Article by: Anthony Florez
How weird is today, right? I’m writing this from the past, technically, I have no idea what is actually going on while you’re reading, but I’d be willing to bet that something bizarre just happened, and if it hasn’t… give it a second. If the law of averages amounts to anything, it has to be something good at this point, the world has been trending towards a pear-shaped apocalypse for far too long and we’re due for something miraculous, like chocolate-sprinkle rain or the return of the TV show Firefly. You know, something awesome.
Like most people, I’ve been stashed away at home trying to avoid human contact while going steadily more stir crazy as the days go by. Some people have arts and crafts, others have loved ones to torment, I have a dog that sheds relentlessly and follows me around while I cook. I also have streaming media and the opportunity to watch things while working from home and I’d like to take the opportunity to share some of what I’ve learned, to offer a primer in a shorter form than usual because there’s a lot to get through, and trying to write creatively or for pleasure from the same spot where I do actual work is a little like taking a bath in a swimming pool. Just…get out of the pool, ya weirdo. I don’t know where I was going with that.
Quick note before we jump into some categories and genres – once upon a time I worked at Blizzard Entertainment as a GM and had to get familiar with the world of… World of Warcraft. In order to do my job more effectively and support their devoted (fanatical) fanbase I absorbed the culture as best I could and discovered an event that occurred fifteen years ago that is referred to as the Corrupted Blood incident. Long story short a bug in the game allowed a transferable ‘virus’ that passed from player to player in one contained area accidentally escaped into the larger world causing absolute mayhem. Lower level players were wiped out almost immediately while higher level characters managed to survive, with some players intentionally invading highly populated areas with the intention of spreading chaos. This was eventually brought under control and later implemented as an in-game event, albeit one that was controlled and less destructive, however the behavior of some of these players created a high-level model for epidemiologists to study. At first I thought this was fascinating until I came to the realization that this couldn’t possible apply to real life, this was a video game, that there’s no way people would sacrifice themselves on purpose or willfully ignore the danger or intentionally try to infect others. Not in real life. People just aren’t that stupid.
Anyway, whiskey is the only disinfectant and sunshine I need on my insides. Anyone else’s liver feel itchy?
Q: How are you feeling?
A: I don’t want to think about the pandemic, I want to laugh/think about other stuff.
If this is your default mood, I get it. TV and movies are about escapism, how could Dustin Hoffman and the Monkey Virus possibly be trending on Netflix right now, who wants to watch that at a time like this? And you’re a pro, you’ve burned through The Office and Parks and Rec. The Good Place done and done. Basically if Michael Shur’s name is attached it’s in the bank. Good, cool. Here are some lesser known gems, shows that don’t follow the mockumentary format that dance to a different drum.
This is a quirky show with a very on-the-nose premise that veers off into kooky with nary a look back: Man has near superhuman powers of observation and deduction decides to pretend to be a psychic in order to consult for the police department, insert every-man buddy and skeptical police detective, pineapples ensue. No, seriously. Every episode of the series has pineapple hidden somewhere and if that doesn’t give a decent feel for the goofiness of this very good detective procedural I don’t know what else does. This was admittedly a background noise show for a little while as the first season tried to find it’s footing but it gets better as it goes and clearly stars a cast of actors having a great time with each other. It’s clever, fun, and charming, perfect for baking or mixed company.
This is an odd, heartfelt, Canadian riches-to-rags story about a formerly wealthy family forced to live in a ramshackle motel in the eponymous town. The real strength to Schitt’s Creek, not to take any credit away from the writing, is in the cast and characterizations, this is one of those shows that three or four episodes in the audience knows everyone’s name and personality, fully realized, which comes from the efforts of a terrific cast. The brain-child of Eugene Levy’s son and fellow star Dan Levy, it’s sort of an homage to earlier generations of sitcom, with only a handful of sets and situational, character driven comedy. It’s also terrific LGBT representation, where David’s sexuality is explored, commented on, simply accepted and the story carries on. Charming, weird, and worth the experience for Catherine O’Hara alone.
