Archer (Season #4)

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Another season passes and still Archer remains the same.

To be fair, this season does have its share of fun episodes, like the Bob’s Burgers crossover by dint of Archer and Bob sharing the same, versatile voice actor (H Jon Benjamin), or the episode featuring a epithet-spewing celebrity chef in the style of American-TV Gordon Ramsay but voiced by Anthony Bourdain (RIP). But the Archer formula continues to bear fruit, churning out episode after episode where the characters rely on well-established patterns of dialogue, action and mutual abuse. One might even admire the series for maintaining such a consistent level of quality for four seasons – in the unflagging sharpness of its writing and the tautness and brazen misantrophism of its storytelling.

Over the past couple of seasons, though, the penultimate and last episodes usually culminate in a slightly bigger and more serious saga that does see Archer acting in a way that isn’t selfish or narcissistic for once – but it doesn’t last – hes’ back to his old self at the start of the next season.

By its 4th season, Archer has clearly built a pretty solid niche in television as that show that never fails to deliver, as long as what is delivered is what is desired. Personally, I find it very tolerable watching as long as I don’t expect too much from it.

I give this: 3.5 out of 5 hydrogen bombs

 

 

 

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Bojack Horseman (Season #3)

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Season 3 of Bojack Horseman continues to confidently take the series into ever greater depths of emotional pathos, whilst maintaining, with admirable originality, its frenetic, often brilliantly absurdist humor.

By Season 3, we already know Bojack for what he is – a selfish narcissist, and an inveterate seeker of validation that forever eludes him because ultimately, he can never be satisfied. Career-wise, he’s never been better – he’s had a career-defining role and an Oscar nomination in the bag.

But, as expected, he’s still dissatisfied, and that dissatisfaction leads him to strike out and act in ways that cause immense, and at times irreversible, hurt to the people around him. And yet we still like and root for him, because there is something so human, so relatable in his canny self-awareness of his shortcomings.

In Season 3, we find out that Bojack, hitherto known for its pitch-dark bouts of existential despair and its sophomoric animal-pun humour, is also capable of moments of beauty. Episode 4, Fish Out of Water, rightly deserves its reputation as being one of the most richly imaginative episodes of an American animated TV sitcom in the recent past, with its wordless, choreographed adventure through an underwater city, giving us a glimpse of the alternate, animal-dominated universe that we had hitherto thought of as part of the joke.

And Bojack is also capable of moments of resoundingly human pathos – not the choking despair of seeing Bojack fail at being a decent person time and again, but of a dramatic culmination of the tragic story arc of another (in “That’s Too Much, Man!”), a tragedy for which Bojack is only, this time, partially responsible.

As always, Bojack-watching is an exercise in catharsis, and sometimes levity can modulate our emotional responses to what is often an utterly depressing shitshow. The show intersperses that with lighter elements from other story arcs, and . In particular, Todd’s misadventures starting his Uber-mocking Cabracadabra business can always be relied on for a dose of delightful absurdity and satire, although in this season he seems to be grappling with problems of his own – namely, his personal struggle coming out as an asexual, an arc that was greeted with some minor acclaim from that community upon the season’s debut.

In all, probably the best Bojack season yet. I look forward to watching the next season with a kind of anticipatory trepidation, to find out how else Bojack can ruin his life.

I give this: 4.5 out of 5 ‘Blarn’ name-tags

The Good Place (Season #2)

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***SEASON 1 SPOILERS.***

Season 2 of The Good Place takes the series into a higher plane of thematic inquiry – no mean feat when following the footsteps of the first.

Season 1 saw Eleanor Shellstrop try oh-so-hard to be good in order to earn her spot in the Good Place. Helped by would-be paragons of virtue, Chidi and Tahani, she genuinely improved – but at the end of the season, it was all revealed to be a sham. The Good Place was the Bad Place, and its raison d’etre was to pilot a whole new form of eternal torment – Sartre’s conception of hell as other people.

For a long time, Season 1’s episodes had to contend with the fact that instrumental morality – i.e. acting good to get into heaven – was an incomplete kind of goodness; a conditional virtue that was only the means to a self-serving end. When Eleanor finally pierces the veil of that illusion, therefore, there was a kind of unsurprising note to it in the midst of the audience shock. The logic of redemption in this ostensibly perfect afterlife couldn’t fly, therefore the only conclusion was that the Good Place wasn’t really what it was cracked up to be.

The second season deepens the show’s inquiry about what it means to be good – and it’s not as simple as doing good deeds, because, as shown in the first season, good deeds may be motivated by corrupt intentions, which inherently cheapen the exercise of them. The show needs a higher reason for why be good – one that is independent of expectation of reward, or fear of punishment.

