Archer (Season #1)

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Archer’s got the sharp writing and comedic chops, but its nihilism makes watching it a bit of a psychological strain.

Archer is billed as a kind of James Bond meets Arrested Development – a sitcom about highly dysfunctional people inside of an organisation – a private intelligence outfit called ISIS – to whose nature they are uniquely ill-suited.

There’s Sterling Archer, the titular superspy whose natural talents at secret agent-ing are often stymied by his amorality, casual bigotry and mother issues. Equally bad is the boss of ISIS and Archer’s mother, Malory, who is essentially a facsimile of Lucille Bluth of Arrested Development infamy, except that here, her callous haughtiness and unhealthily controlling attitude towards her offspring are amped up to even more absurd heights.

The cast is rounded up by a bunch of other characters with their own odd quirks – Cyril, the seemingly staid ISIS comptroller and closet nymphomaniac, Cheryl, a useless secretary with some seriously weird sexual kinks, Pam, the HR director, whose sole purpose in the show seems to be a foil for a deluge of off-color jokes about her weight, and Lana, probably the most put-together of the bunch, an ISIS superspy who often serves as a foil to Archer’s idiocy.

When you put this many people and their dysfunctions in an office environment, especially if their professions happen to involve lots of high-tech gadgetry and lethal weaponry, utter bedlam ensues, and the jokes almost write themselves. The characters of Archer get themselves into every sort of unethical situation possible, through their venality, arrogance, incompetence, pomposity, or any combination of those traits. But it seems to happen in a world where such actions carry no consequences, either in an overarching plotline, or to the reputation of ISIS as an intelligence contractor. Indeed, the world itself is a bit ill-defined – a bag of historical and technological anachronisms – CRT monitors with cellphones, where the KGB still exists and the great superpower rival is still Russia.

But the thing about Archer is that after a while, with each successive episode being the same collection of sociopathic hijinks, without much in the way of character growth or development beyond their stock places in the comedic pantheon, the series starts to get a little tiresome. Archer may be compared to Arrested Development, but at least in the latter, the Bluth family, while plagued with their own issues, were still human and still sympathetic – and they truly cared for each other as a family. In Archer, the titular character is utterly and incorrigibly a twat, without any redeeming qualities whatsoever. An inveterate boorish womaniser, spendthrift, cavalier over human life, callous towards his peers, cruel to his servants, selfish to a fault, and plagued with a host of mommy issues – a walking bag of the worst superspy stereotypes, and then some. It’s hard to feel any sort of sympathy for anybody in Archer, since nobody in Archer seems to care about anything in particular except for their self-serving ends.

A show can only go so far on its endless variations of comedic dysfunctional hijinks involving its typecast characters, before it starts to get tiresome. And with Archer, because the jokes depend so much on the self-serving venality of its characters, the show verges into nihilism, but without anything substantive to say beyond its jokes.

I hope Archer grows a soul in later seasons – I won’t spoil myself by checking, but from the looks of the first few episodes of Season 2, I doubt it’ll do so for a while yet.

I give this show: 3/5 out of 5 whiskey glasses

Bojack Horseman (Season #1)

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Beyond its non sequitur premise, sometimes facile humor and weak first half, the first season of Bojack Horseman establishes it as a surprisingly compelling character study in self-destructive and narcissistic behavior.

Bojack Horseman is the kind of show seemingly birthed out of a one-line pitch to a drunk studio executive at an office Christmas party – “What about a show about a narcissistic washed-out former TV star who wants to make a big comeback? Except – hic! – he’s a horse?” The titular Bojack, the (very rich) star of the erstwhile hit 90s sitcom Horsin’ Around, struts around in his pyjamas, paunch visible, alcohol often in hand, Larry David-esque in his crabbiness and general aversion to positivity. He lives in a version of a world where every fourth person is an animal, with names like “Mr Peanutbutter” and “Princess Carolyn”, with jokes often made at the expense of their animal nature (for example, Princess Carolyn, Bojack’s agent and onetime girlfriend, is a dedicated career feline who manhandles a scratching post in her gym while talking on her bluetooth headset).

