Category Archives: Streaming

Cats Save Earth by Lying There, Doing Nothing — “Too Cute Crisis”

An advanced alien empire comes to Earth. All they find is a primitive species polluting the planet to death. Ugh! Might as well just invade the thing and be done with it. They send their best investigator, Liza Luna, to determine if there’s anything on Earth worth saving before it’s obliterated. She’s disgusted by our cities and how badly we treat our planet. Humanity is surely doomed…until Liza walks into a cat cafe.

Overloaded by a level of cuteness her empire couldn’t possibly fathom, she knows the invasion needs to be called off. As we all know, aliens’ one weakness is cute animals. If Liza barely survived her first encounter, she knows even her best soldiers’ hearts will explode if they encounter a cat. Then she meets dogs, and rabbits, and pandas, and other cute creatures. The aliens never stood a chance. It’s up to Liza to run interference, save the Earth (but mainly cats), and ensure that her people are introduced to our pets at a cautious pace.

This is incredibly campy. There’s no other real way it could work. The acting and design of the aliens is patterned after cheesy B-movies. The cat cafe employees readily accept that Liza’s an alien without much fuss. When she finds a sick and abandoned cat, reads the cat’s memories to track his abusive owners down, and calls an orbital artillery strike on them, no one bats an eyelash at this perfectly reasonable response.

Knowing that the legendary Liza’s struggling with taming a cat, the aliens back on her ship theorize how hideous and deadly the creature must be. She won’t show them its appearance, and the descriptions she sends back don’t help. It can fit into any space like a fluid, but it also leaps and has fur? The mock-ups they create of what a cat must look like become more and more ridiculous. Recordings of its ‘meow’ send chills up alien researchers’ backs, but they become addicted to hearing more of it. Humans aren’t much help either. Ask any two and it’s unclear if cats are the pets, or humans serve the cat as their masters.

Sure, “Too Cute Crisis” overly relies on the joke that Liza sees a cute animal and flips out, but it’s a pretty good joke. Encounters with other animals vary. A personal favorite is when she first meets llamas, and a zookeeper describes their eyes as portals to another universe – one in which Liza immediately becomes lost. I had to go look up llamas’ eyes afterward and…yeah, that’s a hauntingly accurate description. I want to go see llamas now.

I watched “Too Cute Crisis” on a lark because the idea is ridiculous enough it deserves checking out. A lot of things I approach that way don’t pan out. A lark repeated episode after episode can become tiring quickly, but not so here. Yes, the animation’s pretty basic and it’s clearly made on a budget…but the visual humor and campiness are getting me to stick around, the voice actors are clearly having fun, and I spend most of each episode laughing. The show’s balance of appreciating different animals while poking light fun at how we interact with them, topped with a bit of B-movie alien cheese, is an enjoyable combination.

I don’t know that it’s a binge series. I’m watching it weekly as it airs and it’s a perfect appetizer: low investment, high reward. The central joke has time to refresh that way. The opening and closing songs are also good bops with a great sense of humor, and the closing credits feature real pictures of cute pets – whether from animation studio employees or sent in from fans, I don’t know. Six episodes in (that’s half the season order) and it’s very safe for family viewing so far.

I told myself at first I’m probably not going to watch it. It’s too childish and ridiculous and I’m a high-minded gentleman who only watches post-apocalypse allegories about the horrors of capitalism or whatever, but…even then I knew I was lying. It’s too cute. I know I’ll watch anyway.

“Too Cute Crisis” is on HiDive.

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Come for the Action, Stay for the World Building — “Black Knight”

“Black Knight” has been described as “Mad Max” meets “Death Stranding”. That’s a broad but incomplete way of defining it. After a comet hits the Earth and our atmosphere becomes polluted, the ultra-wealthy of South Korea are secured in an opulent underground bunker. Those in ‘needed’ jobs live in a somewhat safe general district. Each layer out offers worse conditions, until you hit the slums of refugees living in the ramshackle buildings of a poisoned Earth.

The most skilled and resilient become delivery drivers, running armored trucks through gauntlets of desert pirates. What are the pirates after? The oxygen and food the drivers deliver. “Black Knight” features car chases and shootouts in a desert wasteland as its leading hero delivers packages, so the “Mad Max” and “Death Stranding” comparisons make sense. They’re good hooks to draw you in, but they misrepresent what “Black Knight” is after as a series.

The more apt comparison would be “Snowpiercer” meets “Snow Crash”. But with less snow. “Black Knight” is about separating classes along artificially created resource boundaries. Just like our world. The villain pretends resources can’t be better shared with refugees, exacerbating violence toward them so as to tighten his grip on power. Just like our world. Refugee children are systemically abducted and re-purposed according to the needs of the wealthy. (Here’s how Russia does it. Here’s how China does it. Here’s how the U.S. does it.) The reliance on deliveries by a corporation-state replacing the way people connect with their own communities is the most similar aspect to our world. It just levels up the porch pirates for more exciting action scenes.

If “Black Knight” is post-apocalypse, then why is it so recognizable? There’s a moment where someone suggests to the villain that the lower classes can live in safer conditions if everyone – including the wealthy – were willing to wear a filtration mask in their daily lives. The suggestion’s never even considered. Yeah. Science-fiction. Sure.

What I love about “Black Knight” is that it starts slow. It shows you the personal aspects of its world, plants its ideas and patiently lets them weave together. The action’s good, though it frontloads the first two episodes with underwhelming sequences that are just OK. Things open up much more from the third episode onward, with some jaw dropping fight choreography and cinematography.

Even though I may have come for the action, I stayed for the world building. The world building in “Black Knight” is exceptional. This is a soft sci-fi build, focused on caste systems of stratified social classes, the relationship between nation and equally powerful corporation, and corporate neo-feudalism’s need for autocracy, police states, and refugee abuse. The plot essentially boils down to working class elements within this social system figuring out how to resist and topple further stratification.

“Black Knight” might not wow you at first. It was made for $18 million, which is very little compared to an American series of similar scope. They pick and choose where to spend the CGI budget, saving it for when the action really ramps up. That means we learn about the world less through sweeping aerial shots of post-apocalyptic vistas and more through beautifully detailed sets and costuming. One slum thoroughfare realized perfectly lends our imagination the details of a thousand more just like it. Many live in apartments with the exact same layout and materials. It’s an easy way to save on production budget, but it’s also an effective way of communicating that what people have is mass produced. Yet each apartment feels distinct to the people who live there. The reality is that it’s the same set over and over again, but the reality that’s conveyed is that each person does what they can to make their shut-in, gray apartment their own. Each does what they can to keep their identity in a world that’s trying to quash it.

The most effective way of building a world is to show us how people live in it. “Black Knight” is superb on this front. You can have all the budget imaginable and lack the finer details that make a place believable. Or you can have a dilapidated street, a scientist’s repair lab, a truck interior, and repeat the same apartment set in a way that paints an entire world. The world building of “Black Knight” outpaces the vast majority of series that cost 10 times as much. I’ve recently written about “Citadel”, Amazon’s $300 million spy disaster. It’s not even a competition which series paints a world I believe and care about. “Black Knight” feels like it spans vast territory, and convinces me to care about its thousands of refugees because the show evidences their existence, their impact, their lived-in history. It paints the little things with care and detail to spark our imagination in filling out the rest.

A bit of shaky CGI early on, or taking its time to backload the best action for later? I’m fine with that because what “Black Knight” gives me instead is good foundation for its story.

I also love the music. It’s not groundbreaking, it’s mostly familiar low-key synthwave, but it’s perfect for this kind of show. It’s complementary without intruding. Its looping nature lulls you even as it builds atmosphere and tension. A few industrial and trip-hop moments are used as drops to cue action, and these are beautifully done.

There are take it-or-leave it aspects. A bit of brief comedy here and there might seem out of place. Korean genre series fold these aspects in at moments that seem isolated and counter-intuitive to American viewers, but won’t to Korean audiences. There are only a few of these, but they’re noticeable. They still feel bumpy to me, but they don’t interrupt or take away from the whole.

Most of the performances are either iconic or subdued. By ‘iconic’, I mean they build out strong archetypes rather than exploring nuance. Delivery driver and resistance leader 5-8 is a cool-headed, suave hero who never takes a step wrong. Many supporting characters play things close to the vest, which fits the world but doesn’t let us learn much about them.

