The two conversations that defined ‘Better Call Saul: Season 4’

Here’s a brief video on what I loved about Better Call Saul this season – specifically, the two conversations in the season finale that define the arc of the characters. It’s really impressive when a prequel can chart new territory from its predecessor, and I think the show has done just that.I wrote, filmed, and edited this video over the course of just a few hours on Saturday. I hope you find the insights to be worth your time. If not? S’all good, man.


I’ve been under the weather after my trip to Virginia, and the travel didn’t improve things (it turns out when you have sinus issues, you shouldn’t get into an aluminum tube with recirculating air hurtling across the country at 500 miles per hour!). But I hope to back to full functionality soon. In the meantime, here are some interesting links I’ve come across:

How realistic is HBO’s ‘Barry’ when it comes to acting class?

I had a chance to chat with legendary character actor Stephen Tobolowsky about the new HBO original series Barry. Stephen and I talk about the show’s themes and how realistic its depiction of acting class is. Also: Stephen gives advice to anyone interested in taking acting classes for themselves.

Check out Stephen’s new book, My Adventures with God, on Amazon or wherever books are sold.

Black Mirror: Season 4 review

When I watch Black Mirror, I’m really only looking for the show to do the following: Take my understanding of technology, extend it to its logical conclusion, and then twist it in such a way so as to make me question all my values. By this measure, the fourth season of Black Mirror is a resounding success.

I binged the entire season on the day it was released on Netflix. Here are a few thoughts on each episode:

“USS Callister” (S4E1): This episode refines ideas from Black Mirror Christmas special (specifically, the concept of enslaved computer programs), and combines them with commentary on toxic male fandom and unsafe workplaces. I love that it captures the feel of Star Trek — both original series AND new Abrams reboot (somehow). It’s clearly made with a lot of love towards the franchise, and felt like it honored Star Trek, while adding to it. The third-act suffers from incredibly far-fetched plotting but the episode’s very last moments are great. Grade: A-

“Arkangel” (S4E2): The lesson of this episode is that you must never parent too much. But never too little either. It must be precisely the right amount, lest horrors befall you and your family. This is the kind of episode that people who dislike Black Mirror often think of it as: facile, alarmist, and moderately ridiculous. Grade: D

“Crocodile” (S4E3): This episode is insane — nearly a self-parody in how over-the-top and dark it was. The premise is ludicrous. The ending is so stupid as to be insulting. It does almost nothing to explore the inner life of the main character and as a result, ends up revealing very little about technology or human nature. That said, it is gorgeously shot on location in Iceland and I will happily watch Andrea Riseborough act the hell out of anything. Grade: F+

“Hang the DJ” (S4E4): A wonderful, heartbreaking look at the dehumanizing effects of modern dating apps (with some dystopian aspects of The Lobster mixed in for good measure). Hell is dating other people. This episode is beautiful, though, and joins “San Junipero,” “Be Right Back,” and “The Entire History of You” as part of a excellent quadrilogy of short films about how technology impacts love and relationships (Thanks to Kyle Turner for pointing this out). Grade: A

“Metalhead” (S4E5): What happens when we piss off robots one too many times? This mostly thrilling episode (shot completely in black and white) tries to answer that question. A solid modern-day riff on The Terminator, with impressive visual effects. While it’s a decent genre exercise, it’s not as thought-provoking as the best of Black MirrorGrade: B

“Black Museum” (S4E6): How would advanced technology impact the fields of medicine and crime? This mini-anthology episode tries to answer that question by masterfully weaving together three stories into a main narrative that involves a girl visiting a mysterious and horrifying museum (loaded with Black Mirror easter eggs). I loved each of the vignettes and enjoyed the broader story as well. This is as good as it gets. Grade: A

Overall thoughts: If there’s one overarching theme for this season, it’s the concept that one day, computer programs will be able to experience consciousness, and therefore, pain. Our society will be ill-equipped to deal with this when it happens.

I think we got three great episodes (USS Callister, Hang the DJ, Black Museum), one good episode (Metalhead), and two outright terrible episodes (Arkangel, Crocodile). Any show would be great to rack up numbers like this, but for a show as ambitious as Black Mirror, it’s especially impressive given that we’re already into the show’s fourth season. I’ll be crossing my fingers for a fifth.

Errol Morris’ review of ‘Finding Frances’

Errol Morris, writing for The New Yorker, about the season finale of Nathan For You:

What’s the difference between a bad impersonator and a meta-impersonator? Or between true love and delusion? What makes something real? That we believe in it? That we can convince others to? These questions all come to a head in Fielder’s season finale. Maybe we are all poseurs pretending to be real people. Or possibly the other way around. The series, and this episode especially, is a perfect imitation of life. I mean, a perfect imitation of an imitation of life. However you want to describe it, it is some of the most interesting “reality”-based work yet made.

