best things David Lynch has ever done, up there with several scenes from Eraserhead, the “In Dreams” segment of Blue Velvet and the Club Silencio scene in Mulholland Drive. (Okay, that last one’s pushing it. Nothing’s as good as the Club Silencio.) The Red Room is really the first incursion of a particular kind of paranoia into Twin Peaks: the kind where you’re not only suspicious of everybody in town for their possible involvement in Laura Palmer’s death, but you’re also suspicious of the show itself for containing hidden meanings that you can glean by reading into it. And more than that, it’s just deeply, deeply creepy. The backwards dialogue is the real masterstroke: you can understand what they’re saying, but it sounds wrong and uncanny. I love that. I love the whole Red Room sequence. But it’s easy to forget the rest of the episode leading up to it. The scene where Coop throws rocks at a milk bottle is maybe his quintessential scene. Sure, his character is established effectively in his very first scene, monologuing to Diane on the road. But this is our first real introduction to what makes him such an idiosyncratic FBI agent, and such a good fit for this particularly strange case. The episode’s opening, where the Horne family’s joyless dinner is disturbed by the arrival of Uncle Larry with his baguettes, is hysterical. And it comes to be deeply disturbing when we realize what these two bigwigs like to do with their time. One-Eyed Jack’s makes its first appearance. I recall this being a somewhat troubling element of the plotline. We’ll see how well it holds up. I could keep this going for virtually every scene in this episode. (And I will give a quick mention to Ray Wise dancing with Laura’s picture to the not at all delicate strains of “Pennsylvania 6-5000.”) Twin Peaks is flawed and frustrating, but “Zen” is not. If Twin Peaks could live up to the caliber of “Zen,” or even hover just below it, for the bulk of its duration, it would be one of television’s four or five greatest masterpieces. But I need not use this episode as a stick with which to beat the rest of the series. “Zen, or the Skill to Catch a Killer,” when taken on its own, is unique in television history, and one of that medium’s finest moments.

Better Call Saul: “Expenses” — One of the most wonderful, heartbreaking things about Better Call Saul is the way it shows people who are destined to be criminals whose lives end badly in situations where they could almost get out. It shows that these characters can function in non-crime settings. Jimmy is the most obvious example, with his elder law practice and his relationship with Kim conjuring a bucolic might-have-been scenario that we know won’t come to pass. But the tentative glimpses we get of Michael Ehrmantraut: quiet family man and community volunteer might be even more heartbreaking. I really want him to just keep building playgrounds and fixing things and handing out parking passes and maybe he could even ask that nice widow out for coffee, because then he wouldn’t end up getting murdered by Walter White. This is another way in which Better Call Saul differentiates itself from its esteemed predecessor: it is basically telling the opposite story. Walt could easily have kept out of the criminal underworld altogether. That would have been the path of least resistance for him. But Breaking Bad is essentially the story of how Walter White discovers and indulges his baser nature, his villainous side, in spite of already having the middle-class existence that many people aspire to. Better Call Saul flips this: it’s the story of two basically gentle and well-meaning characters who want to stay on the straight and narrow but keep getting jerked away — by their social conditioning, their sense of their roles in the world, and their circumstances. When Better Call Saul wraps, the two series together will account for an impressively broad swathe of human motivation, by way of only a few excellent characters. And that final scene is one of Bob Odenkirk’s best moments. I’m reminded of the way that Walt lied by telling the truth when his doctor recognised that his fugue state was fake. Normally I manage to review this show without too much reference to Breaking Bad. Or, if I do reference Breaking Bad, it’s only to mention how well I feel Better Call Saul is doing at distancing itself from that show. But these days I’m finding them to be interesting mirror images of each other. And that speaks well of both of them.

Doctor Who: “The Pyramid at the End of the World” — Firstly, it’s great to see the doctor emerge from the TARDIS into an unfamiliar space. That’s a fun reversal. Secondly, I think this is either my favourite or second favourite episode of this series so far, its only competition being “Thin Ice.” The Doctor’s blindness finally pays off, in a way that recalls Ten’s regeneration, and we see Bill finally have to make an important decision on a cosmic level. (I really hope she gets a second date with Penny when all of this is done. This has not been going well for Bill, or her simulation. Gotta feel for her.) I suppose Peter Harness has been slotted into the role of “geopolitical drama guy.” This really feels more like his episode than Steven Moffat’s, and he’s one of the few writers I can say that about where it isn’t a dig. I’m not entirely convinced by the way that three individuals are called in to speak for their respective militaries, with no involvement from their respective governments. But if you interpret those three characters as synecdoches, then it kind of works. Also, I’m not sure what they were getting at by making consent such a big thing in this episode. Clearly the situation with the Monks taking over the world doesn’t easily map onto the conversation about sexual consent. But given that the word “consent” is primarily heard in the context of that very prevalent conversation, it’s hard not to try and relate the two. Given that, the notion “love is consent” is dubious at best. But I’m pretty sure this is an analytical road that Harness and Moffat never actually meant for us to go down. So why tempt us? Hmm, I’m having more trouble coming up with good things to say about this than I thought I would, given that I started this review by saying this is either my favourite or second-favourite episode of the series. I must say I’m starting to lose enthusiasm. I gave high scores to early episodes like “The Pilot” and “Smile” with the understanding that the show would pick up once the proper season arc got underway in “Oxygen.” But I found both that episode and “Extremis” (the latter especially) a bit disappointing, so I’ve found myself starting to sour even on the episodes that I initially liked. This week marks a step in the right direction, but I’m not sure I relish the idea that Toby Whithouse has been entrusted with a big, seemingly arc-heavy episode with Missy next week. I’m still holding out hope for the last two episodes and the Christmas special, though. Because three straight episodes written by Moffat and directed by Rachel Talalay (easily my favourite Doctor Who director these days) is reason for excitement even in the midst of a slightly meh series.

Twin Peaks: Season 1, episodes 4-7 — Diane, this marks the point in my renewed investigation of Twin Peaks where I’ve decided to expand my original purview of watching only the Lynch-written/directed episodes to just watching the whole thing again until it goes off the rails and then skipping ahead to the finale. My reasons for making this change are twofold. One: I’ve heard that the premiere of the new series was very promising. I had my doubts, but if there is some truly excellent new television ahead of me, then I want to be as prepared as possible to follow its inevitable swerves and cycles. And two: since my tepid response to the pilot episode last week, I’ve started rather enjoying this show again and the thought of skipping episodes while it’s still in its prime now feels needlessly austere of me. So, onwards. My favourite part of “Rest in Pain” is the opening, in which Coop attempts to analyse his own dream in front of a bemused Truman and Lucy. It strikes me that this episode makes the Red Room sequence from the previous episode unique among Lynch’s surreal mystery sequences in that it becomes a mystery for the characters within the narrative to crack as well. The characters in Eraserhead don’t try to explain what’s going on in the movie to each other. And maybe this is what distinguishes Lynch as a member of a television production team from Lynch as a film auteur: on Twin Peaks, there are other people around to try and fit his more unhinged, free-associative moments into a straightforward narrative. This isn’t a value judgement. I’m not saying this makes Twin Peaks better than Eraserhead (I believe the opposite). But it’s a necessity for television, and it’s interesting to see the medium expanding and rationalizing like crazy to encompass Lynch’s weird vision. This is the first episode not to have a David Lynch writing or directing credit, and you can almost feel the rest of the crew, led by Mark Frost, saying “Okay, so David left us with a dancing dwarf and a non-sequitur about gum. How do we deal with that?” The rest of the season sort of feels like that, and it does a great job fleshing out the quirks and foibles of the supporting cast. I adore Jack Nance’s performance as Pete Martell. Nance is the sort of actor you suspect could have had a bigger (and longer) career under different circumstances, but it’s nice that his two most iconic roles, here and in Eraserhead, are so drastically different. The Bookhouse Boys represent another welcome character expansion. The reveal that Sheriff Truman heads up a generations-old secret society dedicated to keeping an ill-defined evil that lurks in the woods at bay is a welcome twist. Prior to that moment, it’s possible to look at the way that local law enforcement straightforwardly accepts Cooper’s unorthodoxy as them being credulous yokels. But here you get a sense for the first time that certain locals in Twin Peaks are aware of something uncanny in their midst, and so Cooper’s approach doesn’t seem so odd. Of course, Josie Packard’s plotline undermines that a bit. I had forgotten how many cliffhangers were packed into the last episode of this. Suppose it goes to show the extent to which Mark Frost is the “television” half of this creative partnership. Still, for all that some of it seems a bit forced, I’m genuinely back into this now. And I’m kind of happy that I don’t remember how the cliffhangers work out. Onwards to the good bit of season two. Nobody spoil me on the new episodes.

Literature, etc.

Carina Chocano: “From Wells Fargo to Fyre Festival, the Scam Economy Is Entering Its Baroque Phase” — When we look back on the years from 2015-20?? in several decades time, I think the phrase “everything is fake” will be seen as this period’s equivalent of “tune in, turn on, drop out.” Except I think the former is much more penetrating. This feature is a wonderful distillation of the thing that I find most hilarious and most horrifying about the world today. It’s a more pointed, much shorter rendition of the basic argument that Adam Curtis makes in HyperNormalisation. Here is the insight I particularly enjoyed: “Reality-TV and social-media figures train us to treat them like stars merely for acting like stars.” Funny and weird and sad. Would have been nice if Chocano had included something about Magic Leap, the obviously fake tech company that is somehow valued at $8 billion. But that’s a whole thing in itself.

Dave Eggers: “Sufjan Stevens talks to Dave Eggers: ‘I was recording songs as a means of grieving’” — This lends a bit of clarity to the story that led to the recording of Carrie & Lowell: namely Sufjan Stevens’ traumatizing childhood. But it also lends clarity to the difference between the studio recording and the live performances.

Sue Halpern: “How He Used Facebook To Win” — A beyond distressing feature on how Donald Trump — a seemingly untenable candidate to a majority of Americans, who won nonetheless — was hoisted to the top by a team that understood how to read and leverage social media in a way that nobody else did. Hold out for the bit about Facebook “dark posts.” Fairly chilling.

Music

Sufjan Stevens: Illinois — It’s a funny thing coming back to an artist’s defining work after having heard something more recent first. Illinois is clearly brilliant and I love it, and I’ve been listening to a few tracks from it semi-obsessively since I finished my first full spin of it. (It took a couple sittings. I love an artist who’s willing to really commit to a long running time.) But it seems obvious to me that Carrie & Lowell is a better album than this. I know I’m not alone in this assertion. Pitchfork agreed, for one. But this seems like a good example of how we tend to put musicians in temporal boxes. Sufjan Stevens is a defining musician of the early-mid ‘aughts. And he did some really great work at that time, so maybe some fans aren’t willing to entertain the notion of that not being his peak. But to me, Illinois feels like Beethoven’s Eroica, whereas Carrie & Lowell is one of the late string quartets. Maybe opus 132. To be clear, this comparison speaks well of both of these albums. The Eroica is one of the most influential pieces of music ever written. But to me, and I think to a lot of devoted Beethoven fans, it pales in comparison to the unwavering sincerity of his later music. Mind you, Stevens was a fair bit younger writing Carrie & Lowell than Beethoven was when he wrote the opus 132 quartet. But 21st-century pop geniuses are classical composers in fast-forward. So I think the metaphor stands. Illinois is an exciting and ambitious album full of great tunes. “Chicago” is irresistible. “Come On Feel the Illinoise” will swallow you whole. “They Are Night Zombies” will stick with you for the entire day. But there’s nothing here that’ll break your heart like “Death With Dignity,” “Fourth of July” or “Blue Bucket of Gold.” Not everything has to be like that, but I have my priorities. And I think in the long run that we’ll see both of these albums as equal peaks (he writes, in a forced attempt not to needlessly namecheck the show he’s currently obsessed with) and Carrie & Lowell will look like as much of a highlight of 2015 as Illinois did in 2005, regardless of when Sufjan Stevens’ historical moment is eventually considered to be.

