TV Review – Star Wars: Andor Season 1

Andor Season 1 (Disney+)
Written by Tony Gilroy, Dan Gilroy, Stephen Schiff, Beau Willimon
Directed by Toby Haynes, Susanna White, and Benjamin Caron

Humanity isn’t going to be saved by Star Wars. It was a global capitalist juggernaut consumed by an even larger one almost a decade ago. It’s a product that gets its label and trademark slapped on a host of garbage manufactured in squalor and then sold to grubby-handed man-children that are desperately clinging to the comfort of their youth because, and they are not wrong in this estimation, the world is broken. But the thing is, Star Wars can be used. It can be a tool. In the desire to overthrow oppressive power, we will have to use the materials made under the monolith to destroy it. That’s the beautiful irony, every day, the capitalist machine unknowingly builds the very thing that will kill it. We don’t know what it is or when that will happen, but it is inevitable. 

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TV Review – Atlanta Season Four

Atlanta Season 4 (2022)
Written by Stephen Glover, Ibra Ake, Jamal Olori, Stefani Robinson, Janine Nabers, Francesca Sloane, Karen Joseph Adcock, and Taofik Kolade
Directed by Hiro Murai, Angela Barnes, Adamma Ebo, and Donald Glover

Atlanta was always a show that was hard to describe. Yes, there were main characters: Earn, Vanessa, Darius, and Al/Paper Boi. But the series was also an experimental anthology, breaking away from those serialized stories to tell one-offs. Both types of stories always felt infused with a sense of magical realism that turned the show into a fantasy, an exploration of being Black in America in the Southeast but imagining beyond the limitations of reality. Atlanta never tried to capture Black voices outside of this particular place, I’m sure it spoke to aspects of the Black experience, but it clearly was a show about the place and time as much as the people. The third season, which saw our four primary characters touring Europe, was met with less enthusiasm than usual. That makes sense, it was the season the least connected to Atlanta, but I still found it to have some episodes that were masterpieces. It was nice to get back to the city in season four, and the creators involved didn’t skip a beat.

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TV Review – Better Call Saul Season 3

Better Call Saul Season 3 (2015)
Written by Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould, Thomas Schnauz, Gennifer Hutchison, Jonathan Glatzer, Gordon Smith, Ann Cherkis, Heather Marion
Directed by Vince Gilligan, John Shiban, Thomas Schnauz, Daniel Sackheim, Keith Gordon, Adam Bernstein, Minkie Spiro, Peter Gould

What does it mean to do “good”? There is so much talk about good, evil, laws, and criminals in America without any tangible examination of what these terms and their underlying concepts even mean. Season three of Better Call Saul opens with another black-and-white vignette set in Jimmy McGill’s present. He’s still working at a Nebraska Cinnabon under the alias of “Gene.” “Gene” is taking his lunch break, munching on a homemade sandwich, when he witnesses a teenage boy shoplift. The boy hides in a photo booth, and the mall security guards have no idea where the boy has gone. A beat passes. “Gene” nods towards the photobooth after making eye contact with the guards. They apprehend the boy, and he glares, knowing precisely who turned him in. The guilt suddenly washes over “Gene” as they march the boy away in handcuffs. “Gene” did what was ‘right,’ but he certainly doesn’t feel that way. Suddenly he shouts, “Don’t say anything without a lawyer present!” which garners an expletive from the guard. 

The third season of Better Call Saul centers on this question. Are the actions of Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) ‘good’ and ‘lawful’ & do they have to be both. He’s positioned against older brother Chuck (Michael McKean), whose crusade against his sibling reaches its zenith here. Chuck sees the world in clear absolutes. There is the LAW; anything outside of that is wrong, bad, evil, your negative pejorative here. Jimmy sees the legal profession as a malleable tool to reach desired outcomes. Jimmy’s core motivation is not money but winning. He loves going head to head and coming out the victor. Chuck would never admit this, but it is his fundamental motivation. Instead of being open about it, as his little brother has always been, Chuck couches it in a veneer of civility & order. You see the cracks when Chuck is delivered a metaphorical killing blow in the season’s third act. 

