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.