There’s not a lot of material written between these two extremes. The result is that there aren’t many acting moments that are designed to stand out. The acting’s good, and the writing allows a lot of opportunity for wry moments where a character undermines our expectations. I loved these, such as when 5-8 shakes his head and curses his protege’s actions, but can’t suppress his smile of approval. Smaller moments like this replace the more dramatic scenes we might be used to in both post-apocalypse series and many featured-actor K-dramas that cross over to the U.S. It almost feels like the nature of the world in “Black Knight” doesn’t allow for them. I’m good with this approach, but some will want characters with whom they can more easily connect and identify.

If you’re interested in the patient world-building of a cyberpunk post-apocalypse with a lot to say, and you enjoy seeing this accomplished through small details and design choices, “Black Knight” is extremely satisfying. If you’re looking for impressive action, you’ll definitely find it, but it takes some time and some initially over-edited action to get there. In terms of a series that delivers opportunities for its actors to shine, everyone here’s doing a good job but for most of the ensemble that job is to not stand out too much.

The first two things are more than good enough to justify the third for me. Many viewers will feel the same and find “Black Knight” to be a seriously impressive outing. If your priorities are different, you may bounce off the series before “Black Knight” starts paying off for you. I highly recommend it for its world building, blend of salient themes, its design, and eventually its action, with the caveat that viewers who are looking for complex dramatic performances may not be satisfied with a series that doesn’t make room for them.

“Black Knight” is on Netflix.

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They Should’ve Sent an Email — “Citadel” Continues

The show about every spy losing their memory returns. If you don’t remember what happened last time on “Citadel”, god you’re lucky. Richard Madden’s amnesiac Kyle had his spy memories as supersuave Mason destroyed, but Priyanka Chopra Jonas’ amnesiac Nadia was able to get hers back. Now they’re working together to stop the evil Manticore from procuring eight year old nuclear codes.

The first thing they do is retcon the nuclear codes into an A.I. that can track uranium globally. That no one’s been able to rewrite. In 8 years. While ChatGPT is over here going, “You need those paid writers? I’m free. You gonna need those paid programmers? I’m free.” Timely. Evil Manticore Lady doesn’t breathe a word about “nuclear codes” after repeating it every other scene in the first two episodes.

Robert Rodriguez literally recorded all the dialogue in the $7,000 movie “El Mariachi” in post-production. The makers of the $300 million “Citadel” just decided no one would notice if “nuclear codes” suddenly changed to “uranium detecting A.I.” I highlighted the staggering number of gaffes that could’ve easily been edited out in my review of the first two eps, why am I still surprised?

But forget that! We’re gonna have a flashback of how Kyle/Mason and Nadia first met! It’s basically an excuse for an action scene, but who understands how those work in spy movies? We better have a meeting about it first.

We don’t need any of this set-up. You could cut directly to the action sequence and we’d be fine. That’s how every Bond movie starts and we don’t lament that we missed the conference meeting. It doesn’t matter if Mason is retrieving an evil megavirus, the Ark of the Covenant, or second-hand Taylor Swift tickets. We get it, each is a source of unspeakable power and it has to be researched.

I still remember the joy of “Mission: Impossible 3” never telling you what the McGuffin they’re chasing is. Few spy films have so cleanly acknowledged it doesn’t matter. But “Citadel” is doing a 10-minute flashback. If 5 minutes of it isn’t a meeting describing a McGuffin that’ll never matter again, then why’d we pay for this secret base set? Stanley lost the receipt, it’s not like we can return it.

To be fair, there’s nowhere else for the dialogue to shine. Those meetings are important because they give the characters opportunities to quip with the energy of your CEO sharing a joke they saw on Reddit and expecting you to courtesy laugh before he tells you there’s no bonus this year, but the executives’ Aegean cruise was beautiful (true story).

This ensures that “Citadel” has officially joined “Halo” in that rare genre of shows about meetings that I like to call Could’ve Been an Email. Half-hour spy cartoons have already mastered the art of knowing the audience has seen this bit countless times before, and their audience is primarily children who have only had five minutes of cogent thought, mostly about Legos or Minecraft or whatever’s popular with kids right now. Tik Tok? The return of child labor? Have pogs cycled back around yet? The point is we don’t need an entire meeting to outline an action sequence that’s only going to be important for 5 minutes of flashback. If a 10 year-old treats it as a waste of limited free time before their McDonald’s night shift, why don’t we?

Slow-forward to Mason escaping an Iranian facility with a deadly Ebola-like plague in hand. Once they get to the action sequence, the ideas are mostly great. He improvises, adapts, and uses the tools he finds on hand. He’s chased by paratroopers, he pops out cheesy magic ski boots that remind me of that parasurfing scene from “Die Another Day”, there’s snowmobile vs. ski vs. jet fighter action, the bad guys can’t hit the broadside of a barn, Mason never misses a shot, it’s 90% amazeballs. If only we got to see it. In between every awesome action moment, we cut back to headquarters where a man we’ve never met before helpfully says things like, “Two guys from the last scene down, two guys for the next scene approaching”. Yes. That is the thing I just saw and am about to see. I could tell that by, you know, watching the action scene.

Cinematic history.

Mason shoots two guys, cut to Suddenly Important Dude at base staring at a screen. Two red dots disappear. “Two skis down”. Two more red dots appear. “Two ATVs approaching”. Cut to action scene. You’ll never guess. Two ATVs approach.

These cutaways happen in many series to afford the action larger transitions than would be comfortable if we just saw the sequence straight through. When you cut away for every single minor action for minutes straight, it just shows you have no idea how to cut the action itself together. Mason can’t get two shots off without going to Cutaway Dude telling his red dots, “You got two shots off, in the next scene it’s a dark and stormy night”.

It’s a Could’ve Been an Email inside another Could’ve Been an Email. It Could’ve Been an Email all the way down.

Mason is injured, Nadia shows up, badass choreography is intercut with, “Mason! Last scene just happened, next scene incoming”. Safe in the knowledge that the action sequence has been thoroughly sabotaged, we cut to Mason sitting around in bandages like he’s waiting for his cue. Mason and Nadia briefly officially meet after the mission, and insult each others’ mothers. The very next scene they’re sleeping together. Er, Mason and Nadia are. Not the moms. At this rate, that’ll be next episode.

I’d say there’s no way that anyone could possibly think this passes for romantic dialogue, but then again it’s like 90% of the Russos’ screenplay for “The Gray Man”. I’m beginning to think Your Mom jokes are what the Russos throw in as dialogue when they become panicked. It’s a survival mechanism, like a skunk spraying sulfur juice or a possum keeling over or a herd of buffalo forming a defensive circle around your mom.

“Hey, Russo Bro! Russbro. I’ve got these two characters who need to have sexy banter that convinces the audience that they spark immediately.”

“Have they insulted each others moms yet?”

“We can do better than that.”

“Agh, a spider!”

“One’s an orphan who never had a mom, hilarious!”

OK, I have to admit I’m actually kinda jealous of the Russos’ fame. My frustration first arises from my childhood. It was a gusty Autumn day when my third grade class first stood around before school and made Your Mom jokes to pass the time. Apparently we wrote a high quality screenplay every week just standing in line, but we didn’t think to write anything down. Sometimes the geese in the baseball field would attack a passing cyclist. Halcyon days. My point is, we had it in us to waste $300 million, too.

After all these scenes that could’ve been emails, the next scene is an email. What a twist! Well, it’s text messaging. Close enough. Thrillingly staccato violin music backs modern-day Nadia typing out brief texts in exciting codephrases like “How’s the weather?” and “How’s the package?” We could get a swift back-and-forth like in any spy thriller, but “Citadel” is grounded and realistic whenever it gets embarrassed about having Inspector Gadget ski boots in a previous scene. That means we get to see the messaging play out in real time, as Nadia waits at length for responses. We even take the time to see her look around the room with pained expressions as she racks her mind about what to write, which is something that would make sense if she weren’t writing clearly prescribed codephrases. Oh god, the emails are even worse. You know what, it could’ve been a sick day.

