Space Force is too deferential to be satirical

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It’s odd to think of Space Force as a satire, exactly, even though that’s presumably how you’re meant to understand it. Few recent comedies have responded so directly, and so literally, to the Trump era; most have been more oblique in their commentary, and others faltered when all they had to offer was the dim thrill of recognition. (Veep in its final season struggled particularly on that front.) Yet Space Force is altogether more upfront about its inspiration, advertising its real-world premise right from the start.

To recap: in the summer of 2018, Trump announced the creation of a sixth branch of the American Military, the Space Force. It was met with exactly the jokes you’d expect – bad ones – and then it was largely forgotten about, meriting the occasional mention whenever it was in the news again. (The logo looks a lot like the Star Trek logo! Why are the uniforms in a camouflage pattern, what is there to hide from in space?) Everyone moved on, apart from Netflix; looking to capitalise on sub-SNL level twitter memes, they pitched “Space Force” to Steve Carrell, who brought Greg Daniels onboard in turn. The show was announced in January 2019, and that long-awaited reunion was key to its appeal: Netflix’s first trailer boasted “created by the guys who brought you The Office” and “starring Steve Carrell” and little else. Production was quick, and a little over a year later, here it is – the TV show launching before a single rocket got off the ground.

On the face of it, then, it seems obvious what Space Force was meant to be: a satire. Not necessarily a high-minded one, no – it wouldn’t be, the premise is riffing on “President Drumpf is so orange” style twitter jokes – but that’s hardly a problem in and of itself. A workplace comedy that leans into the absurdity of the Trump administration to lambaste its wider failings certainly could work, even if being quite so literal-minded in its approach brings obvious risks with it (is this the moment to debut a comedy about the institutional incompetence of the US government, given everything?).

But Space Force is hardly that at all. If anything, it seems to aspire to be to Trump’s military what Brooklyn Nine-Nine is to the police – it’s far more celebratory than it is critical, and much too deferential in its outlook to broach even the softest satire. At its heart, Space Force fundamentally believes in the value of the actual United States Space Force. That assumed merit underlines the entire programme, preventing the Space Force from ever truly being an object of ridicule – the moral at the end of every half hour quite clear that, no matter how many costly mistakes they might make, or animals they might kill, everyone in the Space Force has a heart of gold. It’s telling, actually, that Carrell, Daniels, and Lisa Kudrow (wasted throughout in a baffling role) each seemed to have convinced themselves that a branch of the army dedicated to space warfare isn’t just a good idea, but a necessary one –  “if we didn’t have one,” Daniels explained in an interview, “we would still need one because of other countries doing the same thing”.

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Quickly, then, it starts to become clear why Space Force’s satire isn’t quite as sharp as one might expect. The viral jokes that inspired Netflix in the first place didn’t, on any level, treat Donald Trump’s proposed Space Force seriously; Space Force, however, takes it (mostly) at face value. There’s something a little strange about how it hedges its bets, actually: Space Force the comedy is quite plainly an effort to capitalise on the widespread mockery the real project received, so you’d be forgiven for assuming the show would follow broadly the same tone. Perhaps in the rush to get the show finished while it was still relevant – it was obviously a speedy production, with Ben Schwartz clearly not in the same room as everyone else for the first two episodes – they forgot why the premise was supposed to be funny in the first place?

But, no, because there is an obvious reason why Space Force is altogether more hesitant in execution than in concept, and it’s likely why Daniels et al convinced themselves of the need for a real Space Force: because ridiculous or not, they’re still the army. “It’s not our intention to go all-out and poke fun at the military. Steve and I both have relatives in the military. We have a lot of respect for all the positives that our relatives have,” said Daniels in one interview, and explained in another that “our goal was to make somebody in the military enjoy the show and not feel like some snotty Hollywood person was making fun of them”.

What should have been the target of Space Force’s satire instead became its target audience – and it never shakes that belief that the military can do nothing wrong. In a smarter show, Steve Carrell’s character would almost be the villain of the piece, with John Malkovich’s Chief Scientist Dr Mallory the lead; more often than not though, Space Force is about learned experts being proven wrong by the infallible instinct of military men. Far from deflating Trump’s supposedly absurd scheme, Space Force buys into the hype and then some.

With that in mind, then, it’s especially striking who Space Force does position as an antagonist. Not Trump; he’s curiously absent. Nor Carrell’s General Naird either, as we’ve established – though there are moments when it seems he might almost be the villain of the piece, likely the lingering remnants of otherwise discarded drafts. Instead, “Anabela Ysidro-Campos” – a lazy caricature of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – is Space Force’s adversary of choice in the first half of its run. (Although that’s a slight misrepresentation: she’s actually “the angry young congresswoman” for most of the time she’s onscreen, only named relatively late in the day.) It’s notable that, for all that Carrell et al maintained this was a non-partisan show, it’s a left-wing politician who comes under most criticism from the show: most of her scenes play as though someone saw the viral clips of Ocasio-Cortez tearing Mark Zuckerberg apart and thought “wouldn’t it be great if he won the argument, and also he was Steve Carrell?”