One of the biggest problems when making a prequel television series is that you risk making a static show. We know where Jimmy will end up, so how do you still deliver fresh stories showing growth when the endpoint is known? You do this by introducing new characters not present in the starting series. Chuck, Howard Hamlin, Nacho Varga, and Kim. Oh, Kim. Before watching this show, I’d seen some people refer to Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) as the “heart” of Better Call Saul. I had no context for that, but it stuck with me. I’m seeing that happening now, making my heart ache for future seasons. Kim is a glorious character, a perfect counterpoint to Jimmy & Chuck. They are angry little boys who use the Law as a cudgel in their personal family bitterness.

Kim is the audience surrogate more than Jimmy or Chuck, or Mike. She is in the middle. Kim is a person who wants to do good. Helping people makes her feel good. She likes the way she can use the law to help them. Yet, she acknowledges that the law’s mechanisms can harm and impede progress. Like all of us, she has personal ambitions; she wants to be known as a good lawyer in her community. Jimmy constantly tempts Kim to his side, not benevolence but mutually beneficial. Look at the Sandpiper Crossing case, where Jimmy wants plaintiffs to settle now so he can get paid quicker than waiting for the process to play out. The victims will get compensated, and so will Jimmy, but they may not get a fair deal. Chuck believes the case should play itself out regardless if the delay harms Jimmy personally. Kim benefits from Jimmy’s machinations; this results in the greatest internal conflict for her. But, ultimately, she does appreciate what he did.

That doesn’t mean she agrees with Jimmy entirely. His loss of income when his ability to practice is harmed, Kim says it’s OK to his face but then overburdens herself with finding additional clients to make up the gap. By the end of the season, Kim is in the hospital because of this and has to re-center herself to understand what really matters to her. Some of Jimmy did rub off, the fun-loving part, yet even then, she is still her own person. I didn’t think I would become this invested in Kim Wexler when I first started watching a show about the crooked lawyer from Breaking Bad, but here we are. Rhea Seehorn has me in awe, such a nuanced yet strong performance that results in a multi-layered character that surpasses anything I’ve seen in the Breaking Bad verse. Kim does good things and bad things, all in a realistic context. She might not become a criminal mastermind, but she will leave out a piece of evidence if she thinks it could benefit, but it is when she ultimately relents and adheres to presenting everything, even if it harms her case, that we come to love Kim. We hope she can hold onto Jimmy’s hand and keep him from going over the edge, but…we know partly how this story ends. I’m worried because Jimmy would only end up where he is now if Kim wasn’t there to pull him back.

TV Review – The Rings of Power Season 1

The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power Season 1 (Amazon Prime)
Written by J. D. Payne & Patrick McKay, Gennifer Hutchison, Jason Cahill and Justin Doble, Stephany Folsom, and Nicholas Adams
Directed by J.A. Bayona, Wayne Che Yip, and Charlotte Brändström

When Amazon announced they would make a prequel series set in the world of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, my first thought was, “Why?” I enjoyed Peter Jackson’s LOTR movies when they came out, but I couldn’t stand The Hobbit trilogy and was perfectly happy to let that cinematic world be as it is. But that’s the thing with capitalism; why let a story or I.P. just be when you could keep mining it for more content and eventually result in the public hating everything about it? How could we skip that opportunity? So, with some fragments of stories & unfinished tales plus a hell of a lot of creative agency to change things, we were finally given the billion-dollar bloat that is The Rings of Power.

