All The Rich White Folk Are Going To Argue

I’m back on the Succession train, finally. What’s funny is that, in many ways, what brought me back wasn’t necessarily the show itself, as good as it is — and it is very good, an oddly perfect distillation of a very British flavor of grim satire for the Trump era that, fittingly for the age, occasionally forgets which side it’s on and helps the viewer to do so, as well — but all the conversation surrounding it. There are more than a few plot developments I learned from Twitter rather than the show itself, so coming back before everything got spoiled for me only made sense.

The way in which Succession is treated in the culture circles I apparently move in is fascinating, because of the ways in which repeated disdain displayed for the decadence and immorality of its characters often feels laced with an unspoken jealousy, with that only ramping up even as the series itself becomes ever-more clear in how utterly broken everyone in the show actually is, to the point of approaching — and, at times, arguably crossing — the point of self-parody. It feels as if it’s a conversation between creators and audience where the former is saying, louder and louder, don’t you get it? These are not aspirational figures, and the latter laughs in response, says, yes, they’re terrible, but it’s so fun.

It is fun, of course. It’s a funny show as much as it’s anything else, and the second season is sharper in its humor than the first. But I’m just as moved by the quiet tragedy of what’s happening, as well, the cautionary tales of the main characters — well, some of them, Cameron is just an idiot — as they remain impressively unaware of their own circumstances because of those same circumstances, their self-awareness shielded from view thanks to the fact that they can easily afford to escape elsewhere when necessary. It’s a show that feels horrifyingly, unmistakably of the moment.

(Of course, such wealth also, arguably, allows them the ability to buy their way out of any consequences, defeating the tragedy of their stories. Ah, well…)

I’m glad I’ve returned to the show. I might have come back for the wrong reasons, but it’s good to be back, nonetheless.

To Boldly Go Where Some Have Gone Before

The first season of Star Trek: Discovery left me cold, ultimately; I could see what it was trying to do, I could even appreciate what it was trying to do, but it didn’t work for me so heavily that I put the series aside, sadly. Despite my deep and enduring love for Star Trek as a whole — I’m that person who’s even watched Enterprise, like an idiot — I felt as if Discovery was a fundamental misunderstanding of the franchise and it’s essential ingredients, a misguided attempt to update the idea that accidentally jettisoned the optimism at its heart. When the second season started, I skipped it; I had other things to do.

That, it turns out, was a mistake.

I dove back in based on the show’s NYCC panel, which I covered for work. They talked about the show resetting itself for the third season, about how much it respects canon despite starting as a prequel (and one that really, really, didn’t respect canon but whatever), but more importantly for me, co-showrunner and EP Alex Kurtzman kept returning to the notion that Star Trek is about hope and living up to that hope despite everything, and that felt like what had been utterly missing for me in that first season. The panel made me excited about the show, cautiously, so it was clearly time to check out that second season after all.

Discovery has been famously (infamously) troubled as a production, switching showrunners between seasons, stumbling around to try and find its footing, so I shouldn’t have been that surprised that the second season feels like a different show than the first. More excitingly, though, it feels like Star Trek, right down to having real life situations transformed awkwardly into sci-fi morality plays every now and then. The characters suddenly… liked each other and felt as if they had character, and weren’t just slavishly doing whatever the writers demanded of them in any given moment. In Anson Mount’s Captain Pike, the show had a curious mix of moral center and charismatic black hole who weirdly made sense as a Captain. It all, almost immediately, felt as right as the first season felt wrong.

(There are still problems, of course, not least of which a belief that bringing back “dark” characters is inherently interesting, or that having someone announce how they’re feeling is preferable to their demonstrating that emotion instead, but… those are pretty Star Trek, too, really.)

The rediscovery of the show — no pun intended, etc. — was a surprise joy, and catching up has become a welcome way of decompressing from work in the evening. Ever since I was a kid, Star Trek has been a kind of comfort food for my head. I’m genuinely thrilled that I get that feeling again.

In Your Head, In Your Head

I made it through This Way Up in a handful of days; it’s only six episodes, and they’re just around half an hour each with commercials, so it was hardly the biggest time commitment. I suspect that I would’ve run through it just as quickly no matter what, though. What was initially introduced to me as “Fleabag, but more traditional,” ended up being one of the kinder things I’ve watched all year.

What made the show so enjoyable to me — beyond the fact that it’s very funny, obviously, with the joke about the song that isn’t really about a ghost being one of my favorite jokes in anything I’ve seen lately — is that it’s something that refuses to go big.