This isn’t as much of a sleeper as the previously mentioned titles but it has been off Netflix for awhile and deserves a revisit. It’s important to emphasize something and it’s that there isn’t a weak episode in the entire run and that’s insane for a comedy. Granted, some episodes are less funny than others but there isn’t a real dud in the mix and I’d argue it’s harder to be funny for seven seasons than it is for a drama to be dramatic and good for half that amount of time. Tina Fey’s creation hits on pretty much every cylinder, whether it’s politics, pop culture, meta-humor, slapstick, or mocking itself and everyone in the cast. Nothing is sacred and yet, weirdly, nothing is really that offensive, this was a network sitcom after all. Not recommended as background watching, there’s too much going on visually to keep up with.
One day 2% of the population suddenly vanish without a trace, no explanation, no space alien abductors, nothing. The remainders (obviously a better show name than the ‘leftovers’ which sounds like what’s sitting in a styrofoam container in my fridge that my dog is desperately hoping has his name on it) deal with the inherent existential nightmare and breakdown of society. Themes of loss, trauma, and survivor’s guilt devastate the cast of deeply grounded and human characters drowning in grief and….what category are we in, again?
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel-
Caveat going into this Amazon Prime Original Series, I have a great affection for the first season of this show but haven’t quite captured that same sense of charm in the subsequent two. That said this is a fascinating period piece set in an important era of stand up comedy from a unique perspective, and it succeeds in being both empowering and funny without being didactic.
Was your favorite part of Scrubs the tertiary characters, the awkward sexual humor, and creator Bill Lawrence’s ageless wife? Have I got a show for you. If I had to fault Cougar Town and it’s effort to entertain with the dating life of a middle aged divorcee it’s that everyone in it is effortlessly beautiful, successful, and independent, so not it’s even remotely grounded or realistic. But it is escapist fantasy about women written by men, if that’s what you’re looking for, that stars incredibly sexy people complaining about their sex lives. Come to think of it, I can’t recall an episode that passes the Bechdel Test, why am I recommending this? It’s hilarious and has heart, once it gets going, that’s why, also the amount of alcohol the characters consume will make you feel like there’s nothing wrong with your destructive habit. Fair warning, whatever doorbell sound they use in the show drove my dog out of his mind. I don’t know how that affects you but it’s worth noting.
Q: How are you feeling?
A: I bought all the tinfoil at the local grocery store so that I can have both a tinfoil hat and full suit of tinfoil armor to protect me from the 5G. Freak me out.
Also a good choice, you space cadet.
You’re right about some things, let’s see how weird we can get and who is coming for us and what to do when supplies run out. Although to be fair if you’ve ever had a shitty TV growing up we put tinfoil on the antenna to increase the power of the signal, so I don’t think that the hats are going to…block the signal so much as amplify it….but here we go!
I cannot endorse this show enough. I know, I know, taken at face value you’re going to look at me and go, “Skeet Ulrich? This is your guy?” And that’s fair, also a little mean, but fair. I will make my case thusly; this is a little watched and twice-cancelled network show about a nuclear attack on every major American city that plunges a small Kansas town into darkness and isolation. The townsfolk have to come together to pool their resources and skills to figure out how to survive without any support or communication from the outside world and it’s very grounded in reality to the point where, for example, a local salt mine becomes the most valuable commodity in the region. That’s right, salt becomes a currency. Medical supplies run out. Food and local fauna are scarce. Neighboring towns become bitter enemies. It’s Lord of the Flies with guns and grown adults and you might be thinking to yourself “But is there some kind of conspiracy going on here? I was promised a conspiracy.” Enter the inimitable Lennie James, baby. Was America really attacked by a foreign power? Was it?! Maybe. Maybe not. But maybe. But maybe not.
Lookit. I had a deep abiding dislike of Damon Lindeloff and this comes from going down the pointless rabbit-hole that is Lost along with his tendency towards Mystery Box storytelling brought on from being a JJ Abrams alum. Which is fine, because it was all the better when I discovered how effectively and brilliantly he’s shucked off that tendency, my expectations were so low that when I gave his take on Alan Moore’s seminal Watchmen Universe I was blown away. This single season of television was a rewarding, well thought-out supplemental imagining of an already ground-breaking depiction of superhero noir and human nature. This is one of those shows I wish I could go back and watch all over again after my memory wiped so I could experience it again, but please, seriously don’t wipe my memory, that was a hypothetical.