Luckily, half the episode is Stanley Tucci being tortured. Wait, that came out wrong. I mean, he’s the only one riding the line between this show’s cheesiness and faux gravitas. The one liners still don’t work because they’re variations on the same joke: characters telling each other to fuck themselves over and over again. OK, they’re not actually jokes with a punchline or a set-up or anything that makes a joke, but “Citadel” keeps acting like they are and after a certain amount of time you don’t want to be the odd one out even though you’re watching this alone because you wouldn’t dare inflict this show on loved ones. Here’s where they really need Cutaway Guy describing over comms, “That was one joke, another joke incoming”. Still, Tucci works because he read the script and recognized this is a job for Nic Cage, but I guess he wasn’t available. And Tucci can Cage it up enough to get the job done.

Lol and behold, the end of the episode features a twist. After Mason the spy lost his memory and became Kyle, he met another woman who’d lost her memory, married her, and had a daughter who thus far hasn’t lost her memory thank god for small favors. Weird that Mason-Kyle and his now-wife Abby lost their memories right around the same time, when all the other Citadel spies also lost their memories. I bet that doesn’t mean anything, it’s just a coincidence in this series about nothing being a coincidence when it could be badly written instead.

But the Manticore villain tagged to torture Tucci next was in love with Mason’s now-wife when she was a spy and maybe this villain was Citadel, too but also lost his memory. Makes no sense? Just looks like I mashed words together? Introduces massive plot holes? Basically assume that if someone on this show didn’t lose their memory, they did, and that also covers the writers and directors. If you want to have an action scene’s description described to you or see a real-time portrayal of texting “I’m bored, how bout u?”, you got yourself a show.

Literally nothing happens in this episode until the final 30 seconds. And just in case you don’t know what that means, remember you can always sign up to get this as an email.

You can watch “Citadel” on Amazon Prime, which is great because I don’t feel bad like I would if this happened to another streaming service.

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Peace and Longing — “Insomniacs After School”

Ganta is a student suffering insomnia. He can’t sleep at night and can barely function during class. One day, he sneaks into the school’s disused observatory. It looks like the perfect place to disappear and catch some shuteye. There’s only one problem – another insomniac has beat him to it. Isaki is in the same class, but they’ve never talked. Opening up about their condition allows them to find more in common than they thought.

They start spending time together, sneaking out to wander town at night and cleaning up the observatory to make it more comfortable. The plot is pretty low stakes. Will people question it if they’re suddenly friendly in class? Will they get caught by a teacher? It makes the series feel more experiential, but no less interesting. To students struggling to cope and find a way through, these everyday worries feel as intense as saving the world.

Whether Ganta and Isaki can keep using the observatory turns into some taut storytelling that feels weightier and more fraught than most action series this year. This tension shapes the series, but doesn’t define it. Instead, “Insomniacs After School” has a wonderful sense of peace and calm, punctuated with joy and undercut with just a hint of sadness. There’s a sense of each night being important because it’s fleeting, and of two people finally seeing in each other someone who shares and understands their burdens. It’s very sweet storytelling, and perfect to watch just before bed.

An alum named Shiromaru agrees to teach them about astrophotography. There’s a sequence where we follow her in the third episodes. She packs up her camera, cat, a tupperware of batter, and a skillet before heading to a shrine in the dead of night. She sets up her camera. She makes sure her cat is leashed and safe. Pictures of the night sky take time. She cooks a pancake with care, applies butter as if it’s a personal ritual. She savors it. She reads a little. The night is calm. Crickets chirp. The sky is beautiful. It’s a transcendent bit of magic, an utterly captivating scene where nothing much happens. Yet we see a glimpse into how much this moment means for one person, how at home she is doing what she loves, how much calm she can find in a moment so few others would think to experience.

The strength of “Insomniacs After School” rests in how much it appreciates the ordinary. Its low stakes and patience find worthwhile storytelling in realistic things, while its phenomenal sense of atmosphere allows us to slow down and bask in peaceful moments – the ones that shape us because they ask us to connect and be moved without defenses. It understands the thin line between peace and longing.

That scene with Shiromaru, her cat, the stars, it’s the first time we see her as she really is, and we understand how content she is when she can be exactly that. So too with Ganta and Isaki, who are still finding themselves, whose glimpses of who they really are vanish too quickly because of the guardedness of high school. You see them learn to find these better, to glimpse who they are a bit longer each time, and to find in each other someone who provides the safety and trust to be vulnerable. It’s one of the more realistic presentations of the psychology of coming-of-age I’ve seen.

(I was pleasantly surprised to find that Isaki’s voice actor is Mori Nana. She leads another captivatingly calm show this year, the live-action “The Makanai: Cooking for the Maiko House”.)

“Insomniacs After School” is superb. I wasn’t actually a fan of slice-of-life anime until recently. The series I’d seen in the genre 10 years back often seemed to incorporate a few less than savory elements that felt out of place at best and exploitative at worst. I know we pin that on cultural differences, but for a country that gobbles up shows like “Euphoria” it’s a bit like the pot calling the kettle black. Now I don’t think this element has shifted any more in anime than it has in our productions, but streaming has made it much easier to find the ones that don’t sabotage their empathy with objectification set pieces.

It was “Komi Can’t Communicate” and its exceptional portrayal of social anxiety that drew me back in. “Komi” is really more of a satire that capably veers from soothing calm to rabid chaos goblin at the drop of a hat, but it targets and satirizes prior works’ exploitation in a way that’s protective of its characters. In other words, it feels like I can trust the show with them. That makes space for something more honest, in a way that asks us to understand both the characters and ourselves. The genre of more psychological, community-oriented, protective slice-of-life series didn’t start with “Komi”, but that’s what convinced me to give the genre another try.

I’m glad I did. This season’s “Insomniacs After School” and “Skip and Loafer” are easy contenders for best of the year lists, and not solely for animated series. They’ve both wowed me and – look, we live in interesting times to say the least. I need shows like this that are about kindness and people building supportive community. I need to know that even as these things are eroded in the real world, there are artists out there saying “Not here, not in the space we can control”. Art shapes norms, and norms decide whether we are kind, whether we choose to build community. I look around so many places and am grimly reminded who we seem to be. I need the spaces and the characters and the artists who remind me what we can be, and that other people out there do see a better way as well. I mentioned above that “Insomniacs After School” understands the thin line between peace and longing. It offers a place where I can understand it, too.

“Insomniacs After School” is on Hidive.

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I Watched “Citadel” and Now I Want My Memory Wiped, Too!

Quick, your spy organization’s just been compromised! You need to keep all your spies safe! Luckily, they’re the best in the world. Every agent has elite knowledge and skills that will help them blend in and disappear. Every one of them can take a thousand faces. They have the talent to disappear in any country, any time. So what’s your genius super-secret plan to protect them all? Wipe their memories. Give them all amnesia. When they’re hunted and in the sights of other top spies, what they need most is to forget all their knowledge and all those skills that can help them hide and defend themselves. Top stuff.

In a year that’s rife with spies deputizing their wives and boyfriends cause our collective fantasy for state security is how dreamy it would be if it was even more nepotistic, “Citadel” manages to come up with the most nonsense premise of the whole bunch.

Of course, who am I to judge? Wiping all your spies of their memories and knowledge seems to work perfectly in “Citadel”. If it didn’t, there wouldn’t be a show.

We start with Mason Kane and Nadia Sinh, played by Richard Madden and Priyanka Chopra Jonas. They’re on one of those central European trains with such great set design that we long for the simple days when becoming a suspect in a transcontinental murder investigation was a realistic vacation goal. Mason and Nadia aren’t here for that; they’re too busy carrying out a super-secret mission. We know this because they talk about it openly in earshot of the other passengers, including their target. Their target gets up, presumably tired of pretending he can’t hear them. Nadia follows, but then the target’s bodyguard follows so Mason follows. First to fourth, they’re maybe 20 feet apart. They may as well be hugging. This does not encourage great confidence in our spies.

Things go wrong, we get a fistfight, a gunfight, and a fistfight with guns. Our spies are good at each, hey maybe this’ll work out. We’re introduced to Citadel, who Mason and Nadia work for, and the evil Manticore. It’s a trap! Explosions ensue, that wacky amnesia failsafe triggers, and we’ve got a plot with immediate stakes in the here and now.

