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.

Finishing ‘Six Feet Under’ twelve years later

When Alan Ball’s Six Feet Under was airing on TV, it was my obsession, right along with The Sopranos. It was the golden age of HBO. Serialized TV was just starting to go mainstream, and the idea of a television show that was as emotionally deep (not to mention as good looking) as a film and was still relatively novel. I remember asking my parents to tape episodes of the show on VHS, because I was in college at the time and didn’t have access to HBO. That’s how deep my love ran for Six Feet Under.

Unfortunately, I never completed the five-season journey with the Fisher family the first time around. I don’t recall why I stopped, but I never made it through the whole of season four (I dropped off right around the time when David was brutalized by a hitchhiker).

Recently, I’ve been taking stock of my viewing experiences and trying to figure out what shows it’s important for me to complete. It always bothered me that I never finished Six Feet Under, primarily because I’d heard that the show’s series finale was one of the best in TV history.

So this past week, I fired up the HBO Go (or Amazon Prime streaming, depending on your pleasure) subscription and picked up watching right where I left off.

It’s a pretty surreal experience to immerse yourself into the lives of characters you left behind more than a decade ago. But I actually think jumping in mid-way through season four was a great way to resume watching the show. It gave me enough time to really get invested again and appreciate what the show did well. But it also wasn’t so many episodes that I could get tired of the show again, and let its weaknesses really get to me.

Even after all this time, the show still feels groundbreaking. It was one of the first times a gay relationship was shown on screen in a really compelling and humanizing way. All the characters feel like actual people, and are depicted with complexity and compassion. More importantly, all of their problems are imbued with massive significance. This show has a lot to say about life and love, and it does so in ways that I still find effective. I wasn’t ready for all the feelings this show could stir up but it definitely still got to me on a very deep level.

That being said, this is a show that seems to have clearly run out of ideas around season four. The show’s structure was ambitious: every episode opened with a character’s death, and the ensuing episode had the Fishers dealing with that death and its funeral, while hopefully learning important lessons about themselves. This was understandably a difficult format to sustain for years, and by the end, the show seemed to just completely give up on it. It led to opening deaths that actually felt quite cruel to the audience. In one episode, a man’s home is robbed and then he is mercilessly executed for no reason. The audience never learns more about this situation. Who are these people? Why did the show make us feel for them, if it wasn’t going to tell us anything about them? These questions didn’t need answers in earlier seasons when the show actually went much further into depth on these “opening death characters.”

[SPOILERS for Six Feet Under begin now]

Moreover, the Fishers gradually became less and less likable over time, to the point where by the end of the show, many of them were unbearable. Nate cheated on Brenda, then broke up with her on what ended up being his death bed. David was emotionally abusive to his longsuffering partner Keith, who put up with David well past the point of reason. Claire turned out to be as unstable as Nate in dealing with death and acted out in incredibly self-destructive ways. Ruth was prone to fits of anger, allowing her suppressed emotions to come out in random bursts against Claire and others.

When I started watching Six Feet Under, I used to think these were characters I’d be blessed to know in real life. I wanted to hang out with them, be friends with them, be part of that crazy Fisher funeral home and witness all the humanity that transpired. By the end of the show, I didn’t even want to know these people anymore. I found them distasteful, self-absorbed, and self-destructive. I actively didn’t want to know them because if I did, they’d probably ruin my life in some way.

I wasn’t a fan of these developments, but I admired the show for creating such awful people and daring us to still care about them.

Here are a few more observations about the end of the last season and a half of the show:

