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:

“If you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen”

Seven years ago, I was riveted by the drama of Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien, who battled with NBC for control of The Tonight Show. Bright Sun Films has created a great video essay that summarizes all the major events:

It was the month we took sides in a conflict between high-profile celebrity millionaires. Conan’s goodbye speech still gets me; despite the fact that he and his crew received $45 million to leave The Tonight Show, I was moved by the tragedy of this person dreaming about attaining a goal for over two decades, having it in his hands, only to watch it slip from his grasp.

Stephen Colbert interviews Anthony Scaramucci

I don’t know what Anthony Scaramucci was anticipating when he first booked this Late Show interview with Stephen Colbert, but I can’t imagine it was this. For nearly 15 minutes, Colbert relentlessly presses Scaramucci on questions he’s clearly uncomfortable to be answering, such as whether or not Steve Bannon is a white supremacist and what’s it really like working in this “dumpster fire” of an administration.

Colbert provides almost no quarter, even refusing an attempt by Scaramucci to turn Colbert into a “character witness.” It’s a stunning interview that puts to use intimidation tactics the likes of which The Mooch himself would probably have employed in a different situation.

Why did ‘Pickle Rick’ feature Susan Sarandon playing an Asian character?

I’m a huge fan of Rick and Morty and am watching it weekly as it enters its third season. Last week’s episode, “Pickle Rick,” was a great example of why the show is brilliant, deftly blending some outlandish sci-fi plotting and surprisingly incisive psychological observations. Film Crit Hulk has done a good job of breaking this down over at Birth Movies Death:

I watched “Pickle Rick” and then I had to go sit outside for awhile.

I just had to detach. And I took my time, too. I breathed in the cool night air. I looked at the handful of stars you can actually see through the glow of the Los Angeles sky. When your brain buzzes around a lot, sometimes you have to slow yourself down. And yes, my mind was racing, contemplating the sheer totality of what I had just seen. But more than that, it made me think deeply about my own limitations. For when you work in creative fields, you spend your whole life pursuing the notion of “a great idea.” No, that’s not just coming up with the raw nugget of cool ideas that are original or zeitgeisty, but more following through with developing them. Being sure that they capitalize on the tenets of drama, plotting, characterization, and ultimately tap into deep resonant meaning, all in the pursuit of making something truly great. And upon watching this latest episode of Rick & Morty, I was struck (as I often am with the show) with the pangs of helpless comparison. No, it is not a mere matter of jealousy, for that feeling only tends to come up when you fear that you offer no value and thus regularly exercise schadenfreude (cue the mass of writers who complain about other people’s deals, etc). Instead, the act of watching an episode like “Pickle Rick” is simply humbling.

As amazing as Pickle Rick was, it did leave me with one question: Why did Susan Sarandon play the Asian therapist, Dr. Wong, in the episode?

White actors playing minorities in animated TV shows is nothing new (See: The Simpsons, Bojack Horseman). But this instance stood out for me, both because I find Sarandon’s political viewpoints to be asinine, and because I don’t recall ever seeing an Asian character in Rick and Morty before. Why bother writing Dr. Wong as Asian if you’re just going to have her played by a white person? I was particularly curious about this since the episode is written by Jessica Gao, an Asian woman.

Turns out, there’s a decent explanation. In a YouTube Q&A after the show, Gao explains:

So when I wrote it, I specifically named her Dr. Wong because there haven’t been any Asian characters, and any time I can, I want to give an Asian actor who isn’t Kumail [Nanjiani] a job. So I wrote her as Dr. Wong, she’s drawn as Dr. Wong. We actually started auditioning the gamut of Asian actresses, and in the middle of auditioning these Asian actresses, we get word that Susan Sarandon wants to be on the show. She says she loves the show. The suspicion is, maybe her kid loves the show?

So we’re not going to say no to Susan Sarandon asking to be on the show. This was the very next meaty female role that was going to be on the show. Her voice is great. She’s wonderful, she’s great. But she’s not the Dr. Wong I pictured […] There were so many Asian women that could’ve done it.

All in all, an unfortunate situation. But I’m still glad folks like Gao are still trying to get those numbers up on behalf of all of us.

[Thanks to Twitter user Viereugen for bringing this video to my attention.]