Fast-forward eight years later. Mason only knows himself as ordinary guy Kyle now. When he takes a DNA test in the hopes of learning something about his past, he pings on intelligence agencies’ boards. Luckily, Citadel braintrust Bernard Orlick arrives in the form of Stanley Tucci. He abducts Mason and his family, convinces Mason he used to be a spy (rather easily), and that they need to go on a mission.

What’s the mission? Citadel’s eight year-old case of state secrets has been found by Manticore. Manticore wants the case because it has nuclear codes! It has nuclear codes. It…has nuclear codes? Have we not changed those in eight years? You know, it was on the list. I just got distracted cause that light bulb needed changing, I had to call the cable company, and then we were out of condensed milk so I had to run to the store. They didn’t have it, I had to go to a second place. I’ve had a lot on my plate. I promise I’ll change the nuclear codes next weekend. It’s the next thing on my list. Oh, but we’re supposed to go to your sister’s. Well, you know, it’s not like we ever use them, it’ll be fine – wait, Manticore did what?!?

Look, if we haven’t changed our nuclear codes in eight years, that starts to sound more like an us problem. Maybe Manticore should get them. They didn’t forget about the nuclear codes. You did. For 8 years, you’ve been telling me you listen to me. You’ve been telling me you would change them. No, it’s not just about the nuclear codes, Stanley, it’s about what they represent. They represent that you didn’t care enough to get it done then. Manticore seems to care. You call them evil, I call them attentive. Maybe you’re just projecting.

So, spies protected by brainwiping them of ways to hide and defend themselves, check. Your McGuffin is a case of 8-year-old nuclear codes, which in the real world are replaced daily. Cool beans. The case ultimately contains more that has to do with the actual plot, but Manticore’s big thing is “hey, sweet, classic nuclear code memorabilia”.

Also, on the brain wiping, amnesia, and spy/non-spy mind-states – your whole premise? “Carmen Sandiego” did it. A lot of people have, but recently. And more complexly. And with better fight choreo that often included a mime.

Despite all this, “Citadel” gets the job done if you want a globe-trotting, loosely cobbled together spy wotsit. It’s pretty enough, the leads are good enough, the aerial establishing shots of a dozen cities are aerial enough. S’ok. There are worse things than watching Madden and Chopra for forty minutes an ep.

Some very good ideas raise their heads momentarily. When Nadia has her memories wiped, it’s right after she’s killed someone in self-defense. Everything sets up for the kind of thrilling scene about shock, identity, and dissonance that a Bourne-again is built around. It’s a stunning opportunity for Chopra to sink her teeth into some humanizing acting that connects to the audience. The entire sequence has been leading up to this utterly intriguing moment of how a freshly blank-slated human reacts to something so inexplicable. It’s going to be the most interesting scene in the entire series. When that moment of reckoning so many stories hope to capture arrives…we cut away. Cause who wants to see that?

There are opportunities here for something more ambitious. “Citadel” just isn’t ambitious. Worse than that, it often feels disinterested. There are a ton of script supervision details that should’ve been worked out better. When we pick up with Mason and his family all these years later, they live in a very sizable house in the woods on some ideal acreage. Later, he complains to Bernard in New York City that he’s so bad off he couldn’t afford to park there. The two details don’t agree. That’s a small mistake, certainly excusable, but it sabotages who this character is in a moment that’s trying to describe him.

There’s a scene where one of the villains’ henchmen shoots into the air in a restaurant and orders everyone to leave. One of the next shots is a close-up of his face – but it’s noticeable behind him that no one’s rushing, the customers and wait staff are pretty leisurely about strolling out.

Even in the very first shot, we see Nadia pickpocket her mark so she can return his “dropped” wallet to him later. Look closely enough, though, and she’s carrying the wallet well before she bumps into him. This series cost $300 million to make; they couldn’t CGI it out?

The fight choreography – and there’s a lot of it – is both creative and impressive. Overall, it’s one of the show’s more successful aspects. Yet even here there are moments where you can see an impact doesn’t connect or how a stuntperson absorbs a fall. That’s not their fault, it’s what stunt actors do – that’s the stunt part of it. It’s the director’s job to cleverly hide these aspects. The fault lies in choosing a camera angle because it looks good instead of choosing one that can look good while also working for the choreo.

These kind of details pop up in everything. Every movie and series has a boom mic showing, a camera in a reflection if you look closely enough, a script contradiction that didn’t get caught, a hit that doesn’t connect. They’re fine, they’re part of storytelling. You just want to keep the rate of them below a certain level. Our suspension of disbelief allows a lot. “Citadel” overfloweth. The sheer rate of unforced errors suggests that the people making this didn’t care enough to sort out details that would’ve been easy to solve. If the people making “Citadel” don’t think their show warrants the most basic level of care, then why should I throw mine in? For a spy tale that wants to come off as clever and precise, it often communicates as smarmy and shoddy.

One more issue: Mason is still able to fight after having his memory erased. Nadia isn’t. They both had the same skills and both underwent the same process. What’s the difference, “Citadel”? Hmm? We should be past the trope in amnesia plots where dudes can still be elite fighters while women forget how to tie their shoelaces, but here we are. They’ve both undergone the same plot mechanic. They either keep practiced skills or they don’t. Choose one.

Yet another one more issue: I’m shocked by the visual quality. The opening on the train does look extremely good. Colors and design elements pop, the lighting transitions play with texture and depth. It promises at least something visually commanding. And then the rest of the series is color-graded in desaturated greens and yellows, often either too cheaply or in ways that don’t fuse to what we’re actually seeing.

Just one more one-more-thing: “Citadel” is the second-most expensive series ever produced. Almost none of that budget makes it on-screen. Its production was ruinous, with live-action “Cowboy Bebop” showrunner Andre Nemec (um) and his 2014 live-action “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” co-writer Josh Appelbaum (oh no) being run out for “Avengers: Endgame” (fine, sure) and “The Gray Man” (uh-oh) directors Joe and Anthony Russo.

There are two completely different cuts of the show. This is supposed to be the better one. I do wonder if the other one is a campier, more colorful and fun version that Amazon kiboshed because this one plays more to expectations. The only thing that’s remotely saving it is that Madden, Chopra, Tucci, and the fight scenes seem to exist in that more fun version. All the dour color-grading and awkward editing in the world can’t hide that the actors clearly started out performing a different subgenre than the one we got.

There are a lot of places to wonder where the $300 million budget went. But maybe…just maybe Manticore’s using it to get us some new nuclear codes. My birthday’s coming up and I like to think they remembered.

“Citadel” is on Amazon Prime.

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No Myths, No Heroes — “The Diplomat” and Accountability

“The Diplomat” is one of the most interesting things on TV right now. I’ve reviewed a lot lately that has an aggressive storytelling approach or that plumbs absurd comedy, and unique does often equal interesting. What makes “The Diplomat” interesting is much simpler: remarkable writing. You’ve seen shows like it before, but rarely done this well.

Keri Russell stars as U.S. Ambassador Kate Wyler. She’s planning to become the new ambassador in Kabul, Afghanistan but is redirected after a major explosion on a British aircraft carrier. It seems she’ll be the new ambassador in the U.K. instead – a post often given to major campaign donors instead of Foreign Service experts like herself.

Secretly, the current vice president is on her way out, and the president wants someone effective who won’t be a threat to campaign down the road. Kate doesn’t know it, but she’s being vetted for the position.

Of course, the more pressing matter is who attacked the aircraft carrier. Despite evidence of an Iranian gunboat, Kate doesn’t think the facts add up. The British prime minister desperately needs shows of aggression and escalated tensions to help his poll numbers, and this risks drawing the U.S. into conflict with Iran, a country of 88 million people and the seventh largest military in the world.

(This is me interjecting my own thoughts, but let’s not forget Trump tried to escalate into military conflict with Iran his last year in office. If we struggled with the much smaller Iraq and Afghanistan, a war with Iran would devastate our economy to an unprecedented degree.)

To make matters worse, Kate’s husband Hal (Rufus Sewell) is a former ambassador. He has a reputation that’s a shining example of either heroism or manipulation, depending on who you ask. He tries to manage Kate and manipulate the details of her job, but as smart and influential as he is, she’s usually smarter. He goes off-book as a habit, whereas she has a sense for when and how diplomatic norms are useful. This allows her to ferret out his gambits, though often after they’ve come into play.

