A few thoughts on one of the dumbest, best game shows I’ve seen in recent memory.
A few thoughts on one of the dumbest, best game shows I’ve seen in recent memory.
Spent some time chewing over The Last Dance and what made it such compulsory viewing for much of the US during this quarantine. Check out our discussion above or listen to the podcast version here.
HBO’s Succession is one of the most compelling shows on television and it’s returning for a second season on August 11th. And I’m launching a new podcast to recap it with Tara Ariano! You can find the podcast at successionpodcast.com, where we’ve already recapped season 1, and you can support the show at successionkickstarter.com.
For those who aren’t aware, Succession chronicles the power moves of the Roy family and their patriarch, Logan Roy. Logan is the founder of a a gigantic media conglomerate called Waystar Royco which has generated obscene wealth not just for himself, but for his four children. While they each defend against outsiders that would threaten to infiltrate their circle, they must also contend with their biggest obstacle: each other.
Succession’s portrait of the Roy family is funny, biting, tragic, and heartbreaking. It offers so much fodder for discussion and we’re looking forward to breaking it all down with you.
On a personal note, this marks my first real collaboration with Tara Ariano. I first encountered Tara’s work over a decade ago, when I became a huge fan of her website, Television Without Pity, one of the first TV recap sites ever. TWoP managed to combine snark and insight into an irresistible package. It was essential reading for show watchers and showrunners alike (Famously, the site was referred to obliquely in an early West Wing subplot). It’s not an exaggeration to say that sites like Television Without Pity paved the way for some of the work I’ve done with my own TV recap podcasts.
Tara and the founders of TWoP also went on to create the Extra Hot Great podcast, a weekly general interest TV podcast which is a exceptionally well produced. Extra Hot Great manages to capture what makes television wonderful and transcendent but also, occasionally, truly terrible. Still, the podcast itself is always a delight and continues to this day.
In any case, I couldn’t be more excited to work with her on this new venture. I hope you have a chance to check out our first episode at successionpodcast.com. You can also support the show via Kickstarter at successionkickstarter.com.
Some other interesting links from the week:
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This week, Joanna Robinson and I released what will likely be the very last episode of “A Cast of Kings,” the Game of Thrones recap podcast we’ve been publishing since April 2012. You can listen to it above. It got emotional.
When I first started podcasting, I was living my post-college years in Boston with my parents, financially supporting them with the money I made from an academic research job. This left me with a lot of spare time, so I started recording podcasts because I enjoyed talking about pop culture and building online communities around films and television. It was how I first encountered the work of Joanna Robinson, who at the time worked for a website called Pajiba.
Joanna’s work was insightful and trenchant, and I soon invited her to guest on the Slashfilmcast. I was impressed by her wit, humor, and perspective. We started collaborating together on a podcast about the FX original series Justified.
One day, she pitched me on the idea of a Game of Thrones podcast where she would take on the role of a book reader and help explain the show to me, a non-reading heathen. The idea for “A Cast of Kings” was born.
I don’t think we quite understood that we were tapping into three phenomena that would dramatically grow in importance in the years that followed: podcasting, explainer culture, and Game of Thrones. “A Cast of Kings” combined them all into one neat package. At the time, The Ringer wasn’t even glimmer in Bill Simmons’ eye, Vox Media had barely just started, and Game of Thrones was still being compared unfavorably to Boardwalk Empire in the ratings.
There are times when your can feel the tectonic plates in your life shift underneath your feet, when something grows beyond what you could’ve possibly imagined. As “A Cast of Kings” continued, it reconfigured my notions of what was possible with a podcast.
I don’t remember the first time that I realized “A Cast of Kings” was bigger than any other show I’d ever done. It was more of a steady accumulation of little moments: an unknown friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend mentioning the show at a social outing, getting featured on numerous “Best of” podcast lists, appearing on NPR’s “All Things Considered” to discuss the show, hosting a panel at Con of Thrones to chat with some of the great actors from the show. I learned that people who I respected and admired — people whose work I read online, who I regularly watched on television or whose podcasts I enjoyed — listened to “A Cast of Kings.”
