Category Archives: Television

Is Wednesday Addams a Mary Sue?

Who cares? Not me. Maybe you? Ooh, you’re not going to get along with this article. ‘Is Wednesday Addams a Mary Sue?’ skips right on past any conversation about whether the series “Wednesday” is good or bad, and what we might like or dislike about the character. It goes straight to debating a categorization Camille Bacon-Smith once defined as “self-imposed sexism”. Yet where once it was self-imposed, these days it’s often groups of men online throwing the term at Rey, Ms. Marvel, She-Hulk, Naru…basically any woman lead who displays competence.

Let’s start with whether the series is worth your watch. The Addams Family spinoff is most closely linked to the 90s movies directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. The role once played by Christina Ricci is assumed by Jenna Ortega, essentially without missing a beat. Disengaged with teenage life and too troublesome to handle, Wednesday is shipped off to Nevermore Academy, a high school for supernatural outcasts like herself.

“Wednesday” is good, it’s funny, and it resurrects a deadpan humor that I didn’t know I missed until the show started cracking monotone one-liners. While the broad strokes of the supernatural high school mystery are all there, Wednesday’s utter lack of interest in engaging with the most tiresome tropes is what breathes life into the series.

The characters are well realized, the music fitting and clever, and the set design is what you’d expect out of a series with Tim Burton’s involvement. Despite a cast that involves Gwendoline Christie, Christina Ricci, Riki Lindhome, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Luis Guzman, it still might be a bit too familiar to the teen supernatural subgenre if not for Jenna Ortega’s leading role – and to be fair, Victor Dorobantu’s performance as her sidekick, the severed hand named Thing.

It’s like one of those chemistry experiments where you add a bunch of interesting ingredients and nothing happens, but then you drop gothanium into it and suddenly the room’s filled with deadly interdimensional soapfoam worms coming straight at you. Ortega’s already got my performance of the year (so far) for a film with “The Fallout”, and now she has an argument in “Wednesday” for performance of the year for a series.

That Ortega’s required to elevate it all isn’t a criticism given that the series is purpose-built for Ortega to elevate it all. It’s exactly what the series sets out to do, which is a joy to see for someone who’s already one of our best actors. If macabre humor is your thing, then “Wednesday” is probably going to be your thing. Not to be confused with Thing, who’s Wednesday’s Thing.

But what about the criticism that Wednesday Addams is too capable? This is coming from both women and male critics (including Jenna Scherer at A.V. Club and Sarah Milner at Slash Film), as well as spurring the usual misogynist forums into a froth.

I understand the criticism of a Mary Sue, the basic concept being that a dude gazing at his navel has figured out a way he can fight people on the internet today. The origin of the term ‘Mary Sue’ comes from a 1970s fanfiction about original flavor Star Trek, where a woman’s satirical self-insert character is treated as beautiful, uniquely talented, honest, diplomatic, skillful, desired – you know, all the things creator Gene Roddenberry made Captain Kirk. For another example of a Mary Sue, consider Superman, who flies and fights and laser eyes and freezy breathes and x-ray sees and saves swooning damsels and everyone loves and is only ever not good at something by comparison when he’s just not quite as amazing as a god-tier villain for half-a-second before he wins anyway cause he remembers the power of friendship or family or taking a step further away from kryptonite. But doing this as a woman, which everyone agreed for decades would add a layer of unreality to the whole affair.

Truth is, we’re fine with Mary Sues. We always have been. They just have to be men. And I’d love to be making a feminist comment here and maybe I should be or maybe this is anyway, but really, I’m starting from a storytelling one. A Mary Sue is like any other character – they can be written well, or badly. There’s got to be a purpose to making someone a Mary Sue, just as there has to be a purpose to making any character an anything-at-all.

Does the term even belong? In modern usage, the requirement for the character to be a self-insert has been shorn away, though Bacon-Smith pointed out 30 years ago that this element is inherently hypocritical. It judges a woman character self-insert in Star Trek fanfiction when Star Trek wouldn’t exist without Roddenberry’s male one. This highlights that male self-inserted heroes are the norm and expected – Bacon-Smith argued that the term ‘Mary Sue’ is already sexist on the basis of criticizing women for what it assumes is normal for men. If the term’s inherently broken before it’s even applied to any material, then what value can it possibly have? Critics like Bacon-Smith and MaryAnn Johanson have argued that the term itself is self-suppressive.

Insofar as Wednesday Addams is concerned, she’s a skilled fencer, archer, rower, cellist, vocalist, detective, martial artist, escape artist, pathologist, writer, master strategist, gets straight A’s, is an expert on innumerable subjects, and speaks countless languages including ASL, English, German, Italian, and Latin. Her only weaknesses are not being weak enough and being too eager to defend the downtrodden and outcast.

You’re watching a series about an (attempted?) murderess and her faithful severed hand investigating a prophesied mystery at a school whose cliques are split into Vampires, Werewolves, Sirens, and stoners (Gorgons). There are other folk from myth and fable, too. If that’s all cool but your sense of reality is broken by Wednesday being good at stuff, I don’t know what to tell you, but that’s mainly because I’m going to avoid talking to you in the first place.

But wait! Gary Stus have a reason for being so great! For instance, Superman is excused from being a Gary Stu because he’s an aspirational concept more than he is a character. Yes, that’s the whole point, and this is where the conversation normally breaks down to dudes going, “Oi, but she’s a Mary Sue, she is!” Sit down and take a deep breath for this, my fellow dudes: women can also be aspirational characters. And just as men expect women to treat Supes and company as aspirational, as a dude, it’s fully possible to see characters like Wednesday or Rey or She-Hulk as aspirational, too. Even if those aspirations aren’t designed for us first and foremost (Superman’s are often designed for male audiences), it’s not a stretch to still see what’s admirable about those characters.

Is Wednesday a Mary Sue? If she is, she’s a well written and acted one. If she isn’t, she’s a well written and acted whatever we’re deciding she is instead. Wow, you can really see how much value the term “Mary Sue” brings to the conversation.

Since Wednesday is so good at so many things, the fun isn’t necessarily about whether she’ll make it out of a scrape all right. It’s about the mystery, the joy of the macabre, and the send-up of Wednesday constantly rejecting teen supernatural tropes because they sound like a lot of unneeded hassle.

In fact, the most fun parts of the series are seeing how ruthlessly efficient Wednesday is at getting out of talking to this or that idiot, and – oh wait, I just realized how truly aspirational a character she is for women.

In fact, the show “Wednesday” reminds me of most is another from this year: “Spy x Family”. The anime thrusts together a spy husband and assassin wife in a fake marriage each needs to deflect suspicion. Neither one knows the other one’s secret, and they take care of a telepath child he adopted days before who knows everyone’s secrets but hides her own. You’d think the comedy would come from everyone being weird with each other and hiding what’s unexpected, but the comedy arises from the exact opposite – how normal everyone is about what should seem strange. Loid isn’t surprised by his wife Yor’s strength or ability to handle dangerous situations – he’s usually surrounded by people for whom this is normal. He goes on and on about how perceptive children are, completely ignoring incidents like daughter Anya knowing someone is drowning from the opposite end of a building. Throw a dog who can see the future into the mix and you’ve got a heart-achingly sweet show about what would break any other family working perfectly for this one.

“Wednesday” isn’t sweet, it’s acidic, but the approach of being in on the joke, of seeing from the perspective of the joke itself until it becomes something serious and meaningful, and what this reveals about the people involved – that’s what makes both of these shows rare and special. Wednesday being endlessly skilled isn’t some weakness of the series, it’s the norm for it. It asks us to see from the perspective of someone who does know more but is constantly roadblocked by structures and systems that are built to safeguard power rather than protect people.

In “Addams Family Values”, Wednesday sets fire to a summer camp play about how great the pilgrims are. Pilgrims return here, and being able to see the world from Wednesday’s perspective is to wonder why people with power, charged with protecting others, are whitewashing history in a way that teaches them to ignore present danger. There’s a term that means most of the same things “Mary Sue” does, but disguises its meaning far less: power fantasy. Many power fantasies are about exerting violence, and Wednesday certainly gets to practice some of hers now and then. But through and through, “Wednesday” is a power fantasy about being so skilled and undeniable of will that both injustice and complicity aren’t allowed to hide, grow in shadows, persist, and resurrect. It’s a very timely power fantasy then.

Call her a ‘Mary Sue’ and “Oh no, we shouldn’t have characters like that, it’s unrealistic,” and we’re not even talking about the show or what it’s doing. Misogynist groups have latched onto the term because it inherently judges women for doing the same thing men do. Whether the term should be taken back and repurposed or junked altogether isn’t my call; that’s for women critics and storytellers to decide. My point is that Gary Stu never caught on for a reason. When it has to do with a man we just call them power fantasies. Call Wednesday a power fantasy and the question is, about what? Suddenly we’re talking about the show and what it does. The conversation’s about how power is presented, why it’s written in and what it’s doing.

Is Wednesday Addams a Mary Sue? I’ll answer like I started. Who cares? Is Wednesday Addams a power fantasy? A brilliant one.

You can watch “Wednesday” on Netflix.

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Breakneck, Slow-Burn Romance-a-vengeance — “The English”

“The English” is a revisionist western that’s both masterpiece and constantly flawed. It’s deeply moving, yet can also feel like it’s just a little too off-center from its own reality. Let’s get this out of the way first: “The English” is one of the most beautifully filmed series of the year. Its cinematography is up there with “Pachinko” and “Cracow Monsters”. There are outdoor shots here that could only have offered brief windows to capture each day, when the sun was at just the right angle to create the perfect shadow in a cloud of dust. The visuals can strike pure awe.

Emily Blunt plays Lady Cornelia Locke, come to the American West during the heyday of the genocidal annexation of Native lands. She seeks vengeance against the man who killed her son. Chaske Spencer plays a man with many names, but who most English know as Eli Whipp. A Pawnee scout for the U.S. Army, he was raised to sergeant by the end of his service. Yet as the series tells us from the outset, the minute he leaves the army, he’s just another target for every white settler.

The pair meet as both are nearly killed. Locke’s target knows she’s coming, and Whipp had the audacity to politely ask for a drink at a bar. Obsessed with the latest fads such as astrology, Locke is convinced their meeting is fate. Whipp is just heading north to settle on a piece of land. He’s reserved, cautious to let anything out, but he agrees to accompany her until their paths diverge. The West they travel through is rife with danger, so even getting that far is a blood-soaked nightmare.