Sufjan Stevens: Carrie & Lowell Live — This concert film doesn’t feel so much like an adaptation of Carrie & Lowell into a live medium as a second chapter of Carrie & Lowell. Where the studio album is a delicate, intimate reflection on a personal tragedy, the concert film is a huge catharsis: a healing ritual that finds Stevens trying to move on from the tragedy. It’s hard not to play the which one’s better game, but that’s not the way to think about this at all. If you loved Carrie & Lowell, you need to watch Carrie & Lowell Live. Parts of the film maintain the water-damaged photo album feel of the original album and its packaging: the screens behind Stevens play fragments of old home videos and the cameras pull in and out of focus, like they’re watching the show through tear-stained mechanical eyes. But Stevens knows that catharsis doesn’t live in quiet places. The incursion of Pink Floydian grandiosity into these intimate songs changes their meaning entirely. And like Roger Waters’ reimagined, 21st-century production of The Wall, you come away from Carrie & Lowell Live with the impression that you’ve seen something beautiful as opposed to just something terribly sad. Nowhere is that more obvious than in “The Only Thing,” the darkest track on the studio album, in which Stevens is barely able to convince himself to keep living. Here, the same lyrics, and the same basic musical material is interrupted by a huge synth rock climax. Suddenly, a manifestly bleak song toes the inexplicable fine line between abject depression and euphoria. This is straight from the Roger Waters playbook, but it’s a complicated maneuver that can’t really be described in words. Stevens makes it entirely his own. Even more astonishing is the 18-minute noise performance that follows “Blue Bucket of Gold.” This hits me in the lizard brain the same way that William Basinski does, which is to say that it’s indescribable and I’m wasting my time even trying. But, unlike The Disintegration Loops, it leaves me feeling better than I did at the start of it. After something as gorgeous and inexplicable as that, it really only makes sense to follow it with a cover of “Hotline Bling,” complete with the dance and big projections of Drake. From the sublime to the ridiculous, as the cliché goes. But considering that many members of Stevens’ audience may respond differently from me to the darkness of the show as a whole, this finale feels like a public service, sending the crowd off feeling like they’ve actually had fun. This is brilliant. I wish I’d come to the album sooner so I might have known to look out for the show if it came near me. This is effectively new music, and treated as such, it’s among the best new music of the year so far. Pick of the week.

Neil Young: Sugar Mountain – Live at Canterbury House 1968 — “I used to play lead guitar,” he says. Oh, would that he knew. This is an interesting album as much for the slightly awkward but often funny stage banter as for the actual musical performances. Neil’s solo show wouldn’t really take flight until a couple years later when he’d written all of the songs on After the Gold Rush and a few from Harvest. At this point, with only Buffalo Springfield-era stuff and tracks from the first solo album, he doesn’t really have the material for a solid acoustic set. And he also doesn’t have a piano. So, this is truly a release of primarily archival interest.

Podcasts

Chapo Trap House: “The Roctober Revolution feat. China Miéville” — A bit of an earnest instalment of Chapo, but it’s the only interview with Miéville that’s cropped up in my podcast feed since his 1917 book came out, which is ludicrous. Why is everybody not interviewing this guy? Actually, I don’t need an answer to that. It’s because Marxists make liberals uneasy. It’s interesting to hear Miéville talk about why he thinks this book was important to write. Aside from that, this served as a nice preview of what I’ve got ahead of me in the book. I’m about halfway through chapter three. It’s riveting. This is a good interview, but really you should just go out and get the book.

This American Life: “Fermi’s Paradox” — Ah, this is what I come to this show for. Big feelings. Feelings like an unfaithful husband realizing for the first time the pain that he put his wife through. Feelings like a lonely kid wanting to connect with her dad. Feelings like David Kestenbaum’s acute sadness at the prospect that there might be no aliens. The fact that the last one of those can co-exist with the first to is really what’s great about TAL. Pick of the week.

Home of the Brave: “Trump’s Wall, Part Two” — The best moment of this is when Scott Carrier finds himself A Racist and interviews him at the site of the proposed border wall. It’s actually the exact opposite of that thing that reporters sometimes do where they look for somebody with the most extreme views possible and then coax them into saying the shitty things they believe. This guy straight up just offers his unsolicited opinion that anybody caught crossing the border illegally should be shot on sight, and Carrier actually goes “no you don’t believe that actually” and this motherfucker’s like “yeah I do don’t put words in my mouth.” Also, “Thomas Jefferson said people should assimilate into our society.” Yeah, and everything that Thomas Jefferson believed definitely applies to modern life. I can think of no obvious exceptions to that rule.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Alien: Covenant & Veep” — I will definitely be seeing Alien: Covenant even though it is probably not good. And I’ve been trying to make time for Veep for years, but I don’t think I’m going to get to it for a while yet. So, I’m basically taking the opposite of the suggested takeaway from this episode.

Code Switch: “We’re Still Talking about ‘My Family’s Slave’” — “My Family’s Slave” is one of the most troubling things written in recent times, so I’m happy this podcast is around to wade into it. I kind of still don’t know what to think about it.

All Songs Considered: “Fleet Foxes, The National, Harry Styles Of One Direction, More” — I share Robin Hilton’s appreciation for Harry Styles’ bold approach to going solo in the abstract, but I definitely don’t think that song is good. I won’t be listening to his album, but I also won’t write him off out of hand. Nothing’s jumping out at me in this. The track by Dr. Danny is musically promising, but has some regrettable lyrics. I wish I liked the National better. I’ve never been able to connect with this band, in spite of everything about them being something I should seemingly love. But I do love the guitar riff in this. Maybe there’s hope.

Judge John Hodgman: “New Schemes to Violate the Social Contract” — Highlight: Jesse Thorn talking about clothes in a different context from usual.

The Gist: “Roger Ailes Created This Mess” — I’m late to the party on this, but yeah, Roger Ailes was a piece of work. And this episode’s spiel about three leaders, including most memorably the king of the Netherlands who is an airplane pilot, features some of Mike Pesca’s funniest writing in a while. (I’m assuming, perhaps stupidly, that Pesca mostly writes his spiels. Certainly, they are of a piece with each other.)

Omnireviewer (week of Apr. 16)

Lots of good stuff this week. Also one very bad thing that I enjoyed regardless. 22 reviews.

Movies

The Wicker Man (2006) — Oh, good lord. Firstly, be warned (BEE warned) that the infamous “NOT THE BEEEES” scene is actually not in the theatrical release of this movie. It’s in an alternate ending only on the DVD. I guess when they were editing the movie they found the line they couldn’t cross, and that was it. If you haven’t seen this, you should definitely watch it. Watch it with some people around. Nicholas Cage’s scenery chewing results in one of the most compellingly terrible performances I’ve ever witnessed. Everything about this movie is so crazily off the mark that I have trouble believing any actor attached to it (maybe Cage more than anybody) took it seriously as they were making it. It’s laden down with severely inept writing (“Of course. Another plant!”), weirdly benign jump scares (that bit where he wakes up twice) and badly-directed child extras (“Phall-ic sym-bol, phall-ic sym-bol”). I must confess, I never saw the appeal of the original, acclaimed version of The Wicker Man. But seeing some of the stuff that this version gets wrong makes me appreciate it a little more. For one thing, the remake de-emphasizes the protagonist’s religion. We do see a crucifix in Cage’s house early in the film, but that’s about the extent of it. In the original, the detective’s religiosity is what compels him to investigate the missing girl’s disappearance with such vigor: he inherently distrusts the Hebridean islanders because of their paganism. And that’s really what the original film is primarily about. Its horror derives from Christian anxiety over lingering paganism in rural places. This is substituted out in the remake for two ill-advised alterations: making the missing girl the detective’s daughter (“there has to be stakes” says American cinema) and making the island not merely pagan but also a matriarchy. Because to secular, urbane, 21st-century Americans, paganism isn’t scary. But women running society? Heaven fucking forfend. And then there’s the fucking bees, which are somehow both ham-fistedly symbolic and a seemingly arbitrary addition to the story. But all of this is just me wilfully missing the point of watching this movie. I said before that I didn’t really enjoy the original Wicker Man all that much. I think it has a good story with interesting implications about religious anxiety. But it also has tonally jarring musical numbers and Christopher Lee at, frankly, not his best. On the other hand, I completely enjoyed the Nic Cage remake. This is the rare case where I’ll happily recommend a ridicule-watch of a bad movie over a sincere screening of an objectively more accomplished one. Seriously. Watch this.

Television

Battlestar Galactica: Season 3, episodes 14-20 — Let’s make this a full-on appraisal of the complete season, shall we? Okay. Starting at the beginning. The New Caprica arc is outstanding, if far shorter-lived than I’d expected. It’s remarkable how close to the season two status quo (and in fact, the pre-”Pegasus” status quo) we end up in, a mere four episodes after everything changes. Still, the decision not to belabour the point of New Caprica is probably a good one, and it allows for a remarkably brisk start to the season. The “Exodus” two-parter is up there with the season two finale, the first episode of the miniseries and “33” among my favourites in this series. Once we’re past that arc, the show returns to something like business as usual, but with the extremely satisfying addition of a plotline that takes place on a Cylon baseship. I brought this up last week, but it bears repeating: the set alone is one of the best things this show has ever done. The way that the editing is deliberately disorienting in the baseship scenes is brilliant. And every new glimpse we get of Cylon society — of the ways that they interact with their surroundings and each other in ways that are both human and alien — adds depth to the show. It’s in the small choices: like the way that red characters are projected over the Cylons whenever they’re in their control room and the water-filled interfaces with the consoles. The Cylons aren’t creepy because they’re mechanical. They’re creepy because they’re weirdly organic, and yet they live like this. I’m particularly enamoured with the Hybrid: a Cronenbergian horror that puts the interior of the Cylon raiders to shame. Number Three getting her own honest-to-god(s?) plotline is a welcome development. At this point in the show, nearly half of the known Cylon models (Three, Six and Eight — the women, not coincidentally I imagine) have at least certain sympathetic aspects. I love that we’re seeing more from that side of the conflict. The Galactica-based plotlines of the mid-season are more hit and miss. Starbuck, my favourite character in the first two seasons save possibly for Roslin, gets particularly short shrift. She’s jammed into an inelegant love quadrangle in which neither of the inconvenient marriages involved makes a lick of sense. (There’s still satisfaction in seeing her at her triumphant moments, though. Every time she triumphs I get this warm fuzzy feeling like I’ve just punched Dirk Benedict in the face.) Still, one episode takes these flawed storylines and makes them sing, and that is “Unfinished Business.” Weaving together a recreational boxing tournament onboard the Galactica and flashbacks from the almost good times of early New Caprica, it establishes that the characters in this show don’t need to be dogfighting, fomenting revolution or barking commands to be compelling. It leaves out everything I love most about this season — the Cylon baseship, Baltar’s plotline aboard said baseship, weird spirituality — and still manages to be the best episode of the season. However, like season two, this has some serious clunkers in its second half. “The Woman King” is a shitty would-be conspiracy thriller with Helo in the lead. Even so, while the actual crimes that Helo’s investigating are deeply unconvincing plotting, it does develop his character in an interesting way that I wouldn’t have thought to observe: he’s the character on the ship who is constantly on the wrong side of everything. Among the crew, he’s possibly the most liberal. Speaking of politics, another disappointment in this season is the transformation of Tom Zarek from a revolutionary freedom fighter to an abuser of executive power. That’s dispiriting. But then, it has happened frequently enough throughout history. What’s really bizarre is how the show suddenly recast Baltar as a farmer’s son and he was briefly the fleet’s primary voice of radical politics. So, effectively, both of Battlestar Galactica’s far-left figures are compromised: Zarek because he eventually perpetrates the abuses he once professed to hate, and Baltar because he’s using leftist rhetoric for cynical, personal means. At least there’s kickass union boss Chief Tyrell. (I also love that this entire plotline is scored with a sort of quasi-bluegrass from space.) And I do like that the show is willing to have its two broadly sympathetic leadership figures, Adama and Roslin, be completely and committedly wrong and insensitive about labour organizing and issues of class in general. That rings true. But back to the negatives for a moment. “A Day in the Life” is an Adama feature episode that’s not worthy of the character. It finds him wilfully hallucinating his own dead wife, whose line readings are bizarrely terse and suck the energy out of every scene she’s in. That takes us to the season’s endgame, I suppose. In general, I approve of the plot developments in these episodes as broad strokes — Starbuck dies and returns enlightened, Baltar is found not guilty, everyone is a Cylon, etc. — but I don’t think they make especially good television on a micro level. It’s little choices that let them down, not big ones. I understand that there’s a twist in this show somewhere that people disapproved of. I can’t figure out what it is. But there are little things creeping in that make it seem a little bit less sure-handed than it once was. The whole contrived thing of Apollo being called as a witness at Baltar’s trial to deliver his speech, for instance. That speech needed to happen, but why go about it in such a weird way? And really, the whole decision to focus such a big chunk of the season finale on something as relatively low-stakes as Baltar’s trial. Or the “All Along the Watchtower” thing in the finale. That was a little overcooked. (Though I’m curious about how a song from contemporary Earth ended up in this show, given what we’ve been made to understand about when in human history it takes place. I have an obvious theory. Don’t tell me if I’m right.) The final shot of the season, with all of the cosmic zooms finishing on the reveal of Earth feels like it’s from a completely different show, aesthetically: a much more 2001 sort of science fiction show. Could it be that we’re hurdling headlong into crazy for season four? (That much I know.) And finally. Fat Apollo. Fat fucking Apollo. This is a good season of television. The highs are super high, and the lows aren’t much lower than previously.

