Rick and Morty (Season #3)

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What it’s about: Rick and Morty gets increasingly meta about its place in contemporary pop culture.

Notes:

  • Rick and Morty is by now a latter-day phenomenon, eagerly awaited by hordes of fans attuned to its brand of offbeat, improvisational and almost misanthropic humor. It was always going to be hard to meet such lofty expectations, especially due to the unduly long wait for this third season.
  • The third season of Rick and Morty still has the series’ offbeat brilliance, but it, I think is sometimes hampered by the tendency of some of its episodes to become pulpits for that grinding sense of nihilism that the creators want to contrive.
  • The whole “everything is pointless and nothing has any meaning” theme is certainly an important one, but the show is at times overly fixated on developing that theme, and to indulge in its nihilistic impulses, at the expense of its essential oddball humor. Some episodes barely got a laugh out of me because they were so invested in developing the show as a dire commentary on the pointlessness of it all – case in point, the Vindicators episode.
  • But at the same time, season 3 has some of the most scintillatingly brilliant episodes of the entire series. The Ricklantis Mixup, a tautly told story of the Citadel of Ricks, has a good claim to being the single best Rick and Morty episode to date, mixing storytelling, humor and good old-fashioned social commentary into one irresistible package. And who can forget Pickle Rick, an episode whose utter absurdity belies its thematic relevance to Rick’s character?
  • I’m just annoyed at the lack of continuity development in the wider universe – so many of the plot threads and easter eggs that you would expect to be resolved in the season are left hanging. What happens to the citadel? Where is Phoenix Person? The season ends without any satisfactory development of the slow-burning plot threads, and at the end of the season we return to the pre-season status quo, with Jerry back together with the family. I’d thought the last episode would be a showdown between Rick and evil Morty, but I guess the creators weren’t ready to pull that particular card out.

Verdict: Rick and Morty continues to entertain with its blend of high-concept sf and oddball humor, but its creeping nihilism does take its toll sometimes.

I give this: 4 out of 5 Simple Ricks

 

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Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Season #3)

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What it’s about: Big things happening in the Nine-Nine, with new captain, new characters, new romances and even a few real criminals to deal with.

Notes:

  • B99 is comfort food for the soul – funny and witty as ever, and with a dose of absurdist comedy thrown into the mix – what with the insanity that was Seth Dozerman’s weird one-episode appearance. I really was not expecting the show to go there. Seriously, those first few episodes with Dozerman and later the Vulture were weirdly funny.
  • The season’s other big thing is the arrival on the scene of new character Adrian Pimento, a keyed up undercover cop who’s seen so much shit it’s driven him slightly insane. Pimento isn’t the best character, just because he’s so unstable in a way that breaches the bounds of comedy and sometimes comes across as a little disturbing. Rosa’s relationship with Pimento, which is used to drive the last big story arc of the season, also feels a little random – there’s not really any good reason for the two of them to get together, beyond the weird sexual energy that is purported to exist between them.
  • But the whole masquerade actually boils over into something much bigger, when Pimento is forced by his one-time mob boss to go into hiding, which also implicates Jake and Holt when they manage to cripple his presence in Brooklyn. For the first time, B99 actually deals with criminals that aren’t the hokey and harmless Pontiac Bandit or burglar sort. It’s an interesting segue, and the show manages to straddle comedy and drama without tipping over to either side.
  • On the other hand, Jake and Amy’s relationship actually survives and thrives, despite their contrasting personalities. And past a few healthy disagreements, it’s not played for cheap laughs and drama – it is a genuinely sweet romance that gets tempered by crisis, not cheapened a la Family Guy. It’s sad that one would expect, according to the iron laws of TV, for that relationship to be wrung dry for comedic ethos or dramatic pathos and then made to die off, which would be the usual path – and B99’s done it for Charles’ and Rosa’s various romances before this. But it seems that Amy and Jake’s relationship is being invested in to provide another solid emotional core for the show. I hope the next few seasons continue that trend.

Verdict: Season 3 continues the wit and sharp writing of the series while taking it to new territory, putting in real effort in developing and growing its characters.

I give this: 4.5 out of 5 overly-close Swedish detective partners

Archer (Season #2)

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What it’s about: Just like in the first season, every episode sees Archer and the rest of the dysfunctional members of ISIS get into remarkably consequence-free secret agent hijinks.

Notes: 

  • There’s not much point wishing a show did things it never sets out to do. Archer has by now established a winning formula based on its mean-spirited but admittedly funny treatment of all its characters, who by now have well-established personality dysfunctions.
  • Unlike R&MArcher isn’t particularly concerned with bona fide character development or inter-episode continuity: the fact that it seems to be set in a weirdly anachronistic historical bubble of pastiched spy tropes is one indicator of its fast and loose relationship with chronology.
  • So I’ve come to watch it as a constant dose of misanthropic humor that doesn’t offer much in the way of psychological succor but nevertheless allows time to pass quicker in gym sessions.
  • Season #2 is really not much different from Season 1 in that regard; Archer may have some Revelations here and there and he may be slowly becoming more self-aware of his own hyperbolic inadequacies, but by and large it really is still exploring the myriad ways it can denigrate its main characters by appealing to the humor in the ways in which they express their own flaws in the most hyperbolically venal of ways.

