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Nine-Nine

I finally got back into Brooklyn Nine-Nine a month or so ago, having finished The Good Place and looking for something with similar energy. Given that it was co-created by Mike Schur, the man guy behind Parks and Recreation and The Good Place, two shoes I adore for their warmth and big heart, I figured I’d return to Brooklyn.

Yeah, return. I started watching some of it when it first premiered and eventually got around to watching most of the first two seasons. The problem was that this was during the Fall of 2014, and the NYPD was showing up in the news a lot, and not for particularly wonderful things. I was certainly enjoying the show, but a show about cops wasn’t something I really wanted to seek out for fun after class.

It’s a bit of an odd excuse, I’ll give it that. But slapstick and silly cops became a lot less funny when police were in the news for getting away with during terrible things to people. I understand the difference between fiction and reality (believe me, I do), but at the time it was more than I really wanted to deal with. I go to stories for escapism, and at the time, that show wasn’t scratching that itch. 

So five years later I’m jumping back in with two feet. What’s changed? Not the American policing system, sadly. And I’d hope I’m not more resigned to things being how they are being the way they have to be in real life. 

Maybe part of it is me giving Brooklyn Nine-Nine another chance; it was easy to stop watching at the end of a season and not jump in again — or at least be hesitant to continue. Years later, I’ve jumped back in and am really enjoying it. All this makes me wonder, why do I enjoy it so, and if I do now, why I didn’t then?

Upon getting back into the show, I’m struck by how much of the plotlines revolve primarily around character rather than incidents. Sure, there’s often a crime of the week, but the show, particularly in later seasons, concerns itself less with ‘those dastardly criminals’ than it does with the actual people. The show gets a lot more mileage about seeing how Jake and Charles handle the situation and their dynamic rather than having much to do with the crime itself. Arresting the bad guys doesn’t really become a plot point as much as other hijinks.

For what it’s worth, the show does, at the very least, offer a measure of lip service to some of the more problematic aspects of policing. There’s an episode that sees the squad’s sergeant Terry being profiled in his own neighborhood on account of his being black, and discussions around the nature of racist profiling ensue. A storyline sees Jake tossed in jail (for a crime he didn’t commit, natch) and the show does address some of the many issues with the American penal system. At the end of it all, though, Nine-Nine is set in the ‘real’ world and for all its fantastical and silly elements, ultimately this isn’t a show that’s going to go about fixing the system as a whole. Furthermore, it’s a comedy, and really diving into policing issues would very quickly quash much of the show’s fun. The show is certainly aware of the real-world issues that exist, but those aren’t really the point.

I like Brooklyn Nine-Nine a lot for its characters and their dynamics. Everyone’s so well sketched that it’s such fun watching them play off of each other. I find the show to be at its best less when it’s dealing with outlandish cases and odd office hijinks, more so than ‘typical’ police work. 

Or maybe this whole blog post is me trying to think through why a show I didn’t want to watch a few years ago I really enjoy now. Maybe it’s the show coming into its own and my being able to see that, or maybe I’m just trying to justify some cognitive dissonance. Whatever the case, I like Brooklyn Nine-Nine and all its fantasy. Perhaps that’s enough.

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Cinnamon Tography

We live in a time that I’ve seen described as Peak TV, where there are these major shows that edge into cultural phenomena. Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Black Mirror. Those shows that you’ve definitely watched or you certainly know people who have watched. There’s an almost cultish fanaticism to the whole thing; half the fun of following Game of Thrones was being up in the discussion around it, whether at work, at the bar, or in line at the grocery store. Everyone’s watching it, everyone’s talking about it. 

But there’s not a lot of people talking about Corporate, a darkly comedic satire about, well, working. Corporate follows Matt and Jake, two workers in the very corporate head office of Hampton DeVille, a possibly-very-evil megacorporation. The show merrily skewers a variety of facets of modern life, like commercializing protest, the military-industrial complex, and company retreats. The episode “Society Tomorrow” turns the show’s piercing lens towards Peak TV — and a whole lot else besides.

In the episode, it seems like everyone at work is watching this hit new show Society Tomorrow. It’s an ersatz Black Mirror, and what we see of it features people trying to escape the controlling influence of a futuristic watch-like device — which happens to look a lot like the StrapIn Hampton DeVille is selling. The thing that makes this episode so delightful is that Corporate isn’t content to just go after one facet of this whole thing but instead take it apart from every angle.