What a delight to see my favorite filmmaker commenting on one of my favorite pieces of television of the year. See also: My review of Nathan For You: Season 4

 

 

Bojack Horseman Season 4 takes the existentialism up a notch

[Spoilers for Bojack ahead]

No show does modern existentialism as well as Netflix’s Bojack Horseman. Beneath its searing satire of showbiz, its whimsical world in which animals talk and coexist with humans, and its nonstop barrage of obscure references and puns, there’s a core that gets to how painful, lonely, and sad modern life can be.

I enjoyed the first few season but I dragged my feet on getting through season four, for one simple reason: the first three seasons were so emotionally devastating that I wasn’t in a hurry to get back to this world.

Season four takes this punishing feeling of malaise and doubles down on it. There were two episodes in particular that really got to me:

Season 4 episode 9 (Ruthie– In the distant future, Princess Caroline’s great-great-grandaughter recounts one of Princess Caroline’s most challenging days. Princess Caroline loses her baby, then almost blows up her entire life in the aftermath. At the end of the episode, we discover that the future construct is completely imagined by Princess Caroline herself, purely as a means of soothing herself.

It’s a brutal gut-punch of an ending, precisely because the introduction is so enticing. It is reassuring to imagine that your descendants are still around, generations from now. And it’s equally terrifying to consider that this imagining might be the only thing separating us from a total mental and emotional collapse.

Season 4 episode 11 (Time’s Arrow) – This episode is one of the most visceral depictions of dementia I’ve ever witnessed, primarily due to its usage of the first-person perspective. We see Bojack’s mother, Beatrice, experience flashbacks of her entire existence with some notable omissions (many people’s faces, with Henrietta’s scratched out entirely to indicate her esteem in Beatrice’s mind). We see why Beatrice resents Bojack — and men in general. Bojack trapped her in a terrible marriage with a cheating husband.

As the episode draws to a close, Beatrice seems to regain her bearings. And even though Bojack is about to leave her in a terrible place, he provides one final act of kindness by walking her through an idyllic fantasy in their final moments together. Even in anger, there can be flashes of humanity. Even in moments of rage, our familial ties can be impossible to ignore.

**

Was it a great season of the show? It’s not my favorite. Bojack tried venturing away from its more familiar show-biz obsessed formulas and opted instead to dive further into Bojack’s family history. While the episodes above were extremely effective, I find myself more exhausted by this show than I have in the past. Its whimsy no longer counteracts its overbearing sense of fatalism.

I relate so much to the messages of this show. Bojack Horseman has helped me to understand what it’s like to be me, and why I feel the way I feel. But more and more, I think I might need more of a distraction from being me. After all, I’m already me for most of the time.

‘Nathan For You’ Season 4 Review

This week, Nathan for You concluded its fourth season with an unprecedented two-hour event entitled “Finding Frances.” I wanted to share some detailed (spoiler-y) thoughts on the finale and the season as a whole.

As we begin, it’s important to note that I am not just a Nathan for You fan; I’m a Nathan for You evangelist. Nathan Fielder’s show, which features the comedic actor suggesting and implementing ridiculous business ideas, has been a razor-sharp satire of reality TV, not to mention an occasionally thought-provoking look at the media and human nature. I not only appreciate how the show has exposed weaknesses in our institutions (as Nathan does this season when he smuggles in an elaborate chili-dispensing system into a hockey stadium with nothing more than a doctor’s note) but have also laughed heartily at the way Fielder revels in the awkwardness of humanity.

All that said, I found the fourth season overall to be a bit disappointing. Fielder’s ideas for improving businesses became increasingly outlandish, and his elaborate “side quests” often showed even less connection to the original mission than in seasons past. While Fielder has always used a local business’ problems as a jumping off point for crazier pursuits (see: Dumb Starbucks), the gulf felt especially pronounced this year — and even occasionally mean-spirited, as Fielder’s dragnet entangled everyone from a local councilman to Craigslist musicians.

When I watch Nathan For You, I want something that uncomfortably blurs the line between reality and fiction, and that makes me question the nature of my reality. The finale of season 3 broke my brain with its ambition and execution, and I was hoping for something similar to occur this season as well.

I got my wish, twice.

I always enjoy checking out Fielder’s appearances on late night television, as I find them delightfully awkward. His appearance on Kimmel (above) showed Fielder at his best, delivering a long, drawn out anecdote about a run-in with police. A few elements of the story seemed off to me (the photo of the suit seemed too perfect and also, why would someone carry their mom’s ashes in a baggy?), but hey, who doesn’t exaggerate things on late night television?

In season 4 episode 4, “The Anecdote,” Fielder reveals that the anecdote was an elaborate ruse. He had watched countless late night appearances and reverse-engineered the perfect late night anecdote, then used his extensive resources to make the anecdote’s events come true in real life. What’s great about Nathan for You is it forces us to retroactively reconsider everything that has occurred up until this point. Was Fielder pretending to bad at late night talk shows this entire time, as an elaborate set up for this episode? How much of his entire personality is a public performance? The mind reels at the possibilities.

