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?

Boldly Going

I’m not sure it was the intended takeaway, but my favorite thing about Star Trek: Picard now that the first season is done really might be the way that it underscores the importance of aging to the franchise.

That’s not to say that there wasn’t an upside to the rest of the show — I like the new cast fine, even if they mostly weren’t given anything to do beyond circle around Patrick Stewart and chew on the one piece of character they were each given, and there was something in the not-entirely-thought-through central plot, even if it fell apart if you thought about it too long — but it’s no accident that the highlight of the series for me was watching Old Man Picard visit Old Riker and Old Troi, and just getting to watch the three play off each other for the majority of the episode, with the two junior officers not falling for their old boss’s bullshit the way the new cast — the way the show itself — did.

Thinking about why that one particular episode made me so happy, I first went to the fact that, fuck it; I’m thirty years older than I was when Next Generation was airing, so I appreciated the sight of old favorites aging and becoming parents. The more I thought about it, though, the more I went back to the fact that, somewhere along the line, Star Trek became a story in part about getting older.

The movies, of course, are hugely responsible for this in part: we all made jokes about William Shatner’s corset or his toupee, but the fact remains that we followed the original cast from their youthful peak through old age, continuing to do their jobs and save the galaxy the entire time. The Trek movies expanded the idea of what a space hero looked like, even accidentally, by keeping the cast in their roles through retirement age.

And then, the subsequent series, through necessity, introduced younger casts but used nostalgia to return to even older versions of the originals. We saw old McCoy, old Spock, old Scotty, eventually old Kirk…! Just think of the subtitle of that second series: The Next Generation. Star Trek had become a generational saga.

It’s a minor theme, of course; that whole seeking out new worlds, new life forms, thing still rules, as does the importance of curiosity and optimism over small mindedness and nativism. Nonetheless, accepting — embracing — the aging process is in the Trek DNA, and it’s there that where Picard really worked.

I Asked Him Time And Again

I got caught up in Hulu’s High Fidelity adaptation for the right reasons — that soundtrack! — and was happy to discover that it was, genuinely, great; something that felt faithful to the spirit of the original book, but not beholden to slavishly following every nook, cranny and dead end of its pages, instead choosing to change and update things where necessary. (The original book is 25 years old, shockingly; it definitely needed updating.)

The most obvious update is in the central cast, which in the show is made up of two women of color and a gay white man. They’re a charming trio on screen, and I like watching them bounce off each other, and seeing them come out of their initial appearances and grow past what first looks a bit too close to stereotypes, but more than anything, it made me realize how limited the original book was.

In High Fidelity the book, the core trio is… three white straight guys. Because of course it is; Nick Hornby, bless him, wrote what he knew and that’s what — and who — he knew. And, when I read the book all those many years ago (When it first came out? Surely not, I wouldn’t have bought the hardcover; I’m pretty sure I got the paperback, though, with the book already A Thing by that point), that was fine, because that was pretty much what I knew, too.

The comparison is like a window into my own past, and how small it seems when viewed from where and who I am now. Part of it is cultural — there are many, many people I knew then that I’m sure were queer and closeted, or simply unaware; this was the time when the lead singer of Suede called himself “a bisexual who’d never had a homosexual experience,” and it was turned into a joke that followed him for years afterwards — and part of it geographical, with Scotland being severely limited in terms of racial diversity.

Nonetheless, I find myself looking back and thinking, God, how small the world seemed back then, how limited and empty compared with today. And, really, there’s something perfect to me about this being inspired by High Fidelity, a story about looking back and growing from past mistakes. Next thing, I’ll be making a list of top 5 mixtapes.

Got A Text!

So, okay, yeah. Love Island. I wish there was something I could say, some argument I could make, to defend my seeming addiction to this UK reality show — streamable through Hulu here in the US — but, truth be told, there really isn’t. It’s almost joyfully irredeemable trash, and I have been wholeheartedly sucked in.

The premise is very simple: across a shockingly high number of episodes per season — around 50! — a group of quasi-attractive men and women are brought into a villa to try to find romance with each other. There are periodic “couplings,” ceremonies where one gender selects a partner, and for those left uncoupled, they’ll either be sent home or have the chance to find love with new people introduced into the villa. On the face of it, it’s nothing special.

In practice, it’s utterly compelling.

The high number of episodes comes from the fact that it’s essentially aired as-it-happens, with each episode edited together from footage shot within a 24 hour period, giving it a weird reportage effect — very little happens, so the minutiae becomes the focus, which makes sense given how dedicated the show needs you to become to each of its stars. Even taking a step back to look at the bigger picture(s) is fascinating, however: When did British men become so emotionally adept in expressing their needs, for one thing?

If it’s a social experiment, though, it needs to be noted that Love Island is a particularly limited one. At one telling moment in an episode of the season I watched, one of the men makes a comment along the lines of saying that the show demands everyone be straight, which answered one of my questions about How Things Work Behind The Scenes.

And then there’s the fact that it’s an experiment where cruelty isn’t a bug, but a feature. It’s a show that specifically plays on its participants’ anxieties and paranoias about trust, in a way that’s genuinely inhuman; midway through the run, the genders are split in different locations and introduced to potential new partners just to see how many leave their partners. It’s a breathtakingly cynical move, and one that the contestants buy into wholeheartedly — the one part of the show that made me queasy while watching, I confess. Why be so cruel?

I did keep watching, though. It won me back after with the small details and the players’ kindness winning out through the architectural cruelty, and because, honestly, I wanted to see how it was going to end. I’m not sure if I have the mental space to try another season — watching the one I did really feel like a commitment — but I’m as glad as I am ashamed that I got as caught up as I did this once, at least.

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.