These moments filled me with many emotions but the overriding feeling was one of gratitude. It is an extremely rare and beautiful thing to be able to create something that is meaningful to so many people. When something that significant comes along in your life, the best you can do is try to enjoy it for as long as it lasts.
I went through many life changes during my time hosting “A Cast of Kings.” I uprooted the only life I ever knew and moved to Seattle on, hoping it would change things for the better (it did). I got my first ever taste of life in the corporate world, which has enabled me to experience many incredible opportunities. I got married to a lovely woman who I met because she was a “Cast of Kings” listener.
Through it all, the podcast soldiered on. And there was Joanna, whose profile rose along with the popularity of the show. She went from a writer whose work was read by thousands to someone who was read by millions — one of this country’s most trusted experts on one of the most popular cultural properties ever.
It’s rare to find a person whose personality clicks with yours. It’s even rarer to be able to capture that magic, package it up, and put it out into the world in a way that other people can appreciate it too. But, that’s how I felt about my time working with Joanna.
I looked forward to our podcasts because I would always leave with something new — some bit of knowledge or insight that I never would’ve come up with myself. Her diligence, particularly in the first few seasons when I depended on her to illuminate the show and protect me from spoilers, was admirable. It’s that work ethic that has propelled her into becoming an online star in her own right. I was fortunate to be along for the ride.
And that’s where we are today. At the end of a long and crazy journey that has irrevocably altered both of our lives.
One thing I’ve learned over the years is that it’s a miracle any good podcast survives. People’s lives change. People change. Few things stay constant.
Consider your own life: are you still talking to the same people you were 5-10 years ago? Is the state of your day-to-day existence the same? Throw into the mix strong personalities that are the ingredients of any good podcast and you have a recipe for an enterprise that is genetically engineered for a brief lifespan.
Joanna and I both have strong opinions, not just about pop culture but about ways of doing things. We sparred verbally on occasion, both on and off the show. But in the end, I think we understood how blessed we were to be involved in something that was helping to shape how so many people watched and enjoyed this beloved pop cultural artifact. For a brief moment in our lives we shared a partnership and an audience that became more than the sum of its parts. That’s part of what helped get us to the finish line. It’s also ultimately what Game of Thrones tried to do: to transcend its medium and become something more memorable and meaningful than we could’ve possibly predicted.
Note: If you are a fan of my audio work, I’ll be launching a new podcast this month called Culturally Relevant, which will feature many of the conversations I have with interesting people around the internet. Subscribe now to make sure you get the first episode when it goes live.
Matt Zoller Seitz, writing for RogerEbert.com about the recent release of Endgame and “The Long Night” episode of Game of Thrones:
Art house cinemas (which have a business built around stand-alone, non-tentpole features) are struggling to stay open, and their proprietors face increasingly old crowds that aren’t being replaced by younger viewers. Theaters generally are on what an exhibitor friend of mine bitterly referred to as “Disney life support.” Forty percent of domestic box office receipts come from that one studio, most of its business is based around serialized, mega-expensive, dopamine-hit franchises. […]
It gives me no pleasure to write any of this, having come up in what retrospectively seems like the death throes of an older culture, only to enter a spectacular and in some ways unnerving new one. Sometimes it feels as if I’m chronicling the things I love as they take their sweet time fading to black.
But I can also honestly say that, at this point, I’m more curious than apprehensive about what the future will bring. This is the kind of cultural moment that people tell their grandkids and great-nephews and nieces about. Whether the tone of the remembrance is sad or wondrous depends on who’s telling it, but tell it they will, because it’s happening, right now, to all of us. It’s not often that you get to watch the complete transformation and eventual fusion of two art forms, the transformation of art and entertainment itself, and the technology that supplies and defines it.
It’s still staggering to me that Avengers: Endgame and Game of Thrones are both ending major chapters of pop culture lore in the span of a few weeks. Both achieved the nearly impossible. In the case of Endgame, the MCU sustained 22 films’ worth of storytelling and somehow managed to tie them together in a satisfying way in Endgame. In the case of Game of Thrones, it may well end up being one of the last instances of mass-appointment viewing in America. Millions of people watch together every Sunday, and by the time the episode is over, the memes have already begun.