Doctor Who: “The Pilot” — Ohhhh yes. Oh, I’m so glad it’s back. The title flags the most interesting thing about this episode, which is that it is functionally a new start. Doctor Who isn’t the first show to make a pun on the word “pilot” in an episode title. Lost comes to mind immediately, and there must be others. But I don’t know of another that does one 10 seasons into its run (or, indeed, 36 seasons in). This feels like Steven Moffat challenging himself to restate the premise of the show and express its fundamental romantic joy without too much reference to continuity. It is enormously successful in that, and I found myself as overwhelmed as ever by the reveal of the TARDIS interior. I’ve written before about a concept I call “wonder surrogacy,” where a show or movie establishes a character inside of its narrative whose specific role is to marvel at what’s going on around them in the hopes that their wonder will rub off on an audience who may be skeptical. I first noticed this in Jurassic World, and I’ve been extra cognizant of it ever since. It nearly never works. Certainly, Doctor Who is the sort of text you may expect wonder surrogacy to rear its head in. It’s been around for over 50 years, and the key elements (the TARDIS, Daleks, regeneration, etc.) are part of the public consciousness. And yet, every time a new companion is introduced, we’re treated to the phenomenon of a person being surprised and aghast and overjoyed to find the TARDIS “bigger on the inside,” as if this is not common knowledge. So, why does the elongated “bigger on the inside” sequence with Bill work so well? Why does this seeming example of wonder surrogacy (like all of the “bigger on the inside” scenes in the new series) give me chills while the rest leave me rolling my eyes? The best answer I can come up with is that the TARDIS is a genuine wonder. A CGI dinosaur is not a genuine wonder. It’s just an image, and an increasingly banal one. The TARDIS is the entry point to an entirely new understanding of the cosmos. Crossing the threshold from its outside to its inside requires an entirely new concept of how physical space works, and when you cross the threshold again to the outside, everything may well have changed completely. As an image, the TARDIS is purposely banal. As a concept, it is the perfect metaphor for imagination itself. There is no wonder surrogacy required for such a thing. Only wonder. Love him or hate him (and I believe there are reasons for both), Steven Moffat understands this better than anybody else who has ever written for this show. That’s why I’m excited for this season, and why I’ll be fairly disconsolate about his departure.

Doctor Who: “Smile” — Still the most interesting thing about this season so far (and I am quite favourably disposed to this season so far) is the way that it is reiterating certain basic elements of the appeal of Doctor Who. The moment that really stands out in this episode for me is a small one right after Bill asks the Doctor why it has to be him that saves the people of the planet they’re on. Naturally, being Twelve, he doesn’t give a satisfactory answer. But Bill, being cleverer even than the people who initially dreamed up this show, sees the notice on the outside of the TARDIS that proclaims, in the manner of even the most non-bigger-on-the-inside police boxes, “advice and assistance obtainable immediately.” Why does the Doctor keep the TARDIS in its police box form? Because he lives by that notice on the door like a code. This is fundamental to the show, and it squares with Steven Moffat’s view of the Doctor as a different, worthier kind of hero. So far, it looks like Moffat has decided to use his final season on the show to revisit the first principles of the show, and compose a love letter to the glorious legacy of Doctor Who, which he recognizes that he’s an infinitesimally small part of. A good part, though. A really good part. The rest of this, with a script written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce (whose “In the Forest of the Night” is an idiosyncratic favourite of mine), is a fun Doctor Who romp that allows Bill and the Doctor plenty of time alone to get to know each other. The Emojibots are deeply scary in a way that conventionally terrifying monsters are not. They throw our own vapidity back in our faces and then kill us. I love that. This series is two-for-two. If Sarah Dollard delivers next week like I think she will, it’ll be off to a massively better start than its predecessor.  

Literature, etc.

David A. Banks: “Podcast Out” — An interesting critical look at the limitations and potential consequences of NPR’s major podcasts. Broadly I agree with Banks’s assessment, though to me the biggest problem with Radiolab and its ilk is not their reliance on the sciences to explain the world, but on the stories of individuals to explain science. There’s no room in most public radio-derived podcasts for any huge, world-defining story that can’t be localised into a personal narrative told by, like, a single dad in Newark or whatever. It’s a weirdly closed-minded approach to curiosity. Note that I still listen to a boatload of these kinds of podcasts, but I increasingly appreciate the ones like Theory of Everything and Love and Radio that break from the structure and challenge rather than confirm the listener’s assumptions.

Neil Gaiman: American Gods (The Tenth Anniversary Edition audiobook) — Okay. Enough podcasters have told me to check out Audible that I’m doing it. This edition of the audiobook features a full cast, including a really brilliant fellow (Ron McLarty) doing the role of Mr. Wednesday, and it features Neil Gaiman himself reading certain interstitial chapters. As a listening experience I’m pretty sold on full-cast audiobooks. Gaiman’s presence is much appreciated as well, as he’s always an engaging reader of his own work and he’s got a wonderful and distinctive voice. I also appreciate that he’s deployed sparingly. Makes you really lean in when you hear him. The only issue with the audiobook so far is a sex scene that becomes distinctly unsexy when read aloud. These actors can only act so much. It’s not a play, after all, and we listeners have lives to get on with. But hearing a sex scene read aloud in a fashion somewhere between matter-of-fact and actually dramatic is, well, awkward. As for American Gods itself, I’ve been meaning to get around to this since I read and adored The Sandman a few years back. With the show coming up soon, with both Bryan Fuller and Ian McShane attached, I figure I’d best do it now. I’m three chapters in and I love it already. The idea of ancient gods finding their place in America is outstanding, and I’m already very curious about who this youngster is who wants them gone. I know enough of Norse mythology to know that Odin won’t live forever, so the stakes are already high. As for Shadow, he’s a compelling enough protagonist. His relationship with his dead wife is proving to be the most interesting thing about him. But so far, I’m really in it for the lore. I’m enjoying this enough that I’m actually rushing through writing this so I can get back to it. More next week, I’m sure.

Music

Ted Hearne/The Crossing: Sound from the Bench — This is my favourite music of the year so far. Admittedly, it hasn’t been a busy year for me in terms of discovering new music. But this is really, really good. I was familiar with Hearne from his oratorio The Source, which has moments of staggering brilliance (especially the chorus “We called for illumination at 1630”) but which I generally found a bit literal and earnest. The choral music on this collection has no such problem. The title work is the centrepiece and the highlight, featuring guitars and drums backing up the chorus. The text is drawn from both Supreme Court decisions and ventriloquism textbooks. This unorthodox and rich choice of texts helps to combat the earnestness that I found slightly offputting in The Source. Sound from the Bench is a genuinely funny piece of music. Its primary subject is the Citizens United decision that deemed corporate campaign spending to be a form of free speech protected under the first amendment. This is patently absurd and implicitly hilarious. Of course, it has some rather dire connotations, but unlike the war-adjacent texts of The Source, it isn’t directly a matter of life and death. But holy crap is it ever musically powerful. The other three works on the disc are nearly as good as the main event, but the short piece “Consent” stands out. It gets dark partway through, but the opening — is simply a mixed chorus singing the words “I want you, I want to” — is absolutely staggering. Hearne is one of the most explicitly socially-conscious composers working right now, and while I wasn’t certain whether it was working when I heard The Source, I have no doubt now that it absolutely can. And the recording itself is fantastic as well. None of the fuzziness that you sometimes hear around the edges of choral recordings. This isn’t pretending to be a live concert. It’s music that happens right in your head. The Crossing is a miraculous ensemble with a distinctive sound that ranges from symphonic choir to glee club. I can’t wait to hear more from them. This is beautiful. I desperately want an opera from Ted Hearne. Not the usual kind with arias and duets and things, but an Einstein on the Beach sort of opera that takes advantage of his facility with found texts and choral writing. If someone could please commission that from him (I’m looking at you, Opera Philadelphia) it would be epochal. Pick of the week.

Kendrick Lamar: Damn. — Ah man, this is going to make me work, isn’t it? Kendrick Lamar’s music always takes a gigantic amount of listening to sink in for me. It’s entirely possible that he’s my favourite rapper around right now, but I’ll never connect with him as directly as, say, Run the Jewels, because the beats are so raw and spare that my mind wanders. And you can’t let your mind wander with this guy. Here’s what I love: “DNA,” with its Fox News samples. “DUCKWORTH,” with its (maybe specious?) storytelling. “FEAR,” with its tripartite structure and uncharacteristic repetition. And “LOYALTY” with Rihanna rapping. This is approximately the same number of high points I detected on my first listen of To Pimp a Butterfly. If things proceed similarly, I will like and understand this better many many months from now.

Car Seat Headrest: Teens of Denial — Here’s an album that took a while to creep up on me. I’m still not convinced it’s the second coming that some claim it is, but I enjoy a larger percentage of the many many tracks on this than I did when I first heard it. “Vincent,” “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” and “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia” are still the highlights, but I’ve come to love “Fill in the Blank,” “Cosmic Hero” and “Drugs With Friends” as well. In general, this is music that occupies the same space as the Smiths and Belle and Sebastian: you listen to it for a catharsis. It’s at its best when your life isn’t. But for all its structural ingenuity, Will Toledo’s songwriting doesn’t have the wit of Stuart Murdoch, let alone Morrissey. So I’m not sure this can transcend those moments of needing catharsis the same way that other sad guy music can. This isn’t every day music the way that Strangeways, Here We Come is, for instance. No shame.

Podcasts

Containers: “Welcome to Global Capitalism” — The episode on 99pi convinced me to check this out, but I’m not going to make it through. There’s some good tape in this, but there’s also tape of the host literally flipping through archives. An eight-part series on how shipping containers changed the world was always going to be a maybe/maybe not proposition. At another time, in another state of mind, I would love this. But I think I’d prefer it if it didn’t take such a public radio approach of insisting that its subject matter is interesting every step of the way. Maybe I don’t need all these personal narratives to keep me involved. Maybe I can just hear you out and be interested in your thesis for its own merits. Anyway, I tried.