The Man in the High Castle-
Do you think being required to wear a mask outside or not being able to get a haircut is fascistic and un-American? False. This Amazon Original series is an alternate history take on Philip K. Dick’s novel about what life would be like had Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany won the second world war and it is a dystopian nightmare of subjugation and brutality. It’s also…a little bit long but worth the first season alone, just for the perspective and incredible production quality and for the weirdly necessary reminder to any and everyone who needs it that Nazis are total assholes. Full stop.
There is no better combination of interactive television than Unsolved Mysteries and America’s Most Wanted in the 90s, truly fascinating voyeuristic real-life experiences with the former narrated by the great Robert Stack. What could be more fun than watching these poorly staged reenactments and making wild conjectures about what could have happened to these poor people, other than maybe inventing a drinking game and holy shit, now I have to invent an Unsolved Mysteries Drinking Game. How about…drink every time Robert Stack is dope. *drunk*
Are you out of your mind? Go outside. Come back inside. Don’t watch Black Mirror right now.
Fine. Watch the Star Trek themed one and then get some ice cream. Otherwise, this isn’t a good idea.
It was a toss-up between this and Homeland, which is also a tremendous show (the first season finale sincerely gave me an anxiety attack, which is good, right?) but The Americans wins because it’s on Prime and because it has Keri Russell. Also, I don’t want to compel anyone to subscribe to Showtime to watch Homeland, it’s just not worth it. The premise? Set in the 1980s at the height of the Cold War a married couple with two children are actually deep undercover Soviet spies and where typically the man is the fanatic and the woman is the sensitive one, this dynamic is inverted and the tension between the two steadily ratchets up from season to season. This is one of the all time greatest shows ever in my humble and is definitely worth the trip down Paranoia Lane.
I mean, duh. The OG, the classic, the oft imitated never replicated, Mulder and Scully’s wry wit and earnest convictions make them the perfect pair to get us through this obvious Government Conspiracy designed to sell toilet paper and frighten the masses into growing out our hair until we look either very stupid or very sexy. I fall in the latter camp, with my ‘do being some cross between Luke Skywalker and Ponch from CHiPs, so nice try, Government. I can’t wait to go full on Beastmaster. There are two different experiences to be had with The X-Files: the standalone, Monster of the Week episodes and the long game, the seasons long mysteries that are deciphered piece by piece with agonizing deliberateness, either is an experience that is required watching for any true skeptic, or if you’re in the mood for a quick fix (come on, what else have you got to do, stop mowing your lawns, people) the first feature film is available on Prime.
Q: How are you feeling…really?
A: I don’t know. Get weird on me, mix it up. Surprise me.
One of the unfortunate downsides to cord-cutting is the inability to just throw it on TNT and let The Shawshank Redemption play over and over or switch on ESPN so talking heads can argue with each other in the background while your brain slowly leaks out of your ears. There’s a conscious decision required to choose comedy or action or talking or cartoon and that can be a lot of work. It’s hard to be surprised, is what I’m saying so let me take a shot at it.
Most everyone that I know just read that and snorted or rolled their eyes because I’ve not shut up about Outlander for months now and you know what, y’all can bite me. I was initially very skeptical of this show and it’s premise. Woman from the 1940s gets zapped back in time to 17th century Scottish Highlands. Love affairs across time. Mommy porn, etc. etc. And then I read that Ronald D. Moore was the showrunner and I balked. Moore is sort of a mythical nerd, he got his start writing spec scripts (spec meaning un-commissioned/unrequested/nobody asked) for Star Trek: The Next Generation then became a full time writer and in-house Klingon expert (not joking). Years later he went on to reboot Battlestar Galactica to tremendous critical and ratings success so how in the hell did he get it in his head to switch from that to Romance Novel fodder? No clue but my curiosity piqued. Finally Outlander showed up on Netflix. Why not, I said. What’s the harm, I thought. Welp.
I am a full on fanatic for this show and it’s rich plotting, breathtaking settings, fantastic acting, incredible characters. I am in love with this show so much that I keep a picture of the star on my phone just so I can feel the vapors come over me whenever I feel like it and I’m not talking about the lovely and talented Caitriona Balfre. I still identify as straight but, I mean, come on, the chemistry between the two leads is so white hot that the lines are blurred, sexy is sexy. In fact, I can’t come up with a reason why any typical heterosexual male wouldn’t fully enjoy this show for the violence and camaraderie and graphic sex scenes, it’s a win-win for everyone. And if for some reason the story being told from a woman’s perspective is a deal-breaker, well,
Claire Jaime and I don’t need you, anyway, move right along.