Initially, in the first few seasons, what stands out most is a sense of the slapdash nature of the world, seemingly conjured out of a wild writer’s session where they just compiled every animal joke they could (like having penguins run a publishing house). There are random side characters in Bojack’s life who appear to be there for no better reason than to serve as foils to Bojack’s nihilistic quips. The first few episodes are somewhat standalone – the premise is introduced, in which Princess Carolyn arranges for ghostwriter Diane Nguyen to help Bojack write his long overdue autobiography, in the hopes that it’ll make Bojack relevant in the public eye again. Bojack is, at this juncture, presented as your irascible and disagreeable protagonist, getting into petty feuds with a navy SEAL (who happens to be a seal) over who deserves the right to the last box of cupcakes from the grocery store. The first few episodes set up the show to be little more than a loosely connected series of episodes poking fun at the absurdities of American life, like the comically cultish devotion afforded to vets in the media (even as society treats them like shit), or the phenomenon of former child stars turning to a life of drugs and partying. All mixed with a liberal dose of absurdist zoological humor and a Bojack-focused cringe comedy. Nothing special.

But then, around the middle of the season, things get a lot better, almost like the writers decided to do something with their vague mishmash of ideas. They start exploring Bojack’s past and his character in earnest, and the series turns much darker despite keeping its exuberant edge of absurdist comedy. Bojack is not a nice person – he’s narcissistic, selfish, egotistical, and he has a penchant for hurting those close to him. But Bojack is hyper-self-aware of that tendency, and as much as he hates it about himself, he can’t help it, because he is terrified of being left alone and forgotten. He craves adulation and connections but at the same time his compulsive narcissism pushes away those close to him.

It’s a rich seam of character complexity to mine, especially in regards to Bojack’s past – his friendship with his mentor and Horsin’ Around lead writer Herb, whom he later betrays by not supporting him when Herb is revealed to be gay, his broken relationship with his parents, the pursuit of wealth and transient fame over love.

The last few episodes in the series are truly emotionally wracking, which is saying a bit given that 40% of the series is wacked-out animal jokes and absurdist humor – like Princess Carolyn dating one ‘Vincent Adultman’ – who may or may not be three kids in a trenchcoat who likes to “go to the stock market to do a business”, or a giraffe valet whose neck can’t fit in the car. At its best, Bojack Horseman combines these two aspects of itself to great effect – as in episode 11, “Downer Ending”, in which Bojack and friends take focus drugs prescribed by the shady offshore medicine specialist Dr Allen Hu to rewrite Diane’s autobiography, which Bojack hated because it was too faithful a mirror to his personality. That sequence combines your usual comical drug-fueled hallucinatory shenanigans with Bojack going on a bad trip that plumbs the depths of Bojack’s psyche, showing him alternative visions of the life he could have led if he’d made other choices. The episode ends with a gut-wrenching sequence where Bojack desperately asks Diane to tell him that he’s good, with Diane unable to answer either with comforting platitudes, or the brutal honesty that she so demonstrated in the memoir she wrote for him.

There’s a tendency for me to dislike watching people ruin themselves. I didn’t really enjoy watching Curb your Enthusiasm or even Fawlty Towers for that reason, as it features characters just doing all the wrong things. There’s something frustrating about that. But somehow Bojack Horseman doesn’t feel that way. Possibly because of its absurdism and because Bojack is just so self-aware of his own failings. But also because the show doesn’t use his failings as a source of its humor, but rather, treats it with the seriousness and emotional weight that it deserves.

I give this TV series: 4 out of 5 red herring receipts

 

 

 

 

 

Stranger Things (Season 1)

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Stranger Things’ first season is a visceral and nostalgic mishmash of half a dozen science fiction tropes.

Small-town America in the 1980s was a perfect time for science fiction of the Close Encounters kind – the juxtaposition of neighborly familiarity not yet disintermediated by the disembodying effects of the Internet, with the vast  screaming unknown of space and its lurking horrors. Stranger Things is all about taking this milieu and making a show out of it with today’s production values, throwing in a kitchen sink’s worth of classic elements from that tradition – secret government programs, other dimensions, aloof children with vast mental powers, nerdy kids saving the day – the works.