Listen to the Pierre Henry song that inspired Futurama’s theme song

The New York Times has published a short piece on musician Pierre Henry, whose song “Psyché Rock” inspired Futurama’s theme song:

The French composer Pierre Henry, who died on Thursday, was a pioneer of musique concrète, which records existing sounds and turns them into musical collages. His mechanical techniques were an analog precursor to the digital sampling that is widely used in music today […]

Mr. Henry’s “Psyché Rock” coupled rock with electronic tones, whirs, beeps and distortion to create a psychedelic sound. “Psyché Rock,” which has been remixed by Fatboy Slim and William Orbit, inspired the theme song for the animated television series “Futurama.”

The melody and sound effects that would become forever associated with Futurama are definitely audible in the original music. The Futurama theme song (which I believe was remixed by series composer Christopher Tyng) takes those elements and gives them a cohesion and robustness that would become associated with the show’s bold aesthetic and style of humor.

Here’s the Futurama theme, which is one of my favorite themes of all time:

I feel bad for the people on ‘Planet of the Apps’

Billy Disney has created a video review of Apple’s new show, “Planet of the Apps,” for The Outline. It’s a brutal, well-edited, well-reasoned takedown. And while I think Disney might’ve been a wee bit selective with how he negatively portrays the show’s judges, he’s clearly not too hard on the show itself, which appears to be a disaster (see also: Maureen Ryan’s review for Variety).

The biggest bummer of this whole thing is the fate that has befallen these app developers and entrepreneurs. My guess is many of them went into Planet of the Apps in good faith, and hoping that the exposure would help them gain some kind of differentiation in an extremely crowded market with well-funded incumbents. Instead, they’ve been given dubious advice by the show’s judges and become the subject of some tone deaf marketing to boot.

Like Disney, I hope the recent hiring of Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht from Sony foretells a bright future for Apple’s original programming. It’s certainly difficult to imagine it getting worse.

My three favorite episodes of ‘Master of None: Season 2’

Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s Master of None: Season 2 is a revelation. It takes the themes from the show’s first season and deepens them, with a balance of irreverence and emotional maturity that is rare to see in pop culture these days.

All that said, I did find the second season to be a bit uneven. While season 1 is pretty much as close as you can get to a perfect debut season,  there were a few duds for me in this batch (e.g. “Door #3” was particularly rough). But when season 2 hits its mark, it is transcendent.

As a tribute to one of my favorite TV viewing experiences of the year, here are my three favorite episodes from the season. Spoilers ahead.

S2E04 – First Date: As someone who has been on dozens of first dates via online dating apps, this episode accurately captures the thrills and disappointments of meeting lots of women in rapid-fire succession. Online dating provides the opportunity to encounter all kinds of interesting people, some of whom might actually be good friends in another life. But when two good-natured people are placed in the confines of this artificial construct (i.e. the first date), it can be immensely challenging to have a good time.

One thing the episode does a great job of establishing is how there’s typically a ceiling on how well a first date can go. Even if the chemistry is great, the plan for the date is perfect, and everything is firing on all cylinders, at the end of the night there’s a big possibility you’re going to go home by yourself, bathe in the glow of that experience, and try to re-create it again later on in the week (possibly with the same person). It’s an intense and dehumanizing process that asks you to place a great deal of hope in the possibility of a meaningful connection (otherwise why go on the date in the first place?) but balance it with the possibility that it will go horrendously wrong. And even if things do great, there’s no guarantee that more will come of it.

Love in the age of the smartphone is difficult.

S2E08 – Thanksgiving: My parents brought my brother and me to America in search of a better life, but they had a lot of difficulty accepting the values that this better life would instill in us. Why didn’t we want to become doctors or lawyers? Why didn’t we go to a Chinese-speaking church? Why did we place so much emphasis on our own individuality and self-determination? Why did I spend so much time watching movies?

For every single one of these decisions (and dozens of others), a pattern would emerge: My mother would fight us tooth and nail on the issue at hand. Then, over time (sometimes years or decades), she would start to accept our choices. And then, without us even realizing it, she would start to have new, revised standards over how we should live our lives that would factor in the new state of play.

I don’t think I’ve seen a single piece of art better capture my own personal experience as an Asian immigrant growing up in a conservative household than Master of None’s “Thanksgiving” episode. I know that sounds odd to say, seeing as how this episode is really about the relationship between an African-American mother (played by Angela Bassett) and her lesbian daughter Denise (played by series regular Lena Waithe). But this dynamic is one I’ve seen play out in my life and many of my friends lives, all of whom also have tough, conservative parents. It’s fundamentally about a child deviating from the morals and expectations of their parents, and how this can be initially met with intense resistance to the point where the relationship, as a whole, is in danger of disintegrating.

