That I Keep Calling It “Don’t Worry Baby” Doesn’t Help, Either

Somehow, I’m still thinking in the back of my brain, half-heartedly, about Don’t Worry Darling more than a week after watching it. On some level, I’m sure, some would take this as a sign of the movie’s artistic value — if it can be thought-provoking so long after viewing, especially considering that I’ve watched another handful of movies since, then surely that says something about the movie’s power, the argument might go — but the sad truth if it is, the reason I’m thinking about it remains that I’m mystified that it got released in the form that it was, without someone in some position of authority stepping in and going, “Maybe we should try and fix this…?”

The core of the central idea, after all, isn’t a disaster, even if it is shockingly derivative: the picture-perfect mid-20th century society the protagonist lives in is a lie, constructed by what is, for all intents and purposes, a cult of tech bro incels. It’s a twist on The Stepfird Wives, with a dash of The Matrix and Mad Men to boot; it’s not anything special, but it’s solid enough. 

The execution of this idea, though…! Ignoring the fact that it’s never quite clear how the fake reality works — the wives have all been… given electroshock therapy in the real world, and then implanted with fake memories but basically given the same fake memories, even though they spend all day together, talking…? — or, for that matter, why it exists, given that those responsible apparently still have to spend the majority of their time in the real world to support their captive wives’ lives of leisure, suffering exactly the same indignities and upsets as before, but with added responsibilities and costs added on, there’s the fact that the movie would rather offer trailer-ready moments than anything making any narrative sense.

For example, the first signifier that reality isn’t what it seems is when Florence Pugh’s character is baking, and discovers that all the eggs are hollow. Why is that the case in what’s later revealed to be virtual reality? What’s with the scene where she’s cleaning and suddenly the house starts to contract, crushing her? Why, when she’s watching a swimming display on television, does she suddenly find herself drowning? All of these make sense if her reality was responsive to her state of mind, but it’s not; it’s a virtual reality world controlled by external forces, right…? 

Again, there’s nothing so wrong with the writing that a second pass couldn’t have at least addressed, but it never happened, even as the multi-million dollar enterprise chugged along with some truly terrible performances in the process. (Harry Styles is as weightless as the reviews argued, but not enough was said of director Olivia Wilde’s lifeless performance as the lead supporting character.)

Maybe what’s sticking with me is the wasted potential, the idea that it could have been better with just a little more effort in specific areas. Maybe I’m stuck on something that really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. I should just take a cue from the title and quit caring, perhaps.

Do You Really Wanna Do You Really Wanna

After running out of episodes of The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City to binge — the season is continuing, but we caught up and now find ourselves restricted to one episode a week like commoners — Chloe and I have moved on to our next television obsession: HBO Max’s Peacemaker.

It should come as little surprise to anyone who knows either of us that we both loved The Suicide Squad last year; nevertheless, I know that I went into Peacemaker with no small amount of nervousness. Sure, the character had been entertaining enough in the movie, but did I really want to watch him be at the center of a show for eight hours? Was there really enough there for the series to be anything other than a bunch of meathead jokes made to diminishing returns, over and over?

The answer for both questions, as anyone who’s seen the show is already aware, was a resounding “yes.” I’ve been consistently surprised by the heart the show has, and the way in which it wants to examine what’s going on underneath Peacemaker’s annoying, none-more-bro shield (as well as others, but predominantly its title character, understandably); I’ve also been impressed by the kindness shown by the series when it calls him out as a bully and asks us to have sympathy for the reasons he is a bully at the same time.

The empathy at the center of Peacemaker was, of course, one of my favorite things about The Suicide Squad, as well as something I really love about another HBO Max/DC show, Doom Patrol. I know that snarky one-liners and far, far too many character in one story are the in-thing for Marvel right now — which is to say, the actually popular superhero movies and TV shows — but, the more I think about it, the more I realize that what I want out of my superhero stories in 2022 is that feeling of empathy and kindness towards those that deserve it. Isn’t that superhuman enough for you all, dammit?

Blazing A New Trail

In an attempt to come down from the insanity of the past few weeks — none of which has been bad, per se, as much as simply overwhelming and seemingly relentless — Chloe and I have unfortunately fallen down a hole called “Binging The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City.”

I’d like to blame our friend David Wolkin for this disaster, mostly because the very idea came up when he texted to suggest that we try it, claiming that just a few episodes in, “I’m convinced that our entire society needs to be rebuilt from scratch.” That kind of schadenfreude is difficult to resist for both of us, coming as we are from the guilty pleasure that is Below Deck, and so we succumbed before too long. (Not immediately, though; we binged HBO Max’s Finding Magic Mike first, finding it an unexpectedly wholesome, uplifting show. I genuinely recommend that one.)