The effect is a show that feels both fresh and derivative – fresh because of its modern sensibility and high production values, derivative because, ultimately, it’s taking, almost out of whole cloth, from the building blocks of the subgenre.

The story starts with a horror escaping out of a clandestine lab, the disappearance of a child, and the emergence of another, bald and bearing only the tattoo of the number eleven on her wrist, who can lift things with her mind and receive visions from far away.

In the town’s frantic search to find one missing child, the other is found by the first child’s friends, and she slowly learns how to be human after having been isolated and subjugated to emotional manipulation by her handlers her entire life. In her slowly emerging newfound empathy, she learns the power of friendship.

If this all sounds vaguely like everything we’ve seen before in science fiction television and film, that’s because it probably is. It’s hard to place but the premise feels familiar, almost archetypal – and to some extent, that’s a good thing for a show that runs so much on that 80s aesthetic and feeling.

The show does try some fresh things, and it is capable of demonstrating surprisingly layered emotional complexity. The initial episodes lay out the central mysteries in a way that doesn’t quite reveal the big secrets to those familiar with the tropes. There are some brilliant moments in these early episodes, like the scenes where Joyce (Winona Ryder), the mother of the missing child, Will, is shown doing all she can to find her lost son. Ryder imbues her character with a raw maternality that, frankly, should earn her an Emmy. Her emotional performance elevates the show at its best moments to something approaching magical.

As the show proceeds on to its climax and denouement, however, the mysteries have to reveal themselves, and that’s where the tropes come in and kind of set up the stage for disappointment. After the alluring unknowns of the early show, the later show starts to just go back onto the well-worn tracks of its genre predecessors in explaining its mysteries. It’s perhaps a tall order to expect a show to come up with something completely original, but I think the slightly disappointing thing about its late-season quality is the disjunct between its set-up, which was suitably mysterious, and the payoff, which verges on trope territory.

I also have a bit of a problem with the general quality of the last few episodes. Where previous episodes were carefully plotted, the last few episodes have a bit of a rushed quality to them, and there are a lot of odd plotholes that detract from the believability of the story at the end. It also tends to be bogged down at certain points by the kind of human drama that seems wedged in there for the sake of adding pathos – and it comes in the most frustrating form – quarrels between the kid protagonists due to adolescent passions and feelings. I won’t go too much into that, but there you have it.

Fortunately for subsequent seasons, Stranger Things does wrap up its most problematic story arcs, and it also leaves a few tantalising threads of mystery at the end, and it’s enough of a hook that I will definitely check it out.

Ultimately, Stranger Things doesn’t cover that much new territory, but maybe it doesn’t have to.

I give this show: 4 out of 5 hazmat suits

Rick and Morty – Season 2

The brilliant show is back for a second season, and it’s just as good as its first run, but for slightly different reasons.

When I watched the first season, I was struck by how unflinchingly brutal it could be at times. Rick and Morty was an animated sitcom that deconstructed the tropes around animated sitcoms. It used the multiverse idea to great creativity and comedic effect, as well as to reject the “world-resetting” conventions of other animated shows. It dared broach darker topics – rape, troubled marriages, sociopathy – in a transgressively comical, but not gratuitous, fashion. Its characters had authenticity in that they were human beings with failings and idiosyncrasies, but who nevertheless stay together because of some intangible undercurrent of concern and familial togetherness.

This second season is evidence that Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland know what made their Season 1 formula so wildly successful. Season 2 iterates upon the qualities that made the first season so great, but also adds an extra layer of historical depth that was largely absent in the first season – the beginnings of an accounting of Rick’s backstory and the reasons why he left in the first place. In other words, intimations of heavy duty character exploration for the show’s most important character. This is hinted at in several episodes but is most apparent in the season’s final episode, where Rick’s political activities against the Galactic Federation come back to bite him. I don’t know if this was a planned plot point or a retcon, but the last episode really expanded the Rick and Morty universe in ways I hadn’t anticipated, which lent some new context into some of the things that occurred in the first season – such as Rick’s dealings with the underworld and his dislike of the Galactic Federation insectoids. I doubt that Season 3 will be kind of big reveal of that history, and it shouldn’t be, but I hope it does shed more light to develop Rick as a more complete and compelling character, adding more context to his nihilistic sociopathy.

