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: