Category Archives: Television

Wait, Did They Fix “How I Met Your Father?”

I have a strange fascination for series with unrealized potential. This can mean featuring concepts that go beyond what the budget can manage, which sorts out my undying love for “Vagrant Queen”. It explains my morbid obsession with conducting a never-ending post-mortem on the “Halo” TV show. And it explains why I kept watching “How I Met Your Father” after giving it a very unfavorable review last year.

“How I Met Your Father” is a spin-off of “How I Met Your Mother”, the well-regarded sitcom that ran nine seasons from 2005 to 2014. Aside from a few brief guest appearances, they don’t share any cast. What they do share is the structure. An older Sophie tells each episode’s story to her son as a flashback, just as the original’s Ted did with his children.

The casting is clever, with Kim Cattrall and Hilary Duff playing older and younger Sophie. It features superb ensemble actors such as Christopher Lowell, Francia Raisa, Suraj Sharma, and Tien Tran. This explains why I feel the show has potential. Why did its first season struggle so much to meet it? Is the second season improving quickly enough to make up for it?

Out of the gate, I was insulted by the series’ constantly proclaiming how it was representative of Millennial experiences without ever engaging them. “How I Met Your Father” told a story without much recognition of COVID, Millennial financial trauma, or dealing with cults of racism and misogyny. Plenty of shows dodge these subjects without much problem, but they don’t go around proclaiming that this is somehow representative of a generation’s experiences.

The first season of “How I Met Your Father” (“HIMYF”) also leaned on callbacks that didn’t plug into its current story. It dropped constant reminders of the original show so that you could point and say, “I remember that,” but that’s all they did. They evoked recognition, but recognition on its own isn’t comedy – it has to do something. Instead, it just sat there with blinking lights asking us over and over if we recognized it. Yes, and…?

The other problem is that the series screwed up its pairings almost immediately. Its two strongest actors are Christopher Lowell, who also played the closeted benefactor and announcer of “GLOW”, and Tien Tran, who comes from a stand-up comedy background. Tran’s Ellen arrives in New York as an outsider, so her immediate connection is with her brother, Lowell’s Jesse. Trapping the two strongest actors together isn’t a bad thing, if the other actors and their writing is up to par. It wasn’t.

The first season leaned far too heavily on Hilary Duff as a lead rather than as part of the ensemble. To use the traditional terms for odd-couple pairings, you’ve usually got a comedic Straight Man and a Wise Guy. One approaches things seriously so the other can play off them. Semi-isolated in Sophie’s stories with guest actors of the week, Duff was often asked to play both roles at once. She was the Wise Guy in her own stories, and the Straight Man when it came to ensemble comedy. You can be both in balance, but not when you’re pulled from one extreme to the other week to week. We really couldn’t depend on a consistent read of her character, which damages a show when its central theme is about learning who she is.

Francia Raisa plays Sophie’s best friend and roommate, locked in a relationship with Tom Ainsley’s runaway royal Charlie. They shared a lot of scenes in the first season, which meant compartmentalizing two Wise Guys together.

Episodes shifted the mix around, but the baseline the first season returned to was: Duff being isolated from the ensemble, the two strongest actors stuck in wait-and-hold patterns for others’ stories, the two Wise Guys stuck together with no Straight Man to play off, and Suraj Sharma’s Sid becoming an afterthought in main plots.

In my original review I did highlight that I had hope the series might improve. This was based on how good the cast is if it could be used as a more balanced ensemble, and because I’d already seen Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker drastically improve one of their other series from its first to its second season. The “HIMYF” showrunners also ran “Love, Victor”, a series that was charming and superbly cast but struggled with overall direction in its first season. “Love, Victor” featured a drastic improvement in its second season, turning into a resurrection and subversion of 80s teen comedies. Unfortunately, Hulu rushed the show and truncated its episode count at the last minute, meaning the third season fell back a little bit, but that second season was brilliant. If they could do it with one series, that’s a talent I thought might be repeated. It has been to an extent:

Show Some Millennial Struggles

Most of the characters are paycheck to paycheck and living in (by sitcom standards) ramshackle apartments. They’ve thankfully stopped the whole “we represent a generation” shtick. That always felt forced for a series that avoided many pressing social issues, though now it does feature a few. The second season builds plots around lacking health insurance for mental health care, and Sophie selling a photograph to a Men’s Rights cult leader.

There’s a clearer focus. When an issue is featured it’s more of a situation than a throwaway one-liner. This means we’re not just recognizing something in passing, but seeing characters experience it – even if it is just according to sitcom rules. I wouldn’t say it engages these issues as more than window dressing, but it’s also stopped pretending these aren’t part of the experiences its characters would face. The show’s also clear about which side the characters land on.

