Black Mirror (Season 2)

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This second season of Black Mirror has a galaxy of interesting ideas, but somehow does less well on the follow-through.

The second season follows the first in taking boilerplate speculative what-if? scenarios and turning them into macabre, character-focused stories. Overall, however, I feel that the episodes of the second season generally share a tendency to aim too high and then fall somewhat short providing satisfying narrative closure.

The first episode, Be Right Back, touches on a very disquieting and relatable conceit – what if you could create robotic simulacra of a lost loved one from fragments of their social media existences? The episode starts out strong, with well-played emotional overtones that convincingly explain the protagonist’s succumbing to the temptation of bringing back her deceased husband. The resulting reunion is as bittersweet as it is creepy, and is very well done. But as the episode wears on, it’s not clear that it knows how to develop the ramifications of the premise to compelling conclusions, fixating on the protagonist’s emotional rejection of the simulacrum due to her realisation that it can never truly replace her husband, which, I think, is a less interesting conceit than if the protagonist were to have accepted that fact – and perhaps ask the more pertinent question of whether the simulacrum could one day be considered a real, distinct person. There is also no real resolution, or neat round-up, only a coda that takes place a few years later, that doesn’t wrap the episode up thematically in any coherent (to me) way.

The second, White Bear, is chilling, weird and terrifying from start to finish, but is predicated on a twist that, while truly unexpected, turns the episode into something on another level that is so extreme in its implications as to be unbelievable. A woman who doesn’t remember who she is is forced on the run from some maniacal murderers, constantly being filmed by hordes of silent, smartphone-brandishing zombies. It mixes and subverts many horror and apocalyptic tropes in a very smart way, and turns into a meditation on tit-for-tat vengeance as a form of participative mass entertainment. But it makes certain assumptions about contemporary human societies and the ways in which they deal with these things that don’t sit well with me somehow. In what society would carefully staged vigilantism turn into an outlet for popular entertainment, while preserving contemporary received values of justice and due process? I do understand that these scenarios are meant to be speculative and push the boundaries to present a thematic point, but my preference is for even such societies to have a greater amount of self-consistency.

The last, The Waldo Moment, is probably my least favorite for similar reasons as the second – an irreverent, vulgarity-spewing virtual character runs for political office and gets voted into power by a disgruntled electorate, tired of conventional politics. While some would call it chillingly prophetic of Donald Trump’s rise, this episode doesn’t, in my mind, really convincingly show how it happened, even as it plays off the Jekyll-and-Hyde contrast between the quiet, introspective voice of Waldo and his Waldo-esque stage persona, which takes a life of its own. The episode’s premise strains credulity as Waldo becomes an international revolution, transcending cultures and languages. The annoying coda shows a dystopian future in which the homeless protagonist ekes out a meager existence in a world where Waldo has become the virtual avatar of the powers that be, which is the very definition of stretching a premise far beyond its breaking point.

The 2014 bonus White Christmas episode, which I will take as part of this season, is basically a complex and convoluted mishmash of many different sf ideas into a single three-parter mega-episode that, while interesting, is too convoluted to have that sense of single-issue coherence that other Black Mirror episodes have. But it is probably still the best and most complete of the episodes insofar as it expertly wends together its disparate technological, sociological and psychological strands to a fitting and utterly chilling finish.

I give this season: 3.5 out of 5 blue bears

Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Season 1)

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Brooklyn Nine-Nine is one of those shows I thought I’d never watch, on account of its sitcom nature and workplace-focused premise. But man, if this isn’t one of the funniest and best-written comedies I’ve watched since Arrested Development.

B99, as we’ll call it, focuses on the wacky hijinks of a crew of detectives in the fictional 99th Precinct of the NYPD. More workplace sitcom than police procedural, the antics of the nine-nine extend beyond their putative case-closing and into their personal lives and workplace relationships.

There are the Precinct’s star detectives, the brilliant but utterly irreverent Jake Peralta and the studious teacher’s pet Amy Santiago, the supporting cast – Terry Crews in a frequently hilarious turn as gentle giant Terry Jeffords, Andre Braugher as the unflappable Captain Holt, Joe Lo Truglio as the enthusiastic but bumbling Charles Boyle, Stephanie Beatriz as the brooding and tough Rosa Diaz, and Chelsea Peretti as the spacey civilian administrator Gina Linetti.