  • The idea of the characters all talking to dead people and the elaborate visions they had got very tiresome by the end. I appreciated that these “visions” were meant to reflect the deepest thoughts of these characters, but I kept getting distracted by the conceit — did all of these characters (even ones not in the family, like Brenda) just have a thing where they interacted with mental projections regularly? It started to take me out of the show.
  • James Cromwell’s character of George had a really powerful arc in season four. The idea of a woman like Ruth feeling bitter about being forced to take care of an old partner with dementia was a potent one. I was really disappointed it ended with George mysteriously getting completely better and Ruth being forced to contend with the same issues about George’s emotional unavailability. In real life, we know things typically don’t end that way for seniors with Alzheimer’s and related ailments.
  • The season four finale was absolutely ludicrous and actively hurt the show. It was straight out of a soap opera, which I know is a funny thing to say because the show itself is structured and feels kind of like a really classy soap opera. But the aftermath of Lisa’s death and the idea that it could’ve been a murder was done so poorly that it almost caused me to stop watching the show again. It felt like it was completely out of a different series, and the fact that later episodes barely acknowledge it makes me feel like the showrunners agreed with this assessment.
  • Season five is mostly a slog, with an insane amount of time devoted to Claire’s temp job (a plotline that, in my opinion, went nowhere) but when Nate Fisher suffers from another AVM, the show roars to life again. The stakes are raised and things actually begin happening once more. The way Nate’s death is handled is beautiful and moving, right through his green funeral. What a lovely way to conclude the story of a beloved character.
  • The conclusion of Federico and Vanessa’s storyline was so beautiful. They are among the most “normal” people of the entire show and seeing their marriage fall apart and get reconstituted was hopeful and inspiring.
  • I appreciated what the final sequence was trying to do, but it just didn’t work for me. Everything about it: the old age makeup, the “future” styles and technology, the over-acting on the part of the characters who were dying. It all just felt silly and prevented me from emotionally investing in these characters’ future deaths. That being said, the series finale is an otherwise excellent hour of television that satisfyingly wraps up the whole show. A worthy end to one of the greatest shows in TV history.

For further writing on Six Feet Under, check out Heather Havrilesky’s write-up of the finale. It’s probably my favorite analysis of the show as a whole.

SNL and the logic of interviewing Kellyanne Conway

SNL delivered a mixed bag of an episode with guest Alec Baldwin last night, but there were a couple sketches that really stood out. The first is the cold open with Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer, which continues to be a highlight. The second is this bit about Jake Tapper and Kellyanne Conway:

I was surprised the Conway/CNN kerfuffle had risen to the level of SNL parody, but it is an interesting one to me: CNN passed on having Kellyanne Conway on “State of the Union” last week, a fact that Conway disputed. Why? Because the journalistic value of interviewing Conway has become suspect.

Jay Rosen has been on the anti-Conway warpath for awhile, and he makes some pretty astute observations about how journalists should treat Conway. In an interview with Recode, Rosen lays out his reasoning:

I don’t think the people interviewing Kellyanne Conway know why they’re doing that, meaning that the journalistic logic of it is growing dimmer with every interview […]

The logic is, “This is a representative of the president. This is somebody who can speak for the Trump administration.” If we find that what Kellyanne Conway says is routinely or easily contradicted by Donald Trump, then that rationale disappears. Another reason to interview Kellyanne Conway is our viewers want to understand how the Trump world thinks. If what the end result of an interview with her is is more confusion about what the Trump world thinks, then that rationale evaporates.

 

How ‘Black Mirror’ mirrors reality

Miranda Katz over at Backchannel has a comparison of Black Mirror episodes and their theoretically real-life counterparts:

What makes Black Mirror so chilling isn’t just its technologies, but their uncanny interplay with human behavior. The show can feel gratuitously pessimistic, yet it’s rooted in reality: nearly every scenario parallels something in our current world. In particular, an early episode disturbingly foreshadows the rise of Donald Trump.

It’s impossible to write off Black Mirror as fiction. So we’ve decided to nail down the parallels between the nightmares on screen and our world today. And so we present: the real-life equivalents of Black Mirror’s dystopias, loosely ordered by how closely each episode reflects our current reality.

Never doubt the power of SNL

The other day, Melissa McCarthy lampooned White House press secretary Sean Spicer in a devastating Saturday Night Live sketch. Over the weekend, Donald Trump was strangely silent about the episode on Twitter. Now, in a report from Politico, the fallout:

More than being lampooned as a press secretary who makes up facts, it was Spicer’s portrayal by a woman that was most problematic in the president’s eyes, according to sources close to him. And the unflattering send-up by a female comedian was not considered helpful for Spicer’s longevity in the grueling, high-profile job, where he has struggled to strike the right balance between representing an administration that considers the media the “opposition party,” and developing a functional relationship with the press.

“Trump doesn’t like his people to look weak,” added a top Trump donor.

Trump’s uncharacteristic Twitter silence over the weekend about the “Saturday Night Live” sketch was seen internally as a sign of how uncomfortable it made the White House feel. Sources said the caricature of Spicer by McCarthy struck a nerve and was upsetting to the press secretary and to his allies, who immediately saw how damaging it could be in Trumpworld.