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

 

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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

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

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