Each has their own quirks and stereotypical behaviors, and perhaps at first the writers lay it on pretty thick to establish them – and it’s for this reason that I found the first few episodes only moderate at best. But the season improves rapidly, with the development of interesting dynamics among the team, playing off their various idiosyncrasies but in a way that effectively humanises them more, and binds them together as a team. With few exceptions, they transcend their types during strategic times for both comic and emotional effect – Jake can be serious when he needs to, and the usually stoic Captain Holt has his moments of pure hilarity – particular when he declaims something pompous with a his over-articulate deadpan manner.

One thing I like about the series is also just how effortlessly progressive it is – half the characters are people of color, the women are just as strong – if not stronger – than the men, and the Captain of the outfit is a gay black man whose homosexuality and color are just two of the many facets of who he is, rather than dominating his characterization for either thematic or emotional effect.  This is the best type of progressivism – just making a quality show free of either negative or positive stereotypes – and letting the characters be who they are beyond their superficial attributes.

Although, if one wanted to critique, the show isn’t perfect in that regard. It is generally quite good natured except when it comes to detectives Scully and Hitchcock, two old white detectives who are basically lazy and incompetent and who exist as the two punching bags for everyone on the show to direct their scorn against – and they really are punching bags, with the least development of all the characters. Scully in particular gets laughs from his girth and disgusting food habits, and Hitchcock just comes across as intrusive and creepy. Both get their share of laughs, but in a rather mean-spirited way.

And of course, despite the diversity of the cast, the only Asian American character – and I mean the only one, not primary, secondary, supporting, or guest character, that ever appears on the show is some hacker guy who shows up for about five minutes of screentime and sort of becomes the Precinct’s IT expert, and – as far as I can tell – is never seen again.

Having said that, I’m not someone who will critique B99 for what it fails to do – because it gets a lot of things right. And even if you don’t buy its progressive outlook, the fact that it handles it so gracefully means that it is decidedly apolitical – it’s just about a bunch of cops who try to do right by themselves and by society. Perhaps the worst thing that can be said about it is that it kind of glosses over the NYPD’s checkered record as a crimefighting organisation and paints it in pastel colors when the reality is probably quite far from its idyllic picture. But taken as a source of entertainment, it is really just an extremely well-written and frequently hilarious show.

I give this: 4.5 out of 5 medals of valor

Black Mirror (Season 1)

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This has been a very long time coming.

Black Mirror‘s five-minutes-into-the-future style of cautionary, slightly paranoid speculative fiction is nothing new in principle, but it does make the sub-genre accessible and compelling for wide audiences.

Season 1 gives us a good introduction into the series’ anthology style. Here are three longform episodes, all with different premises, characters, and timelines, with the only common strand being that they are all slightly macabre commentaries on the social or psychological impacts of future technologies or societal arrangements.

The first episode, The National Anthem, explores the lurid potential of social media to mislead, confuse, and distract national attention away from issues of importance, and does so through a truly morbid premise – a hostage situation that forces a sitting prime minister to undertake something truly horrifying in the midst of the public eye. Gross, lurid and disturbing? Yes – but its sheer visceral impact hammers the point home, and in a Trumpian age, its message is more prophetic than ever.

The second one and my personal favorite, Fifteen Million Merits, is a surreal and hyperrealist depiction of a future society hooked on meaningless labor, their every action a commercial transaction, whose only repast is brainless entertainment of the sensory-overload variety, and their only hope of escaping this state of affairs is to audition in a American Idol-esque talent show and become a star in the process. I like this one in particular because of its cheeky subversion of boy-meets-girl tropes and the fact that it is just a satire of existing capitalist systems. It is, in fact, a distillation of the essential traits of capitalist society from a critical theory perspective – populace chained to wage-based labor, all aspects of life transactional, glued to the television screen as a distraction to their true state of affairs, with the hope of escape being to transcend into becoming yet another cog in the machine – through becoming a part of the endlessly-distracting mass-entertainment regime. In the end, even our protagonist, who has seen through this state of affairs, becomes an Alex Jones type conspiracy theorist talk-show head on television, channeling his revolutionary fervor into yet another tool for the state to distract its populace through the vicarious catharsis of mass entertainment.