It’s possible we may never see anything like them again. And it is exhilarating to be able to witness it all as it happens.
In the meantime, I’m glad to have had the opportunity to speak in-depth about Endgame and Game of Thrones with some interesting, intelligent people:
Here are some of my reactions to this week’s Game of Thrones, “The Long Night”:
Some other recent links I’ve found interesting:
You may have noticed it’s been a little quiet recently on the blog/newsletter. That’s because I’ve been busy gearing up for an intense time of my life: Hosting three weekly podcasts at once (Write Along, the Slashfilmcast, and now with the premiere of Game of Thrones, A Cast of Kings). A surprisingly large amount of prep has gone into this season of A Cast of Kings and I’m both nervous and excited to go through this final step of the journey with all of our listeners.
Given this schedule, for the next few weeks I’m going to take take steps to maintain my mental health and likely slim the blog/letter down, perhaps keeping it mostly to a list of recommended links.
We are about to enter a consequential time in pop culture history. In April and May, we’ll see the conclusion of Game of Thrones and the end of the first few phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. These are both epic stories — breathtaking in scope, sprawling in ambition, and unequaled in their respective mediums.
I find myself experiencing a lot of emotions as I contemplate these stories wrapping up. While I’m obviously a fan that has considered both of these works worthy of analysis and debate, I’m also a commentator with a modest following that has been podcasting/blogging/vlogging since they began.
I’ve looked back on the past decade and considered all the things I’ve devoted my time to. And I’ve started to turn my eye towards the next decade, and begun thinking about how I will take what I’ve learned to create valuable work that can stand on its own. Hopefully, I’ll have more to share with you soon. Hopefully.
In the meantime, here are a few things I’ve been working on recently:
Some more interesting links from the past week or two:
Passion of the Nerd has a video breaking down all the problems with the Buffy HD remaster. As a home video nerd, I’m fascinated by analyses like this. It’s a great look into how a show makes the jump from the 4:3 television era into the modern digital age.
[The following contains SPOILERS for Black Mirror: Bandersnatch]
About two decades ago, a much younger version of me saw an ad in the newspaper for a movie called Mr. Payback. The ad bragged that it was the first interactive movie ever devised. I asked my older cousin to take me to see it and shortly thereafter, we went to a Showcase Cinemas to check it out.
The plot of Mr. Payback (such as it was) centered around a cyborg named Mr. Payback who would use his special powers to get back at people for their sins. Every seat in the theater was outfitted with a controller and at key moments in the film, a set of three choices was presented to viewers. Whichever choice received more votes would be the one that the character on screen made, so button mashing was a must in order to get the outcome you were interested in.
At the time, I was dazzled by the technology, even though each “playthrough” of the film only lasted 20 minutes (and for a full price ticket, no less). I didn’t necessarily think that this would be the future of cinema (I wasn’t thinking in those terms back then), but I really appreciated the novelty of seeing movies and videogames collide in a big way.
Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that Mr. Payback was a terrible film with awful characters. The acting and writing were subpar and meanspirited (despite Back to the Future screenwriter Bob Gale being involved in the film’s creation). Its method of storytelling never caught on for a variety of reasons, but one truth remained clear: It’s hard enough to do a good job of telling a single narrative with only one ending.
In the intervening years, interactive storytelling has thrived, but mostly not in movie theaters. PC games with FMV (full-motion video) on CD Rom and the Sega CD gave way to incredibly ambitious stories like Red Dead Redemption 2, Mass Effect, and the games of David Cage. The most successful of these limited the total number of potential outcomes. Sure, there might be minor differences in dialogue, or in which characters survived, but most great games stuck with only a few endings (As a recent example, see the hugely successful Red Dead Redemption 2, where your “honor” level dictates how some of the later sequences play out, but limits the outcome to 3-4 distinct endings with minor variations).
There’s a limit to how satisfying an ending can be if you can get to it by dumb luck. The laws of physics (and production schedules) dictate that the more endings there are, the less time and energy can be invested in each one.