That Space Force found Ocasio-Cortez an easier target than Trump is unsurprising – and it’s not her politics, in a straightforward sense at least, that come under attack. Rather, their Ocasio-Cortez analogue is worthy of disdain because she dares question the military, instead of accepting it as a simple unassailable good. It’s borne of that obsequious deference to the army that sees Space Force pull its punches time after time. There’s an inclination perhaps to chalk that up to a Netflix executive somewhere, worried about the response if they were perceived to mock the troops – more likely, though, it was just an immediate, instinctive reluctance on the part of those involved.

Whether satire can sustain in an increasingly absurd world is an oft-repeated talking point – probably, to be frank, too often. Space Force, in its attempt to tackle that absurdity head on, illustrates a far more fundamental problem: stripped of any actual critique, lacking any meaningful target, its comedy is inert and impotent. It’s hard not to look at the time and money – especially the money – that went into Space Force and wonder what, exactly, the point of it all was.

Related:

We’ve seen I Am Not Okay With This before, but that’s the point

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Best of 2019 | #8 – Stath Lets Flats

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Last year, Stath Lets Flats didn’t make my top ten. I included it under honourable mentions – almost, but not quite, good enough for the list. This year, I think it might be one of the straightforwardly funniest shows I’ve seen all year.

Yesterday, I was talking about Derry Girls as being one of the most distinct comedies on television at the moment, comparing it to Fleabag and This Way Up. I almost said it was more distinct than Stath Lets Flats, too, before something gave me pause. Where Derry Girls is recognisably different from its contemporaries and easily distinguished from its predecessors, Stath Lets Flats is, well, unrecognisably different. It’s not hard to highlight influences on either – Derry Girls is a little bit like The Inbetweeners, and lots of people have pointed out that Stath Lets Flats is a bit like The Office or Alan Partridge. (I would contend that Stath himself is maybe not a million miles away from Mr Bean, actually.)

But where it’s relatively easy to explain what Derry Girls does distinctly – quite how specific its voice is – for the most part, its humour and its rhythms are pretty easily understood. Stath Lets Flats, on the other hand? It’s often quite difficult to articulate exactly how funny it is after fact: it isn’t so much that explaining the joke ruins it, but that it’s really hard to explain the joke in the first place.

Part of the appeal – the easiest bit to explain – is Jamie Demetriou. He’s front and centre in Stath Lets Flats – obviously he is, as creator, writer and star. One of the first things you notice about Demetriou is how tall he is; the next is how good he is at physical comedy. It’s not subtle, exactly, but it is a constant feature in the background – lanky and gangling, watch how he folds in and out of cars or fumbles his energy drink. In fact, the recurring energy drink joke that opens the second episode is probably the best example of what Stath Lets Flats is and what it’s good at. If you don’t enjoy that, you’re probably not going to enjoy the show full stop.

The other thing about Stath Lets Flats is the language. This is where it gets a bit more difficult to articulate exactly what’s going on with Stath, because just on a basic level, the way the title character talks is almost entirely like any other character on television. Sam Wolfson called it “almost his own language, a creole of north London slang, Greek idioms and the patois of ineptitude”, which is a neat way of putting it, but still doesn’t quite capture the almost lyrical nonsense of Stath Lets Flats. Sarah Manavis wrote probably the best piece of Stath’s dialogue I’ve seen so far: how the recognisable slang chafes against unexpected vocabulary, a tenuous, disjointed echo of something you’re faintly familiar with. It’s not, as Manavis points out, a million miles away from internet shitposting. Or, put another way? If The Good Place is the sort of programme that would try and fail to make a joke about 30-50 feral hogs, Stath Lets Flats is the sort of programme that would make a joke that taps into the same sense of humour – and make it work. It’s probably the only sitcom on television that could make that claim: a whole mode of comedy, otherwise completely untapped on screen. That’s something special, no matter how you try and sell it.

The eccentric, off-kilt lead is but one part of an eccentric, off-kilt ensemble of course. The obvious standouts are Natasia Demetriou and Al Roberts – their almost romance and sweet chemistry is one of the best parts of the show – but often it’s the less prominent supporting characters who really shine, like Kiell Smith-Bynoe as Dean, the closest thing to a straight-man the show can manage. My personal favourite, though, has to be Ellie White (Natasia Demetriou’s frequent collaborator and comedy partner) who, as Katya, is a perfect foil to Stath. Probably one of the most obvious improvements between the first and second series – other than the sense that all involved are now a lot more confident in what they’re doing – is the fact that Katya shows up more often in series 2.