The last one, The Entire History of You, is a send up of the sousveillance state, hinging on the social costs of being able to record everything you experience and the things it might do to your psyche. This is a more conventional cautionary-sf sort of story because it relies on a macguffin technology to make it work. This kind of story is a bit more iffy to me because it just assumes the ubiquity of a technological concept in their future society without questioning if people would choose to adopt that technology in that manner in the first place. Luckily, in this episode, I can kind of see where the appeal of such a technology could come from, but the episode itself is a fifty minute long account of a man slowly spiralling into self-destruction, enabled by technology, and is honestly harrowing to watch.

All told, however, Black Mirror‘s first season knows what it wants to achieve and goes about doing so in a brave and self-confident manner, without pandering too much to public stereotypes about alarmist science fiction. That, in our mass-entertainment age, is achievement enough.

I give this show: 4.5 out of 5 TV-stars

Wonder Woman

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Wonder Woman mostly succeeds in creating a compelling origin narrative of one of the DC Cinematic Universe’s most promising superhero characters, even as it is weighed down in its final act by the appearance of a bombastic villain and some dubious plot choices.

I have to say that the inherent premise of Wonder Woman seems a little silly from the outset. An island of Hellenistic superhuman female warriors sounds like some sort of adolescent male fantasy, treating the prospect of empowered woman warriors as an exoticised “other” straight out of outlandish Greek legend. And how does it fit into the cosmology of the greater DC universe, and how Gotham City and Superman fit into it?

Also – how old is Diana anyway? Thousands of years old? Is that why she knows hundreds of languages? How long have the Amazons been hiding in their island, and are they all immortal or something?

But anyway, if we take all that at face value, Wonder Woman does a creditable job (as much of live action can) of making us suspend our disbelief. Much of it comes from the film’s sense of humanity, established in the first half hour or so of the movie, which portrays the society of the Amazons in grounded fashion, centered around the figure of young Diana as she goes about her business and secretly trains to become a strong warrior like her elders.

As the movie goes on, it deftly avoids a lot of the tired tropes that one might expect govern the plot beats of this kind of origin story. For example, Diana’s departure from her cloistered existence is not met with anger and resistance from her mother, but instead with rueful and loving acceptance. The gendered jokes and sexual hangups are kept to a minimum, and do not hinge on Diana being a complete neophyte about sex and gendered relations. Diana is strong, but also embracing of her femininity in a way that doesn’t seem exploitative.

As a superhero, Diana’s character narrative centers around the tension between her power and her confident naïveté over the affairs of the greater world. Part of her growth in character is about having her idealism punctured by the horrors of World War I, but reforming her sense of self through her sense of compassion. The film also plays up Diana’s fish-out-of-water nature in the ways you’d expect, but she manages to overcome that and succeed in her endeavors through a combination of dogged optimism and steely courage – refreshing in its earnestness and vigor.

In addition, Steve Trevor is a good kind of “superhero girlfriend” character – he exists, has things of his own that need doing, and is prepared to sacrifice himself for it. He’s a character independent of Diana, even as he serves to provide an emotional anchor for Diana’s character development.

That said, I wasn’t impressed with the movie ultimately panned out in the third act. Diana’s journey has thus far involved her quest to hunt down and kill the god of war, Ares – whom she thought was responsible for the evil in men’s hearts, whose influence led to war ad conflict. Diana’s resolve to kill Ares is therefore rooted in her optimistic belief in the intrinsic goodness of people. But when she cuts down who she thought was Ares, and the war continues to go on, she realises that her conception of good and evil is hopelessly naive.

The film, till that point, was doing a creditable job at developing Diana to the point where she needed to have that realisation. At that point, Ares was just a bogeyman to focus her energies – and I really thought that the film would go ahead and let Ares remain just that – a convenient moral fiction. But the film does reveal that Ares exists, and I wish it hadn’t. Ares’ reveal is flawed in many respects – it brings back the kooky mythological part of the franchise that could have been glossed over, Ares himself doesn’t look the part in the least (one of the lamest looking and sounding supervillains played straight I’ve come across), and Ares’ motives are your typical nonsensical supervillain shtick.

