Aug 062015
 

I started watching The Daily Show sometime in 2000, just before the madness that was the Bush-Gore election saga. Jon Stewart’s brand of baffled, snarky liberalism became an essential part of my media diet, helping me cope with a Bush administration that seemed grimly determined to keep America in a perpetual age of war and fear. Stewart was the first media figure of my generation who seemed capable of speaking truth to power without sounding naive or inarticulate. His brilliant writing staff’s mastery of finding just the write video clip to undercut some grandstanding politician presaged the constant fact-checking that now occurs every day on social media. Interviews like the one below with the obnoxious CNBC financial “guru” Jim Cramer perfectly embody Stewart’s fondness for using someone’s own words to expose them as fools and/or hypocrites:

The Daily Show may have lost some of its edge in recent years and Stewart could have done a better job of diversifying both his on-air talent and his guests, but he also introduced us to other incredibly funny and smart people like Stephen Colbert, Larry Wilmore, and John Oliver. Fifty years from now, American satirists and comedians will still be citing Stewart as an influence. I’m excited to see what Trevor Noah will do with the show, but I’m going to sorely miss Jon’s presence on my TiVo.

May 112015
 

Other fans of the books may disagree, but I’m enjoying the liberties that HBO has taken with Game of Thrones this season. Characters and plotlines are beginning to converge in ways that either haven’t yet happened or may never happen in the books. These choices give the show something that has been lacking from the last couple volumes of the series: momentum. In particular, the show has made Stannis Baratheon almost. . .likeable? That may be too strong a word, but he’s far more interesting than his counterpart in the books. The TV version of Dany is also a more intriguing character, possessing a sense of maturity and agency that isn’t found in the pages of George R.R. Martin’s books.

I’m sure the next book will make some equally interesting choices regarding character and plot, but I do hope Martin is watching the show and taking notes on how to keep the audience engaged.

Apr 172015
 

A few pop culture thoughts to end the week:

  • The new teaser for the upcoming Star Wars movie stands up well to repeated viewings. That shot of a Star Destroyer wreck in the desert (apparently not Tatooine, though) looks magnificent. But the teaser also raises many questions. What exactly is this new iteration of the Empire glimpsed in various scenes? Did the Rebels totally screw up their chance at governance? Are Han and Leia still a thing? These are the questions that will keep me awake between now and December.
  • I’ve only seen a couple episodes of the Daredevil series on Netflix, but what I have seen is excellent. The tone is dark but not oppressive, the dialogue is snappy, and the fight scenes are stunning. You should watch it.
Mar 272015
 

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is not sparing in its delivery of jokes. If you glance at your phone while watching an episode, you may miss a half-dozen quips. This Netflix comedy about a young woman starting over in New York after being rescued from a cult isn’t just a joke machine, though. Ellie Kemper is perfectly cast as the naïve but kind-hearted Kimmy and the writers surround her with other endearing outsiders, including a struggling gay actor and a burnt-out landlady.

The show is also a treat for the eyes. New York is presented in kaleidoscopic color, in stark contrast to the muddy-hued flashbacks to Kimmy’s time in the cult’s bunker. Even Kimmy’s outfits are clever visual plays on her surroundings. There’s so much going on in the first season that it demands a second viewing. And if you haven’t seen it yet, it’s perfect binge material for a rainy weekend.

 

Mar 242015
 

The 90s are coming back in a big way. A Clinton will soon be running for President. My favorite gaming genre is enjoying a resurgence in popularity. And most importantly, The X-Files is returning! Fox announced today that the paranormal drama will be revived as a limited 6-episode series that will feature both David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson reprising their roles as Mulder and Scully. No word yet on whether The Lone Gunmen will make an appearance.

As I’ve mentioned previously, I was a big fan of the show back in the day, so this news is terribly exciting for me. Six episodes seems like an ideal vehicle for a revival. It should allow for enough time to tell a few good stories without getting bogged down in ponderous mythology. If the writing is good and attracts an audience, perhaps we’ll get another season. And if not, even mediocre X-Files is better than nothing.

All I need now from this wave of 90s nostalgia is another Massive Attack album.

Dec 232014
 

It’s once again time for me to share my unsolicited opinions on the pop culture that brought a smile to my face over the past year. I’ll start with television, which is fast becoming my preferred medium for complex storytelling.

The sheer quantity of TV worth watching this year left me and my TiVo feeling a little overwhelmed. Personal favorites like Game of Thrones and The Americans continued to be compelling (that GoT episode depicting a particularly cinematic battle on the Wall is better than anything Peter Jackson has done with the entirety of the ill-conceived Hobbit trilogy) while Fargo completely surprised me with a series that outshines the original Coen brothers’ movie in terms of character and plot.