Love and Radio: “The Secrets Hotline” — This has been a truly great season of Love and Radio. As a final episode, this is a nice capper, though it’s insubstantial compared to, say, “A Girl of Ivory,” “Doing the No No” or “Blink Once For Yes,” which are three of my favourite episodes the show has ever done. The original scoring in this is a nice touch, and some of the secrets proffered here by anonymous callers are truly juicy. The feeling of sanctioned voyeurism is a good one. If you’re reading this, do listen to this episode, but seek out the three I’ve mentioned first if you’ve never heard this show. It is one of the miracles of podcasting.

Home of the Brave: “Trump’s Wall: Part 1” — My god, the tape in this is so beautiful. It’s just nature sounds from a riverside, recorded beautifully. More broadly, I’m very happy that Scott Carrier is doing a larger piece on Trump’s wall. That promises to be some of the best radio of recent years. And doing short updates like this is a good way to keep us sated.

Radiolab: “Nukes” — For everything I said about Radiolab earlier, they can make straightforwardly compelling radio. This episode poses the question, who gets to call the President’s decision to use nuclear weapons into question? The answer: it has differed from one administration to another. But the specifics are really fascinating.

Criminal: “420” — Ah, hilarious. This episode tells the story of how three teenagers’ tongue-in-cheek codeword for pot became universally acknowledged, with a substantial assist from the Grateful Dead. It also broaches the hilarious subject of Colorado’s 420 mile-marker signs getting stolen so consistently that they had to be replaced with 419.99 mile-marker signs. This is why Criminal is the best true crime podcast.  

Crimetown: “Family Ties” & “Bonus Episode: Gangster’s Daughter” — I have nothing more to say about this season of Crimetown. These are both adequate standalone episodes of this season. But I’m basically still in this solely because I’m susceptible to the sunk costs fallacy. Good thing it’ll soon be done.

The Kitchen Sisters Present: “Tony Schwartz: 30,000 Recordings Later” — This may be the third time I’ve heard this, but it’s good every time. The story of a guy who devoted his life to going out into the world and preserving sounds with a microphone, only to succumb to agoraphobia late in life. There’s a doc like this to made about R. Murray Schafer, but don’t tell anybody I said that or they’ll beat me to it.

99% Invisible: “The Architect of Hollywood” — A new classic from this old standby. It’s the story of Paul Revere Williams, the architect who single-handedly conceived the Hollywood style of architecture. This story reveals how that  intensely hybridized style grew out of this one architect who learned to do every style out of necessity, because he was a black man working almost exclusively for white people whose instincts were not to trust him. This is super. I’ve missed Avery Trufelman’s stories. Is it just me, or has it been a while?

Code Switch: “The Beef Over Native American Hunting Rights” — I dunno, there’s a major source in this who kind of sounds like a bigoted fool to me. Maybe I’m wrong, but this is the first time I’ve felt the bad kind of uncomfortable while listening to this show. Also, there’s some super ham-fisted writing at the end. An off week.

The Gist: “The Handmaid’s Fail” — Alexandra Petri is a fantastic guest host, though I do wonder if she’s just doing a Mike Pesca impression here. She really is a lot like Mike Pesca in her questions and her delivery. Also, this reminded me that I really need to read The Handmaid’s Tale. I don’t know how I’ve read four Margaret Atwood novels and that isn’t one of them.

This American Life: “The Other Mr. President” — The best part of this Sean Cole’s segment on Vladislav Surkov, and that’s not nearly as good as Benjamen Walker’s.

Slate’s Political Gabfest: “Bill Comes Due Edition” — I had forgotten how dull I find this. There’s been some stuff happening that compelled me to return to it — I mean, North Korea, Bill O’Reilly… this is fascinating, disgusting stuff — and I still couldn’t help myself from getting bored.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Fate of the Furious Plus Clapbacks and Feuds” — I hadn’t realized how funny Sam Sanders is. Now I’m extra excited for whatever the hell he’s developing. This is really good episode of this show, by the way. If you want to know why it is my preferred example of this format, this is a good episode to go with. Pick of the week.

Omnireviewer (week of Mar. 5, 2017)

Remember how last week I told you about how I was writing about Jethro Tull for a week? That got a bit out of hand. I was up until 3 a.m. three nights in a row. On the other hand, I learned I can write 22,000 words in a week and a half. No joke. Before we get to our 15 reviews (it’s a miracle I got through that much, considering), lemme just… here’s the link to the whole week of posts. There are 30 of them. If you’d rather the Reader’s Digest version, here are the posts that I think make up the spine of the whole thing:

This introductory post
This analysis of their two biggest radio hits
This interpretation of Thick as a Brick/personal manifesto
This exploration of empathy in Minstrel in the Gallery
This account of the response to A Passion Play
And finally, this last essay about Stormwatch

There we go. Now. To business.

Comedy

Mike Birbiglia: Thank God for Jokes — Birbiglia is for sure one of my favourite comics. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some things I’d change. He seems unable to do a special without a framing device now, which is fine given the extent to which he’s as much a storyteller as a comedian. But after this and My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, I feel like I can anticipate the beats to an uncomfortable degree. At this point it would be nice to hear him just tell jokes and stories in a linear fashion without constantly flashing back to his A-story. And I could do without the moments of earnestness he peppers throughout. I get that he’s trying for something bigger than just getting laughs, but it doesn’t really work here. That thread of the story is about the Charlie Hebdo shooting, and the line that’s supposed to carry the most weight is “I just love jokes.” It’s weird that he made it personal. I dunno, watch this and see if you agree. Because that is the full extent of my criticism. The material is really, really good and he’s becoming a better performer with every subsequent special. There’s even some top flight crowdwork in here with an audience member who feels like just a gift to a comedian, but of course you make your own luck.

Hannibal Buress: Comedy Camisado — I like Hannibal Buress a lot, but I think I like his delivery better than his material. I’ve seen one other special of his, Live from Chicago I think? I remember that material being a bit better than this, though his characterization of the media response to his Cosby bit is spot on.

Television

Last Week Tonight: “March 5, 2017” — I had decided not to watch this anymore and just to check out the YouTube segments from time to time, but a whole episode ended up flitting past my eye on the YouTube homepage and I figured, ah sure. As ever, it is more interesting than funny. A pandering Moonlight bit especially got on my nerves. And Oliver’s interview with the Dalai Lama is cute, but he didn’t get to the key point: what is actually going to happen, politically, to Tibet if he dies and the Chinese government appoints a new Dalai Lama who is loyal to them? I understand not wanting to break the mood of a fun interview with an adorable, lovely and really powerful world leader — but he travelled to India. Couldn’t he have pressed him just a little more???

Ways of Seeing: Episodes 1 & 2 — I’ve always meant to watch this, but left it until now because I had absolutely no idea how engrossing it would be. John Berger has what would now be considered No Television Presence, but it doesn’t matter at all because he’s interesting and lucid. That’s the standard by which worthiness should be judged in public broadcasting. The first episode of this is mostly remarkable for how obvious all of it is to a contemporary viewer. (Or maybe I’ve just read the Walter Benjamin essay that it’s based on. I know it’s his most famous, but I honestly can’t remember.) Berger’s argument about what happens when a painting becomes infinitely reproducible is in no way surprising, since we interact with reproduced images on a minute-by-minute basis, and anybody who’s paying attention should be able to determine the way in which its reproduction is manipulating its meaning. But that’s the thing, isn’t it — it’s only those who are paying attention. And that’s more the point of the first episode than actually explaining anything complex or surprising: it’s about increasing your cognisance of the presentation of images. The second episode is where things really pick up. This is the episode that argues that the traditional European nude exists not to show women being themselves, but rather women in the state of being seen. This is extremely penetrating, and Berger really makes his point by offering up a few selected exceptions to the rule, which are completely, electrifyingly different from the other images in a way I would absolutely not have detected without guidance. Or rather — without Berger’s ability to strip away the usual art criticism line about nudes being “a celebration of women” and allowing me to see the images as they are. However, Ways of Seeing shows its age in the second half of the episode, where Berger talks through these issues with, and I quote: “five women.” Wait, what? Who are these women? He seriously doesn’t even say who they are! Clearly they’re very smart and articulate, but but… who are they and why did you choose them for this program? “Five women.” Anyway. Also, why are there more glasses of wine on the table than people sitting around it? And why are you even drinking wine? Isn’t this the BBC?? What is going on!?!?! Is this the Twilight Zone?? What is happening? Berger! I don’t understnadddrkjf,namflkjfio^%&*()Mbkhjb

Movies

Get Out — The first great movie of the year. Here is what strikes me as particularly interesting about this: I think it’s the only comedic horror movie I’ve ever seen that isn’t primarily a parody. None of the comedy in the movie is derived from subverting horror movie tropes. Rather, the comedy and the horror actually come from the same place. Jordan Peele’s script (and crucially, the way he directs it) takes the experience of being a black person surrounded by white people and gets both comedy and horror out of it. This is because comedy and horror are both genres that stem from our natural responses to the absurd. When confronted with something that doesn’t make sense or seems wrong, we tend to either laugh or feel afraid. That’s the connection that Peele exploits to make this movie both scary and funny — and also to make a satirical (not parodic) point about microaggressions etc. It’s the same line traversed by Welcome to Night Vale, which is also not primarily a parody (though I suspect that stems as much from production ineptitude as from intentionality, but that’s a different review). Get Out is pitch perfect. Every shot, every beat in the editing, every performance is perfectly calibrated to ride that line between the horrifying and the (literally) hilarious. Calling it a horror movie is an oversimplification. But if we do lump it in with that category, it’s the best one I’ve seen in years. Yes, including It Follows. (Also, don’t watch the trailer. The trailer is full of spoilers. In this instance, spoilers are bad.) Pick of the week.

Games

Half-Life — So yeah. Still playing this. Didn’t switch to Source, because I heard it was buggier than the original. I’m progressing slowly because a) I’ve been writing about Jethro Tull all week and b) I’m terrible at video games, but I’m starting to enjoy this. I’ve read up a little on the ways it differs from previous shooters, and that does actually enhance the modern-day playing experience. You kind of have to take it as a bit of a relic. But I’m impressed by the verisimilitude of it all. It’s 100% first person so far, and at no point has my control over the character been halted to progress the story. The story happens incrementally around you as you proceed and is as much a matter of mood and atmosphere as actual writing. And yes, there isn’t a lot of story to speak of, but it’s still impressively unobtrusive. Plus, running around and shooting things (often the same things over and over, because I die constantly, even on easy mode) has therapeutic value for its almost Zen repetitiveness.

Literature, etc.

Philip Sandifer: “Haunt the Future” — This is a relatively brief and witty account of the way the “alt-right” repurposes Situationist tactics towards their own ends. It also contains very brief introductions to the neoreactionaries Mencius Moldbug and Nick Land who are horrifying, but oddly compelling.

Podcasts

Code Switch: “The Horror, The Horror: ‘Get Out’ and the Place of Race in Scary Movies” — This contains an extremely disquieting take on why the black character always dies first in a horror movie, and many other troubling things. On the other hand, Get Out sounds great.

Code Switch: “Ten Thousand Writers… and Two Intrepid Podcast Hosts” — I just remembered I listened to this a while back. It was good, I think? I seem to remember an interesting conversation with a guy who always gets invited to speak on the same writers’ panel about race. Mostly I’m disappointed in my recall.

Reply All: “Worldstar” — A complicated story of a complicated person. Q’s story strikes me as just another tale of the cheapening effect that the present-day iteration of the internet has on culture. But I’m inclined to see that narrative in basically everything.

Theory of Everything: “The Rainbows of Inevitability” — A dark look inside what Facebook knows about you and how it thinks it can use that information. Basically this is a bunch more reasons why Mark Zuckerberg is wrong about the world.