Shots are taken at spoiler culture, where there’s an HR meeting over an employee slapping another for spoiling an episode. Since this is satire, it’s the spoiler who’s at fault and not the slapper (the HR rep is also watching the show, naturally). The way characters try to suss out how far each other is in the show is an amusing dance, often to the point of ridiculousness as people try to talk about what’s going on without ruining it for each other. In a day when the entire series is dropped onto a platform at once (see: Netflix’s Stranger Things and Good Omens on Amazon), it’s almost a race to keep up with what’s going on lest a spoiler ‘ruin’ the experience for you.

Matt’s an ardent fan of the show, going so far as to have Jake drive him to work not so they can chat and hang out, but so Matt can watch it on his StrapIn. When he tries to get the eerily-prescient ads off his fancy gadget it locks onto his wrist, and he suddenly feels like he might just be in the situation the show describes. The StrapIn seems to be spying on him, what with its targeted ads and all, and maybe, just maybe he might be beholden to it (as are the characters in Society Tomorrow). Ultimately, however, convenience seems to be worth the sacrifice of privacy and Matt, like so many people in real life, decides to dismiss privacy concerns because, hey, ain’t it handy to have a device that helps you with your life?

The third skewer is aimed square at people not watching the show. Jake, it seems, is the only person in the office not watching Society Tomorrow. As such he’s ostracized by others in the office, a superior going so far as to tell him to take the day off and watch the show. During a conversation with the only other coworker who doesn’t follow the show, Jake wishes there would be another mass shooting, describing the drama and suspense of it all in much the same way one would a prestige tv show. It’s a quick jab, but the barb here is that this guy who’s acting all above it all and would rather discuss current events and other ‘real’ subjects treats the real world like a tv show itself. Later on, when questioned by coworkers in an interrogation chamber, Jake confesses that the main reason he hasn’t watched the show is just to be contrarian. The point Corporate makes here is that you’re not more ‘deep’ for not jumping on the latest bandwagon.

Finally, there’s how people try to speak so authoritatively about aspects of the show. People remark on the show’s excellent score and cinematography. Matt eager to give off the appearance of knowing what he’s talking about agrees that, yes, the “cinnamon tography” is so good. It’d be easy to mock people’s superficial understanding of filmmaking techniques and criticism, but that’s too lazy for the show. By positing Matt’s misunderstanding of the very word ‘cinematography’ the satire is aimed straight at the tendency of people who to parrot the praise of a work – without understanding it – just to feel a part of the zeitgeist.

The brilliance of “Society Tomorrow” is in Corporate’s ability to satire all of this at once. It’s not just the way we can try and find connections between fiction and real life, nor just the way we’ll feign understanding to sound intelligent. By mixing it all together, the show hits at everyone involved in any of the buzz around a major tv show. Everyone is complicit in the ridiculousness in one form or another, but then, we’re all also absolved. The buzz and hype around peak tv is just a part of modern life, so let’s make fun of it. And, as Corporate does in “Society Tomorrow,” do a good job of it. 

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Here Comes The Ending

In many ways, I’m super jealous of the writers behind the Game of Thrones tv show. Over the years, they’ve built up an array of excellently developed and flawed characters, well-rounded, conflicted people who are often their own worst enemy. It’s Jon Snow’s loyalty to his homeland that makes his relationship with the Free Folk so fraught, but it’s that relationship that ends up saving his life. Petyr Baelish is delightfully conniving – he’s someone who wants power and will double cross anyone — even himself — if it gets him there. They’re complex, with shifting and conflicting loyalties that mean that sometimes the enemy of your enemy is not your friend. The show gets a lot of mileage from throwing curveballs at these characters and watching what happens.

But then, I’m really happy I’m not writing Game of Thrones. Part of every story is its ending and I really don’t want to have to figure out how to bring that behemothic narrative to a resolution. Where do these characters’ arcs have to go? How will these myriad conflicts be resolved? What’s up with the White Walkers? There’s a lot going on.

The show’s finale airs tomorrow night, after a truncated season. It’s been rough; a lot of character arcs have been quickened in an effort to get everyone where they have to be before the end. Some have gotten the short end of the stick, some others have been given their moment to shine, and most have gotten some combination of both. There’s a lot in this season that I like, if not necessarily its execution.

Endings are hard.

I’m one of the few who adores the conclusion to Lost. After six seasons of mysteries and lore building, the series needed to come to a satisfying conclusion. And boy howdy, there were a lot of questions. Who put that wheel there? How’s time travel work exactly? Why did that bird screams Hurley’s name? Questions.

I figure the showrunners of Lost realized early on that short of an FAQ session, there was no way to answer every single question. So they wisely decided to hone in on the characters of the show and give them the resolution they needed. Some mysteries were solved, sure, but the focus was more on giving closure to the characters.