Verdict: Deliberately lacking in sentiment or compassion, Archer is nevertheless a reliably funny dose of humor for the angry little misanthropist in all of us.

I give this season: 3.5 out of 5 speedboats

Cooked (Netflix Documentary)

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What it’s about: The documentary version of Michael Pollan’s book of the same name, which I have reviewed here. The show, like the book, takes a look at the four main ways of preparing food in each of its four episodes: roasting for fire, braising/stewing for water, baking for air, and fermenting for earth.

Notes:

  • Documentary adaptations of non-fiction books are a strange and special kind of adaptation that don’t suffer from the ills of fictive adaptations – the people depicted and written about are real, and there is less value in our mental models and images of them, unlike in a fictive adaptation where we are as active participants in the worldbuilding as the author is, and visual adaptations often take that agency away from us and turn us into consumers of another person’s imagination.
  • The show is very similar in spirit to the book, and I have already extemporized at length about the latter. Suffice to say that in this case, the show really adds a vital visual and aural interest that the book simply cannot provide, though Pollan does extremely well at evoking the passions of cooking and food through his prose. Seeing the people – real people – that I’d hitherto only read about enriches the immediacy and the visceral elements of Pollan’s message, and makes it that much stronger.
  • Pollan’s book still contains the meat and potatoes of his message, and the show is best seen as a complement, rather than a substitute, for reading the book. The show excels in its new material which I recall was less present in the book, in which the foodways of different cultures with respect to the four modes of cooking are explored – Aboriginal fire hunting for roasting, Indian home cooking for braising, Moroccan breadmaking for baking, and cheesemaking in a Connecticut convent for fermenting. The documentary provides insight into how these different processes of food preparation are an inherent part of different foodways and a vital component of what makes us human. Commensurately, Pollan’s personal experience is less emphasized than in the book – in fact, he seems to only serve a function of being a talking head on the show, rather than the person who goes roving around and talking to people. So the show and the book should definitely be considered complements – and there is value in watching the show and reading the book, although you might want to do it a few weeks apart to minimise repetitiveness.

Verdict: This is an impeccably made, viscerally resplendent adaptation of Pollan’s book, and should be watched even if one has read the original for added information and a greater sense and understand of the real people and places that Pollan describes in his book.

I give this show: 4.5 out of 5 cheese wheels

 

Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Season #2)

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What it’s about: The wacky on-the-job adventures of the Brooklyn Nine Nine crew continue, but this time with a dash of high-stakes drama and romance: Captain Holt is forced to leave the Nine Nine, and Jake and Amy start to get a move on. Charles and Gina bang in what must be the most non-sequitur office pairing in sitcom.

Notes:

  • Brooklyn Nine Nine continues to be a well-written and comforting collection of good-hearted hilarity (except for its ceaseless mean-spirited riffing of Hitchcock and Scully (and to a smaller extent, Boyle) who only deserve about 80% of what comes to them).
  • Character dynamics seem to evolve somewhat naturally – while everyone plays off their stereotypes for comic effect, there is a divide between their joke selves and their dramatic selves – they are more than their own typecasting. Nowhere is this more apparent than Jake Peralta, who becomes surprisingly decent-hearted even as his naturally carefree self gets him into real hot water at least twice an episode.
  • Charles is the most hangdog-sad character in the show – an overly cultured individual with an odd interpretation of social mores, strangely worshipful towards his best friend Jake – and I somehow feel the saddest for him, just because it’s in his inherent nature to be the butt of all the jokes. His boundless and strange passions and indefatigable zest for the oddly fine things in life are oddly sympathetic, yet he is more often than not rendered impotent by his esoteric preoccupations in a way that is humorous but also somewhat tragic. And it feels that there are cracks in his friendship with Jake, which seemed a sacrosanct partnership in season 1.
  • Amy’s maturity and her wilfully blind devotion to Holt seem at odds with each other – one is played for laughs while the other makes her a foil for the zanier antics of the group. Yet the show balances this well, making Amy an accomplice to insanity at some points and a straight-laced goody two shoes another. It’s just one of the comic juxtapositions that keeps the show fresh.
  • The show ends on a bum note – Holt leaving the Nine Nine, defeated at the moment of victory by his arch-nemesis Wunch – and that is a bit of dramatic irony (because we know it’ll end up alright – it’s a sitcom!), but it really does seem rather sad.

Verdict: Same old fun, with a bit of character growth and exploration of the dramatic while not sacrificing the formulas that make this show a comedic tour de force – Brooklyn Nine Nine hasn’t lost its Season 1 spark, and may even outshine it in the feels department.

I give this: 4.5 out of 5 Gigglepigs

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