Radiolab: “Update: CRISPR” — CRISPR is terrifying. It’s official. It’s going to be used for evil. I feel like a ninny saying that, because obviously a cure for cancer would be nice, but holy shit the consent issues surrounding this are bewildering.

This American Life: “Vague and Confused” — The first story, with Sean Cole, about an island of private property off the coast of Honolulu, is super. It’s a source of constant amazement that TAL can do stuff like this on a weekly basis. More than I could ever keep up with. Pick of the week.

Crimetown: “The Ghost” — This story features a gangster killing another gangster’s pet wolf. That’s a real-life thing that happened. This show is so good.

All Songs Considered: “Alt-J, Elliott Smith, The New Pornographers, Girlpool, More” — The Alt-J song is great. The Magnetic Fields song is spectacular. Unmoved by the rest.

Omnireviewer (week of Jan. 1, 2017)

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

Television

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

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

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

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

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

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

Games

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

Music

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

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

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

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

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

Podcasts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Omnireviewer (week of Nov. 27)

I’ve decided to start adding links to things. I apologize for how stupid and distracting it looks. But some things deserve to be clicked. Most don’t. But many do. If I link to it, it means I think you should check it out.

22 reviews.

Live events

Joyce DiDonato: In War And Peace, live at the Orpheum — I’d like to be charitable on account of being so fond of Joyce DiDonato in general, but this was an only okay performance from possibly my favourite singer. There were moments of brilliance scattered throughout, particularly in the more lyrical moments. I’ve never heard “Lascia ch’io pianga” from Handel’s Rinaldo sung better. And the finale, Strauss’s “Morgen,” was basically perfect. But the thing I’ve always loved most about listening to DiDonato’s recordings (including recordings of her singing live) is just marvelling at her technical wizardry. I like listening to her sing runs, basically. And all of that stuff went kind of badly last night, which is a shame given that this was the first time I’d heard her sing in person. Coloratura passages were messy. She missed a lot of the middle notes in arpeggios. Her voice didn’t fill the hall like I was expecting. On that note, I really think the Orpheum was the wrong venue for this show. Il Pomo d’Oro is an astonishing baroque chamber orchestra, but their sound doesn’t carry in a big room. I strained to hear the details all night. If these musical problems had been less present, I would likely have been more indulgent of the production as a whole, which was a little inscrutable. Rather than presenting a straightforward recital for this tour about war and peace, DiDonato elected to bring a dancer onboard, use some fancy lighting, and wear Ziggy Stardust makeup. Actually, I think the Ziggy makeup was a rather nice touch. But I found the lighting and the dancer distracting, and couldn’t quite figure out what the point was. Not spectacle, certainly. This is the sort of thing I’m loathe to criticize too harshly, because I’d rather musicians try it than just stick to the safe route and not take creative risks. But for me, it took away more than it added, and completely failed to make up for the musical shortcomings. I don’t want to make this sound like a complete waste of time — the best musical moments were truly stunning, and the impression overall was of a great singer and a great orchestra performing in a lukewarm production and having a bad night. Ah, well.

Television

Fleabag: Episodes 4-6 — This latter half-season of Fleabag is extraordinary. Not because of the huge plot reveals or the inventive editing and unreliable narrator stuff. That’s fine, but it’s not completely unique. It is extraordinary because all of the revelations about its protagonist’s life seem to stem logically from the character we’ve gotten to know — and not the other way around. In life, your character exerts as much sway on your life story as your life story exerts on your character. This is rarely true in fiction. Fiction tends to frame stories primarily as sequences of events, and characters are just the people they happen to. Their specific traits are engineered to reflect the story that they’ve been planted in. Fleabag, on the other hand, starts by showing you a unique character that you can completely understand, just on the basis of her actions. Then then it builds a backstory that makes perfect sense for that character. It introduces the character first, and then it asks, “What would happen if this character existed in the world? What sorts of things would she cause to happen?” It isn’t characterization in the traditional sense, because the character arrives fully formed. It is story emerging from character as opposed to the other way around. And the fact that the characters are so clearly-drawn, and possess such agency over their stories (not their lives, mind you, but their stories) means that the show sparkles on a scene-by-scene basis, because all you have to do is put them in the right combinations and situations, and poetry happens. Phoebe Waller-Bridge is a genius. I’d love to see more of this, but I’d be just as happy to see her do something completely different. Brilliant. Pick of the week.

Last Chance to See: Episodes 1-4 — I’ve been meaning to watch this for ages. It’s Stephen Fry’s televised sequel to his late friend Douglas Adams’s radio/prose masterpiece of the same title. The book, co-authored with naturalist Mark Carwardine (who rejoins as Fry’s guide), is one of the most profound works of nonfiction ever — humourous or not. It contains some of the greatest prose ever written in the English language: more beautiful even than the most cathartic moments in the Hitchhiker series. So, it’s probably wise for Fry to attempt a follow-up only in an entirely different medium. I am enjoying it enormously. It has all of the requisite gorgeous nature footage that you’d expect from the BBC, but it’s also brilliantly conceived and presented. A huge part of the joy in this series is just watching Fry and Carwardine talk to each other. They take an instant liking to one another, in spite of their drastically different temperaments, and a double act is born. So far, there’s been one slightly jarring segment in the episode on Madagascar where Fry and Carwardine visit a local village of indigenous people. There’s a certain amount of hand wringing done over the fact that the superstitious locals kill lemurs because they think them to be bad omens. But by this point, they’ve already established that the real threat to the lemurs’ survival is rampant forestry. So why bother? Surely if not for forestry, the lemurs could withstand the beliefs of the island’s first people. Seems a bit unnecessary, and certainly condescending. But it’s a bum note in what is otherwise proving to be an immensely satisfying documentary series.

Movies

Moonlight — This movie might have been too subtle for me. After watching it Friday night, I racked my brains for a way to frame its observations on race, class and sexuality in a couple of tidy sentences, and it’s just not possible. This should make me like it more. And it definitely does make me admire it more. I like movies that refuse to just put their cards on the table. It puts the onus on the audience to make connections for themselves. But with this movie, I’m not sure I’m up to the task. I appreciate it as a beautifully shot character study with universally fantastic acting. I enjoyed it enormously on a scene-by-scene basis, particularly towards the end of the movie where the tension of things left unspoken between the two key characters grows more and more unbearable. And of course, it’s extremely gratifying to even see a movie like this get made: one about a poor, black, gay kid living in a part of Miami that never gets shown in the movies. But I still feel as though there’s something I’m not getting. Also, there are jarring bits of dialogue here and there, especially in the film’s second act, in which teenagers occasionally talk the way that adults think teenagers talk. But that’s not what’s bothering me. What’s bothering me is that, like many similarly austere movies (those of Yasujirō Ozu, for instance), it doesn’t offer up a loose corner for me to peel back and see what it’s actually saying. Presumably, other viewers will find that loose corner and be in awe. Power to them.

Doctor Strange — I saw this with a couple of friends immediately after watching Moonlight, which may seem a slightly perverse double feature, but it was actually kind of perfect. See the big serious, austere movie that will take up residency in your brain for a while, then wash it down with a helping of amazing froth. I have railed against the Marvel Cinematic Universe (and the very concept of cinematic universes) on a couple of occasions, but I have to admit that between this and Civil War, it has provided the four-and-a-half funnest hours I’ve spent in movie theatres this year. There are big problems with Doctor Strange, including whitewashing and cultural appropriation, and those problems do legitimately put it out of the running for the year’s best movies, and also for the MCU’s best movies. But there are moments here that remind me what I love about going to movies the same way that Mad Max: Fury Road did last year. In an odd sense, both this and Moonlight serve as reminders of why cinema is an art form that stands alone in its aptitudes. Cinema makes us look at things. Moonlight’s story plays out on its actors’ faces in close-up more so than in the words they speak. Doctor Strange shows us impossible, kaleidoscopic, psychedelic, Escher-esque deformations of modern cityscapes that would be impossible to convey by any means but modern filmmaking. The visual inventiveness of this movie owes something to Inception, whose story and structure it can’t hope to equal, but it is infinitely more thrilling in its aesthetic. The chase and fight sequences that take place in magically elongated hallways and city streets turned on their sides are so far removed from the usual dull boilerplate fare in these movies that it reminds you of the initial promise of CGI, rather than its increasingly lazy modern applications. When you throw in a snarky protagonist who can tell you specifically when Chuck Mangione’s anomalously flugelhorn-centric “Feels So Good” charted, a few measures of Pink Floyd’s very apropos “Interstellar Overdrive” during a car crash sequence, and an incomprehensible Lovecraftian god, you’ve made a movie that I was always going to love.

Literature, etc.

Emily Bazelon: “Billionaires Vs. the Press in the Era of Trump” — This deeply disquieting New York Times Magazine piece doesn’t just go through the recent, high-profile cases of wealth silencing speech in America, but also contextualizes it within legal precedent and makes note of how things could change (i.e. by what mechanisms) under a media-hostile Trump administration.

Scott Shane: “Combative, Populist Steve Bannon Found His Man in Donald Trump” — The biggest takeaway from this piece is that Steve Bannon is more an extremist than he is a conservative. There’s an alternate universe not far from this one where he’s attempting to foment an American communist revolution. Alas, we all live in the Trumpiverse.

Music

The Pogues: Rum Sodomy & the Lash — Figured I’d best get to know the rest of their oeuvre before “Fairytale of New York” gets stuck in my head for a month. I really enjoyed this. Maybe it connects to something in my Newfoundland heritage. But there’s something in the combination of pipes, accordion and liquored-up story-songs that just hits me where I live. The bookends strike me as the strongest points. “The Sick Bed of Cúchulainn” is pure drunken euphoria, and the Pogues’ rendition of “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” gives it exactly what the song needs: a complete lack of sentimentality. In its brutal straightforwardness, it is profoundly moving. I’ll be obsessing over this for a while.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Arrival and Pop Culture Serotonin” — Arrival sounds very much like my kind of thing. And the second segment was wonderful, because it basically just allowed the panel to spend half the episode on “what’s making us happy this week.” Nice.

StartUp: “Introducing Gimlet’s Fall Slate” — I am enormously excited for all of these shows. Initially, Homecoming was the one that seemed most exciting, but after hearing this preview of all three, I’m now most looking forward to Crimetown. Undone is still the clear runt of the litter.

A Point of View: “A Liberal Credo” — Adam Gopnik makes a convincing argument for centrist liberalism as something more than just a compromising middle ground. This is the sort of thing it does me good to hear occasionally, so I don’t go full communist and cease to be welcome at Thanksgiving dinner.

The Memory Palace: “under our feet” — God, I feel like it’s been ages since I listened to The Memory Palace. This is a completely wonderful story of the guy who was responsible for capturing the public imagination with dinosaurs for the first time. One of Nate DiMeo’s strengths as a writer is capturing the sensation of wonder, even when it is directed at something that’s less wondrous to us now than it was to the characters in his stories.

The Memory Palace: “Met Residency #3 (Full Circle)” — This is the most self-supporting of DiMeo’s Met residency stories. The tale of a painter who never quite made it, it works as a standalone radio piece, even if it does make you really want to see the panorama in question.

All Songs Considered: “How David Bowie’s Songs Became The Musical ‘Lazarus’” — I’d be interested in seeing Lazarus, if only to see what sort of musical David Bowie would attach his name to in his last years. But this interview and these music clips really make it seem like a garden variety jukebox musical. And that version of “Life On Mars?” is borderline sacrilege. And not the kind I like.