Take Sawyer, unapologetically my favorite character alongside Desmond and Ben. At the start of the series, he’s nothing more than a selfish jackass who wants to be hated. But as the series progresses, he discovers a gentler, protective side of him. Naturally, the culmination of it all has Sawyer making choices that are a testament to how far he’s come and finally, finally getting his happy ending.

Not all of our questions are answered — we never found out what the deal was with that dang bird — but by the time the final episode’s credits rolled I felt satisfied, I felt like my investment in Lost, its world, and its characters had all been worth it.

Honestly, that’s what really matters. Was it worth it? I have seen some awful movies in the past, but I remember more than a few of them fondly because of the circumstances of my viewing (like running a commentary with a friend in an empty theater). Lost was worth it for the journey it brought me on, for the characters I met and loved. I have no doubt that the ending to Game of Thrones will be far from perfect, but I think I’ll be happy so long as I get my closure, as long as l feel like my time with the show has been worth it.

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Of Places Good

I’m not great at watching tv. The act of putting aside everything to sit in front of the television (or, let’s be honest: my laptop) makes me antsy. Watching it with someone’s better, since then I feel like I’m spending time with a friend and so not just sitting around. Point is, all this means binge watching shows isn’t something I’m good at – it notoriously took me four years to ‘binge’ Breaking Bad.

However, building with LEGO makes me feel like I’m doing something, and watching something on Netflix at the same time somehow justifies it in my mind. Usually.

That long preamble is to say that when I’ve found a show where I really wanna hit “next episode” it’s something that’s particularly excellent.

Right now, that show is The Good Place. Recommended to me by a friend, I finally started watching it while folding laundry (see? being productive). I’m halfway through the first season and having an absolute ball.

The show is smart, sharp as a blade, but also one that doesn’t feel the need to flaunt it all around. It’s a show that’ll merrily name drop Emmanuel Kant and Machiavelli one moment and make a joke about the less-than-stellar quality of Floridian DJs the next. Though an understanding of the ethical philosophies upheld by the mentioned thinkers isn’t necessary to get a joke, they inform the plot of the show and individual episodes. Basically, The Good Place is a sitcom that explores ethics and morality not through people monologuing and debating, but instead through actual plot points.

For example, Kant said that the real judge of the morality of an action is its motivation, not the result. When Eleanor, the show’s protagonist, tries to prove she’s a good person to get ahead, she realizes she’s failing because what she’s doing is not truly altruistic. By crafting narratives around thorny philosophical questions, The Good Place is able to explore the ramifications of certain ideologies, while still propelling characters and making jokes about cacti. The show doesn’t need to flaunt its intellectualism around; its stories do that for it.

It helps that The Good Place takes after showrunner Michael Schur’s other shows (Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn 99) by featuring characters who are well sketched out and, though flawed, fundamentally nice to each other. These aren’t characters constantly trying to one-up each other and narrative conflict doesn’t arrive by pitting them at odds. It leads to interesting setups, where the central thrust becomes how do these goofballs solve the problem before them.

Its sense of fun and big heart gets combined with a love of moral philosophizing to make The Good Place a delightfully watchable show. Which isn’t something I say a lot.

Anyway. That’s the blog post, time to enjoy my Saturday by building something with LEGO while watching more The Good Place.

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Of The End

Reaching the end of a good story is always a bittersweet affair. There’s no doubt a sense of joy in the catharsis of resolution, that sense that the story has been completed and all is well. In a good story, its ending will pay off all that came before. But an ending means it’s over; the story and characters that you’ve spent several hours with are done. You don’t get to be a part of their lives and adventures anymore.

It’s certainly kinda weird: these characters are fictional, this world, no matter how similar to our own, is an artifice. Yet there’s such a want to spend more time there. I want to spend more time with the Pevensies in Narnia, I wanna join Luke Skywalker for more of his adventures, I’m really happy that Nathan and Elena got their happy ending, but man, I would love to have another story.

These stories are decidedly done. Uncharted 2 comes to a close and so too does Nate’s adventures in Nepal. Sure, the series counties in its sequels, but there won’t be more of Nathan Drake exploring the Himalayas with Elena and a chronically side-switching Chloe. That moment, that particular dynamic is unique to this story.

Maybe there are stories to be told. There are a couple years between Avengers and Age of Ultron, presumably filled with stories as the Avengers hunt after Hydra. But there’s not gonna be a big movie about that time, featuring the original six doing their thing. That time is past, those stories are told.