There’s been an instinct, amongst some, to suggest that Stath Lets Flats is a parable for the Brexit age. It resonates, yes, and it’s not hard to see how or why – I’m fairly sure the cast and crew did a twitter thread about how each character voted a few weeks ago, though I can’t find it now.

But that’s almost missing the point. Stath Lets Flats doesn’t need to be “about” anything to be worthwhile – indeed, Jamie Demetriou said it’s about everything apart from Brexit. It’s valuable because it’s one of the most idiosyncratic, most original, and funniest shows of the year. No wonder it made this list.

Click here to find the rest of the Best of 2019 list – or, click here to filter by television shows and here to filter by television episodes

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Best of 2019 | #10 – The Good Place 4×09, “The Answer”

the good place the answer daniel schofield valeria migliassi collins ted danson william jackson harper michael chidi best of 2019 top ten review

For the most part, I actually do not particularly like The Good Place.

I often find it twee and overly saccharine; as a character drama, it rarely convinces; worst of all, it’s almost never funny. Far moreso than any television show currently airing, The Good Place makes me feel hugely out of step with both critical consensus and the zeitgeist as a whole. (Somewhat ironically, my favourite stretch of the show has been the much-derided third season. Go figure.) Every time it’s appeared on a best of the year list, I’ve been mystified – the fact it’s routinely showed up on best of the decade lists, often in the top twenty or so, is entirely baffling to me.

More than once, I’ve thought about trying to articulate the things that bother me about The Good Place – a few weeks ago I almost wrote a piece I was going to title “The Bad Place” – but it’s never really felt worth it. Unlike, say, Game of Thrones, this critical darling – however much I don’t connect with it – never really felt like it warrants a concerted attempt at a takedown. (For now, anyway; I am quite keenly of the belief that The Good Place is going to age much more poorly than its direct predecessor, Parks and Recreation.) Besides, even if I’m not convinced it’s that good, I don’t think it’s actively bad per se – I mean, if nothing else, I’m still watching it each week. I do enjoy it, however qualified and caveated that enjoyment is.

The Answer – one of the last ever episodes of The Good Place, given it’s coming to a final conclusion at the beginning of next year – is, maybe in light of that, an odd choice for this list. Neatly enough, though, this feels like not only the best episode of The Good Place’s fourth season, but also a fairly neat articulation of all the things I genuinely do love and enjoy in a show I’ve often struggled to get to grips with.

It’s a midseason finale, presented essentially as a clip-show – the sort of cheap contrivance sitcoms use to save money – though here that structural conceit is instead styled around largely new footage. (Clever, but not innovative – the gold standard for this device is surely, as with most sitcoms, Community.) Still, it’s a neat way to reflect on Chidi’s life: taking in all his worries, anxieties and doubts in their entirety. And, much more importantly, it’s a neat way to finally recentre Chidi within the narrative, after side-lining him for too much of this season.

Which is, of course, illustrative of The Good Place’s chief strength, and the reason it’s never quite lost me: that cast. Not only the most attractive ensemble this side of Riverdale, the cast of The Good Place are surely amongst television’s most charming. Granted, I’ve never been especially convinced by the show’s comedy credentials – it’s the only show on television I could imagine making a 30-50 feral hogs joke, and I do mean that as a criticism – so for me the appeal has always been primarily in terms of those performances. You could credibly highlight the performance of any of the regulars – they’re all that good, all in their own way the ‘best’ of the cast. It’s better to just appreciate their chemistry as an ensemble, though, because singling any of them out misses the point – it’s not how good they are, it’s how good they are together.

The Answer feels like the first episode this season that really gets this – or the one that comes closest to it, at least. Finally, Chidi – or, actually, more accurately, finally William Jackson Harper, the best actor in the cast – is actually emotionally and narratively present, rather than just flitting about the edges. Yes, it’s a showcase episode for him in much the same way Janet(s) was for D’Arcy Carden, the best actor in the cast (an excellent episode, even if it too wasn’t actually as innovative as it’s often credited as).  As a Chidi character study, it’s often poignant, with a sweet sort of levity to it as well, the sort of thing that’d stand out in any show.

But it also, at last, reunites him properly with the other characters, learning something from each: the value of spontaneity from Jason (Manny Jacinto, the best actor in the cast) the significance of failure from Tahani (Jameela Jamil, a better actor than an activist); his first kiss with Eleanor (Kristen Bell, also the best actor in the cast), a neat reminder that everyone who dislikes that relationship is wrong; that final, devastating moment with Ted Danson, the best actor in the cast. Sure, the whistle-stop tour version doesn’t quite emphasise the cast as an ensemble, but it does let them all sparkle. The intimate, thoughtful introspection of The Answer – setting aside the afterlife-lore that’s become as complex as it is twee in favour of something grounded in real emotions – is easy to point to as a high-water mark for the show.