As much as Hal may support her at times, it all invariably comes with a cost – and she’s sick of managing his undermining and sabotage. It’s on Kate to maneuver her way through an international crisis, a war hawk prime minister, handlers who want to shape her image, and her gaslighting husband.

The writing is politically astute and often funnier than a diplomatic thriller tends to be. If you’re reminded of “The West Wing”, that’s no mistake. “The Diplomat” creator and showrunner Debora Cahn wrote and produced on more than 30 episodes of that show. The two are comparable for their intelligence and ability to capture the impact of governing as something truly compelling.

“The Diplomat” is more reliably acerbic. Russell and Sewell evoke something genuinely classic in their scenes, dare I say on the level of Katherine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy interplay. For a political drama, I’m surprised how comedic it goes in certain moments, but it sells even its widest swings perfectly.

The plot moves fast and captures a lot of backdoor politics, but Cahn and story editor Mia Chung do an exceptional job of keeping everything fluid and easy to understand. Nearly every detail comes with a consequence, but the show never loses track of them. When that consequence comes, you know exactly how and why. I can’t overstate how well written this is.

Russell is superb. If she’s not up for end-of-year-awards for this, then I don’t know what we’re doing. Kate isn’t a charmer like her husband, she’s a hard-nosed, do-your-job, call-their-bluff diplomat with a drive to ensure corners don’t get cut, fools are identified early, and information is accurate. It’s a stunning role, creating a character who quickly feels real – and who, as an audience, we want to believe still can be real even in the disastrous, polarized, Overton window-wrestling politics of today.

Kate’s an aspirational character not because of some heroic mythology – in fact, her husband’s heroic mythology is largely built on throwing others to the wolves. Instead, she’s aspirational because she’s blunt, honest, and accountable. “The Diplomat” revolves around the conflict between warmongering and diplomatic de-escalation, and underneath this it paints a theme of what we should value in politics instead of charm and hero myths. It depicts a core group of officials who do the riskiest thing in politics: they’re accountable to each other.

“The Diplomat” is a return to form of a certain kind of storytelling that people may find reassuring – it’s the reason many still watch “West Wing” reruns. That’s the selling point for a lot of people and it is an accurate one. But don’t stop there. “The Diplomat” isn’t just a show about reminding us of a format that gave us hope 20 years ago. It’s a show about the substance of what should give us hope and who we should aspire toward today, about the work of carving out space for hope where there was previously only paranoia and threat. That hope isn’t created by heroes and their charm, it’s created by people doing the daily work of making the world more accountable.

“The Diplomat” is on Netflix.

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Schrodinger’s Nesting Mystery Box — “Mrs. Davis”

I have no clue what this is about, but it sure looks zany. That’s what I thought after seeing the trailer for “Mrs. Davis”. Also what I think after spending three hours with it. I mean, I know what the plot is now, unless that’s not really the plot, or that plot is a metaphor for another plot…both of which are possibilities so far. But it sure is zany.

We open in the 1300s, where Templars are being burned at the stake for hiding the Holy Grail. Soldiers raid a nunnery, but the nuns are Templars, too. A sword fight ensues. We got blood, guts, impaled aerial nuns using their impaledness to group impale their enemies, it’s wacky fun for all. The dying Mother Superior tells the lone surviving Tempnun to take the Grail to their friends across the ocean, which is weird because practically everyone knew about the Americas by that point EXCEPT for mainland Europe, but whatevs, we’re here for flying nuns.

There’s a stop-off vignette for a shipwrecked guy, who hasn’t come back into the series at all and might not ever. I honestly don’t know what he was doing except to namedrop that he’ss Schrodinger and he has a cat, which could’ve been done with a line of dialogue instead of a 10-minute aside, but I don’t want to fixate. No nuns fly in this segment.

We’re in modern day, where Betty Gilpin (“GLOW”) plays Sister Simone. She opposes an A.I. that rules the world through social media and spam calls but has allegedly stopped all famine and wars. Still weighing whether that’s a net positive. The A.I. refers to itself as Mrs. Davis and desperately wants to talk to Simone. She refuses, so the A.I. ruins the lives of her entire convent to force Simone’s hand. You see, it wants to send her on a quest to find the Holy Grail. Simone agrees in the hopes of getting closer to the A.I. and shutting it off. A nun flies, if stuntbikes count.

See, it’s actually not that complicated of a plot when I just write it ou– but after Simone’s jam is blown up by a giant magnifying glass, a gang of Germans kidnap her and give chase in motorcycles and sidecars like a scene cut from “The Big Lebowski”. And there’s a resistance group run by Simone’s former lover Wiley, who shares a liver with her, but he gave up his inheritance before proving himself a coward, which explains why the resistance group is made of dudebros dressing like 80s and 90s action heroes and getting swole.

OK, that’s getting messy but it’s still pretty easy to underst– then there’s Simone’s other boss, who gives her missions to expose swindling magicians, which she does because her magician parents accidentally shot her with a crossbow as a child, but the A.I. killed her dad unless it didn’t which is why her mom is stalking her on her way to stalk a gang of bankers at a cosplay fest.

This may all seem outlandish happening to one person, but most of it takes place in Reno so, you know, just another day. Before long, we’re globe-trotting to multi-stalk a plot thick with double-crosses and surprise reveals.

There’s also the suggestion that the Grail quest is fake despite the Grail being real, that anyone at any point might be working for the A.I., that the whole thing might be fake or a coma dream or a simulation, or that it’s real but religious visions may be a coping mechanism, or the religious visions are the only thing that are real, or maybe those are just red herrings or real herrings mixed in with red herrings, which probably raises some FDA concerns. It’s a mystery box where you don’t get to look inside before the mystery box is packed inside another mystery box where the original mystery box may or may not still exist. Schrodinger, everyone. Prepare for me to beat this metaphor into the ground.

Mystery box shows became popular after “Lost” debuted an amount of time ago that I don’t want to talk about. The point is, they lend well to binge watching and that means streaming has embraced them. But mystery box shows are so mid-2000s. What if we put the mystery box inside of another mystery box like that grade school experiment where you have to keep an egg intact for three days that’s supposed to teach students something about child rearing but really only makes them skilled egg assassins?

At times, “Mrs. Davis” feels like a spiritual successor to one of the most underrated comedies of all time, “Hudson Hawk”. It’s underrated because everyone reviles it, but I love it. And it wouldn’t work without Bruce Willis, just as “Mrs. Davis” wouldn’t work without Betty Gilpin.

Gilpin’s the ideal lead for this, the kind of actor who has the self-serious presence to be a steady anchor point amidst rogue waves of absurdist comedy combined with the winking charm to shrug and just sort of surf away on them with such ease you wonder what you’re still doing on the boat. She can overshadow everything else with nonchalance, which is desperately needed when you want to ignore 73 nesting mystery boxes rotating around your head. The dramatic ability to cry in the middle of something ridiculous and make you believe it is rare. There’s a fine line of acting so hard you hit every note, while still delivering it in a way that doesn’t take itself seriously. She nails a role that is oxymoronic in what it asks, which is worth the price of admission then and there.

That’s good, since I still don’t know what “Mrs. Davis” is really doing three hours in, or even if it particularly cares what the answer eventually is. There are so many layers of who’s lying to whom, of coincidences (or are they), of not-coincidences (or aren’t they?) – and while they’re not difficult to follow, following them hasn’t thus far led to any conclusions.

A series like this is usually willing to serve up one answer in a way that opens up more questions. That way, you get some satisfaction but you’re still hooked and curious. If the early answers are done well and new questions are opened in intriguing ways, this signals that we can have confidence the storytellers know what they’re doing and have a plan. When those answers are withheld and questions are just piled on, it’s hard to tell if the storytellers are being clever or panicked. Are they genius writers or just throwing so much at you they hope you forget about the countless story threads they’ve left dangling?

Convenient time to mention that while “Mrs. Davis” is showrun by Tara Hernandez, it’s co-created, co-written, and co-produced by Damon Lindelof. How do we know that name? He showran “Lost” for a good, long time, and “Mrs. Davis” is one of the Lostiest shows you’ll have seen since Sawyer, Tauriel, and a bunch of impending DUIs crash-landed on Lostopia.