I’m also glad that Summer is getting a bit more screen time in this season. In some ways she’s the new Morty of Season 2, with her own moral compass that is often hilariously violated by Rick’s lack of mores (see Keep Summer Safe). Summer has great potential as an alternating sidekick to Rick along with Morty, who is himself displaying signs that he’s acclimating to Rick’s style of doing things, and is starting to be capable of holding his own during their hijinks.

Not everything in the season was perfect, of course. The season has episodes of varying quality and fit into the Ricksterverse. Get Schwifty, for one, was slightly too surreal and non-sequitur even for Rick and Morty, and it had some characters behaving in highly uncharacteristic fashion for the sake of thematic demonstration, which gives off bad Family Guy vibes. Interdimensional Cable #2: Tempting Fate was another running of the show’s breakout improv section in Rixty Minutes, which was one of the best parts of the first season. While this second offering had its moments (see Plumbus creation and Mr Stealy), it, predictably, can’t measure up to the first, not least because it had a bit of a more calculated, “let’s do this to add ratings since the first was a hit” feel to it, which goes against the whole “stoned improv” feel of the first offering. To their credit, the show creators did anticipate that the second offering would be “tempting fate”.

But the very fact that Season 2 knocks it out of the park with its standout episodes testifies to the fact that there’s quite a bit of steam left in this animated comedy franchise.

Some standout episodes:

S2E2 – Mortynight Run

Contains a poignant, standout section where Morty plays a video-game in which he lives an entire man’s life in a simulated reality. The juxtaposition of living a good life with getting a high score in a video game is darkly comedic. Also, features a gaseous being that’s able to croon out a hilariously hippie number to the beat of Morty’s cosmic hallucinations.

S2E4 – Total Rickall 

Mr Poopy Butthole. Rick’s catchphrases. Episode as an indictment of how the proliferation of random wedged-in supporting cast members and nonsensical flashback vignettes is stifling comedy television.

S2E6 – The Ricks Must Be Crazy

Keep. Summer. Safe. Also Stephen Colbert as an obnoxious alien, and Morty taking charge of the situation.

S2E10 – The Wedding Squanchers

The twist, the insight into Rick’s character, the expansion of scope, the cliffhanger, the hilarious planets that the Smith family finds, and that squanchy ending with a slightly deranged, painkiller-addled Mr Poopy Butthole. A great conclusion to an excellent season 2.

I give this series: 4 out of 5 Plumbuses

Star Wars Rebels – Season One

Rebels is a good show, but I hope it doesn’t set the tone for future Star Wars content.

I am ever so slowly coming to terms with the fact that the old Star Wars Expanded Universe is dead, the slate wiped clean of the galaxy’s checkered 25,000 year history. Rebels is among the first of a hopefully long stream of new content, designed to rebuild the Star Wars universe into a coherent and unified whole.

As an animated show targeted at a young audience, Rebels isn’t a bad show. Set in the early Empire era, it depicts the adventures of a ragtag bunch of freedom fighters, led by one Kanan, a Jedi survivor of Order 66, as they thwart Imperial ambitions on the world of Lothal. The protagonist of the show is the rather prosaically-named Ezra Bridger, a young scavenger who joins the crew and discovers that he has Force sensitivity. Like many shows aimed at younger audiences, Ezra seems to fulfill the role of a kind of ‘moral compass’ that kids can aspire toward – his bildungsroman journey to Jedi-hood is the underlying thread that underpins the entire first season.