And that’s it from The Good Place, until the (probably, in one last bit of structural playfulness, in real time) two-part finale next month, with the actual answer – even if that’s no answer at all. For a show that I’ve often found frustrating, and don’t think quite deserves the reputation it’s gained – there are two, arguably three, further entries on this list that do a better job of interrogating morality under late-stage capitalism and what we owe to each other – this was a neat reminder of all the ways in which The Good Place actually is, well, good, even when the show itself has recently lost sight of that a little.

So that’s why it’s snuck into tenth place on this list – because I feel like I’ve finally got a little closer to the answer myself.

Check back tomorrow to find out my ninth favourite television show of the year! Well, I say that – I am actually already a little behind where I wanted to be with this, and it’s the election tonight, so that’s obviously going to take up a chunk of time. But I am determined to keep as close to schedule as I can!

Click here to find the rest of the Best of 2019 list – or, click here to filter by television shows and here to filter by television episodes

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Russian Doll is the first meaningful contender for the best show of 2019

russian doll netflix review natasha lyonne leslye headland amy poehler greta lee yul vasquez charlie barnett elizabeth ashley jamie babbit chloe sevigny

The immediate reaction when you hear about Russian Doll is “wait, isn’t that a little bit like Groundhog Day?” – or, indeed, “wait, isn’t that a little bit like Happy Death Day?” – but this latest Netflix offering isn’t as derivative as that first impression might suggest. Working within a premise that’s fast becoming a genre unto itself, Russian Doll has a genuinely impressive capacity to surprise – most obviously in the fact that it’s become an early contender for the best show of 2019.

Let’s start, as the show does, with Natasha Lyonne – indeed, in a sense Russian Doll begins and ends with Lyonne, who’s not only star but also co-creator, frequent writer, and director of the stellar finale. If any show could be described as a star vehicle, it’s this one; it’s difficult to think of a recent programme that achieves as much on the strength of its lead performance as Russian Doll does. Lyonne plays Nadia Vulvokov, a woman caught in an endless (and, yes, Groundhog Day-esque) loop, dying and reliving the same night over and over again – the night of her 36th birthday party. Lyonne is caustic and abrasive as Nadia, but deeply, deeply funny; Russian Doll delights in her idiosyncrasies and eccentricities, as well it should. (A whole article could be written specifically to celebrate the way Lyonne pronounces “cockroach”, enunciating it as a three-syllable word.) There’s a certain clomping psychicality to her performance too, an awareness of motion and body language that anchors the character with a certain leaden weariness: it’s obvious that Nadia is carrying something with her as she moves through each successive loop.

The first three episodes of Russian Doll revolve more or less entirely around Nadia, an exercise in establishing a premise and pushing its boundaries (although the first episode does include a vital link to the second half of the series). It’s a testament to the skill of all involved that this doesn’t feel like a show spinning its wheels right out of the gate – Russian Doll even manages to avoid the characteristic pacing problems Netflix shows so often suffer from. No, those first four episodes are a necessary piece of groundwork, and an excellent showcase for Lyonne’s knack for physical comedy; an extended sequence of Nadia trying and failing to go down the stairs safely is one of Russian Dolls best recurring jokes. (One of Russian Doll’s less obvious strengths, in fact, is a keen awareness of repetition as a comedy tool – of both its potential and how best to use it.) It all adds up to four episodes of television that are genuinely very funny, if not necessarily something that would be remembered as one of 2019’s standouts.

It’s the third episode cliffhanger, though, where Russian Doll really starts to sing.

russian doll netflix natasha lyonne nadia vulvokov charlie barnett alan zaveri leslye headland the way out ariadne a warm body alan's routine elevator lift cliffhanger

Within a premise like Russian Doll’s, the supporting cast could very easily be thankless roles – resetting with each loop, stuck repeating different variations on the same lines over and over. It’s worth noting the quiet, understated skill of the wider supporting cast that Russian Doll largely avoids this; within relatively little televisual real estate, as it were, Greta Lee, Elizabeth Ashley and Yul Vazquez, amongst others, are all able to quickly define their larger than life roles.

Nonetheless, though, one of Russian Doll’s key twists on the familiar premise is in giving Nadia a companion in her repetitions – Charlie Barnett plays Alan Zaveri, also continually dying and reliving a single night. Introduced at the close of the show’s fourth episode, Alan is, in many ways, the perfect foil to Nadia; Barnett gives a mannered, controlled performance as an individual who’s so insecure and nervous he seeks refuge in the strict routine of the loop. Alan is just as neurotic as Nadia, ultimately, it just manifests in different ways. Lyonne and Barnett complement one another well – it’d be dull to suggest that a female character’s story becomes more interesting with the addition of a male one, but that’s not what’s happening here anyway. No, it’s simply the case that giving a talented performer a similarly talented foil elevates the show – a rising tide lifts all ships, in this case.