Hernandez’s involvement is hard to judge since the shows she’s been involved in before this are extremely different – “Young Sheldon” and “The Big Bang Theory”. That doesn’t tell us anything for someone getting their start in the industry. Lindelof has already proven he can drop dozens of interesting story threads in our lap with no idea how to tie them all together in a satisfying or sensible way. When your show doesn’t tell me if you’re ever going to answer a ratking of mystery boxes, I have to look at whether you’ve done so in past stories, and if the answer to that is “Uh-oh”, then I’m gonna do an uh-oh.

I want this to work. The absurd comedy is good and often great, Gilpin is phenomenal, and “Mrs. Davis” handles its themes of A.I. and social media very well. On this last front, the series takes aim at how algorithms paint our reality by exposing us to limited and narrow bands of information. It has a keen eye for how the gamification of online experiences dictates our perceived value to each other, and how artificial reward systems encourage us to compete for meaningless acclaim. It streamlines these themes without oversimplifying them and I’d love to see the eventual stack of reveals hammer this home in a resounding way.

That said, too many mystery box layers frustrate. Frustrate too much and whatever we’re left with, even good comedy and potent themes, can start to have the same impact as filler because we’re impatient to have any one answer to a mountain of questions. Load up too many questions on a viewer, and we start to care less and less what happens.

It doesn’t help that the supporting cast is a mix of not-as-strong and not-well-written. Simone’s ex Wiley is played by Jake McDorman, who has a certain charm but is reductively written as “wait, we couldn’t get Matthew McConaughey?” A number of actors pass through briefly, about half of whom are proxy-ing for the A.I., which just means flatly DJ’ing to an audience of Simone. One or two pass through just to deliver some kind of wacky, largely tangential scene. Some work. Some fall flat.

Katja Herbers has just popped in as another mystery box character, and she’s chewed this kind of meta-heavy material up for breakfast in the more effective and intentional “Evil”. I’m hoping that Gilpin will finally have someone at her level there. Might’ve worked better if Herbers had just played her ex to start.

At this point, I’d normally give you some idea of whether I intend to keep watching the series and why I find it worth pursuing. Then I’d use that as an anchor point to consider different types of viewers and what about the series would or wouldn’t appeal to them. This is who it’s for, this is who wouldn’t get as much out of it, that sort of thing. Because “Mrs. Davis” is still a massive pile of unopened mystery boxes, I still don’t know. I’ll watch it because it could turn out to be genius, but I worry that it could turn out to be a dud, or even worse – something that semi-works but keeps artificially stringing things out for a season 2 renewal.

You can’t tell someone if they’ll like a themed set of mystery boxes when you still haven’t gotten to open one or two yet to establish what the theme is. You can’t even tell someone you got them a themed set of mystery boxes in the first place if all the mystery boxes arrive in a larger mystery box with the theme of “Did we pack anything inside?”

If you like Betty Gilpin, it’s a watch. If you like absurd comedy, it’s a watch. If you want to see a spiritual successor to “Hudson Hawk” or a live-action cartoon complete with things in cartoons that don’t work in live action, it’s a watch. If you want to see something that could be tied together only by Jane Kaczmarek bursting in and yelling at everyone to clean their room, it’s a watch. If you’ve had that dream where the Coen Brothers, “Homeboys in Outer Space”, “Lupin the Third”, and “Warrior Nun” get scrambled together in a transporter accident and you’re Captain Janeway, what’s wrong with you and also it’s a watch.

If you have little patience for mystery box nonsense – even in the slightest – the entire last paragraph is negated but that probably doesn’t matter because you had no patience for it anyway.

I’m enjoying “Mrs. Davis” and I’m pretty sure I’ll continue to enjoy “Mrs. Davis”, but there’s a significant risk that by the end of it I’ll be unsatisfied with the time I’ve spent with it. There are promising signs of it being brilliant that don’t quite cover up the red flags that it may not know what it’s doing. If they have a satisfying, thoughtful answer to their core mystery box, answer most of the large number of additional mystery box layers, and don’t just leave everything unanswered for a renewal bait cliffhanger, “Mrs. Davis” will be one of the best series this year. That’s an enormous amount of ‘ifs’ by this point, with no clear demonstration yet of whether they can stick a landing, let alone a dozen. You’ll laugh at the show’s comedy, but it could be all eight hours before you know whether or not that’s enough.

I’m sticking by Sister Simone for Gilpin and the absurd comedy elements, but doing so is very much a leap of faith.

You can watch “Mrs. Davis” on Peacock.

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Surviving a Regency Romance — “Why Raeliana Ended Up at the Duke’s Mansion”

This one’s my jam. The ideas in it are phenomenal. A woman named Rinko is murdered in our world. She wakes up as Raeliana McMillan, a side character in a regency romance she’s read. Why only a side character? Because Raeliana’s death is what prompts the novel’s entire plot. She’s due to be married to a man she knows will soon poison her in an attempt to seize her family’s business.

Raeliana’s only hope of survival is getting ahead of the plot. She can’t expose that plot because, as a woman in this time period, she would simply be disbelieved in a way that would remove what little agency she has. Instead, she goes to Duke Noah Wynknight and proposes a deal. He’s higher in station than her fiance, so an engagement to him will allow her to cut off her prior one. Wynknight might be even more dangerous, but she knows his secrets – or at least the ones in the novel. She’ll keep those secrets if he helps her.

Wynknight assigns his most trusted guard to Raeliana, ostensibly as a show of how valuable she is to him, but really a reminder he can cut her down if she tries anything. This knight is Adam Taylor, once a child soldier, now silent and stoic. Raeliana shows him a kindness and consideration no one else has. So far, we’re promised courtly intrigue, shady plots, and a classic regency romance love triangle.

The foundational idea behind the show isn’t new – last year’s “I’m the Villainess, So I’m Taming the Final Boss” did this with a video game, though it took the premise in a different direction. South Korean series love using this premise with different historical periods. While the series is Japanese, it is based on a South Korean web novel. The premise carries a lot of potential, and if you don’t mind that “Raeliana” isn’t as flashy as some bigger anime, it’s absolutely a hit.

Raeliana’s inner monologue conveys what she knows of the novel and her strategy. This fuses well to regency romance’s focus on women’s rich, private, inner life. Her inner life here is literally a whole other previous life she can’t share. She often feels like an impostor as this character – it’s a smart way to fold the reincarnation premise that’s fundamental to isekai into regency romance themes. The series clearly understands the regency setting – etiquette defines blocking, which visually describes social relationships and who possesses power in different settings. The aesthetic is dominated by sun-dappled backgrounds, flowering gardens, and symmetrical period architecture.

A lot of this subgenre of isekai is about whether a show picks up the cross-genre you want to see. It’s a bonus if the show is good enough to really grasp and utilize the detailed elements of that genre. In the first two episodes, “Why Raeliana Ended Up at the Duke’s Mansion” displays an exceptional grasp of and appreciation for regency romance.

Of course, the isekai trope of a convenient bookshop with anachronistic how-to books makes an appearance, but as in so many isekais it’s treated as a quick and effective comic bit that avoids impacting the story otherwise.

There are drawbacks. The animation quality appears somewhat budgeted. That’ll matter more for some than others. I like how it’s used because there’s such a solid cross-genre foundation, but you won’t get the visual texture, movement, and level of detail you get in bigger anime like this season’s “Heavenly Delusion” or “Hell’s Paradise”.

To me, a still shot can be just as exciting if the shot choice is telling you something, and mise en scene is where “Raeliana” excels. The arrangement of actors within its design shorthands power dynamics, and that is the single most important visual element of a regency romance. Character introductions are brief yet thorough, and foreshadowing future elements is done well. There’s a command of how story structure can be framed through simple visual metaphor – the first two episodes end with carriage rides across a bridge, for instance, each telling us something very different. In other words, the animation budget is certainly lacking around the edges, but the filmmaking choices more than make up for it.

Supposedly, there’s a bit more action later. (Adam Taylor’s a soldier, and they make sure we know Raeliana’s a crack shot.) Anime Feminist and some other reviewers are concerned about the animation quality and its ability to match the scope of the story, but plenty of action can stay close to the ground and close to its characters and still be compelling. I hope those behind “Raeliana” have confidence in that approach because the filmmaking, storytelling, and structure of the first two episodes are spot-on.