Netflix/Prime (with Starz subscription)
Speaking of the Starz network. American Gods was a thoroughly charming novel by Neil Gaiman that was adapted into an incredibly violent, visually stunning series with an ensemble cast that I recommend? Notice the question mark there, my voice went up a little, in order to convey mild reticence. I don’t think that the show is bad by any respect, I just get a little bit queasy when it comes to gore and for some reason Bryan Fuller, who created some charming television programs like Dead Like Me and Wonderfalls, apparently lost his frickin’ mind with the television series Hannibal and is fully on body-horror and gore in every facet of his newer shows. Where the novel was imaginative and full of elaborate details about obscure religions, the show is vivid and deliberate, it paints with broader brushstrokes. I feel like some of the charm of the book gets a little bit lost in those swaths, and that’s okay, if you haven’t read the book it won’t be missed. But you said get weird. This is weird.
I’m going to do something I normally try to avoid
like the plague like something irritating and inoffensive, and that’s repeat myself. To be clearer, I’m going to quote my own blog on this show because it’s one of the pieces I really like and any second attempt to describe this show is going to feel inadequate. TL;DR I’ve been jumping up and down about Patriot since it came out and it boggles my mind that it’s not become a sensation.
“Patriot is a confounding piece of television, in that I love it to pieces but when recommending it to people I find myself staring off into space trying to explain why. It’s easy to use certain adjective trains like surrealistic black comedy spy drama or describe it as comparable to the dry humor of the Coen brothers because while it is those things it’s also a tender and unique kind of weird that makes you lean in a little bit. It will juxtapose a pitch perfect awkward exchange of dialogue with a pratfall without missing a beat and then tap-dance deftly into what is essentially a spy drama. It’s The Bourne Identity mixed with Fargo crossed with a little bit of In Bruges and the main character John Tavner, portrayed with an eerie wounded intelligence by Michael Dorman, also happens to be an accomplished folk singer/songwriter with a bad habit of writing songs that literally recount his spycraft exploits. Oh, and it’s also beautiful. A lot of shows and films will suck the color and hue out of the frame to make things seem more dramatic or serious but what they fail to do to keep the viewer from getting lost in the greys and blues is compose a shot, and Patriot I could rewatch on mute.”
Original article here (Not monetized so I’m not shilling or anything).
We’re in the third or fourth generation of Stephen King adaptations (praise be to him, fellow Constant Readers) and it’s a good time to be a fan. The first run of media was hit or miss, Carrie was a sleeper hit, It was a surprisingly successful television mini-series, same for The Stand, and then it was a rough decade and a half. As a devoted fan I’d argue his drug-and-alcohol fueled era of writing made for some relatively two-dimensional horror tropes, it’s a period I don’t revisit or think much about but at some point in the 80s and 90s people started to discover there was more to the King of Horror than just the creepies. We got Stand By Me and Misery. Then the one-two punch from Frank Darabont in The Shawshank Redemption/The Green Mile among others. And while his works are still being adapted at a feverish pace (the best examples by the phenomenal Mike Flanagan) there has been a recent wellspring of King-adjacent successes, Inspired By’s and the like, shows like Stranger Things that openly cribs his style and beats.
Castle Rock is another example but is a little bit different in the sense that it actively operates inside Stephen King’s extended universe, it references his characters and settings, which to me is a little bit like a new prog rock band covering Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd and then adding fifteen minutes of their own music to the original. Blasphemy, right? Not in this case. Rather, the addition fits in perfectly and hits all the right notes and tone. In fact, it’s on par with and superior to almost any other King adaptation without having any reference material to go on, which is high praise from a humble man with a Dark Tower tattoo. And if it’s not apparent from the references, it is a spooker.