It’s a show that looks as if it’s about something big — Aine (creator/writer Aisling Bea) is recovering from a nervous breakdown and suicide attempt, and attempting to return to her everyday life — but that’s misdirection. All of that is background to a story that’s really about loneliness and the need to connect with people you love. (The need to find people you love, too.) And all of that happens on a wonderfully small scale.

What really reinforced how much I loved the show was the final episode, which looked as if it was going to be exactly what the audience expects from a sitcom like this, an episode where the plots come together in an overwhelming manner, prompting the one big dramatic moment that has felt like Chekhov’s Gun the entire series… and then it goes off and does something else instead, more in keeping with everything that had come before.

It’s not Fleabag, beyond the fact that it’s created by and starring a woman in her mid-thirties and about someone who is complex and has a sister. They’re different stories, and coming from different places. But both do share a belief that kindness and empathy are what can save us, and there’s always space for stories like that.

Take A Break, Home Box Office

I’ve discovered this strange side effect of binging HBO’s so-called “prestige dramas” recently, after years of having little-to-no access to this stuff: I get obsessed with a show during its first season, and then rapidly lose interest after that first season finale.

I don’t know what it is, or what’s to blame. Have I had too much of a good thing in too short a time, perhaps? Even when the season finale ends in a cliffhanger that has me on the edge of my seat — hello, Westworld — I get maybe an episode or two into the second season and just… don’t want to watch it anymore.

It’s not that I lose interest in the show entirely; I know I’ll go back to Westworld just as I know I’ll go back to Succession. It’s just that the idea of going back to either right now feels not just unappealing, but exhausting. I need something else, another flavor, for now.

(I’m writing this and suddenly just thought of Chernobyl, a show I appreciated but found emotionally exhausting to watch episode-to-episode; the prospect of there somehow being a second season of that — this time with even more real-life dystopia and human frailty! — is something that would make me think about taking a long cruise towards the horizon with no plans to turn back.)

Am I merely worn out by the top-quality acting from people I half-recognize from movies I might have watched ten years ago? Perhaps that’s it. Is it that I can sense the end of one chapter and need a breather before continuing onwards? I’m not sure that’s true; I went immediately from season 2 to season 3 of No Offence as if my life depended on it. (I should write about that show soon, I think.) Are seasons of these shows structured as complete — or, at least, nearly complete — set pieces that require a break upon completion, to mediate upon and get some emotional distance?

Closer to the truth, perhaps, is the fact that, sometimes, it’s just more relaxing to watch The Great British Bake-Off and Top Chef after a day of thinking too hard. Never underestimate the value of well-made comfort food.

You’ll Never Use A Public Toilet Seat Again

At heart, Bunheads is a fantasy, a show that is removed from an realistic view of how the real world operates as much as a Marvel comic or an episode of Star Trek. It presents as something else, sure — who would think that a comedy/drama about a ballet school in Southern California would be anything other than realistic, or at least as realistic as any other TV comedy/drama? — but, in reality, it’s a show fueled by wishful thinking and what ifs as much as anything else.

That isn’t a complaint; just the opposite, in fact. Rewatching the show now, seven years after its all-too-brief life on air, it’s the magical realism of the thing that bewitches, still; not just the way in which Paradise, the town protagonist Michelle moves to after getting married to Hubbell, is filled with characters too quirky to exist anywhere else, but also the way in which no situation or problem exists outside of its narrative purpose, with that narrative purpose almost certainly to push a relationship into a new area to explore.

Everyone involved with the show seems fully aware of what is going on; Sutton Foster’s central performance plays like someone from a 1950s musical, filled with manic, can-do energy that feels at odds with everyone around her. The teenage ballet students of the show’s title have self-aware dialogue that nods at how removed from real teenagers they actually are as they reference how they prefer old movies because everyone talked faster and make Heathers shoutouts the very next line. Kelly Bishop is, well, Kelly Bishop. It’s all a self-aware, self-conscious joy to watch.

Rewatching now is also revelatory in light of what creator/showrunner Amy Sherman-Palladino did next. Of course, after this was canceled, she made The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and of course that was more warmly received; as a period piece, its fantasy elements are more easily explained away, its unstoppable dialogue deemed more believable and authentic. (She’s a comedian, of course she is.) Watching Bunheads again, so much about Mrs. Maisel feels like a retreat into acceptance and away from the boldness and rejection of reality that the former show got dinged for.

The new show gets awards and critical plaudits, and I’m glad for everyone involved, but I wish we’d gotten more Bunheads instead. If only because that last episode was, in almost every respect, an unsatisfying conclusion to the series. (Not because it was bad; because it was in no way a conclusion.)