Each sequence is tense and beautiful. Some are exemplary of the violent era of Clint Eastwood-led Spaghetti Westerns. Others can echo the pointedly anachronistic dialogue of a Tarantino period piece. Scenes of clever banter between Locke and Whipp are framed like the romance subplots in a 50s Western. There’s clearly a mastery of every era of Western at play in “The English”, but sometimes they’re piled on top of each other to the point where the boundaries lack clarity.

This makes the pacing…unpredictable. A few scenes cut from one to the next with no transition to suggest time passing or places changing, careening ahead at a breakneck speed. This contrasts sharply to the care taken in measuring distance or time-to-travel at other points in the series.

At other times, “The English” takes things very slow, melting into nuanced dialogue and investigating every detail of a room. The sense of language and place here can be remarkable. But then again, nearly every dialogue starts with the characters knowing more than you do, even about non-dramatic elements like their own decisions. That means even in these lulls, you have to fit details into a picture and race to keep up.

Now add to this a story of cattle-rustling by Locke’s target in a completely different area. That shouldn’t confuse things too much, but this parallel story is told to us in a confusing way that asks us to have faith it’ll clarify later.

This means we have genres played very differently piled together. That’s OK. It gives us stop-and-start pacing, which is fine. Faster moments can lack some context, and slower moments are sometimes written so that we theorize the context before it’s told. That’s also fine. Cutting away to a parallel but linked story where the context is actively denied us? That can work. Each of these elements is something that can function on its own. Shove them all together without clear reasoning and what you’re left with might make you shrug your shoulders, give up on the larger arc, and just enjoy the episodic elements, character development, and beautiful scenery. That’s still a lot to love.

So much of “The English” is depicted with crystal clarity. You can see for miles in many visuals. Blunt and Spencer each get a few of the best dialogue scenes of the year. And while I get that making things indirect and confusing also aids in many of the themes of “The English”, the feeling that this is all intentional gets lost.

As viewers, we perceive whether a storyteller is confusing things intentionally, or because their storytelling lacks needed distinctions. That doesn’t mean our perception about that is always accurate, but one of a storyteller’s responsibilities is to make the viewer feel as if the confusion is intentional. To feel comfortable going forward in confusion, we have to trust that the person confusing us has an intent in doing so.

Showrunner Hugo Blick makes clear that he has a plot reason for doing this throughout. The problem is one of presentation. The biggest place this rears its head is with some of the acting. As remarkable as the setting, leads, and cinematography are, there’s something missing in a branch of the supporting acting. It’s as if not everyone is clear on what type of series they’re in. The Tarantino-esque characters shoot self-aware dialogue from the hip. Conflict invites more serious and dramatic takes. Meta conversation about the themes feels essentially modern. Blunt and Spencer glide across all of this with skill, and it’s powerful when the story can do the same. Yet fairly regularly, some supporting actor will drop in playing a different genre than the one we’ve shifted into. This can feel unintentional and even obstructive.

Even if Blick knows exactly where he’s going and has told the leads and his crew, it can feel like he’s often forgotten to convey this to the supporting cast. Now, there are some who can encompass many genres at once. The Native American and First Nations actors are routinely the best part of their scenes. Kimberly Guerrero, Gary Farmer, and William Belleau each elevate the series by making their supporting parts feel inhabited and grounded. Similarly, new immigrants played by European actors who retain their accents work well.

The only place I felt the reality of the performances slipping was in actors portraying characters who had supposedly been living in the U.S. for a few generations. Many are played by British actors, and I felt like something was missing here, as if the performances are played up instead of inhabited like so many of the other supporting roles.

The good performances here are great. Blunt can switch between being a garrulous, fad-obsessed open wound to an incandescent, determined killer at the drop of a hat. Spencer hides a complex, torn, and traumatized character just underneath a stoic surface. Farmer can balance the overly friendly against the existentially threatening. It can all be captivating one moment, but then Nichola McAuliffe sweeps in like she’s been charged with a Mad Max-Game of Thrones mashup.

Within the larger plots, and within individual scenes, there’s just a little too much of some actor coming in who doesn’t know the scene’s swapped genres from the last. That’s usually not the actor’s fault, but rather a bad choice or miscommunication in direction. Blunt, Spencer, Farmer, Guerrero, they can all re-immerse you in a word or a look, so it can only do so much damage…but when it happens on top of pacing issues, dialogue that approaches context as backfill, and an antagonistically confusing parallel plot, it’s constantly noticeable.

The considerable number of elements in “The English” that work ought to make it the best series of the year. For good stretches, it feels like exactly that. I have no problem highly recommending it. You’ll rarely see something this beautiful. Yet it gives itself so much extra, unproductive work to overcome. I like that it’s not streamlined, that it treats meandering as an assertive storytelling act, that it breaks down attitudes of integration vs. assimilation, that it bluntly criticizes the reality of American colonization and expansion, but then some actor will waltz across like it’s Tarantino by Will Ferrell for a few lines and I’ll just wonder what the hell is happening. Then Blunt stabs someone in front of that Spain-as-Wyoming countryside and I’m right back in. “The English” is a great series, if you can overcome its narrative and tonal jolts.

You can watch “The English” on Amazon. There are six episodes.

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Early Thoughts on the Best TV of 2022

It’s early to look at the best of the year, but I always like to take stock of my choices before the deluge of awards-bait. For film awards cycles, most audiences won’t get a chance to see half the nominated movies for 2022 until months into 2023. (I’d argue that makes them 2023 films, but that’s another conversation.) Thankfully, series come out already as accessible as they’ll ever be. That means we’ve already seen (or at least had the opportunity to see) most of what’s come out this year.

When I look at the shows we’ve had in 2022, there are probably more that I like this year than in any other. I’m just not sure there are any I’ve unquestionably fallen for beyond multigenerational drama Pachinko. My top choices for 2021 – Arcane, Made for Love, Sonny Boy, Reservation Dogs, and Evil – would all vie for the top spot had those seasons come out this year. So there’s more that I like, less that I love.

I posted this article on my Patreon last Thursday, but it gets a lot more eyes here. If you read my work and enjoy it, subscribe to the Patreon. Any little bit helps me set aside time to write more. Throughout this early rundown, you’ll find articles I’ve written this year linked so you can read more when a show sounds interesting.

WHAT HAPPENED TO 2021’S BEST SERIES?

Of course, four of these five were renewed. Anime mind-trip Sonny Boy was designed as only one season, so what happened with the other four? Well, indigenous comedy Reservation Dogs is my #2 show this year behind Pachinko, so it hasn’t fallen off. It continues to take big risks, delivering satire alongside emotionally resonant experiential comedy, and its ensemble has only gelled more.

Evil is still in my top 10, it’s just that its second season last year was the best season of horror I’ve seen since early X-Files. It featured experimental episodes like the nearly dialogue-free “S is for Silence”, jaw-dropping social commentary like “C is for Cop” and scalding parodies like the Amazon metaphor “Z is for Zombie”. Katja Herbers was asked to deliver one of the most emotionally wide-ranging performances I can imagine. This year’s season 3 is even scarier and continues to show off just how much Aasif Mandvi has developed as an actor, but last year’s walked a nearly-impossible balance between the horrific and absurd that elevated both elements into something unnervingly new.

Made for Love is the only one of these five to get canceled after this year’s season, and I can see why. The show is still important to me and its unique blend of the comedic and disturbing is rare, but the second season’s focus shifted to characters and relationships that were not necessarily the first season’s strengths. I’d still strongly recommend it, and there are concepts that draw in beautifully even as they repulse, but the show works best when translating its ideas through the experiences of Cristin Milioti’s Hazel. The more it becomes an omnisciently-presented universe, the more it leaves her ability to emotionally anchor its most disturbing concepts.

That leaves Arcane, which I will continue to argue is one of the best seasons of anything ever made. Its experimental and exacting animation is built on years of development and production work, with exquisite writing that loops its ideas and concepts together to create interweaving metaphors and conceits. It’s an awe-inspiring amount of work conceptually and visually, and it’s been clear since its renewal that the next season may take years to develop.

So was everything better in 2021? Not necessarily. Like I said, there may not be as much that I love this year, but there’s a lot that I like. If 2022 had some rarely matched shows I’d rate as a 9 or 10 out of 10, then 2021 is overflowing with quality 7s and 8s. There’s not as much bowling me over, but I feel like there’s a lot more choice for whatever mood I’m in at a given moment.

2022 IS A BANNER YEAR FOR COMEDY

Comedies in particular have excelled. I covered Reservation Dogs, an indigenous comedy that hops between the stories of a stellar ensemble cast led by Devery Jacobs. As outlandish as it can be, it also feels incredibly real and consequential. I’ve heard it compared to the 90s golden era of indie comedies, but I think this risks diminishing the cultural origins of its comedy.

When Black comedy fought its way into the mainstream in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, there were many comparisons to earlier white comedians. The reality was that it felt fresh because these were voices that many audiences had been discouraged from listening to before. They weren’t successful because they were somehow building on the work of white comedians, though, that was a myth. They were successful because Black comedy had always been successful – white audiences just hadn’t listened to it on a large scale before then.

The same concept applies to Reservation Dogs. It’s not successful because it’s building on earlier eras of comedy that saw white creators get the biggest platforms. It’s successful because indigenous comedy has always been successful – it’s just that now other audiences are bothering to pay attention. Re-writing the root of that success not only ignores an important lesson, it removes agency from the people creating that comedy. Reservation Dogs is funny and touching because it’s built on successful Native American and First Nations comedy before it. It feels fresh not because it reminds us of something familiar (how would that even make sense), but because it platforms something already successful that many audiences just haven’t thought to open ourselves up to before.

I’m also a big fan of small-town, community-building comedy Somebody Somewhere. It deals with concepts of loss, depression, and othering in unique ways that feel particularly timely given where the U.S. is at. It also throws in the occasional hauntingly beautiful musical performance. Bridget Everett and Jeff Hiller offer an off-kilter, rocky but loyal friendship.

Knife-sharp gig-satire Killing It features Claudia O’Doherty and Craig Robinson as an odd couple of snake hunters. The series is a biting class comedy that depicts how late-stage capitalism weighs on workers, with characters living out of cars, 24-hour-gyms, and fusing together odd gigs. The most memorable episode becomes a modern cyberpunk take on “Cyrano de Bergerac”, a comedy of manners both uproarious and hideous.