I guess to some extent it might have been important so that the film could have a climactic showdown with a powerful nemesis – sort of how Obadiah Stane ended up being the villain in the first Iron Man – but I thought that if the film had had more guts, it would have just gone ahead and revealed that Wonder Woman’s worldview was wrong and she was just another gifted metahuman who could come into her own because of what she’d learnt about herself in her experiences in the wider world, and not because she’s some ordained demigod. I suppose the challenge there would have been how to send off the film on a high note – although I’m sure there would’ve been other ways to do so.

I give this film: 4 out of 5 lassoes of truth

Dishonored 2

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In the trifecta of virtues that all story-driven video games should possess, Dishonored 2 achieves a solid 2 out of 3.

Much like its predecessor, Dishonored 2 has a simple conceit – sneak, slink, or fight your way (with or without creepy magical powers) through non-linear environments to dispatch the enemies that have taken everything from you in a variety of ways, from merciful to cruel.

Gameplay is the first virtue in which the game excels. Dishonored 2 presents the player with a painstakingly crafted environment that allows them ample opportunities to play however they want. The game affords you with a multitude of powers which you can combine to dispatch enemies in a myriad of creative ways. Within the confines of the level, you are given the chance to use environments to your advantage, find nooks and crannies to gain an advantage over enemies, and search for runes that afford you more powers.

The game succeeds in making exploration enjoyable, because it rewards it richly, with runes and bonecharms that augment your abilities. Dishonored 2 understands that exploration shouldn’t just be about terrain traversal. The pleasures of exploration in Dishonored 2 lie in the fact that it is a cognitive puzzle to be solved, and the richest rewards lie in the application of game systems to reach a hard-to-locate place.

It doesn’t hurt that the game’s environment, setting and art direction are top-notch. Karnaca, a city wracked by the neglect of its ruler, swarming with bloodflies, and yet peeking through with shards of its former elegance, is a worthy successor to the brooding Dunwall of the first game. The world of Dishonored is one of the more interesting settings I’ve come across in fantasy, an original blend of gothic and steampunk vibes, a world with deep history and mystique. Soaring, impossible mountains shepard gale-force winds that howl through the city’s Dust district, blinding the player with occassion in a torrent of sand. Whales roam the vast ocean, harvested for their blubber that serves as the fuel that powers the entire civilisation, and have a mysterious connection to a place called the Void, where strange and powerful gods lurk.

That said, one aspect in which the game doesn’t do so well is in giving the cities life through populating them with human inhabitants. The grand environmental drapery is all well and good, but Dishonored 2 seems to have neglected in its character department. All around the levels the same character models and canned dialogue are reused. The guards all look identical – blue-suited, troglodyte-like with brutish faces and huge hands, either reciting bawdy verse or talking about their families in a transparent attempt to get the player to realise that they’re not faceless gooks, which loses its lustre after the 100th time some random guard spits out the same story. Characters provide some dressing to the gorgeous environments, but most of the time the city feels empty except for the guards, making levels feel like what they are – game levels with a flaking coat of verisimilitudinous paint.

And guess where that leads us? Dishonored 2’s most glaring flaw is in its insipid narrative, flat characters, and terrible writing. It is in the writing that Dishonored 2 reveals its setting and story as nothing but a convenient vehicle for its gameplay intentions. In a sense, it’s hard to fault the writing for being so – convenient, for want of a word. True to the point of the game, the story needs to always contrive a way for the protagonist to make a merciful choice or to make the straightforward, violent one. But the scenarios that the writers have come up with border on the fantastical in how convenient they seem – there is always some badly-hidden clue that leads to your enemy’s downfall somewhere, some achilles’ heel that will lead to their downfall. There is no added challenge in being “good”, making your choices just about your “playstyle” – and there is no uncertainty in deciding to play good guy or bad because the payoffs are so straightforward and predictable. The actions that contribute to either outcome are clear as crystal. The Witcher, this game is not. Although I think that to make your choices meaningful, it is usually a bad idea for the impact of your actions to be telegraphed to you so obviously.

And the game keeps doing that – it keeps shoving morality in your face, despite not making you think about how to be moral. All the characters keep questioning if you will do the easy thing or the good thing. It’s grating because it is not a question of morality but playstyle – to play a certain way – there is no connection to the character that makes the player want to inhabit that character’s headspace and choose how they would have chosen under the consequences. Instead, it’s all about playing the “low chaos” route. The characters – Corvo, Emily, etc – have no interiority. They are just platitude spouting engines of either justice or revenge.