In the end though, often, if you’re lucky, parents come around. They might not ever explicitly say they accept you or your lifestyle or your decisions. They might not wholeheartedly approve. But they still love you and accept you as a child. They still want you to live a happy, healthy life. And as this episode attests to, they will still welcome your friends and loved ones to the Thanksgiving dinner table. What a lovely, moving way to communicate the concept of parental love.

I watched this episode with my significant other and when it was over, we both turned to each other with tears in our eyes. We knew we’d seen something so beautiful and authentic together. It’s an episode I’ll be thinking about for a very long time.

S2E09-E10 – Amarsi Un Po and Buona Notte: Okay, it is kind of a cheat to list two episodes here, but since I consider this essentially a two-episode arc, I’m going to go with it. The final two episodes of the season are the culmination of a season-long storyline in which Dev, who has had a difficult time with love all season, falls in love with his engaged friend Francesca.

To desire someone who’s promised themselves to another is a special kind of hell. It’s the thrill of the forbidden, the excitement at the universe of possibilities open to you two, and the sadness of violating a third party’s trust, all mixed together in a messy cocktail. What’s special about these two episodes (beyond their gorgeous cinematography and references to Italian films such as L’Eclisse) is how well they capture this impossible situation. The chemistry that Dev has with Francesca plays out wonderfully, especially since we’ve seen how horrible some of his dates have been earlier on in the season. But I also enjoyed the slow revelation of what it is that Dev is asking for: is Francesca just supposed to leave everything she’s ever known and loved for what might just be a fling? Even if the connection is real? There are no easy answers.

Towards the end of the episode, Francesca is watching a smartphone video of one of the ridiculously cute “dates” the two of them have had. As Pino asks if she’s ready to leave, we cut to black.

At first I thought this episode was going to pull a Before Sunset and end right there, in stunning ambiguity. But we fade in to Dev’s apartment and see Francesca and Dev in bed together. Francesca’s engagement ring is gone.

I was pretty certain this was also meant to be ambiguous (perhaps it was a dream sequence, which is definitely something the show has pulled before). In an interview at Vulture, Aziz Ansari basically confirms this is what he was going for:

The ending, I’m going to be a little coy about sharing my own personal interpretation, but I will say I was curious what people would think of the ending. It’s been interesting to read people’s thoughts on it. I looked at a couple of things and talked to a few friends and stuff, and the sweetest thing I’ve found is that people are saying it reminds them of my favorite ending of anything, which is the end of Before Sunset, which I think is incredible. I read something where someone says there’s the Before Sunset test, which is “Okay, if you’re a romantic you think they’re in bed together and you think that things are going to be great.” If you’re another type of person, you think, “Oh, they’re together and it’s going to be horrible.” Another person could say, “Oh, I think it’s just a fantasy and she’s thinking about how terrible it would be if she actually went through with it.” Another person could say, “Oh, it’s Dev imagining it and how it would be actually not what he wants. It would be a shit show, like what Arnold was saying, that he’s just in love with the fantasy of her and not the real person.”

I think I would like to keep it that way, where it’s really dependent on who you are and where you are in your own head to decide what that thing means. I will say it’s not a flashback. It’s not a flashback to the blizzard scene because we’re wearing different clothes and she doesn’t have an engagement ring on.

So will we see what happens after this scene? Will Francesca and Dev live happily ever after? Will there even be a season 3 of Master of None? Time will tell. But if it happens, it’ll likely be just as messy and ambiguous and wonderful and hilarious as the rest of the show has been.

The best writing about ‘The Leftovers’

The Leftovers aired its series finale this past weekend and you can see my detailed thoughts on the final episode on Periscope.

Beyond being a really well-made, thought-provoking show, The Leftovers spawned what has become some of my favorite pop-culture writing ever. I wanted to take a moment to just link to a few of these pieces before everyone moves on.

Firstly, there’s Matt Zoller Seitz’s extraordinary interview with showrunner Damon Lindelof, in which Lindelof explains how an episode from this season was inspired by Matt’s writing. Here’s Lindelof:

I hear everything that you’re saying, and obviously it’s no secret that The Leftovers is not a meditation on grief. But it is a show about different coping mechanisms that people employ for inexplicable loss, and the closest analog that we have in the real world is death.