The relationship between Nadia and Alan is ultimately key to Russian Doll’s spiky story of self-destruction, the heart of a character study that’s like a matryoshka doll in more ways than one. Across the latter half of the series, Russian Doll gradually pares back the layers of its lead characters as it moves from dark comedy to existential angst – there’s a rising intensity that comes with it, a result of touchingly introspective reflection. In a finale with more than one impressive directorial flourish, Russian Doll makes a bold declaration of intent; a move away from Nadia and Alan’s tragically isolated solipsism at the beginning of their loops, and towards a quiet embrace of what they share. At the heart of this Russian doll, there’s not one person, but two – and that makes things better, a little bit.

And with that, Russian Doll becomes the first meaningful contender for the best show of 2019.

Related:

My Top 10 TV Shows of 2018

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Who is America? Who cares?

sacha baron cohen who is america erran morad showtime trump jason spencer corrinne olympios oj simpson bernie sanders who cares review criticism

The most damning flaw of Who is America?, of course, is that it ultimately says very little; for a satire advertised as “the most dangerous show in history”, it lands few punches, and enjoys no meaningful success in its efforts to reveal some broader truth about the increasingly divided cultural identity of the United States.

Very few of the sketches are as trenchant or as incisive as Baron Cohen presumably thinks; most illustrate little more than people’s surprising willingness to remain polite in the face of exaggerated caricatures. These segments are awkward at best – the most obvious example being the dinner party in the first episode, where two Republican election agents and Trump supporters hosted Baron Cohen’s liberal caricature Dr Nira Cain-N’Degeocello as he told them about his wife’s affair with a dolphin – but at worst feel like genuine missed opportunities. When Baron Cohen interviewed former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders under the guise of Billy Wayne Ruddick, a right-wing commentator in the vein of an Infowars style conspiracy theorist, it amounted to little more than farce: ‘Ruddick’ asks Sanders why, if he “believes in equality“, he doesn’t “move the 99% into the 1%“, leaving the senator clearly baffled, but still making an attempt to humour Ruddick.

It’s difficult to work out what, exactly, this is supposed to say about the state of America – it’s not clear what questions are even being posed. Sanders is far from beyond reproach as a politician and a potential presidential hopeful for 2020, and it’s not hard to think of ways to criticise or question him through a character like Ruddick; Baron Cohen’s ‘Truthbrary’ correspondent could’ve supported Sanders’ record on gun control, perhaps, or thanked Sanders for the part he arguably played in getting Trump elected. Either would have offered potential for a more vigorous examination of Sanders’ place in the American zeitgeist; indeed, anything would’ve been an improvement over what actually took place.

There’s something more discomforting, though, about Baron Cohen’s non-political sketches – something that highlights not just a weakness to his satire, but a genuine moral failing. Consider his efforts, as fashion photographer Gio Monaldo, to convince reality TV star Corinne Olympios to claim she went to Sierra Leone to fight Ebola and stop a massacre; what was presumably intended to be cutting commentary on celebrity culture, portraying Olympios as vapid and vacuous, is ultimately much more damning of Baron Cohen himself. Setting aside the fact that Olympios’ later account of what happened makes it clear the sketch was essentially tantamount to entrapment, and ignoring the fact that the reality TV star Baron Cohen felt was so deserving of criticism is also the one perhaps most famous for being sexually assaulted on The Bachelor, the implication that Baron Cohen thinks Olympios is in any way morally equivalent to the likes of Jason Spencer says far more about him that it does her.

But then, of course, that was always the problem with Who is America? – it’s a programme without any perspective, reduced to making broad, sprawling criticisms that are little more than fumbling swipes because it isn’t working from a meaningfully defined moral position of its own. Of course it doesn’t say anything, of course this supposedly dangerous piece of satire doesn’t land any punches: it never could.

Even the most successful sketches have a certain nagging air of pointlessness to them. Yes, right wing politicians – and, indeed, right wing people – are willing to say some pretty shocking things with relatively little prompting. And? This is hardly revelatory, or even news exactly – or rather, it’s hardly revelatory because it is the news, day in, day out, and has been since Trump launched his presidential campaign by calling Mexicans rapists. Undeniably, there’s something quite striking about a lot of Baron Cohen’s sketches, particularly those in character as Erran Morad, an Israeli anti-terror activist; even then, though, if you set aside the shock value, there’s something decidedly insubstantial about them.

Perhaps the most memorable sketch across the course of the series was the one that featured Jason Spencer, a Republican congressman from Georgia; ostensibly teaching Spencer how to protect himself from terrorists, Baron Cohen convinces the right-wing lawmaker to take upskirt photos, run around with his trousers down, and yell the N word. One of the more shocking moments of the series – Spencer took very, very little prompting – it’s also arguably the only sketch that had any real impact: shortly after the episode aired, Spencer resigned from congress.