In any other year, True Detective would have been my favorite show of the year. It generously borrows from the literary traditions of noir and Southern Gothic, but the combined talents of Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey give heft to the pulpy material. The show establishes a foreboding sense of dread that never lifts (despite the rather pat ending). I’m rewatching the series now and I’m still struck by the quality of the writing and the assured direction.

But this was also the year of The Knick, a show that revitalized the medical drama by sending it into the past. And I loved every blood-soaked minute of it. This show has it all: an impressively mustachioed Clive Owen playing an arrogant surgeon with a cocaine habit, Andre Holland as an African-American surgeon who can barely tolerate the casual and vicious racism surrounding him, gory surgical procedures, shocking violence, forbidden sex, nuanced supporting characters, and a Cliff Martinez electronic score that captures the chaotic dawn of the 20th century in New York City. It wasn’t like anything else on television, an impressive feat given the embarrassment of riches in 2014.

Oct 212014
 

I don’t subscribe to Cinemax, but that hasn’t stopped The Knick from becoming one of my favorite new shows of the year. The Knick is a medical drama set in a struggling New York hospital at the dawn of the twentieth century, just as medicine (and surgery in particular) is leaving behind its grisly sawbones era and entering an age of innovation and revolution. The show has earned a reputation for its depictions of gory and decidedly unsanitary surgical procedures, but the amazing cast is the real reason to watch. Clive Owen is tone-perfect as an arrogant yet brilliant chief surgeon who embodies both the best and worst tendencies of his time. He spends coke-fuelled weekends in his lab devising new surgical procedures and instruments, yet he is openly hostile to the first African American surgeon to join the hospital staff (played with seething intelligence by Andre Holland).

Steven Soderbergh’s direction infuses every episode with a kinetic energy that is bathed in both harsh light and soft shadow. It’s probably one of the most meticulously composed shows since Breaking Bad. And Cliff Martinez provides an electronic score that should seem anachronistic but somehow fits with the show’s theme of messy, halting progression. The Knick was renewed for a second season before it even aired, so I’m looking forward to seeing how the show and its characters evolve. It may even persuade me to subscribe to Cinemax.

Sep 032014
 

It should surprise absolutely nobody that I was a hardcore fan of The X-Files back in the day. How hardcore? I missed an episode during the second season and I pleaded on an X-Files message board for someone to send me a tape of the show. A kindred soul actually sent me a tape, which was no small achievement in the early days of the commercial Internet. But aside from message boards and newsgroups, I didn’t have many opportunities to discuss the show with other fans.

If only Kumail Nanjiani’s new The X-Files Files podcast had existed in the heyday of my own fandom. Nanjiani is a very funny comedian and actor who is even more of hardcore fan than me. The conceit of the podcast is pretty simple: Nanjiani and a guest discuss a select episode or two of the show. The discussions can be freewheeling, but they are rooted in Nanjiani’s deep love of The X-Files. It’s a great way to revisit the show or get introduced to it. I’ve been watching episodes from the first season so that I can follow along with the podcast and it’s fun to see how quickly the show finds its tone. Although it doesn’t get mentioned much today, The X-Files blazed a trail for today’s complex TV dramas.

Let’s just not discuss the travesty that the final three seasons.

May 152014
 

Network television still manages to occasionally surprise me. NBC recently announced that it picked up Constantine, a series based on the rather dark Hellblazer comic. The story focuses on John Constantine, a demon hunter and exorcist who is not a terribly happy person. Will it be any good? I’m skeptical, but at least they hired a proper British bloke to play the lead, so it should be at least more watchable than that awful Keanu Reeves movie from several years ago. Perhaps NBC can do the same thing here that they did with Hannibal: create a low-rated series that has a devoted fanbase large enough to keep it alive. Again, doubtful, but I’ll likely be watching in the fall.

The trailer doesn’t look terrible, for what it’s worth.

Apr 252014
 

Joel Hodgson, creator of the original Mystery Science Theater 3000, revealed that he may revive the series online sometime in the not-so-distant future. For us long-suffering MSTies, this is promising news. MST3K could find great success as a streaming series and I would gladly contribute to a related Kickstarter. I get a little giddy just thinking about all the riffing possibilities that our hyperactive 21st century pop culture would provide for a series reboot. And the movies! If Hodgson could get the rights to something truly awful like The Happening, we may witness true brilliance unfold before us.