Love and Radio: “Wood Fighting with Steel” — Nick Van Der Kolk’s brief existential crisis at the start of this episode is fascinating, if only because he seems not to realize that the show he’s making is literally the most relevant podcast it’s possible for anybody to make in a world where Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. It seems likely that we could be entering an era that’s even more defined by fear and hatred of the ‘other’ than the present one. Here’s a podcast that starts from the contention that it’s better to listen to people than not to. I can’t imagine anything more powerful. This particular story sits somewhere in the middle of the pack, honestly. But like every episode of this show, it’s an opportunity to get to know somebody on their own terms. That’s quietly amazing. Love and Radio is more essential than ever.

This American Life: “Duty Calls” — A punishingly sad story about a man who can’t quite help his mother get over her addiction. A cameo by Starlee Kine helps leaven the heft.

Imaginary Worlds: “The Man In the High Castle” — The latest I’ve heard in the emerging subgenre of “things that are obviously about Trump but don’t actually mention his name.” The Man in the High Castle sounds like the show for our times. And learning about the ways that it expands on the Philip K. Dick story helps to sell me on it. I still don’t know if I’ll commit to watching it, though. Could be a bit heavy-handed. I may yet be convinced.

Fresh Air: “‘Manchester By The Sea’ Director Kenneth Lonergan” — This mostly just reassured me that a movie I am already excited about will be worth my time. And also that there are moments of humour in it instead of it just being punishing from start to finish.

A Point of View: “Bob Dylan and the Bobolators” — Nice to hear Adam Gopnik talk about something relatively light and unimportant. I’m not totally convinced that he understands the extent to which Bob Dylan is a troll. One of the best things about Dylan is how utterly scornful he is of the very people who seek to raise him up. Every modern critique of the baby boomer cultural hegemony that made Dylan a legend was basically anticipated by Dylan himself, in his pathological antipathy for his audience. I love that. But I also love Gopnik’s defence of people like Paul McCartney, who are scorned because the want to be loved. This is a great essay. I intend to make a point of tuning into this whenever Gopnik’s on. He’s a worthwhile tonic for the ailments caused by listening to Roger Scruton.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Gilmore Girls and Moana” — The discussion of Gilmore Girls went way the hell over my head. Moana sounds fine. Basically, this is most worthwhile for the “what’s making us happy” segment, which features five panelists instead of the usual four. Glen Weldon is funny. My dishes got done.

StartUp: “Boundaries” — Okay, Dov Charney is a sleazebag. Any tolerance I’d built up for him in the first three episodes of this series is now gone. But the series itself is quickly winning me over.

On The Media: “Normalize This!” — It’s nice to see that, in the short period that I haven’t been listening, OTM has gotten past it’s post-election primal screaming phase and gotten on with the important work of thinking about how to cover a president who is indifferent to truth. This is an episode that is concerned with concrete strategies, right down to the most granular level of what specific words to use and to avoid using. I’ll say it again: thank god for this show. Pick of the week.

Omnireviewer (week of Nov. 13, 2016)

So, I was just sitting in a restaurant next to what seemed like a second or third date. And the guy was trying to come off as being way less into video games than he obviously was. Like, the conversation about how he’s not really much of a gamer went on for a lot longer than it would have needed to if he actually wasn’t one.

Anyway, here are 20 reviews of things that are not video games and one comparatively long review of a video game that I didn’t even really think about all that much, honestly. Didn’t really even register.

Live events

A Tribe Called Red: Live at the Commodore — I’m not much of a dancer. Fortunately, in Vancouver you can go to a show like this and not worry too much about it. I wasn’t the only one. A Tribe Called Red is a phenomenon. And it seems to me that their live show is a better illustration of their basic musical thesis — that First Nations chanting and drumming works really well as an element of EDM — than their recordings. We Are the Halluci Nation is still one of my favourite records of the year, but it strikes me that genre fusion is easier when you are ostentatiously making a Work Of Art. Whereas, when you’re in front of a dance floor, on which people are dancing (or not, as the case may be), there’s another set of expectations at play. It’s perhaps a more workmanlike task, and the result was for me still less effective than listening to We Are the Halluci Nation (this was inevitable). But the fact that A Tribe Called Red can do as good a live set as this and get people moving is the ultimate proof-of-concept. And while they can’t just have Joseph Boyden show up from time to time in a live show to read about Chanie Wenjack, their social message remains intact through a clever video accompaniment composed entirely of culturally appropriative images. There were also kickass dancers onstage. A Tribe Called Red is one of the most inventive and skilled acts in the country. Saul Williams was a hell of an opener, too. Pick of the week. 

Music

Depeche Mode: Speak and Spell — I found myself unexpectedly in the mood for some plinky synthpop after hearing Yazoo’s “Only You” on an episode of This American Life. After discovering that the writer of that song was the creative force in early Depeche Mode, I decided on this as my poison. “Just Can’t Get Enough” isn’t a strong enough song to survive its overexposure, but everything else on this album is viscerally satisfying. Hits you right in the lizard brain. Plus, it’s so dated that it sounds exactly like modern music. It sounds a little bit like what I’d imagine a collaboration between Brian Eno and Tangerine Dream would sound like, provided Eno had his pop songwriter hat on. Really enjoyed this. I understand it’s drastically different from the music that Depeche Mode would become more esteemed for in the late eighties and nineties, so I’ll go on to check that out too. But this is definitely worthwhile in itself. “New Life” is endlessly repeatable.

Depeche Mode: Violator — This is objectively a better album than Speak and Spell, but it’s less what I was looking for at this very moment. This is a gritty, rock’n’roll electronica record. If I hadn’t come to Depeche Mode specifically for really 80s-sounding synthpop, I think I would have loved this immediately. I’ll probably listen again real soon. “Policy of Truth” and “Personal Jesus” strike me as the real highlights.

Justice: Woman — I’m tempted to say it’s Justice’s best album. Being more a fan of their second album than their first, this is probably going to be an easier opinion for me to arrive at than many. But this has the initial effect of making me want to listen to nearly all of its tracks on repeat. The three singles they released in advance are all album highlights, particularly “Safe and Sound,” which may be their most infectious track ever. Of the album tracks we’re now hearing for the first time, the highlights for me are “Chorus” (the least rock and roll track on an otherwise very rock and roll album), and “Heavy Metal” (which takes its gothic vibe from a tiny Bach paraphrase: very metal, indeed). This is up there with Coloring Book as one of the most purely joyful releases of 2016.

Patricia Kopatchinskaja & the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra: Death and the Maiden — This is the second time this year that Patricia Kopatchinskaja has sold me on a piece of music that I hadn’t previously cared much about. Schubert’s Death and the Maiden is obviously a masterpiece, but it’s never been one that I’m actually compelled to listen to. But Kopachinskaja’s imagination in interweaving the movements with adaptations of early music by Dowland and Gesualdo as well as the contemporary composer György Kurtág, emphasizes the most dramatic and existentially terrifying dimensions of Schubert’s piece, which has otherwise been rendered a bit tame by way of canonization. If there’s a downside, it’s simply that Kopatchinskaja’s playing is less prevalent here than on her excellent duets album or her wonderfully cracked recording of the Tchaikovsky concerto. But as a record in general, it is marvellous, and suffused with the particular idiosyncratic intelligence of an artist who is quickly becoming my favourite person in classical music.

Movies

O Brother, Where Art Thou? — I’m not sure this isn’t my favourite Coen brothers movie. Usually, I’ll cite Fargo. But this film’s sheer verbosity makes it a bit more fun. There are lines in this movie that could only be from this movie. Lines like: “Say, uh, any a you boys smithies? Or, if not smithies per se, were you otherwise trained in the metallurgic arts before straitened circumstances forced you into a life of aimless wanderin’?” Or: “Well, Pete, I just figured it should be the one with capacity for abstract thought. But if that ain’t the consensus view, hell, let’s put her to a vote!” Or: “I’ll press your flesh, you dimwitted sonofabitch! You don’t tell your pappy how to court the elect ‘rate!” And speaking of Pappy O’Daniels, this is one of those movies with two stories: one about a group of protagonists, and one larger narrative that they find themselves unexpectedly crossing paths with. These days, the state election between O’Daniels and Homer Stokes almost reads as a cruel inversion of the recent catastrophe: an outsider candidate who claims to represent “the little man” but who is actually just a virulent racist loses the election to an uninspiring establishment figure. There’s a decisive moment in the middle of the film where Stokes seems to go from being a Bernie Sanders analogue to a Donald Trump analogue, so this film is in a sense a forecast of Hillary Clinton’s entire campaign — which gets most everything except the ending correct. But if we may put aside these comparisons for a moment, the election storyline in O Brother is one of the most classically absurdist Coen brothers plotlines ever to not be Burn After Reading. It shows a fictional electorate blindly stumbling into the better decision because of how much they love the music of an integrated folk band whose very existence is part of a harebrained scam. And the decision that they make is still clearly not a very good option: O’Daniels is comically insincere and probably corrupt. (Again, we’ve put aside the comparisons at this point. Lest anybody misunderstand.) But there’s a major difference between this and many other Coen comedies. To a certain extent it shares the nothing-happens-for-a-reason-and-the-universe-is-indifferent mentality of other films. (“Ve believe in nossing.”) But this movie goes out of its way to sow doubt in that. It essentially sympathizes with its rationalist protagonist, and assumes that we will as well. But even after all of the proto-Burn After Reading meaningless bullshit that’s happened by the end of the movie, it still goes out of its way to leave a supernatural interpretation open. The sight of the prophesied cow atop the cottonhouse is the most obvious tactic, but it’s also there in the implication that the old man on the railroad might be God and that the sheriff might be the Devil. (“The law. Well, the law is a human institution.”) Given that things do work out, relatively, for the best at the end of the movie, this suggestion that there may indeed be a benevolent force at work makes O Brother, Where Art Thou? maybe the Coens’ most optimistic movie.

Television

Last Week Tonight: November 13, 2016 — Well, after all of those shit opening jokes characterizing the 2016 election as various species of can’t-it-be-over-yet, Oliver gets a punchline. Because yeah, this is worse. And, for all of the crap I’ve said about Oliver over the past few weeks (which I stand by) I feel the need to defend him against those who have written him off for failing to prevent Trump’s rise. Because that’s obviously not the point. The point is to write good, prescient jokes — which is something that you can rightly critique him for not always doing. But Oliver was one of the first to treat Trump as a threat worth joking about rather than implicitly a joke. And now that the worst has happened, Oliver is goal-oriented. Rather than encouraging the sharing of the episode, which he can usually pass off as a sort of righteous-minded quasi-activism (only last week, for instance), Oliver basically acknowledged that such minuscule acts are empty virtue signalling and only play into the echo chamber problem that got us here. Instead, he highlighted a number of organizations that you can donate actual money to which will work to mitigate some of Trump’s inevitable atrocities. And in terms of messaging, Oliver hits a home run by imploring his viewers to remember that this is not normal. The worst thing that can possibly happen at this point is for Donald Trump to be viewed as an ordinary political figure. The season’s end fell in an appropriate place, given Oliver’s ongoing rhetorical war with the man who has just become the most powerful person in the world. The outro montage is a bit damp, though. You can’t just say “Fuck 2016” over and over and expect it to be funny or cathartic. You need to write jokes. At the beginning of Oliver’s third season, I thought Last Week Tonight was the best thing on TV. Now it frustrates me immensely. But I still think that it’s valuable on balance and I’ll keep tuning in next year.

Full Frontal with Samantha Bee: November 14, 2016 — Even on the most high-minded comedy shows, it’s sometimes the dumb jokes that work best. “Eerie R.N.C. Pubis,” indeed.

QI: “Danger,” “Jeopardy” & “Jumble” — I was planning on doing some work this Saturday evening. Even made sure I had no plans because, important things to do. Instead, I mainlined three episodes of QI. I have no regrets.

Literature, etc.