Turn Around, Look At What You See

I tore through the third season of Stranger Things with an abandon that, if nothing else, shows quite how much the show’s formula of 1980s nostalgia, knowing pop culture references and humor continues to work on me. But even as I was on the edge of my seat watching Eleven et al face down The Flayed, the nagging thought at the back of my head kept saying, There isn’t really a lot here this time, is there?

Perhaps it’s a metatextual conceit that the third season feels so much like a retread of the second; that doesn’t seem outside of the realm of possibility at all, to me, although I admit that the metatextual reader in me would have preferred it to be a copy of the first season, as commentary of the way that Return of the Jedi pulled so much from the original Star Wars. But as I watched Nancy and Jonathan circle around the kids as they prepared for a showdown, weapons in hand, I thought, I’ve seen this before, and just a year or so ago. What else does this show have?

That’s not to say there’s nothing new in the third season — Robin is wonderful, and I genuinely loved the Red Dawn meets Terminator riff that is the Russian enforcer. (For that matter, expanding the mythology outside of Hawkins is a move that, in retrospect, was essential even as it seemed surprising at first blush.) Even the corrupt mayor is fun enough. It’s just that the central threat, the final showdown, all of that, seemed overfamiliar and as if the Duffer Brothers were running out of ideas and hoping to fill the gaps with knowing references: “Sure, we did the Mind Flayer last time, but this time it’s people and by the way, look, it’s Back to the Future, everyone!”

I’m overthinking it, of course. The season did its job, and I got sucked it, mainlining the whole thing in a weekend finally. (Comic-Con prep meant I got to it three weeks after release, which made it feel almost passé.) It was fun, thrilling and throwaway, just as everyone involved intended. To want it to be more, perhaps, might just be selfish.

Round Are Way

I didn’t expect to like Russell T. Davies’ Years and Years nearly as much as I do; in the years since his Doctor Who run, I’ve dropped away from his work because I soured so much on him during Who, which amplified all his tics and tropes to such a degree that it became difficult to see anything else. When Years and Years was announced, it looked like more of the same, with the gimmicky conceit — the series would fast forward through the next 15 years in six episodes — and a cast of familiar faces that had shown up in other RTD projects.

I was prepared to skip it, but the reviews when it aired in the UK were great, and I was in the mood for something else from a British perspective, having raced through Fleabag and a rewatch of the first season of No Offense. (Now, that show I need to write about at some point.) Plus, there it was, launching on HBO and I could simply just check out the first episode, so what was the harm…?

I was, I confess, not prepared. It does have a lot of the RTD tricks and cliches — he has a very particular view of families and how they work, and a love of pushing ideas into a cutesy absurdity as if he’s not fully prepared to commit to the underlying horror; he’s also breathtakingly sentimental at times — but there’s something winningly chilling about how quickly he takes everything to worst case scenarios and keeps pushing. The first episode offers nuclear apocalypse!  And it works, especially because the world continues on afterwards and people start underselling their own responses to the end of the world, even as — especially as — things get worse and worse around them.

That’s one of the things the show does really well; it starts with a nuclear bomb, then goes on to show that, really, that is the least of everyone’s worries, considering things that are actually taking place in the real world today. By the time you get to the fifth episode, where the US airing is now, it’s worryingly close to where the US is now. The “erstwhile,” indeed…

More than anything, the show’s mixture of writerly polemic about how screwed up we are (and how close to being more screwed, not screwed up, we are), kitchen sink drama, and belief that Northern accents denote sincerity and authenticity, reminds me of Threads, the post-nuclear drama of the 1980s, as well as other classic British TV dramas, like Boys from the Black Stuff. It’s all exceptionally watchable stuff, with moments of genuine insight and humor sitting next to over the top camp melodrama; it’s a show that argues that Russell T. Davies deserves to be talked about as one of British TV’s great dramatists again.

It’s also, oddly, a show about the future that feels curiously, unavoidably old-fashioned. But that contradiction just makes me like it more.

It Couldn’t Happen Here

It’s legitimately difficult for me to overstate how much I didn’t like the movie Midsommar; would it be enough to say that I came out of it immediately suspicious of everyone who claimed that they liked it? Perhaps; I saw a lot of people talking on social media before going into it, and the idea that it was a horror movie that was both beautiful and ultimately uplifting was something that came up again and again, and that just gave me false hope, considering it’s one of the ugliest and most empty movies I’ve ever seen.