As a piece of Star Wars content, the first season of Rebels is a deliberate return to the more intimate feel of the OT. It centers on one Rebel cell resisting the Imperial presence on one Outer Rim world, and there is barely a hint of a larger galaxy-spanning Rebel Alliance. As mentioned, the series also features Ezra’s training under Kanan, which echoes Luke’s own training in the OT, complete with a Dagobah-cave analogue scene. Many have seized upon this particular attribute of the show – its attempt to recapture the feel of the Original Trilogy – and proclaimed the show a step in the right direction for the franchise. I’m less confident, however.

For me, the appeal of Star Wars has always been its multi-platform, transmedia nature. The Star Wars galaxy was, until very recently, a rich, mostly coherent, many-layered creature. Sure, it had its weird parts and inconsistencies, but those were minor in the larger face of the complexity of the universe – a kind of variegated messiness and creative chaos that served to simulate the sheer complexity of a giant galaxy. Now that Star Wars has been pared down to its essential properties, it has, for the moment, lost much of that rich texture.

It’s not a bad thing for Rebels to be a YA show that echoes the OT. But it does so almost ritualistically. In the course of the first season, our crew encounter such old OT favorites as Threepio, Artoo and Lando, even when the odds that such chance encounters could take place are remote at best. Fanservice should not win out over verisimilitude. The Imperials in the show are almost always presented as fist-shaking and ineffectual cartoon villains. Stormtroopers always miss the heroes. These tropes, while hallmarks of the OT, are not tropes that Star Wars should uncritically incorporate as part of its texture in future iterations. I guess what I’m really saying, at this point, is that Rebels, while a good show, hasn’t managed to acquire the verisimilitude that had characterized the vast tangled web of Star Wars properties pre-Disney acquisition. It’s too simple, too small, and too fanservice-laden. Maybe the latter seasons will up the ante and increase the complexity of the galaxy. But I think the bulk of the universe will need to be filled in by all the traditional media – books, graphic novels, and roleplaying resource books. We will see how the Star Wars  universe turns when The Force Awakens  and the Aftermath books come out.

Specific things I liked about the series: 

– Master Luminara’s macabre fate

– Intimations of the larger galactic conflict

– Sith Inquisitors have been re-incorporated into the new canon

Specific things I disliked about the series:

– Imperial buffoonery contrasted against the near-superhuman feats expected of Stormtroopers-in-training, as depicted in “Breaking Ranks”

– Fanservice appearances by old characters

– General dumbing down of the lore (e.g. lightsaber crystals are now only one type of crystal)

Unanswered Questions

– How does Empire Day work, exactly? Do all worlds have a specific date, or is it galaxy-wide?

I give this show: 3 out of 5 meiloorun fruits

Rick and Morty – Season 1

Nihilism has never been funnier.

It took me a while to get to a point where I could bring myself to write a review about this show. Mainly because I was trying to fashion a coherent narrative of my thoughts about this show, but also because I was vacillating between considering the show “bloggable” and putting it in my pile of “entertainments that need no critical reflection”. But I decided that I have something to say about Rick and Morty, and so here I am.

People might disagree with me, but I sort of think that Rick and Morty is a kind of science-fiction analogue to later-season Family Guy, in a bit of the way Futurama was to the Simpsons. After six seasons or so, Family Guy began to head down the path of favoring comedy over character development. Characters like Meg turned into one-note punching bags, and Peter slowly transformed from lovable oaf to a funny but contemptible idiot.

Rick and Morty is similar in that none of its characters are particularly nice or likable people. Rick, the mad scientist genius, is a nihilistic and sociopathic misanthrope. His grandson and sidekick, Morty, is a bit of a high-school loser type wallflower. Morty’s father, Jerry, is prissy, neurotically insecure, and incompetent at his job. His mother, Beth, is assertive but comes across as somewhat selfish and chronically dissatisfied at her family. His sister, Summer, is the most well-adjusted of the bunch, but she still screams “high school superficiality”, at least at first glance. Despite their general unlikeability, they are not unsympathetic. They’re all too human, with human flaws and failings, brimming with authenticity. It is a surprisingly honest dissection of that stereotypical American family unit, in the same way that the Simpsons and Family Guy are.