In other words, the series stopped tiptoeing around naming things, which always risks filling in the gaps with stereotypes. Now it at least names these ugly experiences and has characters look directly at them. It doesn’t dive into them with particular depth, and I wouldn’t mind seeing the show do more. From “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” to the 2017 “One Day at a Time”, we’ve seen the format’s perfectly capable of it, but just getting the baseline to showing struggle instead of naming it for recognition points is a marked improvement.

Duff Gets Accompanists

Too much was asked of Duff in the first season. Shows like this need someone like Duff, who can anchor what’s happening to a specific place and set of consequences. They also need someone like Raisa. As Valentina, Raisa can showboat and extend the plots into absurdity. Both require and take skill, but in the first season Duff was asked to showboat in her semi-isolated plots, while Raisa was asked to anchor Ainsley’s showboating. They each played against their strength and it didn’t work.

The two play best friends, so it’s natural for them to share more consequential plots together in the second season. It means Duff can more consistently embody that Straight Man role while Raisa can let loose. A running joke in the show is how bad Sophie is at being the wild card, so why they asked her to fill that role throughout the first season is beyond me.

In fact, after that first season I felt Raisa should’ve led the show with Duff playing the best friend. As their roles have hewed closer to who the show’s told us they are, this feels like less of a problem. I do still wonder, since Sophie and Valentina can be self-involved and Raisa does more to evoke empathy…but this may have more to do with Duff playing close to script. Like Ted in the original “HIMYM” and Ross in “Friends”, Sophie’s early coding as the main character means she lacks the kind of growth we see the rest of the ensemble enjoy. As in those two examples, a show doesn’t have to overcome that to work, but it’s always a nice bonus if it can.

Christopher Lowell Gets a Plot Arc

Up top, I pointed out how Lowell and Tran are the show’s two best actors as brother and sister Jesse and Ellen. Lowell knows how to work a stage and the camera. Season 1 revolved his story around the will-he/won’t-he with Sophie, which didn’t give him a lot to work with. It’s her show, so doing this isn’t the issue – but Lowell spent a lot of time in the first season as part of others’ plotlines. He does great supporting work, with a lot of movement based around affirming what another character is doing, so this is a good use of him. It just shouldn’t be the only use for him.

Jesse was embarrassed when his girlfriend turned down his marriage proposal in a video that became viral. We start the second season with her back in the picture and undermining the potential that was there between him and Sophie. Will Jesse go on tour with their band and leave Sophie and his friends behind? The fractures it creates mean that Lowell has something to work with. Much like Sophie and best friend Valentina finally getting a lot of meaningful scenes together, it also means that Jesse and best friend Sid finally get more than a handful of scenes together. These do a lot to help us understand who these characters are and why they’re forced into difficult situations – legitimizing these situations is what drives the comedy, after all.

Sophie becoming a more consistently realized character also means that a give-and-take can develop between Duff and Lowell as scene partners. The two were embroiled in Sophie and Jesse’s maybe-romance in the first season, but as they play out a more balanced and healthier friendship (with romantic tension intact), they’re much better together this season. Lowell is the cast member who can play Straight Man or Wise Guy depending on the situation, but he smartly limits each extreme, allowing him to serve as a balance in relation to whichever way Duff is playing it.

I felt it a little bittersweet to see him here while “GLOW” was canceled, but you know what, he has a reassuring presence in whatever role you put him in. It’s always a joy to recognize when an actor is this skilled at guiding our eyes to others’ work in an ensemble.

More Tien Tran

This is the first series on which Tran is a regular cast member. The show still doesn’t quite know how to use her, in part because she can make stealing a scene look easy. She’s the most lead-oriented of the bunch, yet feels the least utilized. Ellen should be a smarter Joey from “Friends”: sweet and innocent but prone to misunderstandings that arise from anxious overthinking (instead of a lack of intelligence). They hit this characterization a lot, but never seem to realize this is where the character’s heart is.

Instead, they’re pretty convinced about leaning on Tom Ainsley’s oblivious, disowned royal Charlie for this kind of comedy. That’s a mistake when he’s clearly the sweetheart of the bunch (going by “Friends” roles, he’s Rachel in just about every other way – privileged, rich but slumming it, working at the local hangout, hanger-on to an on-again/off-again main cast flame). They’re increasingly pairing him with Sharma, which gets another Wise Guy-Straight Man pairing on the board and finally gives Sharma something to do.

Even if the show doesn’t know how to use Tran better, she’s using the show better. With a season’s experience, Tran’s comfort with the ensemble work has grown. They still stick her with a lot of one-liners, extended monologues, and physical comedy – Tran’s background is in stand-up, so this makes sense. Yet too often she feels removed from the main cast as leader of the B-plot. It’s hard to tell how much they’re trying to fix this vs. how much Tran is just making up for it regardless. Either way, she’s gotten some of the show’s more absurd moments and her relationship to Jesse means that now he’s got his own plot arc, she has more to interact with.