“The Anecdote” is a brilliant examination of the performative nature of these talk shows, as well as one of the best instances of transmedia storytelling I can recall (Fielder went on to discuss the anecdote on Seth Meyers and Conan). It is, in other words, Nathan for You at its finest.

The second time the show really got to me was with its finale, “Finding Frances,” which I found to be painful, funny, and moving. Shot as a full-blown documentary, Fielder takes on the case of Bill Heath, who is regretful about Frances, an ex-girlfriend from decades ago that he believes he should have married. Nathan agrees to help track her down so that Bill can confess his love to her. Along the way, we learn that Bill’s intentions and character are not quite as sterling as we’d hope for a mission that is this ambitious.

For one of the first times ever, “Finding Frances” forces us to consider the challenge of making Nathan For You. Fielder stages elaborate schemes, such as claiming that he’s filming a sequel to the indie film Mud, or having a “57-year Reunion” at a local school, all to try and get some scraps of information about Bill’s mysterious long lost love. At one point, Fielder describes himself as wandering aimlessly through Arkansas, with hundreds of hours of footage, unsure if this would even turn into an actual episode. There’s lots of footage of Fielder falling for Maci, a local escort, who he’d originally hired to socialize (non-sexually) with Bill. It makes you wonder how many Nathan For You episodes we never actually get to see because, while expensive, they never amounted to any story worth telling.

I was profoundly uncomfortable for most of the episode, as Bill not only seemed like a compulsive liar intent on using Fielder’s resources for his own gain, but also a lecherous old man with no empathy. I questioned not only whether the already-creepy idea of tracking down someone from a past life and exposing her info to a national tv audience was worth doing, but whether this was the guy that one should do it for. In one scene, Fielder asks Bill to play act his hypothetical interactions with Frances, and Bill is creepy AF, touching the actress inappropriately and believing that he and Frances can pick up right where he left off. But through the exercise, Bill does eventually gain an understanding of why Frances left him, and even admits to cheating on her.

Eventually, they get a break in the case and discover that Frances is now married and living in Muskegon, Michigan. Fielder, Bill, and the whole camera crew drive out to the Frances’ house in Muskegon to talk to her. But after thousands of miles traveled, Bill is unable to get out of the car and go to her front door. Instead, he decides to call her from the car. As the conversation plays out, Bill realizes that Frances has moved on with her life. At first, she can’t even recognize his voice. She’s happily married with nine grandchildren. Meanwhile, Bill’s life as an actor and performer didn’t quite turn out like he’d hoped. And he realizes that he probably shouldn’t confront Frances in person after all. It is one of the most raw pieces of tape I’ve ever seen on Nathan for You, or probably anywhere.

What “Finding Frances” reveals is that everyone has a story. To paraphrase Charlie Kaufman, we are all the main character in the play of our lives. This episode pulls back the curtain on one such main character, Bill Heath, and invites us to examine his regret, his excitements, his desires, even as a 78-year old man.

“Finding Frances” ends with Fielder returning to Arkansas to meet up again with the escort Maci. The two share an impromptu moment of connection before the cameras turn off. Fielder seems to be trying to complete his character’s arc on the show — Bill regretted never marrying Frances because his family looked down on her, so Fielder is determined not to repeat the same mistakes with Maci, even as she has a profession that some might also look down upon.

In reality, we are probably watching a highly edited, controlled, purposeful interaction. In reality, Maci has signed a release form to appear in this scene, and was likely paid some kind of fee. In reality, Fielder may have no feelings for Maci whatsoever, and has scripted “Finding Frances” to end exactly where it would feel satisfying.

But we have no idea where reality ends and fiction begins with Nathan For You. And that’s what I love about it.

Watch SNL’s ‘Papyrus’ sketch about ‘Avatar’

Last night, SNL aired a sketch about a deranged individual who was obsessed with the papyrus font in James Cameron’s Avatar. It’s a fairly amusing short film that derives its strength from being ultra-niche in its focus.

For months, a debate has raged on the /Filmcast about whether or not Avatar is still culturally relevant. The film is the most successful movie of all time yet left seemingly zero cultural footprint. One of the vaguely defined barometers of cultural relevance? Being featured prominently in an SNL sketch.

Looks like Avatar defenders just got another arrow in their quivers…

A podcast recap of ‘Twin Peaks: The Return’

The season (series?) finale of Twin Peaks: The Return is one of the most beautiful and enigmatic works I’ve ever seen on television. Overall, I found this season to be inspiring and maddening in almost equal measure, but I was grateful for the unpredictable ride.

I was also glad to be able to recap the show with my frequent collaborator Joanna Robinson. Listen to our thoughts on the season below: