It Just Doesn’t Move Me The Way That It Should

I feel myself almost angry at the fact that I’m still thinking about Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker almost a month after its release, especially considering how much brainspace it took up in the months leading up to it hitting theaters. (Most of that, admittedly, was related to my job, but still.) Still, I’ve found myself reading a bunch of the complaints about the movie in the last few weeks, and… not necessarily disagreeing, per se — they’re opinions and what’s the point of arguing with those? — but thinking, oh, but wait…! a lot.

To wit: The return of the Emperor is held up as a move that is entirely flawed and irredeemable by many of those complaining, and… it’s not, surely…? The killing off of the previous Uber Villain in The Last Jedi surely made it necessary that a replacement shadowy figure would be brought in to try and explain what the endgame of the First Order was — and, if possible, what Supreme Leader Snoke’s plan was before he got offed — and, making that bad guy the Emperor seems like a fine idea on paper, when you consider Rise of Skywalker is intended as the final chapter of a series where the Emperor has been the villain for… what, five of those earlier chapters…?

(There’s also something that appeals to me about the Emperor showing up in the final chapter of a trilogy having been absent for the earlier two chapters; there’s an argument to be made that he more of less does the same in the first trilogy, and he only gets outed as the villain in the final chapter of the prequel trilogy. Is this accidental symmetry?)

Also, the complaints about Rey’s heritage being retconned to be the granddaughter of the Emperor. It’s contrived, sure, but… isn’t that pretty in keeping with Star Wars, which retconned Luke to be the son of Darth Vader in its second installment, and then Luke and Leia to be siblings in its third? There’s a line of thinking that the re-write translates as making a commentary about Force users having to come from specific backgrounds, but that rings false in a franchise where there are already lots of Force users who aren’t related to either the central heroes or villains of the series. You’re closing out a grand story where everyone is already fucking related to each other? Sure, throw this in, why not.

A lot of the complaints, I think, come from an idea that The Last Jedi is this evolutionary step forward for Star Wars as a whole that makes no mistakes, and that strikes me as a really interesting, and somewhat flawed, idea. Putting aside the obvious flaws of the movie — the timeline makes no sense, character is sacrificed for Deeper Meaning on a number of occasions, it’s tonally all over the place — The Last Jedi feels like it accidentally sabotages its trilogy with the big choices it makes, leaving whatever followed to play clean up no matter what.

Don’t get me wrong; there’s a lot of fun in watching it essentially dump two of the central mysteries of the previous movie so casually. (Who are Rey’s parents and why didn’t they come back for her? They’re alcoholics who sold her for booze! What is Snoke up to? Who cares, we just killed him!) But… none of it feels additive to me. It doesn’t feel like it’s building momentum as the series heads into a final chapter, as much as it feels like those responsible are cutting what they didn’t like from the earlier movie as swiftly as they can.

I’m not going to suggest this makes The Last Jedi a bad movie, because it’s not; it’s fun and there’s some great stuff in it. But it feels as eager to undo what came before as The Rise of Skywalker is, if not more so, yet without as much complaint. (It also feels less interested in narrative cohesion for the trilogy, and the nine-movie-storyline as a whole, but that’s not necessarily a sin.) And that’s… fine…?

Star Wars has always been a messy series, a storyline full of contradictions and rewrites on the fly, and plot developments that don’t make sense but “feel” right in a childlike manner. Perhaps that’s why Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker worked for me; it sounded right at the time. Perhaps if I thought about it more, perhaps if I cared more about the minutiae, I would change my mind. Maybe I’m doing it wrong, as the song goes.

Not The Best, But My Favorite, TV of 2019

I am, I admit, not a fan of Best Of lists — or, at least, not a fan of writing them, because someone will always come along to tell you that you’re wrong because you forgot [Thing X] and you’ll go, “Ah, shit, I did.” And yet, here I am writing a Best of TV list for myself, even if it’s going under the more honest terminology of “Favorite.”

What gives? Nothing, really; I found myself wanting to keep a record of what made me happy this year on television, in part because it’s been a good year for TV, and in part because I feel like I’ve been watching more/better television this year and making more choices for myself about what I watch, so… it seemed like a good idea…?

That sounds like a segue, right?

Years and Years
I remember reading about this in The Guardian before it started in the U.S. and being suspicious of the hype; I thought about Russell T. Davies’ tendency towards cheap coincidence and tackiness as his Doctor Who went on and decided it might be worth checking out, but it probably wouldn’t be my thing. I was utterly wrong, and completely caught up in what ended up being essentially future horror porn for news junkies, right up until the admittedly overly sentimental last episode.

Watchmen
It shouldn’t have worked, but it really did. (I know more than one person who thinks that it shouldn’t even have existed, but it did.) As much a response to the failures of the comic as a sequel to it, every episode felt like a revelation, as well as the most contemporary take on superheroes seen in a long, long time. I can’t work out if I want more, or want this to remain as complete and perfect as it is. (Still: “Nothing ever ends,” after all.)

Doom Patrol
The other comics-to-TV triumph of the year, even if so few people saw it because of its platform. Maybe it’s because the Grant Morrison/Richard Case run that this is based on is so central to my teenage experience, or maybe it’s because of the gleeful messiness of the show itself, but this was appointment viewing very quickly, and became a surprisingly emotional experience before the season was done. I’m looking forward to the second year.

Fleabag
Talking about perfection, I can’t say enough good things about the second and final season of one of the most heartbreaking, funny, romantic and honest shows I’ve ever seen. Absolutely everything felt noteworthy, with Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s writing shining out with kindness and warmth that overcame the awkwardness and pain that surrounded everyone in the show. God, I loved it.

This Way Up
I called this Fleabag Lite to a friend, which was unkind, even though I didn’t mean it as an insult, just shorthand to explain its appeal. But it’s telling a different story altogether, despite the similarities. It’s perhaps sillier — the Cranberries’ “Zombie” bit may be my favorite stupid joke of the year — but also more… flawed…? in a way that feels as if it’s easier to dip into without potential emotional trauma. Between this and the ultimately unsatisfying Living with Yourself, Aisling Bea’s had quite a year.

The Good Place
Yes, the final year felt more piecemeal than what came before, as if it had too much to try to do and didn’t know how to get to where it needed to be for the first few episodes of the season, but I don’t care; it’s still smarter, funnier and more heartwarming than almost anything else around these days. (Kindness is an important component for everything I’ve truly loved this year, thinking about it.) Plus, you know, all the Chidi/Eleanor stuff kind of killed me, I have to admit.

Project Runway Season 17/Top Chef Season 16
And we return to the subject of kindness. I’m a fan of these kinds of shows, as I’ve said before, but these two seasons marked what I’ve called a post-Great British Bake-Off era, where contestants dropped the traditional “I’m not here to make friends!” posturing and instead… got along? Helped each other? Supported one another…? It was an unexpected, but welcome, surprise that was helped by both shows having more pleasant, charming contestants than has been the case for years, and in Project Runway‘s case, a rebooted host/mentor/judging panel that made it seem like a whole new (better, and yes, kinder) show. Both were guilty pleasures that were also just… good. More of this in 2020, please.

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.