At first, the second season seems like a rinse and repeat of the first – as we see Michael resetting the Good Place hundreds of times, wiping the memories of our four human protagonists each time as he tries to make his psychological torture simulator work. Eleanor keeps trying to be good; she keeps figuring it out – and Michael keeps having to try again. Soon, Michael realises his failures will earn him retirement at the hands of his unimpressed demon boss, and he hatches a plan to cooperate with the four humans to somehow find a way to escape to the only place there is to go – the Real Good Place.

What starts at first as a kind of quid pro quo arrangement deepens across the length of the season as Michael learns how to be more human, and the humans themselves grow closer to each other and to Michael, united in singular purpose to escape to the Good Place. And that’s the key, really, to how they become the better people that they need to be to get there. They become motivated to do better because they have awakened an innate desire to treat those close to them with dignity, and become a team.

Eventually, through some means, they escape through the Bad Place into a limbo area where the humans appeal to a Judge (played fulsomely by Maya Rudolph) to be let into the real Good Place. The Judge gives them somewhat superficial trials to ascertain if they truly have risen above the traits that sent them to the Bad Place in the first place. Only Eleanor (surprise!) passes. Yet, she stands in solidarity with her friends and opts not to go to the Good Place without them. Before the Judge can send them on their way, though, Michael arrives and pleads for a final intercession – to allow the humans to be tested in a way that can prove they are capable of becoming better people without being motivated by expectation of reward. The Judge agrees, and the humans are returned to the real world, memories wiped, where the accidents that would have killed them were averted, to see if they will actually improve as people without the knowledge of the afterlife.

The way the series comes full circle again to focus on this notion of goodness without reward as being a function of our innate desire to treat each other with respect, and basing the entire premise of the show on the bonds that its characters form with each other to that end, is elegantly and beautifully constructed. Not only is it an uplifting moral message, it gives the show its sheer humanity – as the characters try to become better by deeds, for an end, they get better as people by awakening their innate capacity for empathy and friendship. And of all the characters, it is Eleanor who understands this the best – precisely because her great sin was her former selfishness and lack of regard for others, borne out of abandonment issues as a child. She gets what needs to be done by remembering who she once was, and getting away from that.

By contrast, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason don’t quite have as perfectly formed moral arcs – they are still, actually, the same people they were, just more cognisant of their situation. Chidi is still plagued by crippling, destructive indecisiveness, Tahani still conceited, and Jason still brainlessly, childishly amoral. One wonders how, or if, they will figure out how to be better in the simulated (?) confines of the real world in Season 3. If there ever was a better setup for a tremendously satisfying third season, I haven’t come across it.

I give this: 4.5 out of 5 burritos

 

 

 

Aggretsuko (Season #1)

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A wonderfully fleshed-out foray into the world of Sanrio’s most relatable character.

A while back, Sanrio, through an English-language campaign, brought Aggretsuko to the attention of the Anglophone world. Everyone went gaga over the cutely relatable red panda who regularly dealt with the ennui and frustrations of her deskbound existence by belting out heavy metal ballads during solo karaoke singing sessions.

Although Retsuko’s daily tribulations were chronicled in a long series of animated shorts, their reach was limited as they were never (to my knowledge) actually released in English. They were also standalone, independently-existing vignettes that lightheartedly painted her character in broad strokes but never got down to interrogating her motivations.

This new Netflix production offers a much more narratively coherent view of Retsuko and her colleagues, fleshing them out much more fully as characters and introducing a modicum of tension into what were previously just played for humor. For example, Retsuko’s boss, Ton-bucho (Pork-section chief) is no longer portrayed merely as a slightly crass and sexist Japanese boss stereotype but as a genuinely troubling workplace harasser who might have been moulded into what he is today by a lifetime of bad examples.

Retsuko herself is also a lot more nuanced – her struggles come from an actual place of ennui and disappointment that life hasn’t turned out the way she expected, and aren’t just played for laughs. And it’s not just Retsuko – even her more put-together yoga friends, Washimi and Gori, who outwardly appear to be the epitome of successful corporate women, have their own insecurities and whimsies, though certainly they have the added perspective of age and status.

In the episodic series, Retsuko’s rage-fueled karaoke sessions were punchlines. In the Netflix series, they’re part of her coping mechanism, her source of solace, and emblematic of her isolated existence. But they’re also part of her authentic self, and consequently, when she does make friends, she starts to reveal that self to them, turning it from coping mechanism to source of strength.