I also saw a lot of commentary along the lines of, “This is a movie that will feel cathartic for any woman who’s ever had a shitty boyfriend,” which becomes a somewhat surreal statement considering said shitty boyfriend is drugged, sexually abused and then murdered, the last of which happens at the bidding of his girlfriend, who has apparently undergone a mental breakdown and is partially catatonic. Perhaps I have an unrealistic expectation of how non-toxic other people’s relationships are, or perhaps I have an unrealistic expectation about limits to revenge fantasies. Who can tell?

(It’s worth noting that The Shitty Boyfriend was less a character, per se, than a cypher who had little defining trait beyond Being Shitty, just like the other characters had one defining characteristic — Being Depressed, Being Horny, Being Studious I Guess But Kind Of A Myopic Asshole About It, and for every other character, Being A Member Of A Creepy Cult Where They Act All Mellow But Obviously They’re Astonishingly Fucked Up. Midsommar is not a movie for people who like well-rounded characters.)

More than the misanthropy, the xenophobia and the belief that pastoral imagery is inherently creepy — okay, perhaps we can give the movie that last one — what was most upsetting about Midsommar was how entirely unsurprising it ended up being. Without fail, the movie chose the obvious route, ignoring the option to play against expectation in favor of… Is there such a thing as comfort food horror movies…?

Every generation gets the Wicker Man it deserves, I guess.  Except that Midsommar is only fit for today’s generation if you believe that The Kids Today are the butt of every stereotypical joke about avocado toast and safe spaces. Instead, it’s what happens if Morrissey wanted to make a horror movie and embraced all his worst impulses.

Words Cannot Describe

I feel as if I should have something deep to say about Fleabag, but I don’t. Words fail me; I am so bowled over by the second season — which I tore through in three days, telling myself that I was going to pace myself and failing — that I’m dumbstruck, in love and in awe at the same time by what’s there in front of me. Which, in many ways, feels at once appropriate and ironic, considering what the series, and especially the second season, is about.

What I’m left with, is this memory. Two episodes left, and finding myself thinking, this is masterful, this is beautiful and honest and complicated and, fuck it, I just want a happy ending.

There are, if and when we’re lucky, stories that we’re told where the characters come alive and we fall in love with them. We can appreciate the artistry and talent and need for dramatic irony and all, but we find ourselves caring for the characters as if they’re real and wanting them to succeed even if it betrays all logic. As I reached the end of Fleabag, all I wanted was for her to be okay at the end.

I won’t spoil how it ends for those who haven’t seen it, but I’ll say this: I was heartbroken and elated by the wave.

Who Knows Where I Came From

I’ve become obsessed with the idea of identifying artists being responsible for my visual sense. The idea came from a talk that Lucasfilm Creative Director Doug Chiang gave at Star Wars Celebration, in which he made an offhand reference to Ralph McQuarrie being the man singlehandedly responsible for his visual sense. It’s likely a simplification that just so happens to play into the Star Wars of it all — McQuarrie being the artist behind the iconic concept paintings that every fan of a particular generation is all-too-familiar with — but the idea has stuck with me, and left me wondering who my visual artists would be. Where does my sense of visual information come from?

I go to obvious personal touchstones, instinctively: Julian House and Rian Hughes as graphic designers (Chip Kidd, too, but I often overlook him for some reason); Dave McKean, Kent Williams, Gustav Klimt and Mark Rothko as illustrators or visual artists. Martin Parr’s photographs. Eddie Campbell’s comics.

But all of those ideas feel too late — I discovered most, if not all, of those people when I was in my 20s. Who and what was essential to me before then? The answers are almost entirely comic-based, unsurprisingly, and the answers are for the most part faintly embarrassing to me now: John Byrne was the comic artist to me through, at least, me being 14 or 15. I remember his Superman and his Legends as being as if I was seeing those characters for the first time, and although I was too young to have read his X-Men when it was coming out, Classic X-Men felt iconic and “right” when it reprinted that stuff for my generation. He has to be recognized as being a core part of my visual sense to some degree, even if I feel a level of embarrassment approaching shame to think of it now.

Other early options are more obscure, if no less fundamental. Jose Ortiz’s work appeared in all kinds of British comics that I read, and his casually grimy work felt real in a way that few other things I saw did, or even could. Slightly later, and post-Byrne, Steve Yeowell’s Zenith felt like a revelation with each new series through the third — to this day, I still thrill at the memory of his brushwork, or his seeming unerring ability to know when to use tight, controlled linework instead of something messier and more expressive.

It feels to me as if there’s a hidden component in there, but I couldn’t tell you what it is, or even where it would be. I’m sure it’s going to be something I’ll keep picking at for some time. Once you start retracing your steps like this, it becomes a preoccupation that’s hard to undo.