If you’re at all a fan of Jane Austen, regency romances, time travel themes, or story-focused isekais, “Why Raeliana Ended Up at the Duke’s Mansion” is highly recommended.

You can watch “Why Raeliana Ended Up at the Duke’s Mansion” on Crunchyroll.

Or read opinions on 6 more Spring 2023 anime series!

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I Am Being Unreasonable — “Am I Being Unreasonable?”

I begin by hating everyone in “Am I Being Unreasonable?” Why? They’re too unreasonable. I mean, it’s right there in the title. But somewhere along the line, the people who seem normal become horrific, and the people who are horrific become the only humane ones left. Few shows highlight just how deeply inaccurate our first impressions and assumptions are. It’s not because any character even changes. They all remain incredibly consistent. By running through a seemingly endless supply of left turns, genre switch-ups, and tonal shifts, the British series keeps switching our perspective as well. Across its six episodes, it’s not the characters who change, it’s the viewer.

“Am I Being Unreasonable?” starts with Nic, who self-medicates an old trauma with too much alcohol and reality TV. She’s unsatisfied with her husband and insults everyone around her to her son Ollie, who seems more of an adult than she is. One day, Nic meets Jen.

Jen’s a new parent at Ollie’s school, and immediately the only other person Nic can stand. In turn, Jen admires Nic, something that raises our suspicions in part because even Nic herself can’t fathom it. Is Jen who she says she is? Does she have something to do with Nic’s past trauma? Why is she recording Nic in secret?

“Am I Being Unreasonable?” will tell you right after an extended fart joke, or a disastrous stand-up routine, or a mystery about where Nic’s cat is, or subplots about Ollie not liking birthday gifts, or a gossip interlude about the local salesclerks’ love lives.

There’s one big red herring, but aside from that everything is honest. It’s just…you haven’t shifted to the perspective needed yet to understand how. You’d think some of it is just for tone, to be weird, to add atmosphere, to inject more comedy. There are a dozen threads you figure will fizzle out. As a veteran of watching shows that are more obsessed with being clever than picking up half their plotlines, I was sure oodles of subplots and asides in “Am I Being Unreasonable?” would come to nought. So many submerge for episodes before popping up casual as can be to drop a bombshell realization on you. What’s more, they all make sense and – for every subgenre it morphs through – it all comes off with a sense of realistic consequence.

Is “Am I Being Unreasonable?” a comedy looking down on an alcoholic woman, a sappy tragedy about love and loss, a buddy comedy with toxic and bathroom humor, a stalker thriller? It’s each of these things…until you move to the next genre and the next perspective and realize it was never any of those things.

Daisy May Cooper and Selin Hizli wrote the series, as well as co-starring as Nic and Jen. They want you judging them. They want you judging their writing, their characters, the quality of the show, they want you jumping to conclusions, making assumptions, leaning on what you’ve seen before, and opening up the toxic parts of us that revel in schadenfreude. They want our worst viewing habits, our worst cultural habits, our most toxic assumptions about how to judge the trustworthiness of people.

Those judgments become the storytelling. Cooper and Hizli shape gaps in the story because they know exactly what assumptions we make as viewers to keep it all connected and to keep ourselves comfortable. “Am I Being Unreasonable?” constantly appears simpler, sillier, and more predictable than it is, before turning our perspective 90 degrees. And since those gaps – our judgments – are the storytelling, what we have a new perspective on now are all the prior assumptions we just made. In this way, Cooper and Hizli demonstrate how awful those assumptions are and lures us into practicing how they’re used to pigeonhole people to dismiss them, use them, belittle them, or string them along.

“Am I Being Unreasonable?” is messy by design, but exceptionally precise in its messes. It’s tempting to say it manipulates our gaze, but I think that would be a deflection of what it’s really doing. It highlights our gaze as manipulative to begin with. It calls out viewers’ willing participation in building narratives, and the places in our real lives where the very same behavior is socially foundational. It understands how gaze lies to us, and our comfort in letting it, because doing so creates imbalanced relationships and favorable power dynamics.

Our assumptions are poisons that are coaxed out of us and injected into the story. What’s brilliant about Cooper and Hizli’s writing is that the story doesn’t function without us. The story has no shape without our assumptions. For all its presenting its characters as unlikable and unreasonable, what’s truly revealed by the connections we make is how very much we can be unlikable and unreasonable. There’s no way to get far in “Am I Being Unreasonable?” without judging someone and distrusting them, but as we keep seeing those 90-degree changes in genre and perspective, we realize how honest some characters are…. We realize what’s on-screen and in the acting always presented this way. The toxicity introduced to it was supplied by how we’re trained to view and listen to others.

I haven’t offered any specific spoilers, but describing my change of heart about some characters won’t spoil anything either. The writing’s too good to let it. I could describe half the show in detail, and the writing would still trip you up and lure you judgment in a way you’ll later regret.

I began by hating everyone in “Am I Being Unreasonable?” But that question was never about them. It’s about the viewer. So “Am I Being Unreasonable?” I mean, I just told you I started out by hating every character. Obviously, I was. How unique it is to have a show that highlights our assumptions as the entertainment, and leaves us thinking, “Yeah, I better work on that.”

You can watch “Am I Being Unreasonable?” on Hulu.

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Reviewing 6 New Anime from Spring 2023

There are two new series this season that rocket up the scales into must watch territory. One’s a bloody, dark fantasy loaded with surreal threat. The other’s a sunny, pastel coming of age romance centered on understanding and kindness. They’re captivating in completely opposite ways, and I adore both.

This’ll cover the first half of the Spring 2023 season, or what premiered by April 7. Most shows only have two episodes out so far, so that’s what I’m judging on. There are series like “Heavenly Delusion” I haven’t had a chance to check out yet. There’ll probably be a Part 2 for this coming out later. Today, I’ll cover 6 series, and I’ll tell you whether I intend to keep watching, give a series a few more episodes to grab me, or if I’m just going to bounce.

Hell’s Paradise

Compelling. Remarkable. Unnerving and moving. In the Edo period of Japan, a ninja with tremendous powers is sentenced to death. He says he wants to die. Yet nothing seems to kill Gabimaru the Hollow. The executioner Sagiri, an exception in her field as a woman, studies him, interviews him, researches him. Gabimaru supposedly lacks emotion. So why does he seem gentle? He murders with ease, yet seeks to avoid violence. Does he truly want to die?

He’s given an opportunity. There’s an island known as Paradise. An elixir of immortality can be found there. The shogun wants it. Soldiers who have been sent before have disappeared, except for those who return with flowers blooming from their bodies. A select group of convicts sentenced to death will travel there, under supervision. The convict who returns with both the elixir and their guard still living will be pardoned.

Gabimaru and Sagiri are among those traveling to this beautiful, haunted place. “Hell’s Paradise” is a profound vision of dark fantasy, yearning and blood-soaked, human and depraved, yet understanding how its characters got here. Gabimaru reverts to a thousand-yard stare that belies his PTSD, and Sagiri is out to prove herself in a world of men who see her as unfit for her role. In this regard, the show benefits enormously from having a woman directing in Makita Kaori.

I can’t recommend “Hell’s Paradise” enough. It’s riveting. The design is atmospheric and dense, the animation is superb, the writing philosophical, the characters identifiable but complex, the voice acting nuanced, and the story paced with patience and apprehension. If future episodes continue in this vein, it’s going to be one of the best shows of the year, anime or otherwise.

Rating: Appointment Viewing.

You can watch “Hell’s Paradise” on Crunchyroll.

Skip and Loafer

This show is a deep kindness. Mitsumi has dreams of working in government, so she’s moved to Tokyo from the countryside for high school. She has a set plan and is determined for nothing to go wrong. Nearly everything does. Luckily, her first friend is a supportive boy named Sosuke.

She’s driven and he’s laid back, she deals with social anxiety while he’s effortlessly popular, but ultimately she carries hope and the support of her community back home, while he feels isolated and harbors a sadness at his core. They’re both complexly human characters.

Director Deai Kotomi has a talent for including detail where it matters most. Every image has something to tell you, every location feels inhabited. The show’s sunny, pastel color scheme sets it apart visually. It’s also exceptionally good at picking up the subtle ways people feel vulnerable, mask it, and support each other.