Sure, the animation may be crude, the episode lengths short, and some of the secondary characters little more than rank stereotypes, but Aggretsuko really is a shockingly adult and relatable gem that perfectly captures the lived experiences of a generation of deskbound millennials.

I given this: 4 out of 5 tightly-sealed jars

The Good Place (Season #1)

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***This has big spoilers.***

The Good Place is a crafty, smartly-written, and genuinely thought-provoking delight of a show.

Created by Brooklyn Nine Nine co-creator Michael Schur, The Good Place shares many of the virtues of that show – its hilarious and whip-smart writing, larger-than-life yet relatable characters, and its underlying humanity. But The Good Place goes a bit further and layers on a cohesive narrative arc that bookends the first season in a satisfying yet unexpected way, one that provides real payoffs and generates strong incentives to keep watching episode after episode.

It’s a high-concept premise for a sitcom – the protagonist, Eleanor Shellstrop, dies and gets admitted into a pastelly paradise for people who’ve done many good deeds throughout their lives, called the Good Place. However, she realises from the start that she doesn’t belong there, by dint of her being a selfish ass in her previous life. She spills her secret to her assigned soulmate Chidi, a professor of ethics and moral philosophy, and asks him to teach her how to be a better person so that she can earn her place in paradise, and avoid going to the Bad Place, and its penchant for eternal torture.

But it’s not so much that Chidi educates Eleanor to be a better person through academic study, although it helps her formalise these ethical concepts belying her actions. Eleanor’s growth is a function of her learning how to make genuine human connections, and through that process, learning how to care for others as much as herself. But it isn’t just about her, of course. The rest of the show’s big four Good Place inhabitants – the party-throwing socialite Tahani, the failed rapper Jason (also “mistakenly” sent to the Good Place), and Chidi himself – are also characters that change and evolve – both in the way they see themselves as well as the ways in which we see them – across the course of the show.

And that is where the show really takes off. In a sense, there was always something slightly off about how the Good Place was portrayed – an idyllic township full of virtuous people, all of whom are assigned soulmates, their spiritual resumes bursting with the quantified records of the good deeds they did in their previous lives. But the ostensibly “good” characters – Tahani and Chidi – are not quite as angelic in their outlooks as they would first appear. And the Good Place is an elitist Joneses town admitting only the “top-scorers” while the rest of humanity burns in eternal torment.

At first, watching the show, one might take this as a sign of slightly sloppy writing – portraying the Good Place as just some satirical version of heaven for people whose good deeds are the only currency for admission – a consequentialist paradise for the moral elite. But as the show wears on, the show takes on a different bent – the concept of the Good Place is interrogated more and more. This comes to a head in a penultimate episode where Eleanor is trying to figure out how to earn her place in the Good Place by doing good deeds left and right to increase her karma score – but finding out that it doesn’t matter, because her motivations for these deeds are made inherently with self-preservation in mind. So the Good Place is more of a Kantian interpretation of morality – where intentions matter just as much as the results of those actions.

And then the final episode blows open the entire series by revealing that the Good Place is actually the Bad Place – a place designed to make four very different people torture each other via taking advantage of each of the things that makes them the most upset or stressed, and playing these quirks off each other for eternity. And the entire premise of the Good Place is revealed for what it actually is – a fake, self-contradictory version of ethical paradise – the failures of which are not a function of sloppy writing but clues that are used by Eleanor to figure everything out. And we find out that Chidi and Tahani are also in this pickle because ethical behavior is not just in actions or intentions, but both – Tahani’s actions were virtuous but coming from a desire to one-up her sister, and Chidi’s intentions were virtuous but his ethical rigidities ended up hurting everyone around him.

In terms of twist endings, this is one of the most bold and provocative reversals I’ve ever seen, and it mostly works – it elevates the show from just a slightly twee but hilariously-written comedy to one of the smartest, boldest, and most deliberately-written shows around. And it casts morality and ethics in a light that goes beyond initial stultified premise inherent in the surface attributes of the starting conditions of the so-called Good Place – but in a sense, how being a good person is inherent in the bonds of care that we form with other people in the face of adversity and in strife.

I give this show: 4.5/5 Janets

Samurai Gourmet

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Although Japanese television is sometimes associated with wild and wacky antics, Samurai Gourmet also shows that it is capable of an immense tenderness.

Samurai Gourmet is about the food adventures of newly retired former salaryman Takeshi Kasumi (played charmingly by veteran Naoto Takenaka), as he ambles around Tokyo in his newly freed-up time. Defined by corporate convention and etiquette all his working life, his querulousness often manifests in small daily misadventures – hesitating to order a beer at a restaurant in the middle of the day, being scolded by his text-obsessed guitarist niece at dinner, or just by being self-conscious at a fine dining restaurant where all the food names go over his head.