Tales from the Loop-
There is really too much television to keep track of these days. I don’t mean to complain but it’s getting a little out of hand, did you know that there such thing as Apple Television? Apple has it’s own TV shows now, I mean, I’m not going to watch them, but that’s remarkable and I feel bad for the artists and actors that are getting jobs that no one knows about during this embarrassment of riches. Tales feels like one of those shows that, if had come out five or ten years ago, would be an event, an exciting new entry into the occasionally anemic world of Science Fiction Fantasy. Sure we have Black Mirror (don’t watch it) and a new iteration of The Twilight Zone which was….okay. But there’s never enough, in my opinion and it’s refreshing to see something come along that leans into the genre with conviction and beauty, that has confidence in its audience to be as weird as it wants to be.
This is a hard show to get one’s head around without dedication, especially since it comes packaged in different parts. The original network TV series is something like a surrealistic soap opera that gets progressively stranger and more disturbing as it goes. The revival on Showtime is full on R-rated insanity, it’s distressing and frightening but undeniably a significant piece of art. I am, however, unequal to the task so I asked a friend, a Twin Peaks devotee and super-fan for a synopsis:
“Imagine a place amongst the pine trees, where you can have a damn good cup of coffee and a slice of cherry pie. A humble community with a long history as rich as it’s many secrets. A homecoming queen lost in an endless dream. A terrible secret hidden just beneath the surface of this bucolic, mountain town. This must-watch surreal drama created from the off-beat eccentricity of David Lynch will take you on an endless journey where the strange becomes familiar and the familiar fearful.”
-Leah Crowell, Super-fan
That’s it for now. I stuck with TV shows today but if anyone’s looking for a good movie or three maybe we’ll meet up again sometime soon. Goodness knows I have some spare time and I sure as shit haven’t mowed my lawn. Don’t forget to exercise and eat right and take care of one another. One day in the not too distant future we’ll look back on this list and laugh, “Hahaha!” Remember when we were all stuck in our houses and apartments ordering takeout, playing video games, and reconnecting with loved ones? When we were forcefully shucked from our normal routines and had to contemplate our own thoughts and lives, to reflect thoughtfully on our own value systems and priorities? To wonder if the daily grind is really worth it in the long run, while the sun is shining and the stars spin overhead, how does one more product shipped, one more dollar earned, one more hour clocked really improve our experience in this brief existence? Or is this, because of the sacrifices and hard work of our medical professionals and a price paid in an unbearable loss of life, a kind of bittersweet gift that allows for a pause, a moment of clarity in this strange, shared experience for us to look around at each other from a safe distance and feel momentarily together in solitude before the moment passes and time marches ever onward, erasing this aberration, this eddy that will disappear with the current when we all return to whatever becomes the new normal. I’m certain it’s one of those things, but in the meantime, there isn’t an entry on this list that hasn’t affected me in some way, I hope there’s something on there that has been worth the time we shared. Thanks for stopping by.
Alias, Amazon Prime
The first two or three seasons of this JJ Abrams spy thriller are fantastic, compulsively watchable, and terrific fun. It gets lost in the weeds as the seasons wear on but everything before that is full-on good fun.
Avatar: The Last Airbender, Netflix (Coming later this month)
This deserves an entire article to itself, so great is this animated series, a brief Reader’s Digest recap doesn’t do it justice. That might seem like an oversell for a title in the Honorable Mentions category, I just don’t have the time and energy to gush over it until I’ve done another full rewatch. Yes, it’s an anime, yes it was on Nickelodeon. But the themes and character arcs are so well written and developed that it transcends the genre and explores alienation, friendship, genocide, loss, love, heroism, self-esteem… it’s a marvelous story, perfectly realized that deserves a place of respect alongside more adult fair like Breaking Bad or The Wire. Odd comparisons, right? Well, it completed its arcs, it developed it’s characters, it tells a unique fantasy epic and it ended when it was time to end. It’s as literary as any of those examples, all while being funny and heartwarming along the way.
Game of Thrones, HBO
This was sort of a flash in the pan that didn’t go anywhere, right? What a fantastic, well-realized Universe modeled after real historical events in a fantasy setting that had one of the best ensemble casts ever assembled, it’s a real shame that they never made it out of the sixth season, right? I mean, what a cliffhanger! What stakes! What a bold decision to not try and exceed the source material until it had been properly fleshed out by its gifted creator, I mean, who knows what kind of epic disaster might have taken place, what kind of botched rush-job that soured an entire franchise for its international audience and…I….
Wait. What timeline are we in…WHAT TIMELINE ARE WE IN?!?