And I do think that, if I’m dedicating the show to you, or writing to someone who’s suffered that sort of loss, it is a very universal idea — it’s not like you have to have lost someone that you care deeply about in order to understand The Leftovers, but I feel like once you hit 40, odds are you’ve lost someone really close to you. That’s unfortunately the world we live in. It is more abnormal when you’ve lost someone close to you who is your age or your peer. That’s not supposed to happen. There’s an unnatural quality to that, and it’s shocking and it’s sudden, as it was in your case, versus a long protracted battle with illness.

At Variety, Maureen Ryan wrote movingly about how experiencing both the show and grief in her own life makes her think about time and quantum physics:

“The Leftovers” is the observer, viewing human particles who exist in many modes and places and times. They, like us, are here and there, with the living and the dead, hopeful and undone. Here and not here. Gone and left behind. (Echoes of a classic music video from A-Ha.)

The show has never delved too far into various scientific explanations behind the Sudden Departure, but on a bone-deep level, something about the event the show describes feels right — it feels true, like it could happen. Because there is no fixed point, the center cannot hold. Death is always coming, separation is always lurking, sudden tragedies happen every day, and, if we are entangled, we are undone.

We all know that’s part of the package deal of being human, and if we don’t know that, we’re taught that by time, the slowest and most exacting teacher. As I told a friend who also lost someone recently, grief is the boss level of love. (In some alternate universe, there is a version of me that has turned that observation into a smash-hit collaboration with Ghostface Killah.)

 At Uproxx, Alan Sepinwall has a typically excellent interview with Lindelof about the meaning of the finale. Here’s Lindelof explaining whether season 1 of the show is worth enduring to get to seasons 2-3:

I made a joke at TCA — or at least I thought it was a joke — that The Leftovers was a grower, not a shower, but I knew even then that it was going to take some figuring out and some experimentation. Not just because that’s the natural course of things in television, like doesn’t it make sense that the first season of a show should be its worst or its least evolved or its least confident? I have that conversation with people about The Americans —where season one isn’t even bad, it’s good; it’s just not the greatest show on television yet — then people like Aziz or Donald Glover or Jill Soloway come along and make perfect first seasons of television and then you go, “Oh, I didn’t even have to suffer through that.”

What I would say is, season one is not unwatchable, it’s ten hours of your life and of those ten hours, five of those episodes are categorically on the same level as episodes from seasons two and three, in my opinion. Half of them. I’m not going to tell you which ones they are, but you’ll know. “Lens” only works emotionally because you watched season one. You just gotta power through, man. That’s my advice.

Here are a few other links worth checking out as well:

While The Leftovers is a show I admire more than I love, I appreciated much of what it was trying to communicate. We live in a broken world that’s hungry for meaning, and one of the only ways we can find that meaning is through each other. But people are often terrible. For me, that’s the fundamental tension that the show brought to light, and that we need to deal with in our lives every day.

The new season of ‘Twin Peaks’ is going to blow everyone’s mind

Matt Zoller Seitz, writing for Vulture, about the new Twin Peaks:

We tell ourselves we’re all right with shows like Twin Peaks and artists like Lynch because hating everything that’s not a meat-and-potatoes linear narrative with traditional bits of foreshadowing and callbacks and payoffs is square, and nobody wants to be a square, daddy-o.

But the truth is, whenever any otherwise compelling popular TV artist throws us a truly startling curveball — as the creators of The Sopranos, Lost, and Battlestar Galactica did — the tendency is to proclaim that it was pretty good until it “jumped the shark” or “shat the bed” or otherwise stopped being good.

And when it becomes clear that a series isn’t terribly interested in narrative housekeeping, and in fact has to remind itself to give a damn about that kind of thing, the popular audience tends to run the other way, because they don’t know how to process it. Even now, shows tend to be a lot neater and clearer and less intuitive than Twin Peaks […] Neither the culture nor the media that covers the culture are equipped to deal with mainstream work that feels genuinely new.

I am so amped for the new Twin Peaks after reading this essay. Lynch gives not a care in the world about narrative convention, satisfying storytelling, or adherence to genre conventions. If Lynch’s past decade of work has been any indication, audiences (including myself) will struggle mightily to figure out what the heck they are watching. The titanic online industry that dissects and recaps television shows is about to hit a Lynch iceberg and the results will be glorious.

I can’t wait to witness it/be a part of it.