During these times, when all seems lost, Kasumi daydreams of a masterless samurai (Tetsuji Tamayama), who shows him the way to assert himself with confidence and sincerity as he bulldozes his way through feudal Japan.

Samurai Gourmet is essentially a slice-of-life story of an old man who, in his retirement, finally learns how to live well – a lesson that his stay-at-home wife Shizuko has already mastered with graceful aplomb. He overcomes his self-consciousness to eat spaghetti with chopsticks at a fine Italian restaurant. He stays over at a seaside inn by himself and orders extra rice with his meal. Small stakes, but you can’t help but share Kasumi’s triumph at his little victories. Takenaka’s performance as Kasumi is heartfelt, genuine and truly naturalistic, and lends the old man the requisite charm and interest needed to drive a show of this nature.

Food is also a big part of the show’s raison d’etre. Shot nostalgically in soft focus (a stark contrast to the tack-sharp, slow-mo theatrics of Kantaro), the show’s food is a powerful emotional link between Kasumi and his memories of youth, of secretly eating storebought croquettes coming home from school, or learning how to love saba at a seaside minshoku. It is also something that binds people together.

There is one episode where Kasumi eats at a crowded but ramshackle izakaya, but the food is good and the customers companionable – but when it rains and the ceiling springs multiple leaks, the chef nonchalantly brings out a bundle of well-used umbrellas, and the clientele laughingly eat and drink as they hold up their umbrellas together in that tiny restaurant. It’s powerful little moments like these – heartfelt but not cloying, genuine but not banal – that truly form the core of the show’s appeal to me.

There are a couple of things wrong with the show – one of which is its tendency to normalise the kind of relationship that Kasumi has with his wife – who angelically tends to all his needs and patiently suffers his lack of romantic instinct and brusque manner with her – but ultimately, the show is possibly one of the most emotionally nourishing I’ve watched on Netflix, and a comforting soul food for the heart.

I give this show: 4.5/5 extra lunch bento boxes

 

Kantaro: The Sweet Tooth Salaryman

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And thus begins my foray into the weird and wonderful world of Japanese Netflix TV shows.

At first glance, Kantaro might be regarded as a cross between your usual stereotype of Japanese TV weirdness with heavy doses of product placement. The premise is simple: a straight-laced salesperson (Kantaro, played by the doughy-faced Matsuya Onoe) working for a publishing company leads a double life: in between his sales visits, he secretly sneaks off to indulge in his life’s passion – to sample (and blog about) the many delectable confectioneries that Tokyo has to offer. (In fact, the show’s Japanese name is a pun on this – rather than sarariman (salaryman), it’s saboriman – where saboru means to slack off).

The first episode hits you on the head with its weirdness. Kantaro, who has newly joined the company, sneaks off to eat anmitsu; upon his first bite, he is subjected to a bout of orgiastic bliss that sends him into a fantasy in which he is splashed, in ritualised fashion, by cascading anmitsu syrup. Later on in the same vision, he’s surrounded by his colleagues, whose heads have mysteriously turned into anmitsu ingredients.

It’s a type of Japanese humor that is culturally situated and hard to understand if you don’t get the things they are parodying; I usually skipped these fantasy portions whenever they appeared in later episodes. Some can be slightly disturbing – like the episode where Kantaro’s psycho sweets-hating mother comes to visit and he enacts a bizarre fantasy of eating eclairs in front of her while she is sleeping.

But the whole thing is beautifully shot, especially the exquisite sweets, which are captured, glistening, tremulous and perfect in high definition and luscious slow motion as they are prepared by master craftsmen. The visceral visual appeal of the show when it comes to showcasing the sweets cannot be overstated.

And the funny thing is that all these shops are real – you can find them in Tokyo and they are purportedly every bit as famous as the show makes them out to be. Product placement or tourism ad? Maybe both. But all aspersions to wit fade away before the tantalising food porn on display and the sincere presentation of the down-to-earth nature of these shops and their food.

As one gets used to the weirdness of Kantaro as the episodes go on, the show turns from bizarro sweet-shop advertisement to a genuine comedy that delves more deeply into the lives of its various characters – even the comically brazen manager Miyake and his excessively long sideburns. And at its heart, the show propagates an aphorism that is sure to resonate with the legions of overworked corporate suits in Japan’s still-stifling traditional business culture – after an honest and hard day’s work, it’s good to indulge in the sweeter things in life, too.

I give this show: 4 out of 5 bowls of mont blanc