It seems an impressive testament to the wider impact of Who is America? until you realise that Spencer was already a lame duck congressman, having been beaten in a primary some months earlier; his time left in office was already limited, and the significance of his resignation is ultimately very little. It’s not that Who is America? would’ve needed to prompt waves of resignations to have any meaning, but rather the fact is that, if shock value is all the show offers in a time when shocks amount to nothing, of course it’s going to be insubstantial.

What, though, is Who is America? actually trying to say? If its premise is that America is suffering from some moral rot on a wider cultural level, then what does the show highlight as the cause?

It’s worth looking at the programme’s title sequence, which is arguably the most telling aspect of the entire show when trying to divine what Who is America? is actually trying to say. A sweeping shot of sunlit uplands and a montage of iconic quotes from former presidents gives way to a dizzying series of intercut images: Trump mocking a disabled reporter, Charlottesville Nazis and Women’s march protestors, Hillary Clinton with Harvey Weinstein, and a great big question mark hanging over them all.

Here, in the contrast between the image of the America of old and “America today”, it becomes clear what Who is America? is trying to say, and why it ultimately says nothing at all. Of course Bernie Sanders isn’t held to account, of course Corinne Olympios and art expert Christy Cones are morally equivalent to Dick Cheney and Jason Spencer, of course there’s nothing to offer but shock value. Sacha Baron Cohen isn’t concerned with ethics, he’s concerned with aesthetics – the ultimate crime his victims have committed is simply looking foolish. That’s what sets America of the past, represented by Reagan, and America today, represented by Trump, apart from one another: appearances.

And so there’s only ever one answer to Baron Cohen’s central question, at least as it’s posed in Who is America?

Who cares?

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On Succession, likeable characters, and the scope of a series

succession hbo brian cox jeremy strong kieran culkin sarah snook alan ruck matthew macfadyen nicholas braun jesse armstrong adam mckay

Succession’s first episode recently aired for the first time in the UK; in the US, meanwhile, the HBO series has just finished its first season.

What’s been interesting to observe, though, is the narrative that’s built up around Succession. Certainly, the series is well acclaimed – or, at least, it is now. There’s been a noticeable trend of people who watched the pilot episode and gave up, only returning because of the strong word of mouth from those who did continue with the series; in terms of the show’s reception, Succession is the story of a programme that lost a lot of viewers before eventually reclaiming them.

It’s not difficult to understand why someone might not want to continue watching Succession after finishing the first episode. It’s not that it’s a bad episode, exactly; in a lot of ways, it’s quite compelling. However, focusing as it does on a family seemingly comprised entirely of deeply horrible people, Succession isn’t a programme that goes out of its way to endear viewers to its characters – indeed, the exaggerated displays of ostentatious wealth that punctuate the pilot episode are no doubt intended to elicit contempt for the characters. There’s no ‘pat the dog’ moment, with director Adam McKay and writer Jesse Armstrong going to great lengths to ensure that, by the end of the episode, you’re going to hate more or less all of them.

So!

A few scattered thoughts here on Succession, one of HBO’s latest dramas. (Well, I’m inclined to be difficult and call it a comedy, but still.) What I found quite interesting about Succession is the way that the conversation around it developed, with a lot of people beginning the series, abandoning it, and then returning because of strong word of mouth from those who stuck with it.

That got me thinking a little bit about likeable characters (I’ve been winding myself up a lot about whether or not “likeable” is the correct spelling, and I’m still not wholly sure) and… I called it “the scope of a series”, but what I mean is the amount of time we’re willing to give a programme to unfold and show its full hand. That had been on my mind for a while anyway, ever since I saw a couple of reviews really rip into Genius: Picasso based on its first four episodes, so it was good to get a chance to talk about it.

I’m not, admittedly, entirely sure anything I said made sense, but then I’m never especially sure of that to be honest! I always find the more editorial/opinion esque pieces a little more difficult. Something to work on, I suppose.

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Flowers, a quiet comedy with the feel of a melancholy fairytale, is strikingly brilliant

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The second series of Flowers, a piece which is very much in conversation with its predecessor, continues to evoke the feel of a fairytale – approaching it, however, from a different aesthetic. As writer and director Will Sharpe (who also plays Shun, the Flowers’ live-in illustrator) noted, Flowers draws on “a pagan and mystical heritage”, and that’s something the second series really emphasises. Broader in scope than series 1, moving its focus from Maurice to his daughter Amy, Flowers series 2 builds itself around the aesthetic of the aforementioned “pagan and mystical heritage”. There’s a new, warmer colour palette, in keeping with the summer setting; it’s evocative of the world of faerie, positioning mental health issues within that liminal space.