Abbott Elementary has become my favorite of the mockumentary sitcoms, combining the precise banter of a Modern Family with the workplace focus of The Office. It solves what I’ve always viewed as the biggest pitfall of the format: mockumentaries tend to develop comedy by making their characters awful, ignorant, and inhumane. That can work for What We Do in the Shadows, which continues to be a strong show where most of the lead characters are vampires and their inhumanity is the joke, but even there the thing that keeps us returning is the bond of their found family.

When a mockumentary is about people in an office being horribly passive-aggressive to each other, I’ve always wondered why I would spend my free time in that if I’d spent my day in it already. Modern Family might be one of the best written comedies of our time, but even there you’ve got a lot of the situational comedy arising from characters’ toxicity toward each other. Abbott Elementary finds a way to deliver a near-perfect mockumentary while doing it with characters I actually like, admire, and want to spend time with.

Komi Can’t Communicate might get overlooked by audiences who don’t watch anime, and that’s a shame. It started as an emotive slice-of-life anime with streaks of lightning-fast visual humor. Its second season has elevated it into one of the best things on TV, doubling down on its irreverent satire of some of the weirdest parts of slice-of-life anime, while filling the screen with visual gags. Yet through it all, the show also acts as a profoundly peaceful and accepting safe space for neurodivergence.

Our Flag Means Death starts slow and a bit broad in its comedy, but when it gets going it delivers an incredibly touching story without giving up its punchy pirate parody. It has some of the best improvised elements on TV, largely thanks to Taika Waititi’s performance as Blackbeard. The best episodes are directed by Bert and Bertie, and I hope they ask the duo back to helm a greater portion of the second season.

I’d also mention Angelyne, which uses its comedy to describe the appeal of those who are famous simply for being famous, and how this mirrors the rise of the con artist celebrity. Does 80s icon Angelyne fit only into that mold, or does she extend into the territory of feminist icon and pioneer of the camp aesthetic that offers marginalized people acceptance? That’s the central question of a series that offers several answers from several conflicting perspectives – all of them holding degrees of truth and untruth. It’s a complex portrayal within a series of heightened realities, none of which you can be sure are accurate, and Emmy Rossum’s performance as Angelyne is one of the best of the year.

A League of Their Own encapsulates a lot of what I want to see on TV, recounting the story of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League of the 1940s. You can criticize it for being a remake of the 1992 film starring Geena Davis, Lori Petty, and Madonna, but a film made 30 years ago couldn’t honestly tell the stories of how the league served as a space for LGBTQ+ members to be themselves at a time when they found acceptance nowhere else. It’s one of the best reasons I’ve seen for remaking something, and the remake is both funny and poignant.

She-Hulk: Attorney at Law is one of the best things out of the MCU. I’ll confess, like its main character Jennifer I also hoped for more of a legal comedy than a superhero one, but She-Hulk hardly has to answer to me. What it does become is the most successful comedy in the MCU alongside Thor: Ragnarok. It’s also a drastically needed change-up for a cinematic universe that is far too often repeating its ideas and plot structures.

SCI-FI, FANTASY, AND THE MCU

The MCU as a whole has had an extremely good year, regardless of what incel tupperware parties want to whine about. Moon Knight delivered some really different elements into the MCU, crafting a supernatural archaeological adventure around a few brilliant Oscar Isaac performances.

Ms. Marvel returned the MCU to the YA space, which is dearly overdue three years after you have Spider-Man shouting “Activate instant kill” so he can somersault his blade suit to gut dozens of henchfolk. I do feel like Ms. Marvel felt a little condensed and could’ve paced itself better with two additional episodes, but that’s true of most MCU series, and wanting more is pretty favorable as criticisms go. Ms. Marvel also boasted some stellar setpieces – including what might be the single best sequence in the MCU to date: a searing and heartbreaking portrayal of the last train out during the Partition of India.

Outside the MCU, sci-fi and fantasy are also at high points, depending on what you’re looking for from the genres. Andor is the best piece of Star Wars we’ve had in years, rejoining the franchise with a 70s storytelling ethic that asks the audience to be patient with a slowly unfolding, atmospherically dense story about complicated, morally gray characters.

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds stands as the best of the new Treks. They’re all pretty high quality, but Strange New Worlds features strong episodic writing and directing that cleverly foreshadows longer arcs without needing you to take notes on them. That shouldn’t seem too difficult, but given that very few other series can balance episodic writing with such a soft touch for arcs, maybe it is. Either way, SNW gets it done and its ability to swap between the storytelling approaches of different eras and styles of Trek is a treat for fans. It shifts smoothly between speculative sci-fi original Trek stories, DS9 cultural critiques, Next Generation diplomacy quandaries, DS9 and Voyager comedy, Voyager and Enterprise action, Discovery emotional connection, some good old submarine episodes, and adds in better horror than we’ve seen in the franchise previously. It manages to do everything that every other Trek was able to do, while reinforcing it all as part of a cohesive whole.

In fantasy, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power might be the single most overwrought series I’ve ever watched, but damn does it earn it. If you don’t like flowery monologues melodramatically captured in front of bazillions of dollars of set design, costuming, and CGI backdrops, you might not like it. If you want fantasy to be grim and gritty betrayal-incestatheater you can’t see half the time because apparently no one invented torches just yet, other options are available. On the other hand, if you want some achingly designed classical fantasy that actually uses its fantastical elements to world-build and argue for notions of hope, perseverance, and equality, The Rings of Power is a beautiful option.

For modern gothic fantasy, let me recommend Polish series Cracow Monsters. It’s informed by the same cultural folklore that shapes the world of The Witcher, but the contemporary series also recalls the intimate aspects of early 90s horror like Flatliners and Jacob’s Ladder. Its sumptuously gothic aesthetic continues a uniquely Eastern European view on horror that reflects and refines the Prague horror boom of the 2000s. Its shadows are deep, pops of color rich, and it’s always either raining or muddy in Cracow.

I’d also mention Turkish series Midnight at the Pera Palace. What starts out as a comedic light mystery builds out an intriguing and consequential time travel lore that intersects with a key moment of Turkish independence and leadership. While there are many Turkish series that serve partly as propaganda for its autocracy, there are several that creatively argue for racial equality, feminist values, and recognition of its full history. Midnight at the Pera Palace fits into this, perhaps not as outspokenly as something like The Club, but in a way that is unmistakable nonetheless. As someone who far prefers outright mysteries to light mysteries, I’m surprised how much I like Midnight at the Pera Palace and its ability to bridge into well-developed time travel sci-fi and some social commentary.

IS THERE STILL ROOM FOR DRAMA?

This doesn’t leave a ton of room for more traditional drama, but I don’t want to overlook that Pachinko is still my series of the year thus far. Its directed about as exactly as something can be, yet without ever feeling like it’s aesthetically suffocated. Often, highly designed and precisely planned images can reroute our emotional connection away from actors and through the director’s vision. It’s an approach that can evoke some unique things, but often introduces a certain distance from the story. We begin to observe rather than feel in the moment. Instead, the emotion of Pachinko feels released by finely honed direction that puts performances first. Its gorgeously realized and acted, and I’m endlessly impressed by how breathtakingly cinematic its direction is without ever taking away from the actors for a visual.

Under the Banner of Heaven is also in my top 10. It’s been compared to True Detective, but its focus on how fanaticism can feed on religious history for its justification – and on how organized religion can in turn aid, abet, and even participate in that fanaticism – goes beyond some of what the HBO show does. There’s a unique sense of escalation and rhythm in Under the Banner of Heaven, a surge that accelerates into pacing crescendos.

The Bear doesn’t approach things in a traditional dramatic sense – it feels very new. The story of a chef trying to save his late brother’s restaurant features one of the best ensembles of the year. I have to admit, I only watch it one episode at a time. While brilliant, it presses on some triggers that make it something I appreciate in measured doses rather than as a binge watch. In a curious way, its focus on the connection and community-building aspects of food remind me of Pig, last year’s Nicolas Cage feature. The two couldn’t be more different in terms of energy or storytelling approach, but they plumb similar territory on a subject that isn’t often portrayed with appropriate depth in drama. They make a very appropriate pairing in my mind, Pig seeing with patience and consideration what The Bear sees through frenzy and chaos.

Bel-Air also stands out as an incredibly smart re-invention of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. It’s another remake with a point, and with a depth that seems to have gotten overlooked. In particular, the retelling of Carlton’s story delves more deeply into the internalized racism and impostor syndrome Carlton puts himself through (never being accepted as white no matter how much he rejects his Blackness). The original is one of the best sitcoms ever made, but in the 90s it could only touch on these themes briefly, and made them an easy joke as much as it ever explored them. Beyond this, Jabari Banks’ Will is as accomplished a portrayal of Will Smith’s Will as we could possibly ask for.

WHAT HAVE I MISSED?

There are a number of other shows I’d recommend this year. The animated Harley Quinn has become more focused and consistent without losing its moments of chaotic absurdity. Alien-out-of-water Resident Alien features some great comedic acting. Shows like Reacher and Heartstopper are good binge-watching choices even if I feel they could have gotten more breathing room by reaching beyond their choice aesthetics.

That’s not everything, and there’s obviously some series I haven’t mentioned. I still need to finish one or two like Severance, and I haven’t found the time to get started on Trinity of Shadows, The Essex Serpent, Irma Vep, Dark Winds, or The Peripheral. I’ve been saving The Sandman for one of the holiday breaks so I can just absorb into it without having to come back out for a time. I haven’t watched the second season of Only Murders in the Building yet.

I’m also woefully behind on this year’s anime. If Sonny Boy director Natsume Shingo’s Tatami Time Machine Blues is anything like his longing and melancholic masterpiece last year, I’ll watch it late at night when everything’s quiet and I have time to reflect and process it. It’s part of a incredibly strong, introspective universe of adapted Morimi Tomihiko novels that also include The Tatami Galaxy and the phenomenally animated The Night is Short, Walk on Girl.

I’ve heard great things about Spy x Family, and need to make time for it. While Akebi’s Sailor Uniform isn’t my kind of show, I think Komi Can’t Communicate made me open up a bit to slice-of-life stories, and its stunning animation of nature does have me wanting to see if it echoes that peacefulness. And of course, I need to finish this year’s continuation of Pacific Rim: The Black, whose first part was one of the most unexpected surprises last year.