It’s safe to say that, if you also like watching terrible people being terrible to each other in a way that can be genuinely shocking at times — how do people like this actually exist, and how can they talk to each other like that? — then The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City is a must-see. It’s the only Real Housewives I’ve ever watched, but it feels like the only one I’d ever need, given the curious combination of horror and comedy almost very interaction provides in any given episode. Again, that this is at least some form of reality, feels almost impossible, given how tonally perfect the show manages to be in its analysis of embarrassment and awkwardness. Armando Ianucci only dreams he could have made this.

As with all televisual obsessions, however, it’s started seeping into my everyday in unexpected ways; the opening titles feature each of the housewives saying an introductory, ridiculous phrase. For one, she spend the entire first season saying, “Like my pioneer ancestors before me, I’m trying to blaze a new trail,” and now I can’t help but think like my pioneer ancestors before me ahead of any random sentence in my head, as if that somehow makes the sentence more meaningful. The unexpected thing is, it works. Like my pioneer ancestors before me, I suggest trying it for yourself.

It’s That Time of Year

It’s the Holiday Season, which means I’m already knee-deep in watching Christmas movies, reading Christmas comics, and listening to Christmas music. (I’ve also eaten roughly my body weight in cookies, but that’s not really any different from the norm, let’s be entirely honest.) It’s become tradition for me at this time of the year, to utterly surrender to as much Christmas media as possible without losing my mind.

What’s particularly fun about this is that the media itself becomes a tradition in the process. Chloe and I make a point to watch Miracle on 34th Street on Thanksgiving, and Holiday Inn as soon as possible after that, because both movies have come to symbolize the start of the season for us; similarly, every year, we watch White Christmas and It’s a Wonderful Life as close to the actual holiday as possible. (The latter is a Christmas Eve staple for us, already.)

If movies as the object of tradition is a relatively recent phenomenon for me, music has long been something that I’ve placed a lot of holiday tradition faith in; one of my earliest Christmas memories is riding in a car with my dad, listening to Christmas music and delivering Christmas cards. (We did that every year together until I left home for art school; my sisters dropped out of it, but I never did — it always felt like a special way for the two of us to spend time together.)

I have lists of favorite Christmas songs that, thankfully, get updated almost every single year — I’m constantly discovering new music that feels immediately necessary to celebrate the season, thankfully. (Even if that music might be relatively old overall; Lord Executor is a thing of the past for most, after all, but “Christmas is a Joyful Day” is only something I discovered in the last few days. Same with Imperial Drag’s “Please Leave Me Home for Christmas,” uncovered decades after they split up.)

There are, of course, ways to feel Christmassy that have nothing to do with the songs or the shows — things to do with the joy and love of the season, the excitement of celebrating the generosity and affection that abounds. But every single year, I can’t hit play soon enough on all the festive treats that make it happen artificially.

On-Camera Confessional

I’ve been watching a lot of reality shows lately; they’re fun and stupid in a way that’s both entertaining and relaxing after a day where my brain’s been going far too much, which is a pretty good definition of… every day for the last few weeks, really. It helps that Chloe is also really into them; it’s something that we do together, at once transfixed, horrified, and amused by whatever horror is unfolding on the screen before us.

Recently, we’ve been mainlining either dating shows like Too Hot to Handle or Love Island, or else catching up on RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars, and with the best will in the world, the collective effect of all three in such a concentrated period of time has been to make me feel especially old and frustrated.

Too Hot to Handle and Love Island, you see, are populated by young beautiful people continually making very bad decisions and having literally no sense of perspective — the former, especially, has people breaking down in tears because they can’t fuck for a month, which still has me speechless days after watching it. There’s a genuinely impressive lack of perspective on these shows, with the smallest thing treated as if it’s the most cataclysmic trauma imaginable; I know it’s as much the result of smart editing on the producers’ parts, but there really is a lack of perspective in the lives of these glamorous idiots that can only come from having been so lucky as to never having to have faced any real trouble on any appreciable scale.

That’s something that’s just underscored by Drag Race, which asks far more of its contestants — they have to sing, dance, lip sync, act, improvise, and make their outfits — and also has the sense to allow the various queens to comment on each other’s melodrama, reminding them (and the viewers) that some things really aren’t worth that amount of tears and/or anger. Drag Race feels as if it exists in an entirely different world from the other shows we’ve been watching — and, if you think about the lived experiences of each show’s casts, it pretty much does.

Not If You Were The

We’ve been watching The Last Man on Earth lately. I can’t remember why we started; it wasn’t a show I thought about often, although I certainly enjoyed what I’d seen of it the first time through. (Turns out, I dropped off somewhere in the middle of the second season; the show ran four years, all told.) I remembered it being a light, silly, occasionally cruel show in the vein of Red Dwarf, of all things — another post-apocalypse sitcom from days of yore — but, on rewatch, I realized that it’s actually the best, worst show to watch in this COVID world we’re in.