Now there is space for those stories to be told; consider the books, games, and comics of the old Star Wars Expanded Universe. They filled the gaps between the movies, introduced new characters, and expanded the world to a ridiculous degree. But even the best books aren’t the same as getting to see and hear Luke, Han, and Leia traipse around the Death Star. Stories lose part of their jazz when translated into a different medium. Maybe it’s the change in budget or creative team; in any case, it’s just not quite the same. Could be good, really good, it just won’t really be the same.

Could the continued Avengers films have maintained the status quo and told more stories of the six saving the day together? Sure. But we’ve already heard that story – it’s the climax of the first movie. There’s little to be gained when retreading old ground, it’s far more interesting to push these characters in wholly new directions. A Thief’s End sees Nathan Drake going on yet another adventure, but this one isn’t after another mystic artifact or following an adventure of Francis Drake. There are the familiar thrills and witticisms — it wouldn’t be Uncharted without ‘em, but Nate’s on a different journey yet again. It’s not the same story as the one before.

It’s frustrating, sometimes. I love the third season of Chuck, and I wish the show could just stay there forever. But at the same time, I’m so glad the series has the chance to grow and for characters to change and so on. It’s one of my favorite shows perhaps because it had the space for that change and progression. I’m sure that had it stayed as its season three self for the entire time it would be tiring and lose what makes it so special. It’s precisely because it doesn’t last that it’s so special.

To all this, Avengers: Endgame is the, uh, end, of the MCU as we know it (give or take a Spider-Man movie coming out in a couple months). It’s quite the feat to resolve ten years of storytelling, but somehow the movie actually does. With that, it’s done. There’ll probably be another Avengers movie, but it ain’t gonna be one too familiar (for a whole variety of reasons), just as no sequel is quite like the original. The old ones can be revisited, yes, and replayed, reread, and rewatched; but they’re over, the story had to end.

Maybe that ephemerality is what makes stories so special. Just because something doesn’t last forever doesn’t make it any less meaningful.

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Genre Bending

Altered Carbon is an oddball of a show. It’s got a science fiction setting, but primarily draws on noir for a lot of its narrative structure. Beyond that, though, it draws on a whole host of other science fiction media for inspiration, to varying effect.

The show is science fiction noir in the stylings of Blade Runner. And it’s really, really heavily cribbing from the Blade Runner stylebook. You’ve got flying cars that don’t look a hair out of place flying around a dingy, multicultural metropolis that’s pretty often rain soaked. There’s also a pervasive existential theme, owing to Altered Carbon’s conceit that human consciousness is held in a chip and thus the relationship between body and identity is a lot more tenuous than normal. A lot of this can be chalked up to the noir genre, what with gumshoes hired to take on a case and all that. The atmosphere, for the most part, is appropriately heavy and somber for the most part. It’s a crappy future, the rich get away with all sorts of (futuristic!) crime and the police are powerless. Like I said, very noir. Altered Carbon, however, goes in some very different places over its ten episodes.

For all its noir trappings, Altered Carbon is really loathe to give up the gunfight. In lieu of tense shootouts that are the hallmark of noir films (and Blade Runner, which, this cannot be overstated, is a massive influence on Altered Carbon), we get a lotta gun play straight out of your big action movie of choice. Heck, there’s a sequence where two characters are surrounded by Yakuza and soldiers out to kill them and, what do they do? They go back-to-back to shoot the attackers in a sequence ripped straight out of the video game Army of Two. Now, I’m all for Big Action Scenes and I strongly support borrowing from video games for inspiration, but it all feels so incongruous set against what’s supposedly a very noir story. Altered Carbon tries to move around genres, but its noir trappings end up feeling like concrete shoes when it adds these odd things to the mix.

Genre bending is totally possible, and it can be done well. I’m not just talking about mashing two together, like Spider-Man: Homecoming taking a John Hughesian teen movie and smooshing it with a superhero story, but rather a story that jumps around its genres. Consider Community: ostensibly it’s a sitcom set in a community college about a ragtag group of friends. In actuality, it’s a show that contains within its six seasons pastiches of gangster films, Apollo 13, Die Hard, zombie movies, Law and Order, and a Ken Burns documentary — amongst much more. It works, in no small part because Community sets itself up as being perfectly aware of what genre it exists in and by playing every genre/narrative to the hilt. It bends its genres to tell the story it wants to tell; how better to explore a rift between best friends Troy and Abed than by a Civil War-style documentary? The show also sets itself up as a very silly world, so spending a half hour in a spy movie is hardly out of the ordinary — especially as it does it with aplomb.