As a result, there’s a different energy to Flowers’ second series – it’s now less a haunting reverie and more of a wild rush. Indeed, something that’s worth remarking on about Flowers, and is perhaps less often spoken about, is the editing; much of Flowers comes down to the experience of watching it, the feeling of that wild rush, and that’s created in no small part by Selina Macarthur’s editing. The show masters tone such that it is, in some respects, less a television series and more of an experience –  the texture and the feel of the show is, arguably, one of the most impactful things about it.

This one, admittedly, I think I messed up.

So, I was running late with this piece, for various boring reasons we’ll call “personal problems” (in that they pertain to problems with me as a person) which put me under some time constraints when it came to actually writing it. You can perhaps tell, I think, because the second half of the article (typically the close focus/second idea aspect, insofar as I ever stick to the relatively loose structure I try and use) is a broader, more general “things that are good about the show” section, which is usually though not always a sign that I’ve struggled to get the piece to work. Possibly I shouldn’t have revealed the trick. Whoops.

Anyway, a day or two later, with some more though, I realised what I would have liked to write for the second half of the article, because it (hopefully) would have actually advanced all those ideas about fairytales and pagan mysticism I put forward in the first half. Essentially, the character Shun is kind of at a remove from the rest of the characters, right? On a couple of levels, really; there’s just the fact that the character is at a bit of a loose end sometimes, not a member of the family, whatever, but there’s also the metatextual level – Shun is played by Will Sharpe, who created it and writes it and directs it. He’s more of an observer for a lot of it, and we also know he’s the creator.

Also notable, though: Shun is the only one who ever interacts with these magical realism elements. He has that moment with his family (is that significant because of like, forests and the dead in both English and Japanese culture?) at the end of s1, and – eliding spoilers – s2 has an ending similarly shaped around Shun. Well, similar in that he’s important. Anyway, what does that say about the show?

Not a clue, but I felt like I’d stumbled onto something really important but didn’t have the time to actually let it develop into anything. That felt like a particular shame, because I really loved Flowers, and it’s always a bit of a point of personal disappointment when it feels like I’ve not done a show justice with my writing. Ah well. One to revisit one day, maybe.

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Some of the best TV you might have missed in 2017

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One of the things that always stands out to me about year-end ‘best of’ lists is that there are usually quite a few shows that, for whatever reason, I never got the chance to see. What’s nice about that, of course, is that those lists become a set of recommendations for me to work through for the next few months.

But it did get me thinking, though – how about a list specifically to that end? Here are the shows, then, that you might have missed; ones that flew under the radar a little bit, either because of the channel they were on, the language they’re in, or the time of year they came out.

It’s obviously an incomplete list – how could it not be? – but here’s some of the best TV you might have missed in 2017…

The State

The State Channel 4 isis peter kosminsky national geographic Ony Uhiara Sam Otto Shavani Cameron Ryan McKen.jpg

The State took on a controversial and difficult subject matter in a sensitive way – but more than that, it did it at exactly the right time too. A nuanced and considered look at how people are radicalised, it was a compelling drama that drew on extensive research of real-life cases. Intense and emotional, The State explored nuanced storytelling in place of simplistic thinking – always willing to challenge audience’s preconceptions and prejudices, this was a stark and powerful drama.

Clique

Clique BBC Three bryan elsley jess brittain louise brealey synnove karlsen aisling francoisi

The first episode of Clique was a particularly tense and taut hour of television, crafted with a real precision; it was one of the most effective pieces of drama BBC Three produced in a long time. With an unrelenting intensity, gradually probing the darker aspects of the world it put forward, Clique was an effortlessly self-assured piece of television. Certainly, it’s the sort of programme that might be easy to dismiss at face value; yet another teen drama without a huge amount to offer on its own terms. But to think of it that way it to do a real disservice to the intricate, nuanced work that was going on beneath the surface – there’s a real feeling, watching Clique, that it exists in a world that goes above and beyond the young adult drama you’ve seen before.

Ronny Chieng: International Student

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It’d be easy to miss this one – a BBC Three acquisition that was only broadcast on BBC One very late at night – but it’d be a real shame if you did. Ronny Chieng: International Student has a certain charm that you could liken to Community, perhaps, but it’s very much its own show. Witty and inventive, this series draws on the real-life university experiences of its star Ronny Chieng – the perfect straight man for his increasingly absurd surroundings. In a year with a lot of great new comedies, this is the sort of show that might not get the attention it deserves – but it is genuinely, properly funny.