The key is what killed everyone off. It’s a topic more or less ignored at first, for obvious reasons. (Why does it matter? Everyone’s still dead.) Before too long, it’s revealed that it was a virus… that showed up around 2019 or 2020 or so. Which, I’ll be honest, was somewhat unsettling to watch from today’s perspective. Even more unsettling were the comments about how it originally just seemed like a bad cold, with people coughing a lot and being unravel to breathe, before dying.

And then there’s an episode in the middle of the third season — a season that is surprisingly dark, breathtakingly so in many respects, with the regular cast seeming to fall apart through trauma, mental illness and just plain bad luck — where everything flashes back to show how a previously unseen character played by Kristen Wiig dealt with the outbreak and its aftermath, and it’s genuinely disturbing when viewed today: her upset at seeing streets filled with everyone wearing masks, her paranoia about the origins of the virus, her loneliness when she’s forced to self-isolate and essentially go into lockdown.

It hit hard, watching that episode; it captures (and, of course, heightens) what it’s felt like since February 2020, and feels like a show made about the last year or so — but it was made back in 2017. I don’t know what I really expected when we started watching the series again, but this has been something more intense, and maybe more rewarding.

Whatever You Do

I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about the lost art of changing your mind, especially in critical scenarios. Part of this comes from revisiting movies that I’ve previously liked and found wanting years later — not least of which being the theatrical version of Justice League, which I rewatched for work reasons and realized was so uneven and disjointed that I couldn’t believe that I’d ever thought it was, you know, fine — as well as going back to things I’d believed were lacking, only to find new value and strength after the fact.

Maybe it’s because I work online, and exist in those spaces — not just my work spaces, but also social media as a whole — that I feel as if it’s difficult to come out and say, “that earlier take I had, I disagree with now.” There’s a pressure to entirely dedicate yourself to your opinion and valiantly defend it, no matter what, I feel; the idea that liking something or disliking it to the degree that every single opinion becomes a potential hill to die on, no matter how trivial. Perhaps it’s old age talking, but I feel like it’s not overly ridiculous to be okay with deciding that the superhero movie you thought was cool five years ago is actually a bit shit, on reflection.

This is, of course, dangerous thing to admit out loud; by being an online culture writer, it’s basically an announcement that I have critical opinions that others should pay attention to, and going back to those opinions after the fact to say that, on reflection, maybe I was wrong, might undercut the very purpose of the whole thing. Aren’t we supposed to be, if not infallible, then at least unchanging?

But, again, that feels like a fault. There is value in changing your mind, and re-evaluating your opinions on art at a later date, even if it’s just discovering new favorites to love from that point on. Or accepting that Justice League could never be as strong as I wanted it to be.

You Should See Them At It, Getting In A Panic

I made a list, at the end of last year, of my favorite TV shows that I’d watched over the past twelve months. It was something that felt remarkably easy, and also comforting in some way that I can’t quite explain; it felt as if I was pulling things into place, or putting them in order. At the start of December this year, I thought of that post and told myself that I should really do it again, having little idea of just how difficult a task that would turn out to be this time around.

The problem, to the surprise of no-one, is 2020. It’s a year that has ruined my memory, seeming at least twice as long as it actually was, and throwing all kinds of recall into disrepair: did that really happen this year? Was that in 2019, or was it just in July? It is, it turns out, hard to think about the last year’s viewing when it’s literally hard to think about the last year in general.

There’s also the problem that lockdown has meant that I’ve watched so much more than usual this year. I wrote earlier this month that my attention for reading abandoned me this year; it instead became a desire to watch things, and to gain entertainment and education that way. I lack any hard information because, basically, why would I keep track of this, but I feel as if my television viewing hours jumped significantly in 2020, because, what else was there to do?

Some favorite shows stick in memory despite everything : Legendary, the HBO Max voguing contest, was everything I wanted in a competition and never realized; The Circus on Showtime was real-time political reporting about an election that fascinated and terrified me in equal measure. After a rocky start, the second season of Doom Patrol came good, even with a final episode left unmade because of COVID.

Like everyone, I was sucked into The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix, and also to the novelistic approach to Love Life on HBO Max. (Pure on HBO Max was another great series; that streaming service more than earned its keep for me this year.) Hulu had High Fidelity, the irregular but wonderful New York Times Presents shows, and Taste The Nation, a show that traveled when I couldn’t. John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight and Amber Ruffin’s The Amber Ruffin Show were the comedy late night shows that made me laugh and kept me sane, with the latter being the best reason for anyone to download the Peacock app. Maybe the only reason, really.

There was also deep binge watch dives into Gilmore Girls (still great) and Love Island (not great, yet addictive) that we won’t talk about. Nope.