Similarly, Cowboy Bebop (which I will not shut up about) refuses to be confined to any specific genre. Right off the bat, it sets itself firmly at the intersection of the western, gangster, and noir genres (in space!), leaning more into each of the three when necessary. Digging into Spike’s story lends itself well to taking on the hallmarks of a gangster movie, but following Jet means we’re in for a much more noir narrative. Throughout it all, though, Bebop keeps its other inspirations close at hand, it’s noir episodes have hints of Westerns sprinkled throughout. And, because Bebop positions itself at an intersection of genre, it’s perfectly in keeping with its stylings when it borrows from other genres, be they cyberpunk or horror. Bebop is a show so sure of itself that it can play around with its makeup and never lose its DNA. Conversely, Altered Carbon sets itself up so strongly in the noir genre that whenever it strays outside (ninjas! anti-establishment rebellion!) it feels like we’ve lost the plot. Genre bending is a lotta fun, but the trick is to do it within what you’ve set as the boundaries. The more flexible those boundaries, the more wild the story can go.

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Space Cowboys

I’m honestly surprised I didn’t stumble upon Cowboy Bebop earlier. It’s got a lotta my favorite things (cool ships, genre blending, a ragtag crew) and it is a maddeningly good show.

It also bears more than a few resemblances to another show about space cowboys that I love: Firefly. Or more Firefly resembles Cowboy Bebop, given that the former show came a few years after Bebop. Now, there’s a wealth of writing to be had about the similarities between the shows. For one, and not just the idea of a crew on a ramshackle ship trying to make ends meet. There’s their setting on, for the most part, the edges of civilization. The civilization present is a mismatch of contemporary cultures; Firefly is a mix of American and Chinese, Bebop a jazzy blend with a little of everything. Aesthetically, both draw on the Western, telling stories about what are inarguably cowboys. Characters too bear more than a passing resemblance to each other; Spike Spiegel and Malcolm Reynolds are both cool gunslingers who give off an aura of being disaffected loners but really have hearts of gold beneath. These may sound like broad strokes individually, but the gestalt of these elements is more than a little suspect (that the makers of Firefly have stayed mum on the topic of Bebop doesn’t help). Again, there’s a lot to unpack here, but it’s not what we’re gonna talk about today.

Rather, let’s focus on how both these shows have one season and a movie, but do totally different things.

This similarity is, at least, wholly coincidental. Firefly was, sadly, canceled early in its run and was clearly intended to last for a few seasons. Bebop tells the story it wants to tell in its 26 episodes and resolves itself. As such, their movies do different things.

Let’s talk about Serenity first, Firefly’s movie. Given the show’s abrupt ending, the film does a lot of work to create a proper resolution and give some closure to the narrative. Serenity succeeds, it brings back these characters for a final hurrah and gives ‘em a big quest. Would it have been better suited to play out over a couple years of television? Certainly. As it is, the film takes elements of the show (River’s past, the mysterious Reavers, Simon and Kaylee) and develops them further. We find out what made River the way she is and the sexual tension between Simon and Kaylee is finally resolved. Serenity provides Firefly with the ending it never got.

Cowboy Bebop, however, decidedly ends. The major plot threads scattered around the show, particularly Spike’s history with the Syndicate, Julia, and Vicious, and Faye’s mysterious past, are wrapped up by the end of the show. Or a lease as wrapped up as they mean to be. Bebop thrives off suggestion rather than explanation and there are a lot of unanswered questions at the end of the final episode, but it is a complete resolution. The show has told the story it wants to tell and it’s done. If you watch the movie looking to to see if Spike and Faye get together or to see the triumphant reunion of Ed and Ein with the rest of the crew, then, well, tough. The movie is essentially a really long episode, which is a lotta fun because, well, extra long episode. But it doesn’t add to the overarching narrative of the show in the way Serenity does. That’s in no small part because Cowboy Bebop doesn’t need any more resolution than it has. To add more to it, to explain away some of what was left hanging, would diminish the show as a complete work.

Every now and then people talk about making a movie based on a tv show. Community had the refrain of Six Seasons and A Movie and everyone and then there’s some fan buzz about making a Chuck movie. But there’s never much question of what those movies would entail. Community wrapped up nicely, do we need to add another chunk of plot? Conversely, bringing the bang back together for one last mission in Chuck would be a lot of fun, but it would by nature have to remove all ambiguity from the show’s ending. And though Firefly and Cowboy Bebop have a lot in common, their different narratives necessitated different sorts of movies. There’s no one-size-fit-all trick to stories, and really, that’s part of the fun.

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