***SPOILERS BELOW***

Rick and Morty, however, goes a little further. It veers dangerously towards nihilism. The first episode starts out with Rick almost destroying Earth in a fit of pique. But the nihilism emerges even more strongly because of the show’s science-fictional premise. Rick’s specialty, you might say, is that he is able to access the multiverse by using a gun that can create portals between dimensions. This creates a setting in which our main characters can wreak all sorts of havoc and resolve the chaos caused by their hijinks by jumping into another dimension. Rick can be as sociopathic as he wants, even to the point of destroying the world, and escape into another dimension with nary a consequence.The destruction of entire worlds is just another point of black humor in this show.

While this sounds like the kind of cross-episodic “world reset” cartoon logic common in Looney Tunes and the like, in Rick and Morty, it is anything but. The actions of the characters follow them across episodes and across dimensions. In one episode Rick and Morty irreversibly turn everyone on Earth into slavering mutants. How do they resolve this? Rick beams into another dimension where their counterparts happen to have died in a freak accident, and the duo take their places and bury their analogs in the backyard. In Rick and Morty, Rick doesn’t conduct his experiments out of anything but a desire to stave off the depressing boredom that comes with tolerating the existence of the mediocrity around him. And the show veers towards nihilism by saying that Rick can do anything he wants, because he can escape into another dimension. But the show avoids nihilism by showing us that ultimately, those choices persist and the characters have to live with them. Morty, in particular, is the show’s limping conscience, meager though that might be. And he is rewarded for it by being the show’s punching bag, and the target of some of its darkest moments. Morty is, on occasion, almost raped, endless dimensional counterparts of him end up tortured for eternity, and perhaps worst of all, he somehow has to live with the knowledge that his actions led to the destruction of an entire world, even as he lives in the place of a person who died so that he could take his place.

And yet, he lives on. His family, bickering and dissatisfied and insecure as they are, lives on. They stick together through thick and thin. Rick doesn’t reach a point where he feels the need to destroy the world, and even as he treats his grandson like chattel he genuinely cares for him at some abstract level, despite the fact that there is an infinity of Morty replacements from which to choose.

The cross-dimensional setting also affords the show to display an amazing amount of creativity. With Rick’s gadgets, the show’s characters are able to have adventures in any number and variety of outlandish and hilarious universes, somewhat like Family Guy’s manatee gags, except in-narrative. Every episode is the result of the fruition of an amazing science-fiction idea or premise, often cleverly parodied from other science fiction universes. For those qualities alone, Rick and Morty might have been a fearlessly inventive Adult Swim staple. But of course, it pushes the boundaries of acceptable television, like all good cartoons do. It invites us, even exhorts us, to laugh at the meaninglessness of existence. It veers dreadfully close to the event horizon of nihilism and pulls out only at the last instant by showing us that humanity, imperfect as it is, persists and struggles in the face in futility and meaninglessness. Now that’s a pretty heavy burden for a cartoon to bear.

Anyway, just to highlight some of my favorite episodes:

S1E3 – Anatomy Park

An adventure in “Anatomy Park”, a theme park set inside the human body. On the list because of the amoeba scientist guy whose being an amoeba is never questioned in the entire episode, as well as the climax, where a giant naked corpse the size of a continent explodes over the continental United States, showing everyone in blood. Some boundaries were meant to be crossed.

S1E5 – Meeseeks and Destroy

On the list because of the creative premise of Mr Meeseeks, a race of blue beings that are summoned into this universe with one of Rick’s machines and will do anything to cease existing, even murder.

S1E8 – Rixty Minutes

Rick sets up the television to pick up signals from the multiverse. Cue a whole episode of bingeing on TV. On the list because the creators were obviously having too much fun improv-ing television shows from different dimensions. Also a window into the family’s home life.

S1E9 – Something Ricked this Way Comes

On the list because of the hilarious post-credits montage, where Rick and Summer get jacked and beat various people up.

I give this show: 4 out of 5 Abradolf Lincers