And the game doesn’t respond to your actions – the bad guys never regroup, never learn –  even as you kill or dispatch them one by one, the ringleaders of the conspiracy never take any action, and every guard is still as chill as ever as you slowly take out section after section. The world is static – it exists only for player utility. It is a gamespace more than a lived-in place, a set dressing decorated handsomely but ultimately falling somewhat flat in its evocative powers.

In the end, Dishonored 2 is a game that depends on its great atmosphere but thin story to give it a thin raison d’etre for its great gameplay. It doesn’t have anything much to say about anything, its characters are not relatable, and its narrative beats are metronomic – you plod through missions to the inevitable, predictable finish. But heck if it isn’t satisfying to link three goons together and fell them all with a single sleep dart.

I give this game: 4 out of 5 black bonecharms

The Sisters Brothers

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Strange, hilarious at times, mournful at others, fatalistic, laced with violence and peppered with symbolism, The Sisters Brothers is a taut picaresque Western that reads like the script of a Coen brothers movie.

It’s about two brothers, hired killers Eli and Charlie Sisters, and the tale of their travels in Gold-Rush era California to find and end the life of a man, upon orders of their boss. But amidst this, Eli Sisters, who has long questioned if he is of the right temperament for this life, starts to try to dig himself and his brother out of the rut of hired killing that has been their lifeblood for years.

Eli is a great narrative figure – comical but somewhat relatable in his childlike earnestness, even as we remain aware that he is, after everything is said and done, still a killer. The gentler counterweight to his psychotic, trigger-happy brother, Eli spins his tale with what can only be described as a kind of endearing honesty, detailing his somewhat faltering and pathetic attempts at self-improvement while being stymied by the ides of fate, the judging eye of society, and the actions of his boorish, more violent brother. Eli’s earnestness provides the novel with its comic sensibility – his attempts at finding a love interest, his short-lived determination to lose weight, his wonderment at discovering the restorative properties of regular toothbrushing – all told in that incongruously formal, polite prose that for some reason characterizes the dialogue of the heroes and villains of every Hollywood-era Western.

But the comedy is tightly intertwined with the casual violence and thuggery that characterizes DeWitt’s vision of the Wild, Wild West – more akin to the pop-culture pastiches of the time, all dusty towns and pistol duels and testy barmaids, with its cavalier attitude to life and death out in the open road – than to sober historical portrayals. For all his attempts at self-improvement, Eli is always the tag-along to his brother, having little choice but to play supporting character to his brother as he intimidates, robs and shoots his way across the landscape in fulfillment of his baser inclinations.

This comes to a head when the brothers finally track down their quarry – a pioneering, industrious man with a ridiculous life story named Herman Kermit Warm, who has recently discovered a chemical that can easily reveal the location of the bountiful gold in Californian riverbeds. Eli thinks of this as a prime opportunity to abandon their life of killing, and, with much difficulty, convinces his brother to band together with Warm instead of killing him on the orders of their master. But, fittingly with the theme of dashed hopes of gold prospectors in the Western frontier, their plan doesn’t work out quite as they imagined, and Eli’s aspirations evaporate in much the same way as they started – in the violence that seems almost like the fate to which they are consigned.

The story ends on a cathartic note even as its climax is consummated in violence, a synthesis of Eli’s desire to abandon violence even as he searches for a better life. He is an almost quixotic character, an optimist who somehow retains his earnestness even as he is dealt blow after blow in life, sometimes through no fault of his own. Funnily enough, he seems to be his own Sancho Panza – he has enough self-awareness to be aware, to some degree, of his lot in life.

The Sisters Brothers offers Eli no riches for his deeds, but somewhat karmically, gives him the essence of what he claims to desire – a life outside of violence – although not exactly on the terms he had been so assiduously working for. In that sense, The Sisters Brothers can be viewed, albeit in a very twisted way, as a sort of karmic morality tale, one edged in a cinematic, almost stylised Tarantino-esque violence, tipped with the hard-edged justice of the Wild West.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 notebooks