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TV Review – Better Call Saul Season 2

Better Call Saul Season 2 (2016)
Written by Thomas Schnauz, Gennifer Hutchison, Jonathan Glatzer, Gordon Smith, Ann Cherkis, Peter Gould, Heather Marion & Vince Gilligan
Directed by Thomas Schnauz, Terry McDonough, Scott Winant, Adam Bernstein, John Shiban, Michael Slovis, Colin Bucksey, Larysa Kondracki, Peter Gould, and Vince Gilligan

Our personal values can often clash with what we want to become. I taught elementary school for a decade and genuinely loved working with kids. It’s a special thing to watch students grow into themselves, gaining confidence in areas they once thought they were terrible at. But, with COVID-19 and the poor decisions made by my district’s leadership, I knew my personal values were not in line with the myopic view of those in charge of American public education. So I left. I say all this because Jimmy McGill goes through a similar experience, being forced to conform to a system that gatekeeps his ambitions. While me teaching children is not the same as being a slightly crooked lawyer, both instances are about staying true to oneself.

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TV Review – Reservation Dogs Season 2

Reservation Dogs Season 2 (FX)
Written by Sterlin Harjo, Dallas Goldtooth, Ryan RedCorn, Chad Charlie, Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs, Tazbah Rose Chavez, Erica Tremblay, Bobby Wilson, Blackhorse Lowe, Migizi Pensoneau, and Tommy Pico
Directed by Sterlin Harjo, Erica Tremblay, Danis Goulet, Tazbah Rose Chavez, and Blackhorse Lowe

I was a big fan of the first season of Reservation Dogs, finding it to be a smartly written and fresh show. Indigenous comedy is not something we settlers are exposed to very often, and I was grateful to be introduced to the talents involved in this show. Dallas Goldtooth immediately became my favorite with his portrayal of the spirit guide William Knifeman. But despite how much I enjoyed that first season, I wouldn’t say I loved it. That all changed with season two, which takes the established characters and goes further. It is one of the most emotionally moving, yet still hilarious, seasons of television I have watched in 2022.

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TV Review – Better Call Saul Season 1

Better Call Saul Season 1 (AMC)
Written by Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould, Thomas Schnauz, Gennifer Hutchison, Bradley Paul, and Gordon Smith
Directed by Vince Gilligan, Michelle MacLaren, Terry McDonough, Colin Bucksey, Nicole Kassell, Adam Bernstein, and Larysa Kondracki

Justice is a joke in the United States. I was born & raised in the U.S., and it’s evident that our system of law & order is a complete joke, a hollow icon trotted out by the worst corrupt figures responsible for doing near incalculable harm to the most vulnerable people. But we give them badges, call them “Judge,” and put everything on fancy official letterhead, which legitimizes the evil. There are always pressure release valves built into any social system like this, and the establishment understands most people will not go along with the idea that the justice system is hallowed & pure. So they allow us to mock one part of it, and it works out to their advantage that way; they mock defense attorneys. I grew up seeing commercials for people like Bart Durham, downright shady ads that promised people big paydays if they went with him. These are always working-class lawyers, the big city, expensive slick ones get a bit more grandeur in their media portrayals. On the surface, Saul Goodman appeared to be one of those ambulance chasers when he appeared on Breaking Bad. With his own series spin-off, a prequel of sorts, audiences got the chance to see if there was more beneath the colorful suits & flowery language.

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TV Review – Stranger Things Season 4

Stranger Things Season 4 (Netflix)
Written by The Duffer Brothers, Caitlin Schneiderhan, Paul Dichter, Kate Trefry, and Curtis Gwinn
Directed by The Duffer Brothers, Shawn Levy, and Nimród Antal

In Mark Fisher’s Ghosts of My Life, the author discussed the concept of hauntology. This is a pun on ontology, the philosophy of being. Hauntology is the inverse, the persistence of elements from the social or cultural past. Fisher did not coin this term, which came from Jacques Derrida in the Specter of Marx, a rumination on the post-Soviet world. Hauntology has been incorporated into almost all the arts; think of the DIY music genres that involve remixing old fragments while combining a 1980s or 1990s aesthetic. Fisher sees hauntology as indicative of an obsession with “lost futures.” This manifests as a yearning for repurposing old forms, not because they provide greater insight, but because they help numb the pain over realizing the utopian futures humanity once imagined for itself appear to be crumbling in the face of late-stage capitalism. We live in a disjointed time, out of step with what was supposed to be, and thus forced to retrace our past steps over and over and over, forever.