A review of the Game of Thrones Live Concert Experience

I had a chance to see the Game of Thrones live concert experience this weekend at the KeyArena in Seattle. Overall, I found it to be a maddening experience.

On the one hand, I’m a big fan of the HBO original series, I’m obsessed with its music, there were moments of the show that were transcendently amazing, and Ramin Djawadi is one of my idols — a man whose work I’ve admired and listened to for years, and who I was thrilled to see live on stage. On the other hand, it seemed like a show that fundamentally didn’t trust its music to work its magic over the audience, relying on pyrotechnics and fancy staging to keep people’s attention.

Let me confess my biases: I love the conventional orchestral concert experience. Sitting in a big, quiet, dark hall while hearing Beethoven’s Ninth is my idea of a phenomenal time. I also enjoy shows like the Lord of the Rings concert, where a movie is projected on a big screen while the orchestra plays the score. In both of these scenarios, the music is the main event (or in the case of the movie, at least equal in stature to the other main event).

If you attend the Game of Thrones live concert experience looking for a good show, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. But if you expect the music to be the focus, you’ll be in for a rude awakening. The stage is massive and divided into multiple parts. Here’s a photo I took of the concert floor after the show:

The stage for the show is massive and divided into multiple parts. Here’s a photo I took of the concert floor afterwards:

While scenes from Game of Thrones (and/or related graphics) play on the gigantic LED screens, musicians can sometimes wander along the walkway or take positions alongside one of the other “stations” on the floor. Occasionally, fire or smoke would burst forth from the stage, matching what was happening on screen.

Now that you have a good mental image of what the show was like, let’s discuss some of its finer points:

  • We paid $100 each for tickets that had pretty good seats. For an extra $100-150, you could get a “Lannister Table” or a”Stark Table” like the one near the stage in the photo above. While this came with food and the chance to meet Ramin Djawadi, I cannot imagine it was a better concert experience. Those people must’ve always had to crane their necks to see what was happening, plus trying to view the screen would’ve also been a challenge.
  • Virtually every single one of the 20+ tracks that was played was an adaptation of a track from the score, vs. taken directly from score. This was a huge disappointment to me personally, as I’m a bit of a purist when it comes to these things. That being said, all the tracks are recognizable and occasionally rearranged in interesting ways.
  • The show was at its best when it played scenes from Game of Throne uninterrupted and allowed the music to simply accompany them. Tracks like those from “Battle of the Bastards” and “The Light of the Seven” were highlights for me, as you got to see huge portions of those scenes play out in real time on screen while hearing the amazing music that went along with them.
  • Unfortunately, most of the show relied on cheesy montages and graphics to show off the music and keep audience interest. Sometimes, there’d be smoke or fire to grab your attention too. But I’ll say this for the concert: It was never boring.
  • The concert suffered from the same problems that any orchestral show would suffer from when adapted into an arena show: poor acoustics. This was worsened by having some of the musicians stand far apart from each other for some tracks, which occasionally caused them to lose sync.
  • The montages and scenes that they played from Game of Thrones were edited bizarrely. They played scenes of graphic violence like those from “Battle of the Bastards” or “The Red Wedding.” But they would edit out the most graphic kills, or most gory moments. This reduced Game of Thrones from a hard R to a hard PG-13. I’m guessing this was so families could attend, and indeed, many children were in the audience. But if I were a parent of a child who scared easily, I would still avoid this show. I should also point out: The live experience spoiled everything through the most recently aired episode of the show.
  • One final note on the scenes they chose to play on screen: This is a show that features excellent musicians at the top of their game. When they get on that huge stage, many of the soloists have a bunch of swagger and playfulness. You want to cheer for them, as they’re clearly having a great time. Meanwhile, you’re watching a scene where characters are being brutally murdered (Game of Thrones is pretty dark, huh?). It all made for a weird juxtaposition and an unsettling feeling. As someone from the row behind me said at one point, “This is the most depressing concert I’ve ever been to.”

Conclusion

I was grateful to attend this concert. Seeing Ramin Djawadi performing on stage will be one of the most memorable experiences of my life. I think the vast majority of people who enjoy Game of Thrones and who like its music will have a great time. But if you prefer a more standard orchestra concert experience, you will probably be distracted by the concert’s ostentatiousness. If I could sum it up in one word, it’d be this: uneven.

I dive into all these issues in-depth via a Periscope I recorded after the show ended.