Dan Fox: Pretentiousness: Why It Matters — Yeah, I’m reading a book about why it’s not bad to be pretentious. Laugh it up, folks. It’s very short and I’m almost finished it, so expect a report back soon. For now, I’ll just say that the central argument — that pretentiousness need not be dismissed as a symptom of elitism when it can just as easily be a side-effect of a healthy, open mind — is only about a quarter of what’s going on here. There is historical context o’plenty, including a short history of notions of authenticity in acting — professional pretentiousness. It’s well worth reading, as I think Fox’s arguments tie into some of what’s wrong in contemporary politics, and certainly what’s wrong with the media. It’s also well worth checking out Steven Poole’s Guardian review of the book, which takes its argument in a couple of new directions. More when I’m done.

Alan Moore: Jerusalem — Speaking of things I’ve just started reading, but not of things that I am likely to finish any time soon, there’s this. I am eleven pages into Alan Moore’s 1200-page literary epic and already thinking “what have I done.” It is entirely readable thus far, but its sheer bricklikeness is causing me inertia. Perhaps I’ll really put some time into it over Christmas. Until then, I foresee progress being slooooowwwww.

Games

Pony Island — I’ve always thought that there’s nothing scarier than metafiction. Borges speculated (pretty sure it’s Borges, though I can’t place the citation off the top of my head) that the reason for this is that when we see the characters in a story becoming aware of their unreality, it attunes us to the idea that we may also be unreal and thus trapped in an infinite regress of fictions all the way down. (It’s notable that this idea can be seen as either horrifying or absurdly hilarious, accounting for metafiction’s twin strong suits of horror and comedy.) But I’m not entirely sure that it works quite the same way in metafictional games. In fact, the anxiety that the most effective metafictional horror games play off of is almost the inverse of what Borges suggests. Rather than beginning to suspect one’s own unreality as the reader of a metafictional story does, the player of a metafictional game may begin to suspect that the characters in the game are more real than they initially seemed. (Spoilers ahead for both Pony Island and Undertale. But, you should really mostly be concerned about the Undertale ones, because Pony Island is far less effective and very derivative — at least in its themes.) If Pony Island is disquieting, it is so primarily because it shows you a basic arcade game interface that gradually reveals itself to be able to do things it shouldn’t be able to do. It takes advantage of the fact that our PCs are astronomically more advanced than arcade games to portray an arcade game that’s uncanny and occult. What’s that Asimov aphorism? Any sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic? Then, what’s a modern PC but a magic (and/or haunted) arcade cabinet? I digress: the thing that makes Pony Island’s scariest moments scary is that the characters inside the arcade game (e.g. literally the Devil) gradually appear to have greater capacities than they should, given that they’re in an arcade game. They begin to appear real. The opposite of Borges’ anxiety about self-aware literature. Conceptually, it is genuinely horrifying. And the reason I’ve gone into this much detail about how I think it works is that this sort of thing in games generally has a shattering impact on me. Metafictional horror in video games is one of very few sets of tropes in media that can actually keep me up at night. And if I’m tuned into this on such a fundamental level, you might expect that any iteration of those tropes should prove preoccupying for me, almost without regard for everything else in the game. But it didn’t work in Pony Island. And I think it didn’t work because I’ve seen all of these tricks before. So, I’ve learned something about myself: these tropes need to be employed in a surprising way if I’m going to be affected. For reference, there are two older games which, when combined, account for everything that should be scary in Pony Island. Obviously, there’s Undertale, the most frightening moment of which is recreated nearly verbatim here. More on that in a second. But there’s also The Uncle Who Works For Nintendo, the monster of which manifests as glitches in the game’s interface — moments where the game appears to be able to do more than it had initially seemed it could. (And aside from merely coming first, that game also has some social commentary going on that Pony Island doesn’t remotely attempt. Which is fine. I’m just saying: TUWWFN has more plates spinning.) Anyway, the most frightening moment in Undertale is also probably one of my top five most frightening moments in all fiction. And that’s the moment at the end of the standard, neutral story that you’re most likely to get on your first time through where the primary antagonist shuts down the game. That moment nearly coincides with the game’s most clever reveal, which is that “saving” is an in-universe superpower possessed by your character, and not a mere administrative task you perform as a player. The thing that’s horrifying here is that the game’s final boss is becoming aware of the organizational infrastructure that exists just outside of the story. He knows about saving, and that it’s possible to shut down the game — and he’s learned to do those things, in order to turn the tables on you. For a moment, he appears terrifyingly real. (Would this be a weird place to quote Hamlet? Nah, couldn’t be bothered, anyway.) There’s nothing nearly this sophisticated going on in Pony Island. There are moments where the game appears to have the capacity to shut itself down. And there’s a sort of internal consistency to the logic of this, much like in Undertale. But I didn’t detect any further twist on the trick. So, I wasn’t discomfited in the least. Which is actually really disappointing. Anyway, as reviews go, I feel like this has been a very idiosyncratically negative one. I’m sure than most of these concerns are of absolutely zero consequence to most of the people who will play this game. So, aside from all this, Pony Island is good. I do think that the premise of “video game haunted by literally the Devil” is a bit limp. But the gameplay is completely fantastic, both in its action sequences and its puzzles. Both are challenging, but never unfair. And at six bucks, it’s a hell of a deal. So, if you happen to have read this far without having played Pony Island, I guess I… recommend it???

Podcasts

The Gist: “The Autopsy” — Okay, I guess I’m still listening to election wrap-ups. I said I’d stop, but it’s what all of my favourite news-hooked podcasts are talking about, so I guess I’ll just cede a portion of my sanity and continue. This is terrifying, because it doesn’t focus on why Trump won like everything else, but on what his early presidency will actually be like. Sample horror: Newt Gingrich could be in the cabinet, and he’s expressed interest in reinstating HUAC. Smile into the abyss.

Code Switch: “Apocalypse Or Racial Kumbaya? America After Nov. 8” — Good lord, were we ever so optimistic as to even ask the question? These panelists, speaking before the election, express the thought that America will inevitably be in a better place in four years after having been forced to reckon with the racism of this campaign. I wonder if they took the possibility of a Trump win into account at all???

This American Life: “The Sun Comes Up” — A basic, bare-bones series of interviews with Americans from various backgrounds reacting to the news of Trump’s election. It’s the best thing TAL could have done this week. The highlights are the saddest segments, alas: a Mormon woman petitions for gender equality within her religion, supports Hillary Clinton, and gets ostracized; and a black British TAL producer phones his mom to talk about their immigration status. It’s not an earthshaking hour of radio, but it’s exactly what you want This American Life to be the week after Donald Trump’s election.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Lin-Manuel Miranda” — If anybody can get Marc Maron singing, it was always going to be Lin-Manuel Miranda. This is a great chat, with both of them seeming at-ease. Must help that they’re fans of each other, and they know they’re fans of each other. It’s especially great to hear Miranda’s stories of finding himself in the school play. And it’s gratifying to see that somebody who was obviously so precocious has turned out so normal.

The Gist: “The Liberal Hegemony of Pop Culture” — Mike Pesca has a knack for finding reasonable voices on the right. And honestly, listening to reasonable voices on the right is probably important right now. Because as much as I think that voting for Trump was a morally wrong thing to do — no grey area there — it’s probably not right to write off all of those voters as people. Which is what Ross Douthat is accusing virtually all of pop culture of doing. I definitely don’t agree with that, but I can muster a certain amount of sympathy for his case in the abstract. That’s about as much as I’m willing to budge at this very moment.

Radiolab: “One Vote” — This is a fantastic episode, with three great stories (multiple stories per episode has always been my preferred mode of Radiolab) about the extent to which a single vote counts. And it survives the election (which hadn’t happened yet) right up to the point where Robert Krulwich talks about how decisive the difference between male and female voters is. And certain metrics would now seem to undermine the point he’s subtly trying to make. It’s a quibble, and it’s not even really his fault. This is good Radiolab.

All Songs Considered: “Guest DJ Nick Mason On Pink Floyd’s Early Years” — Inevitable nitpick: Bob Boilen mistakes an actual flute for a Mellotron in this episode. But at least he has the forethought to play “The Grand Vizier’s Garden Party” while he’s actually got Nick Mason in the studio. Admirably, Mason doesn’t even seem that embarrassed.

Code Switch: “Another Black President Says Goodbye To Washington” — Chris Jackson is a wise fellow. The way that he’s chosen to think about Washington’s resignation gives him a legitimately unique perspective on how we ought to respond to the election result. And as for Hamilton, I’m sure whoever plays Washington next will be at the top of their profession but Chris Jackson was the perfect choice for the role and his interpretation is one of the strongest in a strong bunch.

Imaginary Worlds: “Dumbledore’s Army” — This mini-season about Harry Potter is maybe the best thing Eric Molinsky has ever done. (Except that semi-fictional Cthulhu thing. That was amazing.) Between this series and The Cursed Child, I’ve recently come to realize exactly how much Potter nostalgia I have. We all kind of marinade in shit-talk about J.K. Rowling, and her various indiscretions in storytelling (the house elves being “happy slaves”; the probably-accidental-but-still-regrettable anti-Semitic caricatures who work at Gringotts). But hearing about people who have used Harry Potter as a springboard for various causes, and as a way to deal with trauma has brought back all of the warm feelings I once had for these stories. I may even re-read a couple favourites within the next year. I haven’t read any of the original seven novels since they came out. Easily rectified. Pick of the week. 

Omnireviewer (week of Nov. 6, 2016)

Here’s a fun game! Guess which reviews I wrote before armageddon, and which I wrote after!

22 reviews.

Television

Last Week Tonight: November 6, 2016 — Well, it survives the election by not being primarily about the election. But interestingly, it also announces itself as a “web video” in spite of the fact that it’s on television. Which is interesting, and demonstrates that Oliver has entirely embraced his role as the most viral comedian.

Full Frontal with Samantha Bee: “Post-Election” — First off, getting Lizzo to perform at the end of the episode where Samantha Bee’s natural enemy became the most powerful person in the country was a masterstroke. When everything is shitty, Lizzo. I dunno if she would have been there regardless, but it worked well as an ending to the episode. I admire Bee’s optimism in the face of the worst possible outcome. She closes the episode by echoing the most worthwhile sentiment in Clinton’s concession speech: “there is more work to do.” During the Bush administration, Jon Stewart was the comedic voice that held the right’s feet to the fire and kept progressive people sane. Of the available heirs to the throne, my money’s on Samantha Bee to do the same during the Trump administration.

Doctor Who: “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” — This is a mess. The story is boilerplate adventure serial nonsense and there are too many moments where an attempt at a heartstring-tugging catharsis falls totally flat because of bad acting or obvious manipulation. But there are positives. Firstly, the on-location shooting makes this one of the most visually distinctive early serials, and there are actually some really great shots in there. You know, between all of the crap edits that obscure cause and effect. Also, William Hartnell has thoroughly figured out his role at this point. He’s completely charming in this. He’ll never be one of my favourite Doctors, but he’s adorable when he gets to be a hero. For the first time, you can start to see the universal characteristics of the Doctor that would be expanded on in iterations I like better (Patrick Troughton, Tom Baker, Sylvester McCoy, David Tennant, Matt Smith, Peter Capaldi). In this, you see the Doctor as a humanist, an ingenious man of action and a loveable weirdo. The one thing Hartnell doesn’t pull off is the scene where he bids Susan farewell, and that’s not his fault. That is quite simply one of the most completely bungled emotional beats in this show. It would have been so simple to just have Susan decide for herself to stay behind with David. Then, the Doctor could be forced to say goodbye in his way. And that is something you could see Hartnell pulling off brilliantly: trying to stay aloof while the emotions well up. As it stands, it looks like what it is: a presumptuous old man stranding his granddaughter on a foreign planet. A fitting end to a really not very good serial at all.

