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.

Make It Not Work

I’ve become, quite accidentally, a devotee of reality television as self-care in recent weeks. I’d always been a fan of things like Top Chef or Project Runway, but had stopped watching some years ago due to an outside influence that turned them from guilty pleasures into shameful ones; something I internalized, sadly. It took the one-two punch of Hulu offering up seasons of both shows on its launch page and a randomly stumbled-upon NYT article about the latest season of Project Runway to draw me back in and, reader, they were everything I need.

There needs to be an essay written — perhaps there already has been — about the way in which the familiarity of these shows is comforting, that each episode is constructed both as a complete narrative in and of itself (Who Will Win being the primary plot, the artificial machinations and rivalries of the contestants as subplots, with special attention spent on one or two contestants’ backstories providing more emotional context each episode) and part of a greater, season-long storyline. That there are few real surprises beyond, perhaps, the winner and loser of each episode isn’t the bug that some complain about; it’s a feature. These shows aren’t watched to be surprised, their value is gladiatorial soap opera.

I’ve written before, I’m sure, about the emotional value of trash culture — that something you enjoy but feel unchallenged by can be relaxing and good for you purely by distracting you from real worries and allowing you to de-stress and let your mind relax from panic mode. It’s on this level that Project Runway and Top Chef work for me, and so, so successfully. Getting sucked in to who’s in and who’s out, or watching chefs screw up during Restaurant Wars, feels like the very best way to unwind after work, and stop thinking about more important things for a brief second.

And then there’s Queer Eye, but that’s another thing altogether…

Vote For Me And I’ll Set You Free

I’ve been thinking about “influencers” since watching that Netflix documentary about Fyre Festival recently; the notion of holding such social currency that a recommendation from you has monetary value to others. I’m egotistical/realistic enough to know that I’m a quasi-influencer in the world of comics — at least, insofar as what I write about in outlets can be influential — but no-one has ever tried to pay me for that purpose. It’s something that makes me uncomfortable, anyway, the idea of me recommending some random comic and it becoming a thing, and I do it far less often than I might otherwise for that very reason.

(Also, I tend to recommend things that are niche, if not downright obscure, which arguably devalues my nascent influencer status. This might be unintentional self-sabotage, I wouldn’t like to say.)

Still; I cant quite get my head around either the influencer or the influenced. What is the appeal? That you too could be like this person if you like what they like and buy what they buy? Is it aspirational in that sense, or simply the effect of fandom and wanting to understand and share your hero’s tastes? Is there a hope that, if you follow in their cultural and capitalist footsteps, they’ll know and like you more, or that you’ll share their inexplicable power, somehow?

All of this was in my head as I watched Fyre, distracting me from the (genuinely staggering) story of mismanagement and enabling and greed, because even as the festival got shoddier and more pathetic as it edged closer to existence, I couldn’t shake this one thought: All of the attendees kind of deserve this for falling for it in the first place.

Birthday or Break Up?

Like most good people, I’m currently watching/enjoying/theorizing wildly Netflix’s Russian Doll — I’m only halfway through the season and watching sporadically, on the evenings where my brain feels up to it, so no spoilers, please. In addition to all of the many joys of watching Natasha Lyonne’s wonderfully subtle, off-kilter performance (I love the way in which she continually veers from losing it to faked-confidence, trying to convince herself as much as anyone else that she can work out what’s going on, that she’s in “control”), I’m constantly in awe of the musical choices of the show. It just sounds great.

Of course, the Harry Nilsson of it all is central, with “Gotta Get Up” playing with each reboot. It’s such a smart choice of song; the repetitive sound of the piano echoing the ways in which Nadia can’t stop returning to that point, the obvious lyrical note with “Gotta get up/Gotta get out/Gotta get home before the morning comes” seeming to explain what Nadia is going through with each successive reboot, and the fact that it’s such an earworm of a song, one that starts off being fun and addictive and then, the more and more and more you hear it, it becomes wearing and exhausting and ultimately annoying. (And I say that as someone who genuinely loves the song.)

But it was only this morning that I realized that the real lyrical key to the show was midway through the song: “There was a time when we could dance until a quarter to ten/We never thought it would end then, we never thought it would end/We used to carry on and drink and do the rock and roll/We never thought we’d get older/We never thought it’d grow cold, but now…” For a show that is — to the point I’ve watched, at least, like I said, I’m only halfway through the season — as much about the idea of being forced to re-evaluate behaviors and re-examine choices made to that point, it’s so on the nose, I’m amazed I missed it to this point.

Of course, wait until I catch up with the rest of the season and realize how wrong I am about it all.