Why Dave Chappelle’s new Netflix comedy specials won’t age well

Dave Chappelle is one of my favorite comedians of all time, but his new Netflix specials, The Age of Spin and Deep in the Heart of Texas, traffic in jokes that could easily be construed as transphobic.

Chappelle’s new specials made me laugh, but they also often made me uncomfortable (and not necessarily in the way I think they were intended to). I appreciated Chappelle trying to tackle the idea that for many people, the concept of transgender people is still something they cannot wrap their minds around. But too often he did this by making transgender people the butt of the joke. He spoke from a place that didn’t recognize their struggle as real, and that considered gender non-conforming individuals as somehow disordered, even as he acknowledged their right to self-determination.

Many around the internet are starting to weigh in about this. Eric Sasson writes about this for The New Republic:

Chappelle is even more tone-deaf on transgender issues. He seems to have little interest or patience with any notion of transgender identity, going on an extended rant about how he “misses” Bruce Jenner. He reduces gender assignment surgery to a crude joke about how strange it would be if he and his friend were to go to the hospital one afternoon to “cut their dicks off.” Worse, he acts offended when someone corrects his use of a pronoun, as if it’s somehow a burden on him to have to refer to a transgender woman as a “she.”

A particularly callous part comes when he cites “black dudes in Brooklyn, hard, street motherfuckers, who wear high heels just to feel safe.” You’d almost think that Chappelle is convinced that the progress trans people have made in the last few years has come at the expense of black progress. But discrimination isn’t a zero-sum game. And newsflash—many trans people are people of color. Statistically, they are also the most likely to be sexually assaulted. That Chapelle thinks it’s funny to joke about how they have it better than black men demonstrates the kind of myopic worldview that only a rich male comedian might have.

Tiq Millan, writing for Buzzfeed:

Chappelle tells a story about being at a party where a trans girl gets high or drunk and proceeds to get sick and pass out. For Chappelle, “Whatever it was, it was definitely a man in a dress.” He moseys over and unassumingly asks, “Is he okay?” He’s admonished for using the wrong pronoun and now is immediately offended. “I support anyone’s right to be who they are inside, but to what degree do I have to participate in your self-image? Why do I have to switch up my pronoun game for this motherfucker?”

And this is the crux of the cisgender problem — cis people’s tendency to center themselves in the transgender experience. These aren’t your pronouns. They belong to the person you’re addressing. Using the correct pronouns isn’t meant to validate someone’s whimsical sense of self; it’s a basic courtesy and shows respect for who someone is. If Chappelle is clutch-my-pearls offended by incidents like this, it’s not because of our demand to be respected, but because of what that demand says about his own fragile gender identity. The one thing I’ve learned about masculinity as a transgender man is that its power and definition relies heavily on how well it performs away from femininity.

Lauren Michele Jackson, writing for The Outline:

Chappelle is well aware that his comedy won’t be taken kindly in the world into which he re-emerged, where language means everything. In Age of Spin, he attempts to a stage an atmosphere in which he is knowingly out of touch and only halfway apologizing for it. (Perhaps this is why Netflix chose it to be the first “episode,” though it was more recently recorded). “I’m 42,” he says, before deadnaming Caitlyn Jenner in order to set up a stale game of oppression Olympics between (white) trans women and black (cis) men. It’s a repeated trope in both specials. He acknowledges the perks of his fame (“I’m black, but I’m also Dave Chappelle,” he says early in Age of Spin, in a bit in which he narrates the story of a friend’s arrest) and suggests that he’s jaded by the game of “who has suffered more” (“You was in on the heist, you just don’t like your cut,” is his reply to a white woman who tries to equate her oppression with his). And yet Chappelle finds himself embattled with other subject positions, convinced black men have it the hardest and conveniently forgetting the existence of black women, black gay men, black trans women, and black lesbians, until they’re needed in service of a punch line.

Both specials lay a trap for the sort of millennial sensibility that gives Age of Spin its name, and where “everybody’s mad about something,” as he says in Heart of Texas. Dave Chappelle is a 40-something who remembers watching the Challenger explosion on a television set wheeled into the classroom. In his world, trans women and gay men are akin to smartphones and the 24-hour news cycle: technological inventions he just can’t keep up with. It’s a very convenient, if not particularly innovative or convincing, gimmick.

Jackson’s whole argument is about how Chappelle’s specials feel frozen in time. I agree wholeheartedly — these jokes won’t age well. For some, they’re already terrible to begin with. When we look back on it in a few decades, we’ll be surprised anyone ever laughed at them.