I’m also behind on Korean shows, such as the musical The Sound of Magic, and the contemporary crime adaptation of Little Women. I’ve been holding off on All of Us Are Dead because zombie series have felt too…dire and on-the-nose for me to watch in our current political environment. Maybe if the election goes well I’ll watch it, and if it doesn’t I’ll make a Best Show I Didn’t Watch award. I’m also excited mystery Flower of Evil just finally made it stateside. One of the most qualitative television industries in the world, two Korean series made my top 10 last year: Squid Game is obvious, but I felt vengeance actioner My Name was even better.

Remember to VOTE, encourage others to VOTE, and help them get to their polling places if you can.

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“Reboot” is Solid, Could Still Use a Reboot

I like “Reboot”…but for better or worse, comedies are weighed against expectations. This is a comedy I feel I should love, in a year studded with standout comedies that range from the poignant to the absurd. “Reboot” feels surprisingly safe, which is limiting for a comedy that tries to lean into the shocking and subversive.

I’m a sucker for show-behind-the-show comedies. “Reboot” finds indie writer Hannah in charge of rebooting “Step Right Up”, an early 2000s sitcom in the vein of “Full House” or “Step by Step”. It’s 20 years later and she wants the original cast back for a darker, more mature take. She gets her cast, and the cast we get playing them includes Judy Greer, Keegan-Michael Key, and Johnny Knoxville.

Key’s Reed Sterling is a Yale-trained actor with an ego, Greer’s Bree Jensen is a former pageant queen with little acting experience and waning popularity, and Knoxville’s Clay Barber is an offensive stand-up comedian who makes terrible decisions. They all need the job, though, so they find a way to power through.

Showrunner Hannah is stuck with an overbearing co-showrunner – the man who created the original. Hannah’s played by the excellent Rachel Bloom, who mostly does voice acting but who you might recognize as the lead in “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”. Paul Reiser plays the show’s original creator, stuck in a mode of lame 90s-era sight gags.

There’s a meta element, too, in that they’re producing “Step Right Up” for Hulu. Props to Hulu for making fun of themselves as a bunch of yes-people chasing whatever trend other streaming services are doing. Their vice president of comedy Elaine, played by Krista Marie Yu, is “new to humor”. The meta gag works, but thankfully isn’t overplayed as a focus.

There are a number of plot twists and some solid character development, but “Reboot” feels like it’s aiming for what’s safe most of the time. Many other comedies have the ability to balance the short, punchy scene with longer banter. Comedies can’t just deliver a joke the same way over and over again. Timing isn’t just about the internal pace of the joke, but also how it’s balanced against your expectations. If all your jokes are a quick progression in short, choppy scenes, then there’s no surprise to the timing.

Take a show like “Abbott Elementary”. There are a lot of quick, cutaway scenes stitched into the overall fabric of each plot, but they’re balanced well against longer scenes and conversations. Not everything’s a plot point, and many of the quicker, punchier jokes work well because they rely on longer scenes that advance each character’s emotional perspective. As characters evolve, even in small ways within a single episode, those quicker jokes reflect a slightly changed perspective each time they’re introduced. This balance of different styles of comedy and the different timings they require creates an ebb and flow that keeps things unpredictable from one moment to the next. When a joke’s timing takes us by surprise, it disarms the part of our brain that anticipates and predicts the punchline.

A great punchline with the same timing as every other joke might be anticipated too much. A solid punchline with unpredictable timing can often be more joyful because we didn’t expect it.

When timing is predictable, punchlines that should function off of surprise suddenly don’t work. In the case of “Reboot”, we can often start guessing some of the punchlines because they’re the ones that fit that timing. Most of them are good to great jokes, but because they’re all delivered the same way, with the same predictable timing, I anticipated many of the punchlines before they happened. Chances are, you will, too.

This doesn’t ruin “Reboot” by any means, but it does make it feel like it’s squandering some of its considerable potential. It also feels like an underachievement given this cast and premise.

“Reboot” can justify some of this by its meta elements. Characters are constantly criticizing the shape and predictability of late 90s/early 00s sitcom humor, so some predictability is clearly designed as a meta joke that highlights how it doesn’t work. Some of the jokes in “Reboot” intentionally don’t work because they’re designed to highlight their own not working. These are the ones that end up working best because they’re surprising, unique, and can’t be anticipated.

It’s the humor that’s built to surprise or shock that comes off as predictable. I’ll use two minor spoilers in the next two paragraphs:

Knoxville’s Clay ends up sleeping with the mother of the now grown-up child actor from the show. This reveal is predictable and the show knows this, but they try to take this into shocking territory by having Clay describe some of it, and Zack (the son) walking up and grabbing an orange slice from Clay’s questionably clean hand. If the set-up was done with less predictability, it wouldn’t need these embellishments to sell the moment. As is, the comedy’s functional, but it’s asking Knoxville to play the material into shocking territory when we’ve seen versions of it before. It should hand Knoxville the shock and let him build on top of it.

An early scene has Greer’s Bree inadvertantly take off her bra in front of Key’s Reed. The two used to go out, so it’s an awkward moment. As is, the awkwardness feels acted rather than real. It relies on Greer and Key to play up the awkwardness, but if the scene itself had sold that awkwardness first, then the actors could have built another layer on top of it. That would have opened the door for something less predictable than the conversation that follows.

In both cases, the awkwardness is predictable. What we want out of those scenes is the unpredictable element that this awkwardness leads to. If the actors are the ones working to establish the awkwardness in the first place, then they’re doing the work of establishing the predictable. They’re building the show’s comedy, but not taking that next step into what the actor can do.

You want that predictable element already built by the time the actors are playing with it, because this allows them to surprise us. If we watch them build the foundation of the scene, then all we’re getting is the foundation of the scene. For the amount of plot movement that occurs in “Reboot”, it leaves many of its scenes in the actors’ hands to develop, rather than elevate.

“Reboot” might have been better served to progress at a slower clip. Its strength is that Rachel Bloom, Judy Greer, Keegan-Michael Key, Johnny Knoxville, and Paul Reiser are all very different comic actors. Bloom’s a put-upon everywoman, Greer’s satire balances the biting and empathetic, Key has a talent for reaction and parody, Knoxville is energetic and abrasive, Reiser is light-on-his-feet and quippy. They each bring a unique approach to comedy that doesn’t overlap much with the next. Their scenes together should be constantly unpredictable. If our time is spent watching them all do the same foundational work to build their scenes, then we don’t get to the point where they have the space to give us these vastly different paces and deliveries.

“Reboot” is good because the jokes are good and the cast is phenomenal…but the expectation for solid jokes and a cast like this is to push further out than “Reboot” does. This is the era of “Abbott Elementary”, “Angelyne”, “Harley Quinn”, “Killing It”, “Never Have I Ever”, “Our Flag Means Death”, “Reservation Dogs”, “Somebody Somewhere”, and “What We Do in the Shadows”. I laughed and I’ll keep watching “Reboot”. It’s an easy watch and a solid recommendation, but I just can’t shake the takeaway that it’s underachieving too noticeably. It wants to shock without taking the risks that develop shock, and its jokes boast some of the most unique comic actors telling each of those jokes the exact same way.

You can watch “Reboot” on Hulu.

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The Most Real Star Wars Has Ever Felt — “Andor”

The slowest, most personal story in Star Wars may also be its most expansive and meaningful. “Andor” tells the story of Cassian Andor, one of the heroes of Star Wars prequel movie “Rogue One”. This is a prequel to that prequel, which sounds like a lot of homework for the viewer – but no previous Star Wars knowledge is actually needed to understand and enjoy it. It’s a refreshing change in the franchise that we’ve got something which could easily stand as its own science-fiction entry.

Diego Luna stars as Andor, down on his luck and fusing scheme to scheme as best he can to survive. One night, he goes to a club in a company town hoping to track someone down. Two security officers harass him for no reason other than having the privilege of doing so without repercussion. It goes badly for them. Andor may only have days to find a way off-planet.

This, we’re given to understand, is his origin story on joining the fledgling Rebellion against the Empire. Yet it’s not his only origin story. Flashbacks show a very different life, as part of an indigenous people on a planet the Empire’s gutted for minerals and metals. The two origins increasingly echo each other, the twin backstories reflecting tragedies as large as genocide, and as personal as being trapped in a cycle of endless false starts.

It’s enough to make you angry, and this is where “Andor” might be one of the truest Star Wars entries in a long time. The original Star Wars trilogy drew from westerns, samurai films, and fantasy, sure, but it also drew from the other popular genres of its time: conceptual sci-fi, protest films, spy cinema, and exploitation movies.

These threads have largely been dropped from other Star Wars properties. “The Last Jedi” might be a standout commentary on the need for protest and rebellion, but it does so in a very modern way. I love it for that, but much of that original Star Wars aesthetic was replaced. The prequel trilogy and other shows have left those genres behind, too, so it’s hardly alone. The major genre throughlines we recognize – the samurai, western, and fantasy elements – they all survive.

Those less recognized elements have given way. Dystopia and exploitation in Star Wars has become a passing set design rather than a core motivation, and you can’t really get existentially angry at a passing set design. “Rogue One” stands out as special because it touches on some of those lost threads, but it only has so long to do it. “Andor” gets twelve 40-ish minute episodes, so it dwells on these lost ethics, considers why they exist and why they give this franchise life.

“Andor” is an evolution of those 70s genre threads the original trilogy utilized, where the climax is held off as we learn about a world and its people, its dystopia, how it became this way, how that way reflects our own path. Some might call it too slow. They’re absolutely right: “Andor” is extremely slow and those viewers may rightly be disinterested. If you took a look at “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” and you found that too slow, it’s a car with enough jet engines strapped to it to make some bad decisions on a salt flat when you compare it to “Andor”.

“Andor” is the slowest series I’ve seen all year. Is that a bad thing? What’s too slow for one person can be a meticulous build-up for another if the show’s done work to make it meaningful and put its details in the right places. “Andor” knows exactly what to do with slow. Slowness is a paintbrush in writer Tony Gilroy’s and director Toby Haynes’ hands. Would I want all Star Wars series to be like this? Not a chance. Do I want a franchise with this many entries to be able to do this at some point? I’d say its a requirement – if you’re not going this far off-piste by now, you’ll just be stuck in endless repetition.