Television this year felt like a balm, a lifeline. A window into the world when going out felt too scary, or sometimes just too much. This year, perhaps unusually, it felt essential.

Station to Station

I have, I admit, surprising amounts of feelings about Bill and Ted Face the Music, the just-released third installment in the movie serial that seemed abandoned after 1991’s Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey (AKA Bill and Ted Go to Hell, which was always the better title, but I get why the studio wanted them to change it).

It’s not just that I’m overwhelmed with happy nostalgia to see Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves back as these characters 29 years after they last played them, although that’s obviously a significant factor; I loved the first two movies, even though I remember them being little more than cult favorites in the U.K. at the time — the first one, I remember, was something I knew about in advance purely because it was advertised on the back of DC’s comic books for a couple months in the summer of 1989. I even adored the Marvel comic book series that spun out of Bogus Journey, which I’m pretty sure I discovered around the same time as I found Milk and Cheese, cementing my longterm love of Evan Dorkin’s work. To see a new Bill and Ted movie now, and for it not to be terrible — or, for that matter, just an exercise in nostalgia and nothing else — feels like a victory in and of itself.

But my feelings come from, really, the fact that Face the Music feels like a movie aimed at people my age, and a movie about getting over yourself — about allowing yourself to escape the story that you’ve told yourself about yourself since you were younger, and accepting who you actually have become, instead. It’s couched in dumb jokes and sci-fi conceits, sure, but from the very title of the movie — “Face the Music,” I mean, come on — to the fact that a solution to the movie’s problems only comes when Bill and Ted stop telling everyone, including themselves, “I can fix this!” and instead admit that they can’t, it’s a surprisingly touching movie about failing to live up to your potential and being okay with that.

Indeed, it’s a movie about realizing that failing to live up to your potential in one thing doesn’t mean that you haven’t done great things elsewhere in your life that are more worthy of celebration. (Bill and Ted raised Billie and Thea, after all, and they’re the ones who solved everything.)

Maybe I’m projecting, and none of this is actually in there; maybe these are all things that I’m reading into a silly movie that just wanted to get William Sadler back into Death make-up and came up with a convoluted way to make that happen. I don’t think I am, though. For all that Bill and Ted Face the Music is a movie about kindness and pure-heartedness and the need for people to come together as one — and it is all those things, too — it feels, more than anything, a movie for middle aged guys to accept that they’re middle aged and that that’s actually kind of a good thing, really.

As a 45-year-old man, why wouldn’t I have feelings about that?

One Day You’re In, And The Next

I’ve made no secret of my love of good reality TV show contests — I’ve eagerly binged recent seasons of Project Runway, Top Chef and The Great British Bake Off (Yes, I know it’s officially Baking Show here in the US, but no-one really calls it that, do they?), and even became temporarily addicted to the UK version of Love Island in a bout of madness — so I feel pretty confident in reporting that Amazon’s recent venture into the genre, Making The Cut, is… not a good reality TV show. That said, it might the most Amazon reality TV show imaginable.

There are a number of reasons why Making The Cut doesn’t work. On the most basic level, there’s the simple fact that it doesn’t actually spend enough time or energy humanizing the contestants, who instead get to spout some generic, faux inspiring lines about their struggle each episode that don’t really connect with what they’re actually working on — which, in a sad way, makes sense, given how little attention is actually paid to what the contestants are actually doing in each round.

Each episode, the contestants have to design and kinda make two outfits — a Runway Look and another that can be sold on Amazon, because it’s a show where shifting product is the immovable focus. But, aside from vague comments about inspiration and footage of designers frowning in the workshop, the actual process of getting to the final outfits is missing, which feels like a real mistake. It’s one made intentionally, though; the show’s format centers around the designers handing unfinished clothes off to unseen “seamstresses” at the end of each day, and picking up the results the next morning. That’s why I said “kinda make,” above — it’s actually the work of nameless, faceless workers, because Amazon is entirely utterly lacking in self awareness about concerns over its labor practices.

The true focus of the series is capitalism — there’s repeated discussions around the words “global brand,” and contestants aren’t graded on their aesthetics or individual skills, but how they promote their brand and how sellable their work is. The soundtrack of the show is generic, but lyrically focused on wealth and success, and the much-ballyhooed globe-trotting aspect — they’re in Paris! They’re in Tokyo! They’re in New York! — meaningless in any sense beyond offering tourist backdrops and lip-service to finding a global market.

The more you watch the show, the more obvious it is how gross it is; how disinterested it is in anything beyond promotion of a new Amazon product line and Amazon in general, no matter what. (While Heidi Klum had little credibility before this, I do feel the show humiliates Tim Gunn as he gets pulled into this promotional mess.) I watched the whole thing, utterly fascinated by the spectacle eating itself and how ultimately boring it turned out to be. Which, I guess, makes me the problem, doesn’t it?