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.