Stranger Things Season 4 finds the familiar cast of characters broken up across the world. It’s March 1986, and Mike (Finn Wolfhard) is going to visit Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) in California, where she lives with Joy Byers (Winona Ryder) and her sons Jonathan & Will (Charlie Heaton and Noah Schnapp, respectively). Meanwhile, in Hawkins, tensions boil over when popular cheerleader Chrissy is found dead in Eddie Munson’s trailer. Eddie is the Dungeonmaster of the high school’s Hellfire Club, which fuels the community’s paranoia about Satanism in the town. The Hawkins kids realize Chrissy’s murder was done by forces in the Upside Down. However, none of them know that Hopper (David Harbour) is still alive and imprisoned in a Soviet gulag where experiments are happening on creatures that have breached the wall between worlds.

Stranger Things has become one of those cultural signifiers for discussion about a renewed love & adoration of the 1980s. But I would argue it’s not quite that simple. This season Stranger Things became nostalgic for itself, with the extended flashbacks to an even younger Eleven and the tension between her and Papa (Matthew Modine), the scientist behind the program that developed her powers. So the nostalgia is now meta-textual, which works with how the show was received. Two groups find enjoyment in this show. The first are people of an age that makes Stranger Things a source of nostalgia, people in their 50s-40s who can use it as an escapist fantasy to their past. The second group is young people for whom Stranger Things cannot be a nostalgic experience. Instead, it serves as an escape from the nightmare of a futureless world. Both groups are searching for old forms that can be recreated and used to disconnect from the present. 

Mark Fisher speaks to this desire to live in perpetually recreating forms. There was a period in American culture where “newness” was a sensation experienced by every generation. Newness came in the form of unfamiliar presentations. Think of the evolution of popular music from the 1940s to the 1990s. Over those fifty years, there were points where someone might have heard music and not recognized it as anything but noise. This type of jarring, new form of music wasn’t something underground but being played on the radio. As a person in the culture, you had to reckon with how that “noise” redefined the collective understanding of music. Fisher argues, and I agree, that we do not encounter that newness anymore. Popular music shies away from potentially confusing new forms and just continues to repurpose the same sounds over and over. 

Where generations before us lived in a world that was transforming at an overwhelming rate, presenting them with media that exploded forms and challenged definitions, the 21st century appears to be an era where that is over. Our disorientation is akin to Groundhog Day. We seem to be living the same experiences repeatedly, with slight tweaks to the details. Stranger Things is its own show but is also based on repurposing aesthetics and moods from forty-year-old media. It does not present us with anything new; instead, its familiarity is its reason to exist. Eleven is Firestarter. Mike & friends are The Goonies. Vecna is Freddy Kreuger. What was old is new and renewed and renewed again. The show features contemporary young people, but their characters are designed around fantasized images of old viewers. Nothing is out of date when we no longer move towards a future.

This does not mean the period from the 1980s to the present has been static. On the contrary, we’ve experienced some horribly traumatic moments on cultural and individual bases. The transformation of the Western economies into neoliberalism has upended many institutions that were once able to be counted on, at least by the privileged classes. The rapid-fire evolution of technology since the days of the child heroes in Hawkins has been disorienting, to say the least. I can look at my college days in the early 2000s to the present and see how technology has an entirely different presence in my day-to-day life. One of the side effects of this unrelenting socio-political upheaval is the cancellation of the future. 