Which brings us to this week. Netflix released the latest entry in the Black Mirror franchise, an interactive film called Bandersnatch. The story is about a game developer played by Fionn Whitehead who desperately struggles to ship a game he’s working on, Bandersnatch, before a holiday deadline. Admittedly, the tech behind how Netflix made and executed this is impressive (although bafflingly, newer devices like Apple TV and Chromecast are unable to “play” Bandersnatch). But is the story any good?
Mirroring its branching structure, Bandersnatch is hugely ambitious, with threads splintering off the main storyline and increasingly widening its scope. Depending on which choices you make, there are philosophical ruminations about the nature of choice and free will, a stark depiction of burnout in the video game production process, a direct connection drawn between mental illness and creativity, and a protagonist who struggles with daddy issues and (dead) mommy issues. It’s all very Black Mirror-esque, but without any of the focus that make the commentary and satire land effectively in a regular episode of the show.
I found the experience of watching/playing Bandersnatch to be enormously frustrating. The film frequently presents you with two options without any sense of what outcome you’re even supposed to be interested in and which choice might lead you there. Am I supposed to want to drive the protagonist to the point of insanity, or am I supposed to want him to take a more healthy path? Should I nurture his relationship with his father or should I stoke the flames of familial discontent?
All of this would be fine if the endings were comparably interesting. However, not only do some choices lead to the film abruptly ending in an unsatisfying fashion, but Bandersnatch’s creators have already stated that there are certain endings that are “definitive,” with conventional credits to accompany them. By implication, many decisions lead you to “dead ends.” One of the endings even comments on how unsatisfying the outcome is (Note to filmmakers: Commenting on how bad an ending/joke/line of dialogue is doesn’t make it better). Thus, watching Bandersnatch is equivalent to being placed in a maze without an inkling of where the exit is, or if the exit is even a desirable destination.
I can already hear some readers responding, saying, “Why are you complaining? That’s the whole point!” Indeed, one of the main themes of Bandersnatch is the idea of free will. We believe we are driving the decisions of the protagonist but, in fact, it’s the filmmaker that dictates the outcome. We can decline to get high, but our drink will be drugged. We can try to avoid talking about the memories of our mother, only to be forced into it later. The filmmakers want us to consider the possibility that free will is an illusion, and that the forces driving us may not be ones that we know, understand, or can control.
If indeed this is one of the purposes of Bandersnatch, then I can say that it makes its point, but not in a way that I found to be particularly entertaining or enjoyable. “I’m going to make this decisionmaking process enormously frustrating and constraining for you, so that you may understand the pointlessness of all your actual real-life decisions!” is not a pitch that excites me for something to consume. In fact, it’s actively off-putting (Side bar: For an example of this type of commentary done well, see The Stanley Parable).
That said, Bandersnatch is not without merit. Previous Black Mirror director David Slade does a great job nailing the period look and surreal feel of the story, and Whitehead’s performance is a chilling depiction of a descent into madness. Bandersnatch also wants the viewer to consider the concept of technological enslavement. If there’s one theme to take away from the previous season of Black Mirror, it’s that we should consider if/when the technology we use might ever “suffer” in a way that we might understand that term.
In one of the more effective and mind-bending storylines, the viewer is able to inform the protagonist that they are controlling him via Netflix, and attempt to explain what all that means to a character who only has knowledge of 1980s technology. It’s a great meta moment that makes you as the viewer reconsider your relationship to the entertainment you consume. After all, everything you watch is ostensibly there to serve your viewing needs.
My first playthrough of Bandersnatch was only 30-40 minutes long, as I quickly made a choice that led to the Bandersnatch game being released in a poor state. Conveniently, the game allows you to rewind to previous decisions and, in an interesting twist, previous playthroughs can often impact the outcome and nature of future ones. I ended up spending around 1.5-2 hours with Bandersnatch before I realized that I had seen most of what it had to offer, and exploring further would necessitate wasting time re-watching a lot of content I’d already seen. The stories and their outcomes just weren’t interesting enough for me to further engage.
Bandersnatch is a mile wide and an inch deep. How you choose to get to the bottom of it is pretty much immaterial.
Disclosure: I currently work for Amazon Prime Video. The opinions expressed here are solely mine and do not represent those of my organization or company.