Mitsumi’s staying with her aunt Nao in Tokyo and there’s an early scene where girls on the train whisper, wondering if Nao is a man. Nao is trans. Mitsumi’s been nervous and dejected about school introductions up to this point and seems distant, but as the girls whisper, Mitsumi engages Nao again and holds her aunt’s hand. It’s a beautiful scene of unspoken support. It’s just one of many examples of how “Skip and Loafer” is thrillingly, reassuringly kind. It’s a joy to watch.

Rating: Must Watch (for the end of a hard day).

You can watch “Skip and Loafer” on Crunchyroll.

My Love Story with Yamada-kun at Lv999

Akane is dumped by her boyfriend for someone he met in an online game. Since Akane only got into the game to spend time with him, she decides to arrive at the game’s convention to make him jealous…only she immediately embarrasses herself and almost breaks into a sobbing mess. To save face, she convinces the handsome but impersonal celebrity player Yamada to pretend he’s her boyfriend.

Misunderstandings and awkward meetings ensue. What makes the show work is its craft. Dialogue scenes feel cinematic, but fold in the strengths of animation in unique and clever ways. It emulates double exposures, there’s some choice shot selection, a real focus on how a scene is “lit”, and key moments rely on traditional filmmaking techniques like rack focus and dolly shots. It makes the whole thing feel like a traditional romantic comedy. The storytelling is a little slow, but with purpose and it always feels rewarding. The Japanese voice cast does a phenomenal job.

The parts that happen in the online game are fairly few so far. They’re just OK, and not nearly as interesting as the real-life story. I love games, but I’ve only found one series about spending time in a game that I’ve really enjoyed, the wholesome-yet-hilarious “Bofuri: I Don’t Want to get Hurt, so I’ll Max Out My Defense”. It’s hard to capture the fun of the agency a game offers within linear storytelling. I’m hoping the show continues to lean more on the real-life element.

The title gives away the plot, but it’s clear that this is a romantic slow-burn that’s going to take its time. That’s fine if it’s well done, and so far it is. One note: I was given pause in the second episode when it’s mentioned Yamada’s in his third year of high school, but given the different schooling systems this would mean he’s probably 18. Akane’s a second year in college and old enough to drink in Japan, which means 20. It’s a jolting line of dialogue as an American viewer because the same clues would indicate 21 and 16 here, and that would be disturbing. Within the show and from critics’ reviews of the source manga, Akane and Yamada appear to have a two year age gap of 20 and 18, so what-the-hell moment averted.

Rating: I’ll Keep Watching.

You can watch “My Love Story with Yamada-kun at Lv999” on Crunchyroll.

CW: domestic abuse

My Home Hero

Tetsuo is meeting his daughter for lunch. He’s shocked to see her face covered in bruises. He starts following her boyfriend Nobuto, and discovers he’s beaten and even murdered former girlfriends. Nobuto brags about planning to kill Reika. What’s a parent to do? He murders Nobuto. Bad time for Tetsuo’s wife to come in. Or maybe…the best time? His wife Kasen is an absolutely wonderful character, sure-footed in becoming his accomplice. There’s only one problem. Nobuto was the son of a yakuza boss.

The delivery of the premise feels rushed. Tetsuo finds out everything he needs to know in one fell swoop, which is a little convenient. I would’ve preferred if the lead-up to Tetsuo murdering Nobuto had felt more organic. Yet as Tetsuo cooks down the body and Kasen helps him start to hide it, the cat-and-mouse game between the family and the Yakuza ratchets up swiftly.

Tetsuo is an avid mystery reader, so he’s got plenty of ideas about what to do. Many are brilliant, but not all work as planned. He’s also unsteady. Desperation’s the only thing keeping him from breaking down. Kasen is the steady hand and the emotional anchor of the two. She’s unflappable and quick on her feet in calling out bluffs.

Once it settles into its groove, “My Home Hero” is extremely unique and promising. I like how grounded it is, and that the protagonists are weathered and have no particular skills to combat this situation outside of their wits. They have no power whatsoever, and no hope of contending with the Yakuza should the murder be discovered outright, yet they do what they must one step at a time. The tension is palpable and the characters surprisingly believable.

Rating: I’ll Keep Watching (but Kasen better live, damn it).

You can watch “My Home Hero” on Crunchyroll.

Yuri Is My Job!

First thing’s first: that trailer is awful and doesn’t communicate what’s happening in the series at all. So: Hime is a narcissist who puts on a facade in the hopes of marrying a wealthy man. When she accidentally knocks down Mai in the street and injures her, she’s pressured into filling in at the theme cafe Mai manages. Here, all the workers play characters. They act like students at a fantastical all-girls academy, improvising dramatic scenes in the midst of serving tea.

Hime immediately falls for Mitsuki, one of the featured players. She uses the theater of the cafe to force a closer role to Mitsuki, causing chaos in their theatrical storylines. Mitsuki plays kind-hearted mentor to her when customers’ eyes are on them, but utterly hates Hime once the cafe closes and each can be herself. “Yuri” of course, is a broad term that can mean anything from friendship to a romantic portrayal between two women, so who know what direction it goes.

I wasn’t going to watch this one since the trailer just makes it look like a generic fantasy romance, but once I read the description, the meta-theater at its core convinced me to give it a try. Narcissist, troll, or otherwise, the premise of Hime being pressured so swiftly into this job and then scolded relentlessly despite having no training for it is completely broken. Completely. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of managers are like that, but the way it’s told here isn’t realistic. If you can get past that broken premise, the characters are solid and the comedy is good.

It’s interesting to see a narcissist in a fish-out-of-water plot, and to see how skilled people who are good at working together can disarm a narcissist’s insistence on turmoil. The problem here is that I’m not a fan of Hime’s narcissism, and I’m not a fan of the cafe workers for what amounts to bullying a new employee they’ve failed to train in any way. I’m sure Hime’s relationship with her co-workers will develop, but when everyone’s this aggressive, I have to wonder why that’s worth it. It’s solely the representation of meta-theater and how the players adapt to Hime’s chaos that I’m interested in seeing.

A story about actors having to adjust and improvise quickly is fun. Yet even if the comedy’s well done, I’m still not sure that’s enough to carry the series long-term. Whether it succeeds will depend on how well it can hand off to storytelling about the characters’ lives when they’re not acting. It’s a promising enough start and the comedy’s there, but there are already some storytelling pitfalls it has to navigate. If you don’t mind a show where nearly everyone’s toxic, you might like it better than me, but for me it’s on thin ice.

Rating: I’ll Give it Another Episode (but I have one foot out the door).

You can watch “Yuri Is My Job!” on Crunchyroll.

KamiKatsu: Working for God in a Godless World

Um. Huh. So…this guy named Yukito is drowned at sea as part of a ritual for the cult his dad runs. He wakes up in a fantasy world that lacks gods and religion. I thought, you know what, in an industry of formulaic isekai, that’s actually a unique premise. I’ll give it a try. What’s the worst that could happen? Within the first minute he’s there, a local breaks his penis. He what now? Yukito settles in and accepts this new life in what is looking more and more like a medieval, peasant-themed sex comedy. Different from what I thought, but let’s ease up and see where this light-hearted approach takes us:

Everyone is horribly murdered by the local kingdom. Blood, hangings, the whole bit. Ha…ha? But then the sketchy cult that murdered Yukito turns out to be right all along and the god Yukito’s never called on before reverse murders the murderers, unmurders the murdered, and there are no consequences and what the hell am I watching?

A case study in tonal whiplash, “KamiKatsu” is a mess. It comes off as if it were made as a meme, or made out of memes, or maybe a meme made it, or it’s ChatGPT’s first collaboration with the writers of “Halo”. It’s 5-things-in-1, none of them done well, and its themes resolutely contradict with themselves in the space of 22 minutes that feels like an hour. The action is terrible. The CGI creatures are laughable. The characters are bland. The plot is abrupt and episodic. The comedy doesn’t work. There’s no pace. Every element feels both generic and misplaced. The way things are put together makes no sense.

The only reason to watch more of it is to hone that stare of aghast bewilderment I’ve been working on. There’s binging and hatewatching. Is there…is there bewilderwatching?

Rating: Nope. I’m Out.

You can watch it on Crunchyroll, but I mean like…good luck with that.

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