Outside of “Andor”, the franchise has become too obsessed with tying all loose ends together. A backwater desert planet like Tatooine is now the central hub of destiny for half its named characters. It’s like if the MCU suddenly realized everyone had connections to Dayton, Ohio and we had to spend the next four films tying everyone together there in ways that are more and more contrived. That Star Wars has vaguely made it work across the underrated “The Book of Boba Fett” and a solid “Obi-Wan Kenobi” is a testament to the skills of its writers, artists, and actors…but you can see in how immediately classic “The Mandalorian” has become just how much they could accomplish if let loose on some new parts of this universe.

Disney hasn’t made a bad Star Wars live-action series, and what I’ve seen of the various animated series has also been good. At the same time, they are absolutely running up against the point of diminishing returns when it comes to all these series having to reference and tie in to both current and previous work in the franchise. The suspension of disbelief about everyone tripping over each other in the same corner of this supposedly vast universe has become extremely elastic. It feels on the verge of snapping hard. If Star Wars is a road trip across the universe, Tatooine is the driveway you never leave.

That’s why I’m thankful for “Andor”, which treats the Star Wars universe as far-reaching enough that a relatively unfamiliar character and a new location can exist in our minds without ever needing to name-drop or tie-in. This is sci-fi, it’s supposed to extend into places unknown. What’s alien out there can make us reflect on what’s alien in us, what we would or wouldn’t accept for ourselves, how we accept others or fail to. It can’t be unfamiliar, uncomfortable, and tense if it’s holding our hand and throwing our favorite guests at us with the speed of a late-night show.

Show me a universe that sweeps from tale to tale and I’ll keep asking if we can spend longer at the new stops. Sometimes there’s value in not being able to, since our imaginations can yearn for all these aspects we’ve only glimpsed. Yet to be a storytelling universe of consequence, you’ve got to focus in on one person in a new place from time to time.

Game designer Warren Spector once described his dream game as a “One City Block RPG”. It would simulate one city block perfectly, immersively, and let you interact with anyone and everything in it. It would be so detailed, with so many daily routines, that it could exist as a world unto itself, as perfect a simulation of reality as can be achieved.

Needless to say, we play games to enjoy art and escape, and there would need to be something else involved in order to grab very many players. The ethic of this idea has rung true in many modern designs, however. “Gone Home” simulates one house with engrossing attention to detail. The upcoming “Shadows of Doubt” looks to do this with a city so long as the detail you want is voxel noir. Immersive sims have long sought to achieve a selectively deep take on this level of detail in service of knocking people out and stealing their fancy candlesticks.

Before I go too far afield and you wonder if I accidentally dropped part of another review in, the point is that this same ethic can serve a series. You can show me every place in a universe, but if I don’t get to visit one city block in it for an extended period of time to understand how a place and its people fit into that universe, then what do all those places really mean? How do a people see their place in it, how do they dream about it, what dreams about it have broken or run their course, how do they fight for and struggle against their roles in it? That’s what gives a universe meaning. You can stay there too long without coming up with a cogent take on it (hi, Tatooine), but “Andor” gives us someplace new that defines itself by this level of detail. Sometimes that’s sad or haunting, sometimes that’s angering or frustrating, but every one of those emotions is an investment in the story being told that helps us identify with its characters and the risks they take.

“Andor” takes this approach with a bit more than a city block, but the majority of its story does focus in a company town that exists to serve a salvage yard. By doing this, by focusing in so precisely, in such minute, studied detail, we understand how one incident – Andor’s run-in with the police – can spark a cascade of repercussions, each bounding against the city’s limit and swelling back to intersect with another repercussion, creating some new, stronger wave that smashes into those limits and comes surging back. By knowing characters’ daily routines, we can see how the small interruptions to those routines speak to monumental sea changes in the direction of that city. It’s a stunning way to look at the Star Wars universe, on a deeply personal level that hasn’t been explored before, with a respect for its reality as a universe unto itself, all mounting toward a sense of shattering that as a viewer I both feared and needed.

Pair this with Andor’s twin origin stories – one speaking to surviving an “incidental” environmental genocide, the other speaking to a sense of survival that only treads water – and you have a story that’s presented with cold, painstaking procedural detail, and the towering ache of surviving the horrors with which that meticulous build-up eventually lashes out.

What is justifiably slow to some viewers will be absorbing and emotionally captivating to others. I found “Andor” to be charged and resonant, a masterwork of escalating tension, its glimpses of beauty and loss like a gut punch because every morsel of our attention and emotional investment is recognized and accounted for. “Andor” is the most real the Star Wars universe has ever felt. To some, that’s a disappointment, and that’s fair. To others, it opens up a universe of possibilities.

You can watch “Andor” on Disney+.

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The Shot When I Knew “Arcane” Was Special

When I write about “Arcane”, I cry. When I search for images of it to run in an article, I start shedding tears. When I go through videos to see which one shows off its animation without too many spoilers, I’m overwhelmed. It wasn’t always this way. I went into the show, based off the video game “League of Legends”, with no detailed knowledge. The trailer looked interesting, the animation a potentially complex blend of oil painting, art nouveau and art deco, splash art, graffiti, scratch art, pop art, you name it. It was a shot in the dark, though. I had no expectations. Its opening scene is abruptly powerful and I was visually impressed by its opening heist, but content-wise, it’s any old cutscene. Then the street fight happened, and one shot told me I could be watching something remarkable.

You see the shot above. Vi has just returned with her gang from a botched amateur heist. Another gang tries to take the sack of stolen items that’s their only reward. The two sides fight, Vi’s younger sister Powder backed up against a wall and gripping the bag for dear life. Amidst a gritty, dusty, sloppy fight, we get a wide shot in slow motion, the blue-haired Powder at its center.

There is terror here, the fear of a child in danger, worried for her sister and friends yet incapable of helping in any way. The best she can do is cower and not get in the way. There is also a reverence to the shot. Its symmetry, stillness, and the separation of characters evokes the tableau of a stained glass window, as do the rays of light.

The sepia suggestions, that reverence, it begins to suggest nostalgia for this moment in a show we just started watching. And yet these are the good times, a moment of golden, preserved memory before far worse arrives. The music evokes a longing and yearning, as if you shouldn’t want this moment to pass.

The reason I react to “Arcane” the way I do, even a year later, is because the show is about losing what’s important – people who’ve died, illusions of fairness in the world, even memories and realities that are questioned. This moment is real. As violent and terrifying as it is, it serves as an anchor point in the middle of trauma.

It also describes Powder’s inability to help, and how Vi is torn between becoming a leader and taking care of her sister. One distracts from the other, and Powder is keenly aware of this. It describes Vi’s gang as the best at their amateurish level of theft and fighting, before a world they can’t possibly contend with crashes down on them. It’s their last moment in a reality when this is the worst they have to face, when they can go toe-to-toe against what threatens them. This will be gone soon.

The moment is deeply worrying for Powder, and it describes Vi’s inability to both fight and protect her. Yet it’s also a halcyon state, one memory that’s incorruptible amid so many that are. Powder’s later memories are represented through scratches on the film, a reality she aggressively tries to remove and overwrite for herself no matter how much it haunts her. As the show gets much, much darker and the audience grapples with just how much is erased and taken from certain characters, this shot and this scene also become more meaningful to us. It’s the last moment where ideals remain intact, where these characters preserve a more innocent understanding of their place in the world, and likewise the audience preserves more innocent ideas of what these characters will have to endure, as well as our preconceptions about Western animation’s ability to discuss trauma.

When I named “Arcane” the best show of last year, I said it was one of the best series ever made. I told you that if you take its trio of three-episode acts as films, it’s the best trilogy since “Lord of the Rings”. You’d think those kinds of strong feelings for a show would fade. Sometimes that happens; it’s only natural for your top choices to shuffle over time. Hell, I understand if you think I was just being hyperbolic or overexcited. Yet I just keep thinking of “Arcane” and what it does. The more I look back at it, the more I revisit scenes, the better I think it is. There are so many visuals in it that can be pulled apart to reveal what it’s saying for its characters and world. There are so many echoes throughout, visual themes that dominate each character’s story, movements and shots that repeat as characters betray or become who they are. The entire story is told early on, but only in ways you can understand if you’ve already watched it all. Foreshadowing isn’t everything, it’s just one tool out of many for a storyteller, but I’ve never seen anything master that tool the way “Arcane” does.

Rarely does analyzing a shot or scene evoke so much emotion, yet the entire show is sequences that can be unfolded just like this. “Arcane” gives us this shot of poor Powder backed against the wall, scared for herself and her loved ones, desperate yet unable to help. It’s one of the first sequences in the first episode. It tells us this is a cherished memory. If this is what’s cherished, how much changes for her? If this violence is nostalgia, how will her norms be shaped? If Vi can’t protect her as a child, how is there any hope of doing so as the world closes in around them, seeking and persecuting them? Rewatching “Arcane” is to realize the storytellers have already made the answers to these questions obvious, we just don’t always want to see those answers until it’s far too late. If we won’t see them, how can these characters see them, as children? And if we shield ourselves from those hard truths in a story, in a safe place with storytellers we learn to trust, then how do we practice that in our own world, with less safety and trust?

“Arcane” is built to resonate, over and over within its own structure until it keeps on going when you’ve finished it, when you’ve put it away and moved on to other things. It keeps on going when you haven’t watched it for a year. It’s still as fresh in mind as when I first saw it, still contains surprises and thoughts worth dwelling on. This is the shot that convinced me “Arcane” was special, but it’s hardly alone, and even then I had no clue how remarkable or important it was, as a shot or as a show. There’s something about both that speak beyond the confines of a series to an era where our norms and realities are moved on a daily basis. “Arcane” wrestles with the erosive effects of traumatization when most shows – fantasy or reality-based – won’t even acknowledge there’s a need to be processing these thoughts right now.

When I saw this shot, I knew the show was special within its own space as a series. When I look back on it, I know it’s special outside of those confines. That’s why I cry when I start to write about this show, because in a world of constant trauma, where people’s norms are shoved aside by cults and con artists, I’m reminded that art serves as an anchor for our norms. I cry because being moved by something gentle can make me immovable against what isn’t.

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Exquisite — “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power”

An elven warrior refuses every call to give up her quest hunting a dark power. A nomadic hobbit keeps safe a man who fell from the sky. An elven diplomat tries to broker peace with dwarves in pursuit of an architectural dream. A human woman and her elven lover are split apart by creatures seeking an ancient tool of power. “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” follows a far more thoughtful approach to its storytelling than I anticipated. Character comes first in beautiful ways. Flowing dialogue creates dissonance between the achingly detailed halls of fantasy that describe a culture and the complex, messy, often painful realities that define it.