Movies

Mean Girls — It transpires that almost all of my Vancouver guy friends have moved away, and I now find myself in a social circle of almost entirely women. And, apart from occasionally feeling like the fly in the ointment, this is fine. It also means that I occasionally find myself in a room where a movie is playing that I didn’t necessarily feel like I’d ever watch. But when that movie is Mean Girls, there are no protests to be raised. Mean Girls is singularly brilliant. It’s astonishing the extent to which Tina Fey’s writing has maintained its aesthetic through this film, 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. This movie is joke dense to a level that would not become standard for at least another several years. (30 Rock premiered in 2006, but Fey was clearly ahead of the curve. On the other hand, Archer premiered in 2009.) The acting is uniformly fantastic, with the titular mean girls stealing the show. Rachel McAdams offers an uncanny performance as the queen bee we can all remember as part of our high school experience. And it’s hilarious to see Amanda Seyfried playing dumb when she’s been taking totally different roles since then. Also: I’m pretty sure I’ve never actually seen Lindsay Lohan in a movie before. She’s always just been a pop culture reference point — and specifically, one relating to drug abuse and lost innocence. So, to see her offering an actually very sympathetic performance in this movie was something of a welcome shock. Amy Poehler does that thing she does where she’s funny every time she’s in the frame, even if she’s not saying anything. But what’s really remarkable about this film is that it manages to conform to a standard comedic plotline while remaining honest to the realities of high school: Lohan’s character gradually becomes the very thing she detests, which is both narratively ripe and truthful to the experiences of adolescence. And if Tina Fey has a tendency to put the moral of the story in her own character’s mouth, at least that character is something of a feminist role model — and not at all a drug pusher. I completely enjoyed watching this, and I’m happy to have seen it in the company of a number of people for whom it appears to be a formative text: a quotable and relatable film that maintains its power twelve years on.

Music

Leonard Cohen: New Skin for the Old Ceremony — If there’s an upside to great artists dying (and let’s be fair, Cohen’s death is less sad than Bowie’s or Prince’s because he was 82), it’s that they get to be back in the conversation for a while. And that means I can listen to his music and talk to people about it with the benefit of a news hook, which is basically necessary. I’ve learned that I can’t just talk at people about Jethro Tull for no reason other than being obsessed. (Though nothing will, and nothing should, stop me from doing essentially that on this blog. You can opt out. And the fact that you haven’t is frankly bizarre.) So, I figured I’d give a spin to one of the classic Cohen albums that I hadn’t actually heard. New Skin for the Old Ceremony is firstly one of the best album titles ever. Think about it for a second. Good. Also, it seems to me on first listen to be essentially the equal of Songs of Leonard Cohen in terms of consistency (high, but not 100%), although it is more the stylistic cousin of the somewhat better Songs of Love and Hate. What I’m saying is it’s better than its “lesser classic” reputation would suggest. Also, this is the album on which Cohen seems to most embody Joni Mitchell’s characteristically dismissive description of Cohen as a “boudoir poet.” But that’s not a strike against the album. He puts aside some of his more existential questions here, but they’re replaced with compelling, intimate pictures of specific relationships. “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” is the obvious highlight in this sense. I reckon it’s not merely the most romantic song to have a blowjob reference in the third line, but possibly the most romantic song ever to be written about a one-night stand. Famously, it’s about Janis Joplin, and famously Cohen regrets having revealed that. But putting that indiscretion aside, “Chelsea Hotel” is one of many reasons I feel that Leonard Cohen is an effective model of non-toxic masculinity. There’s no sense of self-congratulation in this story, and Cohen emphasizes the value that he places on his lover’s entire self. That sort of thoughtfulness is rare enough in songs about long-time romantic partnerships, let along hookups. (If anybody reading this disagrees with me, I’d be interested to hear. Because I’ve been wrong about these sorts of things before.) The rest of the album stays the course. It’s not entirely about love and loss, but enough of it is that you come away from it feeling like those are the key themes. I’d say this is Cohen’s Blood on the Tracks, but frankly just about any Leonard Cohen album could be his Blood on the Tracks. Blood on the Tracks is Bob Dylan nicking Cohen’s schtick (and doing it better, but that’s not the point). Leonard Cohen was awesome. I hope the rest of the world is also spending some time with his records right now. Pick of the week. 

Literature, etc.

David Remnick: “Leonard Cohen Makes it Darker” — I read this just before Cohen died, so I kind of assumed that he was exaggerating the extent of his illness. He did, after all, say that he was. But regardless of any of that, this is a really fascinating portrait of Cohen at the end of his life. He seems happy, fulfilled and resigned. And he’s completely in possession of his faculties. It really highlights how Cohen’s lyrics are darker than his personality. This is a lovely companion piece to You Want it Darker, if only to add a touch of levity to Cohen’s final chapter.

Sala Suleri: “Meatless Days” — Suleri’s prose is truly wonderful, and her descriptions of food are worthy of the best authors in the “food writing” genre. Which is definitely not what this is. This is a memoir about childhood, and how food plays into how we see the world as we grow up. Lovely.

Philip Sandifer: TARDIS Eruditorum Volume 1: William Hartnell — I bought this ages ago and it’s taking me a ludicrously long time to get through, for reasons that have nothing to do with Sandifer. I just find it hard to dredge up the will to actually watch these dull old stories from the earliest days of Doctor Who. My enthusiasm for Sandifer’s writing is such that I’ll put myself through the dull-as-shit experience of watching a story written by Terry Nation, just so that I’ll be equipped to read Sandifer’s essay on that story. In this period at least, Sandifer’s TARDIS Eruditorum entries are often superior works of art to the television that they critique. I just read the book version of one of my favourite posts on Sandifer’s blog, which is on “The Rescue.” His observation of how clever it is to have a man in a rubber suit actually turn out to be a man in a rubber suit as opposed to being a monster is brilliant, makes watching “The Rescue” more fun, and is exactly the reason why I like reading Sandifer’s criticism.  But, since the next Doctor Who story that I haven’t seen is “The Romans,” for which I have exactly no enthusiasm, it’ll probably be another several months before I get any farther in this book.

Podcasts, etc.

Slate Election Day Special — This is the reason for the “etc.” in the heading. Slate did a clever thing here, by putting out updated editions of the same podcast (sort of) periodically throughout election day, adding and updating stories as they become relevant. It’s like a newscast, except more polished, more discretely packaged, and without the need for an anchor who can fill time, which has always been a stupid idea and is part of the reason why traditional broadcasting is largely so stupid.  This is definitely a format I could see working in other situations in the future. As for the content itself, Alison Stewart and Zoe Chace are both brilliant and covered the stories they chose with rigor and fairness. It was nice to hear Mike Pesca show up from time to time, since he’s got the fastest brain in the business. He was made for this sort of thing.

Fresh Air: “Trump And The White Working Class” — George Packer’s take on this election is hugely informed by his work on The Unwinding, which I haven’t read, but which sounds fascinating. He comes down mostly on the side that views Trump’s voters as disaffected, but his position is more nuanced than many who claim this, and he’s well aware of the extent to which the white working class does not actually make up Trump’s base.

A Point of View: “America Votes” — Adam Gopnik has been, along with Bob Garfield, one of my most treasured voices of reason in this election. This is possibly his most succinct summation of why Trump is awful. It’s ten minutes. Just listen to it.

On the Media: “Poor Judgement” — The final instalment of Brooke Gladstone’s poverty myths series takes the form of an OTM news consumer guide, which is a really good idea, because the media apparently cannot portray poverty in anything close to an accurate semblance. This series has been among the best radio of the year.

This American Life: “Master of Her Domain… Name” — I listened to this on November 8th. It has a story about how Hillary Clinton does not know how to use a computer. Then it has a story about a man making cat puns. Then it has a story about a police officer who was bested by a squirrel. Then the United States elected Donald Trump as their president.

On the Media: “Now What?” — This was the first podcast I listened to after the election of Donald Trump. It is the most difficult 17 minutes of radio I’ve listened to all year. On the Media has been one of my favourites, and possibly my very favourite show of 2016. Bob Garfield is a big part of that. His call to arms, where he implored reporters not to settle into familiar routines as Trump’s campaign went on — to acknowledge that he is a totally unique candidate and highlight his obvious unfitness for office at every opportunity — was one of very few moments in this election season where somebody said something that I thought made sense. His closing line was a killer: “The voters will do what the voters will do, but it must not be, cannot be because the press did not do enough.” And Brooke Gladstone has always been one of the most valuable people on the radio, because she’s one of the few who can explain to people how they’re processing information, so that they can then examine their own interface with the media and arrive at something closer to the truth. This was massively evident in the poverty myths series that just wrapped. So, hearing Garfield and Gladstone disagree so vehemently in this taped conversation with Katya Rogers about the future of the show is extremely disquieting. At the risk of infantilizing myself, there’s an element of “mom and dad are fighting” to this. It’s two people you’ve come to deeply trust, and who you take for granted will present a united front, not seeing eye to eye. At no point during this episode did I know whose side I was on. I kept listening, but I wanted it to stop. I think these next four years are going to be very bad. And when even the most reliably sane and measured source of analysis is existentially spiralling in the wake of the election, it seems like an indication that things might be worse than I thought. Pick of the week, if only because it’s the most preoccupying thing on the list.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: The Election and Political Comedy” — This is either the last, second-last, or third-last pre-election, election-related podcast I will listen to. It’s just too painful to listen to missives from that more innocent time. *sniff. Also Glen Weldon doesn’t understand that John Oliver’s show doesn’t have any jokes on it, and that’s distressing.

The Heart: “Love, Harry” — One day I will go back through the entire archive of The Heart and Audiosmut. Because it is such engrossing radio. This extremely gutsy and vulnerable piece details the near-romantic relationship between the show’s host and one of its early producers. It feels like listening to something you’re not supposed to be listening to. I love it. And, as always, it has some of the best, most subtle, least ostentatious sound design in all of radio. I think it’s Kaitlin Prest who does the mixing? I don’t really know. But it is top shelf, always.

99% Invisible: “Ten Letters for the President” — Listening to this post-election is distressing. Because, it’s clear that President Obama’s dedication to reading a sample of the citizenry’s correspondence will not be continued by President Trump. Ruined my listening experience.

Code Switch: “A Muslim and Mexican Walk Into A Bar…” — It’s as good as you could expect from a clearly shell-shocked Code Switch team. It’s funny, for much of its duration. But I would have been just as satisfied, or more, if Gene Demby had just unloaded all of his fears and doubts into the microphone for 25 minutes.

On the Media: “Wrong Number” — A deeply unsatisfying post-election hour. But, to be fair, Brooke Gladstone knows that and directs listeners to the existentially terrifying podcast extra from earlier this week. Part of me feels like Nate Silver ought to have been made to sweat a bit more, but the rational part of my brain knows that he’s justified to say that Five Thirty-Eight’s predictions were within the margin of error. But frankly, if the margin of error can encompass such drastically different outcomes as American fascism vs. no American fascism, then my faith in data remains slightly shaken. Call me a plebe. Go ahead.

The Bugle: “Tony The Tiger: RIP” — This has its moments, but there are long stretches of laughlessness. I’m confident that Andy Zaltzman will reach equilibrium eventually, but the key is going to be finding collaborators that think he’s funny, as opposed to just a weird old dude who’s good at puns. Also, it is legitimately weird that this is a Radiotopia podcast now. Zaltzman doesn’t even seem to have a clue what that means. Or maybe he’s just being funny. Who can tell?

The Bugle: “ZERO DT” — It must be a good sign that I went on to listen to another episode of The Bugle right away after listening to the season premiere. However, it was mostly just because I needed to hear how these same two people reacted to Trump’s election. Short answer: not well. Longer answer: this is a better episode than the other one I listened to, even if Hari Kondabolu sounds like he’s been severely beaten in the interim. Which he sort of has. We all have.  

NPR Politics Podcast: “The Election of Donald Trump” — This is about all I need in terms of election wrapup, I think. Gonna try to not think about this too much until Trump takes office. For my own sanity.