Snowfall

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Part of what I like about Snowfall is that it’s slow. Not in terms of pacing, not exactly; rather, it takes a measured approach, one that really lets it dwell on the period and pay close attention to detail. In that sense, Snowfall stands out because of how well it’s able to evoke a feel for the crack epidemic in 1983 Los Angeles. It’s the perfect backdrop for a cast of characters making increasingly compromised decisions – with newcomer Damson Idris giving a standout performance, Snowfall is definitely a drama that’s worth a look.

Babylon Berlin

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Babylon Berlin is absolutely mesmerising. I said as much in my review of the show’s first season, but it really does bear repeating. The most expensive piece of television Germany has ever produced, every penny that went into Babylon Berlin translates to the screen – it’s a gorgeous drama, perfectly evoking the aesthetic of the 1920s. It’s also home of one of the best television moments of 2017 full stop – the almost trance-like conclusion to the second episode is breathtaking, exuding confidence and inspiring awe.

Ill Behaviour

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Ill Behaviour took an absurd premise, but elevated it into something more – a dark comedy that was also a genuinely affecting drama. With a wit as quick as it was dark, this wasn’t just gallows humour; it’s a programme about repression, denial, and the lengths people go to in extreme situations. As ever, it’s a show that works because of its characters – self-destructive and neurotic, and perfectly pitched by the cast, each have a real and meaningful character arc. Ill Behaviour is packed with laughs, but it also leaves a lasting impact long after the credits roll.

The End of the F***ing World

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One of my personal favourite programmes of the year – I know that’s true of a lot of the shows on this list, but it’s particularly true of this. The End of the F***ing World is an elegant character study, focused on two isolated teenagers who live in liminal spaces; it lends its two leads, James and Alyssa, a real interiority, serving to emphasise the poignancy – and in some ways the tragedy – of the journey they undertake. Of course, it’d be remiss of me not to mention Alex Lawther and Jessica Barden, who really do make the series; an absolutely magnetic pairing, they’re fantastic actors who really embody the facades, neuroses and vulnerabilities of their characters.

Even then, of course, there are a lot of shows I’ve missed off this list that, if it could go on forever, I’d have loved to include – Guerilla, Overshadowed, or King Charles III, to name just a few. And that’s without mentioning all the excellent shows that, for one reason or another, I didn’t get the chance to see – shows like Three Girls, The Replacement or Bancroft.

If nothing else, that was one good thing about 2017 – there was a lot of really fantastic television.

Note: This was meant to be a Yahoo article which, for boring technical reasons I can’t work out, doesn’t actually display on the website anywhere – so I’ve put it here instead. Looking back on some of my choices, there’s a couple I probably would’ve changed – the fact that both The End of the F***ing World and Babylon Berlin took off massively in early 2018 because they turned up on American Netflix was validating, but does make me wish I’d taken the chance to stump for Overshadowed, which I really do love.

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Alex Lawther on The End of the F***ing World, his creative influences and more

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I read somewhere, someone much more eloquent than me, saying “it doesn’t matter if [a character is] likeable but they have to be interesting“. You don’t have to like them, but you have to want to know what happens next. Even if you hate them or you’re scared of them or if you… as long as they’re not boring you, because boring is passive.  It’s not so much not being liked… they cause you to be interested in them actively and to see where their objectives are going to take them. Which I think is the analytical way of putting it, yeah.

This is one of my favourite interviews I’ve ever done, because I absolutely loved talking to Alex Lawther – he’s just wonderful, I’m a huge fan. I promised to learn French for him, in fact. (At time of writing, and by writing I mean editing all my old posts for the new wordpress site, my duolingo streak is 177 days.)

(I would continue to talk about how great I think he is, but… well, I don’t want to overdo it, you know?)

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Does Eko’s interactive comedy That Moment When represent the future of television?

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That Moment When stars Milana Vayntrub (Sloane in This is Us, and soon to be Squirrel Girl in Marvel’s New Warriors) as Jill, the character we control through each episode. Vayntrub is nothing short of excellent throughout, with great comic timing; she delivers a heightened performance, in pretty much exactly the way a series like this demands. In a way, it’s almost difficult to imagine the series working as well as it does without her, given how perfectly Vayntrub embodies her role here.

There’s a nice, clean aesthetic to the show – each different option is presented with a pencil sketch cartoon, representing the choice made on Jill’s behalf. It’s a subtle thing, but it’s one that’s important to get right – making sure the options aren’t intrusive, making sure it remains a cohesive whole, keeping it stylish. It’s the sort of thing that could have gone wrong, easily, but the fact that it does work is indicative of the attention to detail across the series.

An article on a new, interactive show from Eko.

I’m not convinced this sort of interactive television is ever exactly going to become the future of television – or, at least, we’re a long way off from the point where it’s going to be possible to create something that is a properly interactive narrative, rather than the sort of almost a video game kind of thing we’ve had so far.

Still! That Moment When is quite charming, and even if it is only a point of curiosity, I’d say it’s worth checking it out.

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