The scene that ought to tell you whether this is your kind of show or not is early on. Galadriel and Elrond – elves who are here hundreds of years younger than the events in “The Lord of the Rings” – debate between knowledge and theory. Galadriel is a warrior obsessed with the idea the dark lord Sauron survives and awaits his enemies’ complacency. She wants to hunt him, even if she has no support in doing so. She’s met by Elrond’s reasonable arguments. He theorizes on what the consequences are if she’s right, and if she’s wrong. They are friends and empathize with each other – even recognize how one sees what the other cannot. Galadriel’s translating what she knows and can evidence against her obsession and PTSD – albeit conveyed in a removed, elven way. Elrond is trying to tell her she’s fought enough, that even if her fears are true, others can pick up that fight and continue it. Galadriel’s concern is about duty as an ethic, Elrond’s is about responsibility as a practical concern. They talk in a hall of monuments, each hero carved from wood as they looked in death. The two friends feel empathy for each other, they understand each other, they care about each other’s thoughts, and they trust each other – yet they’re each talking past the other in a core way. This is translated in flowing, flowery speech full of metaphor by actors hitting every note. It’s the kind of character-intensive work that “The Rings of Power” is absolutely landing an hour an episode.

Some fantasy meets you halfway, acknowledging that it’ll be a little cheesy and at the end of the day, we’re all just along for a fun ride. Other fantasy swings for the fences and looks to convince you of every world-building element and detail. Many of these fall short because if they falter even once, an intricately woven cinematic tapestry starts to unwind. We’re only two episodes in to “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power”, so there’s still time for that to happen – but thus far it looks like they’ve nailed every element.

We follow Galadriel’s quest in defiance of her elven lord. We also follow a mischievous Harfoot hobbit named Nori, Elrond himself as he engages in elven politics, and a tense situation between humans and elves at the far reaches of civilization. We don’t yet know how these various threads will come together, but each story is captivating.

Is it true to J.R.R. Tolkien’s vision? Does it land every detail in the right place? Dunno. I don’t mean to be irreverent in saying that, it’s just…we have Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy already, one we love in large part for the places where it folds the story into something more elegantly film-ready. It makes some big changes, and we mostly understand why. I’m not a “Silmarillion” lore fiend, so I can’t tell you how loyal “The Rings of Power” is to its source material, but Tolkien’s original vision for “The Silmarillion” was for it to disagree with itself, to be a mythology brought forth by many writers of his own fictional creation, each writing in a different style and arriving at different conclusions. It was edited together into something more consistent by his son Christopher and assisting authors after J.R.R.’s death, from an even wider array of drafts and notes that go through many changing versions. In some ways, the published “Silmarillion” itself isn’t necessarily consistent with Tolkien’s vision of having various versions that could each be interpreted as part of the truth. If Tolkien’s goal was for it to be taken as a mythology viewed from multiple angles on what could be understood as truth or not, then there is no correct interpretation. It’s purposefully a framework. As long as you’re in the ballpark, you’re watching the right game.

That leaves me having to do what I was going to do anyway, and judge the thing on its own. Is it good? Through two episodes, it’s phenomenal, bolstered by some gorgeous writing, stunning cinematography, and a pretty restrained implementation of visual effects given that the series is saturated in them. The best part is the acting – not just the performances, but the way they’re presented and given proper space within the story. “The Rings of Power” is smart enough to back down on everything else when it comes to letting the actors and writing carry it.

Some of the dialogue in this is gorgeously and poetically written. There’s a turn of phrase that treads the line of becoming too generic-fantasy in one or two places, but it overwhelmingly hits the mark and there are far more moments where the use of metaphor is striking and moving.

We’ve come to understand “The Lord of the Rings” on film largely through Peter Jackson’s movie trilogy. There is a sense of being overwrought in places, of being as dramatic as possible and trusting that the director and actors can lean into that hard enough to sell those embellishments. It’s always risky because the only thing past that is camp. Yet if you’re able to keep that sense of elevated theatrical drama on track, the whole thing can blossom as an entire world you get to watch take shape.

To do this correctly means creating an actors’ playground first and foremost. For all the towering scenery and sumptuous visual effects, every scene focuses in on the characters and what they’re doing in a specific place. It doesn’t matter that the story just swept hundreds of miles across the world, it matters that this character is here now, and that the actor believes in what they’re doing so hard that we’re given no choice but to do the same.

Morfydd Clark’s Galadriel and Markella Kavenagh’s Nori deserve particular praise, albeit in nearly opposite ways. Clark’s Galadriel elf warrior is a driven powerhouse, translating concepts of PTSD in a very elven way that can feel familiar and alien by turn. She feels constantly unstill, as if being caged in her body or in this place is an untenable necessity. It’s an intriguing but consistent turn with what we’ve seen of Galadriel in other projects. It’s also incredibly refreshing after so many elves with light, nondescript English theater accents to have one with that Welsh pronunciation and accent shining through. That’s what Tolkien based the Elven language and culture on, so when we talk about things in terms of accuracy, this is at least one element “The Rings of Power” gets right that other adaptations have failed.

Kavenagh’s Nori is a wide-eyed hobbit youth who tests boundaries and wants to see the wider world. She’s impish in that she misbehaves and wanders afield, but when she gets others to join her, she’s responsible in that she’s the one who watches out for them. The “youth who wants to see the world” archetype can often feel too familiar, but the blend of early hobbit culture with Nori’s own ability to manage chaos makes her feel more capable from the start than a typical child thrown into a hero’s journey.

Robert Aramayo’s young Elrond took a second to grow on me, but it’s a joy to see how measured and diplomatic he is. “The Rings of Power” seems to understand that yes, sure, an action set piece now and then is nice, but what’s really exciting is the diplomatic jousting of an elf and dwarf through competitive feats of traditional rock-breaking. That’s plot moved by an element of world-building, and it’s what sells the fantasy in fantasy. People stabbing each other with swords? We did that for a couple thousand years in the real world. Diplomacy through a rock-splitting duel? Now you’ve got my attention.

There’s always a risk when handling so many different groups of characters, each of them encountering yet new groups of characters who add on even more story threads. Comfy, warm fantasy blanket though it may be, “The Wheel of Time” gets wobbly every time it tries to balance two plotlines at the same time. “The Witcher” takes two plotlines as a challenge to make them feel like 12, a willfully obstinate strength of the show I love, but definitely an acquired taste. “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” has at least four core narratives, and a variety of intersecting ones, with none of them going the same direction. Yet none of them feel rushed, and none of them feel as if they distract from or confuse the others. It’s easy and enthralling to understand and follow. Despite the vast amount of lore spilled open and referred to throughout the show, none of it feels like homework. Everything is crystal clear, paced well, and they’re finding the emotional core of each lead character very readily.

We’re two episodes in; can it continue this way? I hope so. Showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay clearly understand that what’s interesting about “The Lord of the Rings” is its world and how it works. The action is icing on the cake. It comes after the fantasy iconography, which comes after the plot, all of which sits atop these characters and their motivations. It’s brilliant and beautiful.

The one thing that gives me some pause is that these first two episodes had an absolute knockout director helming them. Juan Antonio Bayona is responsible for “A Monster Calls”, “The Impossible”, “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” (the second best “Jurassic [area]” movie), a couple episodes of the excellent “Penny Dreadful”, and my pick for best horror film of the last two decades, the Spanish-language “El Orfanato”. He has a hugely empathetic eye for character amidst genre spectacle.

The upcoming directors are Wayne Yip and Charlotte Brandstrom. Yip’s directed on “The Wheel of Time”, Brandstrom on “The Witcher”. They’re quality directors, but Bayona is one of the best (and most overlooked) out there. Can the showrunners and these other directors keep the focus on the actors and writers the way Bayona’s helped establish? I really hope so, because if that’s the case you’ve got one of the best shows of the year and the best live-action fantasy going right now.

You can watch “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” on Amazon.

If you enjoy articles like this, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write more like it.

Why I (Almost) Never Skip the Opening Credits

Life is short and there are more good shows out there than we’ll ever have the time to see. So why do I almost never skip the credit sequence? Some shows take care of it themselves, either by not having one or having one so short that it’s over before you can even hit “Skip Intro”. It’s the long ones I’m talking about, though, the ones with a whole musical composition and listing the names involved.

OK, I will skip some credit sequences. It’s never a long road from there to here for me on “Star Trek: Enterprise” because I always take the shortcut. No, that song hasn’t gotten better, ironically or otherwise. I’ll also skip the openings on reality competitions, and this is what gets me thinking that my taste for credits has more to do with storytelling. The credit sequences I like most – the ones that stay with me and that I’ll seek out on YouTube to watch an extra few times – are the ones that establish an atmosphere and feeling that the scenes around them can play with.

Take the opening credits for “Evil”, centered on a small team investigating supernatural and mythological occurrences for the often unreliable Catholic Church. The show is a rarity as an actually scary horror series, boosted by one of the best ensembles on television. More than this, it’s got a palpable vein of humor running through it. It’s quick to incorporate current activism, criticize toxic trends, and has a talent for building tension off meta and meme humor. The opening credits have evolved from season to season so that the visuals reflect internal crises the characters are facing.

The credits capture a balance between the creeping suggestion of terror and the wry, smirking humor that gives it contrast. Is this going to be a funny episode, or a terrifying one? Will one turn into the other? Few shows are as good at putting you off-balance, and I watch the credits every time as the portal into that feeling. You’re looking at this curious, enigmatic, suggestive, escalating impression of something strange, which puts you right alongside the characters who do the same every episode. It’s a perfect introduction.

Of course, it’s not the only good one out there. The less said about “Severance” going into it, the better. Step in with no foreknowledge and you can have an exquisite time. Of course, the title sequence tells you a lot without your knowing it, so your impression can change as you get deeper into the series.

The blending of influences from Salvador Dali, Hieronymus Bosch, and German expressionism presented in the regimented, symmetrical, fractal manner of early computer art turns those opening credits into a moving painting, an evocative poem before the story itself.

Those are both pretty creepy openings. It’s not the only way opening titles can set a tone, but they don’t get to their unnerving places in the same way. They don’t even incorporate humor in the same way. “Evil” accelerates, increases the feeling of threat and pairs it with its macabre sense of humor. It portrays internal character struggles against the contrast of an exterior, unknowable, existential threat.