Francis Fukayama, one of the key authors in articulating the engine of neoliberalism, spoke to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of Western liberal democracy as “not just … the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: That is, the end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” This has led to a cultural “deflation of expectations,” as noted by Fisher. We no longer live expecting the sort of cultural shock moments brought to us by the advent of rock n’ roll or disco or hip hop. Instead, we have new artists wearing the husks of old forms, making no comment or critique on them, simply being them.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. Star Wars was a pastiche, an imitative work based on George Lucas’ childhood love of serialized adventure movies. Upon Star Wars’ initial release, just like Stranger Things, it worked for two audiences: an older audience who understood the reference and was able to lose themselves in the nostalgia and a younger audience for whom this appeared to be a new experience. It’s no coincidence that Star Wars’ ascendency is seen as the end of the introspective film movement of the 1970s. Indiana Jones is not something new either, following in the same nostalgic sentiment. Even Back the Future is a movie nostalgic for the filmmakers’ youthful days in the 1950s. As a child of the 1980s, I’ve really come to understand how much of what I perceived as formative media speaking to my generation is just another level of nostalgia for someone else. Fisher points out that a common refrain when a musicophile is asked about examples of “futuristic music” they will point to Kraftwerk, a group whose core work occurred around 40 years ago. No one has contemporary popular music they can point to as sounding “futuristic.”

The deeper problem with this, Stranger Things included, is that while we have these “nostalgic” pieces of media that are new, they do not ultimately feel right. There is something off about the Duffer Brothers’ the 1980s, whether it be the apparent contemporary use of digital effects or the way hair and clothes evoke a perception of the 1980s rather than the typical suburban blandness that it really felt like. This nostalgia cannot ever genuinely pass for the real thing, so we are left with this nagging psychological after-effect, the sense of disjointed time. The global mental health crisis in Western nations speaks to this growing disconnect. It fuels the sense of apocalypse; it truly feels that we are reaching the end because we have been conditioned to neither seek out nor seek to create new forms. Fisher states, “[,,,] the intensity and precariousness of late-stage capitalist work culture leaves people in a state where they are simultaneously exhausted and overstimulated. The combination of precarious work and digital communications leads to a besieging of attention. In this insomniac, inundated state […] culture becomes de-eroticized.” 

There is very little alive about popular art being produced in our time. It seems to speak to some yearning for our past because we are uncertain about our present and beyond. We look to the media as a drug, expected to provide a quick cozy fix, returning us to a time when we perceived life to be simple. This is because we’ve predicated our society on an economic philosophy that can only consume resources, time, people, and life. Those with the means will not risk it on new things because new things bring with them the potential for financial loss and an awakening of humanity. If we were to collectively wake up to our conditions, we might do something about them; we might fight to ensure security for ourselves, our children, and generations to come. Better than we are nestled in the comfy cocoon of nostalgia, the unnerving repurposing of forms. As British music journalist Simon Reynolds put it, “[…] in recent years, everyday life has sped up, but culture has slowed down.”

Edit: Just came across this tweet after publishing this article. Wow

TV Review – The West Wing Sucks Part 5

Not much has changed in the 24 hours since I posted my last review of this bullshit show. This weekend is being used by the elite to try and burn the fight out of many Americans. On Monday, they expect all the groveling cows to return to their shitty jobs for paltry wages. Congress is on their two-week break, and I can guarantee you’re going to see ramping up of anti-LGBTQ talking points among the conservative campaigns in the coming months. Hell, at this point, I suspect the Dems will join them on those talking points, appealing to an imaginary group of conservatives that would ever vote for a Dem. 

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TV Review – The West Wing Sucks Part 4

This is the end. Not of the world, probably not of humanity (yet). This is the end of the age we were born into. The world we knew is burning away. The world to come is uncertain. It could be fascist. It could be socialist. I am distraught it is the former. If you are out of the loop, reproductive rights for people with a uterus are gone in the United States. This is a reversal of a ruling predicate on a right to personal privacy. 

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