By contrast, “Severance” portrays its external plot with an internalized progression – the music is almost cautious, the images all center on its lead character and the things happening to him. Whereas the opening sequence for “Evil” is an escalating tone poem of impressions and visual humor built on our discomfort at the unexpected, the opening sequence for “Severance” is a journey of endurance filled with details and a visual humor built on schadenfreude. “Evil” invites us in to see things from the perspective of its characters. “Severance” points the finger back at us in a way that asks us to observe not just the show, but ourselves.

The best opening sequence of the year has a completely different feeling, though. For a series that witnesses characters endure such historical hardship, the joyous opening of “Pachinko” is a way of shaking off the narrow vision of one perspective, of asking us to see more in the characters than what they suffer. It’s also a way of treating survival, of diaspora itself, as a joy, that the only way for a culture to survive attempted genocide is for it to celebrate itself unabashedly.

By putting actors together who play characters in different eras, it also reminds us that actors playing these roles is in itself an acknowledgment, a celebration, an act of survival, of keeping alive those who didn’t make it, of reclaiming stories that someone else tried to erase. Few shows have been as utterly, breathtakingly beautiful as “Pachinko”. Every time, the opening titles open us up to seeing so much in each character.

Sometimes it’s not the opening that sets a tone, but the closing credits. Many shows opt for the title slam that sits there for two or three seconds to separate its cold open from whatever follows, but no opening sequence otherwise. It’s just straight prologue to action. Disney+ has favored this with its various original series in favor of more complex closing credits – which you sit through, of course, because of their post-credit stinger scenes. They often make this worth your while, such as the sumptuous concept art they show after each episode of “The Mandalorian”. It’s not just gorgeous art, it also shows you how something was changed from concept to filming.

And while the closing credits for “Moon Knight” and “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law” are both powerful, my favorite from Disney this year goes to “Ms. Marvel”. It contemplates through a child’s eyes the cultural impact of a billion white heroes on film with a few scattered heroes of color. What is the impact of that on a child of color? How do they see a world that prizes a certain type of person, and how do they see themselves in that world? How do they see their access to that world and how do they want to change it? How do they envision themselves as a hero in that world when it’s tooth and nail just to get the world to envision them that way once?

My favorite closing credits this year go to “Komi Can’t Communicate”. I’m pretty indifferent to slice-of-life anime, it’s just generally not my thing. I prefer sneaky cosmic horror anime, or post-apocalypse rock people, or Witcher-as-superchill-mythologecologist, or avant garde interdimensional survival. But people just existing? Ugh.

Yet “Komi Can’t Communicate” captures a serene sense of being, in the face of social anxiety so bad its title character can barely say a word to those she wishes would be her friends. It’s a deeply empathetic show built around the moments of opening up and learning to be happy with yourself that keep people going, and it also works as a satire on anime tropes that’s equipped with a lightning-quick visual humor.

The best compliment I can give it is that once, after watching a pair of episodes, I found myself just not doing the compulsions that are part of my OCD. I felt no pressing need to check the lock several times or that the faucet and stove were off over and over again. I could be where I was at peace, without a thousand things running through my head. Whatever anxiety drives those behaviors was just…gone for a time. My best guess is that part of it’s because the show manages to find what’s peaceful amidst chaos, and more keenly because it empathizes with the experience of anxiety at a core level that makes me feel understood. I can’t recall anything else I’ve watched ever having this effect on me.

As an anime, it has a few different opening and closing sequences depending on the style of episode, but its new closing credits capture moments frozen in time from the classroom across two different parts of the year. Aside from its sense of calm and well-being, it finds a way to describe each character. Every time you watch it, you can focus on a different character being themselves, evoking what you like or find interesting about them, their relationships with each other, and their own compulsions. You can see something new by following a different character or relationship every time you watch, or you can just let your eye wander across the scene. It captures what’s fulfilling about the series as a whole, and what connects about each character individually.

There’s often so much to a title or credit sequence. If series are connected short stories, these sequences are poems and interludes that join them, that evoke a different part of ourselves. We understand short stories with an analytical, even logical eye. Title and credit sequences are an opportunity to open up another part of ourselves that’s more willing to soak in the world, to appreciate the impressions it leaves in our memory and not just its plot. The title sequence sits outside of chronology or logical explanation. It gets to follow different rules, and it keeps attentive the part in each of us that views with those different rules. That’s why I (almost) never skip the intro on fiction. I want that part of me anticipating, enrapt, searching for feeling and atmosphere as much as I am for plot and character development.

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Is the Anger at “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law” Accurate?

Nope. Good read, very efficient.

If you’re wondering what I’m referring to, I mean the rising anger and review brigading orchestrated by men on popular sites’ user reviews. “She-Hulk” Attorney at Law saw more than 40% of its reviews on IMDB hit 1-out-of-10 before it even premiered. The bulk of reviews overall came from men, but those who were registered on IMDB as 30-or-over were particularly negative. Right now, the show holds just a 5.5 after a perfectly good first episode.

I went over negative user reviews on Metacritic on Friday. There, it holds a 4.4. I’ll feature some of the choice quotes here again. See if you can find a theme: “feminist crap”, “constant misandrist whining”, “hatred of men”, “push social agendas”, “activist BS”, “overly feministic”, “a window into the feminists narcissistic and ungrateful, petulant brain”, “feminazism trash for the M-She-U”.

What’s the anger about? After lawyer Jennifer Walters accidentally gets an infusion of cousin Bruce Banner’s Hulk blood, she turns into a hulk. The thing is, she’s good at it. “She-Hulk” makes a point of the fact that she can manage her anger better than Bruce because – as a woman – she has to live with anger and fear every day. Whereas Bruce has struggled for a decade to mesh the dual personality of Bruce and the Hulk, getting stuck as one or the other for long periods of time, Jennifer is immediately good at fusing the two. Why? Because Bruce has struggled to control his anger, and Jennifer has learned to live with hers.

“Activism! Feminist BS!” Allons, to the fainting couch! Yes, Mr. BranFlakes5000, tell me in as angry a tone as possible about how ungrateful and petulant women are. I can’t imagine where anyone could have possibly drawn the conclusion that men have problems controlling our anger. 1-star reviews before it even premieres? You certainly don’t lash out in any way.

How could Marvel change the comic where Jennifer maintains her personality, emotional control, and breaks the fourth wall for jokes into a series where Jennifer maintains her personality, emotional control, and breaks the fourth wall for jokes? If your argument is that the MCU is ruining Marvel Comics by being accurate to Marvel Comics, and they need to stop being accurate to Marvel Comics and start being accurate to Marvel Comics, then you’re not actually reading this, you’re in a Christopher Nolan movie where you’ve found the tangible representation of a Schrodinger’s emotional state. It’s nothing but your childhood bedroom and if you go through the door, you’ll only find yourself in your childhood bedroom again. You fall forever. Turn back to page 1.

One of the more insidious criticisms of “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law” has to do with the treatment of Bruce Banner’s Hulk. You see, they’ve turned him into a beta male, because the alpha-beta relationship is a thing biologist L. David Mech theorized about wolves in the 1980s before realizing oh shit, whoops, that theory didn’t pan out. Now, men’s rights con artists and incel MLMs will tell you that alphas and betas are a thing because apparently we all live in movies about Wall Street bankers set in the 1980s.

To fast forward, Bruce Banner has been turned into a smug, narcissistic beta who’s just there for comic relief. To which I ask: have you seen any of the MCU films? That’s his secret. He’s always smug. The worst scene (by far) in “Avengers: Endgame” was about Hulk not listening to Ant-Man trying to save everybody because Hulk was too busy taking selfies with adoring fans. Before that, he stood in Tony Stark’s way as he tried to double down on a prior mistake that had created Ultron and put the world at risk, until Tony appealed to Bruce’s ego and they tried again. Because Bruce is smug. Sure, he’s empathetic and complex and has anger issues, but he also has a strong dash of smug narcissist that has been present throughout Ruffalo’s portrayal of him.

But Tatiana Maslany’s Jennifer is a Mary Sue, who’s good at everything immediately? I’m sorry, let me call up “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist” Tony Stark, who says that about himself to Captain America, who was the goodiest two-shoes to ever good a shoe but just needed a dose of Mary Sue juice to go full Sky Captain. Or should GBPP and America’s Ass rope Thor in, whose major character flaw was being too smug and got an entire “Henry IV” adaptation about how if he faces his smugness, he’ll be rewarded with Natalie Portman. All the Avengers are is smug, except maybe Hawkeye, and that’s because Jeremy Renner is too busy chasing his dream role as Droopy Dog.

Someone’s lecturing someone else in an MCU property? Stop, don’t, come back. The movies would amount to one season of hourlongs if you cut out the lecturing. At least it’s about something now. It’s about how women control their anger better than men? They do. How is that even a conversation?

Every tupperware party of incels wants to sell that men are more aggressive, more violent, that other men need to fear their violence to know where they stand in the hierarchy, but also that men are super totes self-controlled and don’t act out their anger at all. Like, fucking choose one. Are you so uncontrollably violent other people need to fear you so much they “know their place” or can you control yourself like an adult? Which one is it? Insert Christopher Nolan’s Schrodinger’s Funhouse here, turn back to page 1.

Hell, look at this article. As a dude, I can use my anger to point out how ridiculous we as men are being about things like “She-Hulk” (and “Ms. Marvel” before it, “Captain Marvel” before that, the list outside the MCU is never-ending – see last week’s “A League of Their Own”.) There’s an entire language for male anger. I can write in it about others who have written in it. I can be condescending and snarky and make jokes and translate the ridiculousness of male anger by drawing on male anger itself, because so much of the language in which we write both fiction and criticism is based on dealing with male anger. This article is angry because male anger is so privileged that we can just write in it as the default. Male anger is how our culture is defined and described.

That’s why a portion of men get so angry about something like “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law”. The things that don’t just argue for women, but that sit entirely outside our description of the world through male anger? They threaten our worldview as men, don’t they? They threaten an entire universe of storytelling and writing that’s fundamentally based off of male anger: The Iliad, Beowulf, The Tain, the foundations of Western literature directly deal with the fallout of male anger and ego and have been translated over time to prize that anger, simplify their stories, and excise the criticisms that once existed as part of those tales. We’ve been trained in bastardized versions of our myths that champion anger. The Odyssey was once about PTSD, but read most translations today and it’s stripped down into a simple episodic adventure.

If superheroes are our modern mythology, they’re streamlined with the modern priorities we’ve used to overwrite that mythology. Some men feel threatened when they aren’t the only ones who get those worldviews confirmed by this modern foundation. Some men feel threatened when women or people of color assume any level of access to how that modern mythology is told. Incel Tupperware Party is out here upset that a woman briefly talks about having to control her anger when she’s sexually harassed or threatened, because her life often depends on her ability to remain calm throughout the situation. At the same time, Incel Tupperware Party wants to sell you on the idea that men somehow have a right to women and women just don’t know any better. They argue for a lack of self-control on men’s part that puts women at risk, and then get upset when women say they need to keep their heads to navigate the risk.

There is no greater critical achievement than to be brigaded with one-star reviews from incel movements. A lot of series are successful on-screen, but to be so successful on-screen that you can extend that success to pissing off the right people off-screen? Few things are that brave or that successful, and they deserve support and normalization. “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law” says nothing untrue. My biggest problem with narrative consistency is that when Bruce hulks out, his wavy hair turns curly, yet when Jennifer hulks out, her curly hair straightens out. That’s the immersion breaker for me. First MCU plothole ever, I’m sure. Otherwise, “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law” strikes every goal it aims for, both on- and off-screen.

You can watch “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law” on Disney+.

If you enjoy articles like this, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write more like it.

“A League of Their Own” is the Storytelling I Want in the World

“A League of Their Own” feels momentous. I didn’t expect that going in. My read was that it would be a familiar property hauled out of storage for a quick cash-in. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I judge an adaptation or remake by the same question as I judge something original: does it have a reason for being? Does it succeed at that reason? “A League of Their Own” has more reason for being than the vast, vast majority of what’s out there.

You might know the story from the original 1992 movie starring Geena Davis, Tom Hanks, Lori Petty, and Madonna. It follows the the women of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, a league founded in 1943 to keep baseball going during World War II. The biggest difference between the movie and the series is that the subtext isn’t subtext anymore. Many players have spoken about how the AAGPBL had a number of queer players. What wasn’t allowed to feature in the 40s, or the 90s, can finally become the central story in 2022.

A Note on Remakes

Let’s get one thing out of the way. There are a dozen specials, features, and documentaries on Tom Brady. ESPN just ran a 10-part, 10-hour special on the dude, advertised every commercial break. More than 600 women played in the progenitor of women’s professional sports in the U.S. They’ve got two films and a smattering of documentaries. “A League of Their Own” was unlikely to be greenlit by any other name.

We salivate at rebooted Spider-Men from 20 years ago re-appearing, and get angry that Michael Keaton’s return as Batman after 30 years got shelved by HBO’s new ownership. But two “A League of Their Own” stories, how could we? What horror! And why? Is “Top Gun” or “Jurassic Park 6: Jurassic World 3” or “The Batman: Still Not the One from Red Son” or “Sonic the Hedgehog 2” making a statement that couldn’t be made 30 years ago? I like some of those films; I’ll watch dinosaurs read a phone book…but their reasons for being aren’t particularly strong.

It’s 2022. A series about the AAGPBL couldn’t be told honestly in 1992. Republicans and half of Democrats still couldn’t get over 80s rock music lyrics, let alone Hollywood bankrolling an honest, star-studded film about queer people. “A League of Their Own” is one of the few remakes out there that can take advantage of the 30 years that have passed since the original film. It’s one of the few reboots that can do more than simply make a statement – it can tell stories that we didn’t allow to be told except as coded, buried subtext 30 years ago.

On with the Review

We follow two stories, sometimes intersecting but more often parallel. Abbi Jacobson of “Broad City” plays Carson Shaw, a catcher recruited from Idaho who runs away from home while her husband is overseas fighting in the war. What she’s running away from may not be home so much as the perceptions of what’s normal for her. The team is its own bubble and, even if she didn’t plan for it, it’s a place for her to explore parts of herself she’s repressed most of her life.

We also follow Max Chapman, a pitcher who isn’t allowed to try out for the league because she’s Black. She wants to play more than anything, and brainstorms a way to join the local company team instead – which means getting a job there first.

The ensemble is excellent – Gbemisola Ikumelo is Max’s best friend Clance, who’s obsessed with comic books and their lessons. Max’s mother and father, played by Saidah Arrika Ekulona and Alex Desert, are realized beautifully.

On Carson’s team, the Rockford Peaches, the supporting cast similarly runs the comedic and dramatic gamut. D’arcy Carden’s Greta stands out because she stands out to Carson, and Roberta Colindrez’s Lupe, Melanie Field’s Jo, and Kelly McCormack’s Jess are also highlights.

I like the depth of representation apparent in “A League of Their Own”. The major experiences of focus are those of LGBTQ+ and Black characters, but there’s room for a range of characters. Clance’s husband deals with social anxiety. Kate Berlant’s Shirley Cohen copes with OCD and, even if we’re still at a point where it’s played for laughs at points, there are expressions of it I recognize and share that mean a lot to see on-screen without judgment attached.

There’s a running subplot of racism toward Latines that isn’t forgotten either, as Colindrez’s pitcher Lupe is announced as ‘Spanish’ so the crowd isn’t repulsed by her being Mexican (I’ve had ‘friends’ do this), is passed over for a job (got told it to my face), and is socially blamed for a fight she didn’t start (ah, junior high). That these are all still common show some things haven’t come very far.

To see these other experiences folded in so organically, as parts of the world that are acknowledged, that hurt and that characters we care about legitimately work their way through – it feels real. In between the comedic set-ups and often lighthearted banter, there’s a depth of realness at play in “A League of Their Own” that many shows don’t achieve.

I think this is aided by the crew being fairly diverse as well. If you’re writing something as if you know it, it helps to know it. Lead and co-showrunner Jacobson is bi. Ikumelo is one of the primary writers.

Jamie Babbit directs the first three episodes. Known for biting satire like “But I’m a Cheerleader”, her experience on “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” equipped her to bring another era to life with texture and detail. The production elements – design, set, costume, they’re all top-notch. Babbit also knows how to present these experiences, being one of the earlier out lesbian directors in the industry.

Episode directors Anya Adams, Ayoka Chenzira, and Katrelle Kindred are all Black. The four writers who worked on seven of the eight episodes include Black, Iranian-American, and trans writers. Those brought in for an episode are two Black writers and a Latina writer. That’s not to give you a checklist of diversity; it’s certainly not the only thing that matters about them. It’s to say the stories being told are largely coming from the people who have lived them. That’s crucial, and it delivers a veracity that stories tackling these issues can sometimes miss.

Many films and series still tackling these experiences are still told by those who haven’t lived them, or by those who bring in a writer from a specific background for that episode in what’s still a largely straight, white, male writers room. You may have LGBTQ+ or Black voices as part of the mix, but that doesn’t often mean featuring them at the fore, and that’s what makes something unique in a landscape that’s always required those voices to be coded at best.

There are some hiccups, but none seem major. There are brief moments here or there where the pacing or rhythm of dialogue seems like it’s not settling into its groove right, but this is pretty common early on in period ensemble pieces. It’s usually ironed out over the first few episodes as the cast finds each others’ rhythms, and that’s the case here, too.

The approach to dialogue here is to meld speech of the era to modern ways of speaking that people can identify with more readily. The dialogue isn’t meant to be accurate to the time, but rather a meld and I think it works well once you realize this is the approach. The most important thing for a comedy is that it’s funny, and the lines almost entirely hit the mark while the personalities always do. There’s something more here, too, and that’s a sense of joy I’ll talk about in a minute.

The parallel stories “A League of Their Own” tells follow different paces. Carson’s story with the team is filled with interweaving arcs of her will they/won’t they relationship, power dynamics with their egotist coach, wins and losses, injuries, and the league’s attempt to make them “palatable” for men.

By contrast, Max’s story is one of not playing. She’s more isolated, and while she shares scenes with others, the fast-paced ensemble nature of the team’s storytelling slows here to a more isolated and singularly driven story. The slower nature of her arc, at least initially, means that the pacing can lurch between the two a bit.

Carson’s story can feel lean and efficient, evoking a whirlwind pace at times, while Max’s feels expansive and thoughtful, often settling into its longer moments. These ways of doing things are what each story needs, and they’re both done well. You do have to adjust to the pace of things accelerating or decelerating back and forth as the stories switch.

I’m a cishet man – I’m not qualified to be the judge of how important this is or how much it gets right when it comes to representing LGBTQ+ people or history. To me, it feels important. It feels momentous. It feels like it goes further than a lot out there is still allowed to because these characters are allowed to be fully human, complex, making mistakes and regretting missed opportunities. It doesn’t feel like we’re in an era yet where every LGBTQ+ character is allowed to be as complex as cishet characters have enjoyed for the entire history of film. Many are still emblems, there to represent something as much as they are to exist within the characters’ lives. That can be aspirational and important in many ways, but it’s also important to have enough out there, enough stories being told, enough characters represented that there are those who are realistic and imperfect and flawed as well, told by the beautifully real people whose history this is.

The characters in “A League of Their Own” feel deep, full, rich, complex, so real. They feel like they’re given the storytelling freedom that cishet characters have always enjoyed, and I wish that weren’t so rare as to be remarkable. This is beautiful queer storytelling about LGBTQ+ people and queer history.

The people who are given the financing and platforming to make series and films in the U.S. are still overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly male, and overwhelmingly straight. At the same time, we complain about feeling like the same stories are told over and over again. That’s not because of adaptations or remakes like this. It’s because we see the same perspectives over and over again, the same storytelling priorities from the same narrow band of culture that’s dominated the stories that get marketed, the same narrow range of cultural touchstones.

“A League of Their Own” feels like a breath of fresh air because that’s exactly what it is. It’s told from a perspective that couldn’t have gotten a story this expansive or expensive on a major streaming service even 10 years ago. We know the story, we know the history, we know the framework of “A League of Their Own”, but much of what’s meaningful inside of it, the elements of substance inside of it and stories like it, have been watered down up until these last few years. We have culturally bottled up and forced entire histories to be subtext, allusion, metaphor, code.

“A League of Their Own” is beautiful because it gets to tell this story openly, bluntly, joyfully, and even if the era it addresses was the height of subtext and code, and it must address that fear and alienation, the perspective of how the story is told, of what is prioritized, of how it’s spoken into being feels so overdue. If you want something new, look for the voices that have always been there, but have only just now been given the platforms to tell their stories bluntly. Become enrapt in someone else’s joy for their histories never taught that can finally be told.

You can watch “A League of Their Own” on Amazon.

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