Tran’s own increased comfort and expanded time with other actors in the ensemble are both improvements, even if there’s still a core issue with the writers knowing how to rotate her into the A-plots.

Playing with Unreliable Narrators

As a frame story, the original “HIMYM” often relied on unreliable narrators, conflicting memories, and characters who disagreed on how an event happened. This is a well of potential comedy, but one “HIMYF” didn’t make much use of in its first season.

The second season unleashes a few unreliable narrator plots, and they’re each pretty successful. As Sophie’s recounting a date Valentina brought to dinner, she realizes she can’t remember his face. It gets replaced with an emoticon, whose blaring visual shoves the overly familiar ‘awkward dinner conversation’ into enjoyably ridiculous territory.

One episode concerns who was judging and bullying who between Jesse, Valentina, and a mutual acquaintance. We see a history of brunch get-togethers from two different perspectives – each dragging the others through the mud.

One scene sees older Sophie subtitle the men’s bro speak. It’s more of a 2010 joke, but they execute it extraordinarily well.

The ability to play with narrative this way is available to any sitcom, but it’s a particularly natural go-to for the How I Met franchise that the second series is finally embracing. These initial forays may even show something it does better than the original, if it’s willing to push further down that path.

It’s More “Friends” Than “HIMYM”

I watched the first season of “HIMYF” as a fascination with botched potential, but the second season is a sharp improvement. It’s still not reliably good, but neither is it bad. It’s intermittently good and very suddenly worth watching as the light comfort food that multi-camera sitcoms like this can be. For this kind of show, there’s something more important than being good: liking the cast and wanting to spend time with them. That’s where they really hook you, and it gives a sitcom time for all that writing and directing stuff to catch up.

Is “How I Met Your Father” as good as “How I Met Your Mother”? No, but it’s also significantly less homework and far less problematic than a show that’s aged in dog years. Is it as good as early-season “Friends”? Not a chance. Is it as good as late-season “Friends”, an era that aged in butterfly years? Yeah, I’d say that’s a pretty accurate bead on things, plus it embraces LGBTQ+ characters and relationships instead of presenting rampant homophobia.

There’s a Valentine’s Day episode that manages to keep the entire group in one place the whole time, and this shows off the series’ best strength: the ensemble as a whole. Put everyone in one place and the show suddenly works. It’s the splitting up into groups that gets erratic because some combinations work and some just don’t. When the entire ensemble isn’t together for a while, you need to mix and match to keep everyone rotated with each other. That means at some point you’re going to get stuck with combinations they haven’t figured out yet. Keep everyone together enough and you’ve hit all combinations at once – that means when you split up, you can rely on your strongest combinations without having to rotate the others through.

That gets abstract, so consider a concrete example. In “Friends”, there wasn’t a lot of Chandler and Phoebe hanging out because he was too acidic for her absurdity. It would’ve felt too mean. Instead, the pairing gets coverage when the entire ensemble’s together, meaning each character can stick to their end of the pool when it’s time for more focused pairings. It’s an approach that works really well, but it requires “HIMYF” to go further down the ensemble path. I hope the improvement continues – with a cast like this it really ought to.

I still watch “How I Met Your Father” because I find the gap between its potential and realization to be interesting, but now that interest also rests in just how much that gap’s been closed. Being less frustrated with the show means getting to enjoy its ensemble more and that’s almost entirely where the potential lies. It features one of the best sitcom ensembles out there, but it’s just an OK sitcom. That means there’s still a ton of room for improvement. One or the other’s got to give, and seeing if a show can take that evolutionary leap makes for fascinating viewing.

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A Competition Show Gem — “The Climb”

I love a good reality competition, so long as it focuses on a craft or skill. Baking, weapon smithing, flower arranging, special effects makeup…. If the show is interested in talent and friendly competition instead of bickering and backbiting drama, I’m there. It was only a matter of time before climbing found its own reality competition format. And has it ever in “The Climb”.

Climbing is my favorite sport. I haven’t done it in years, but it still works as a tense and gripping spectator sport. It even recently enjoyed its first Olympics appearance, after two decades of perpetually being “up and coming”.

“The Climb” host Chris Sharma has had a major role in popularizing the sport, especially a discipline called deep water soloing. This involves free climbing up a cliff over the open ocean. If you lose your grip or tire out, you fall into the water below. There’s some obvious risk, and this is where the show starts. 10 competitors begin deep water soloing off the coast of Spain, but the show runs through a full picture of different kinds of climbing: bouldering, lead climbing, trad climbing, multi-pitch, speed, and even a first ascent.

Sharma’s joined by Jason Momoa in the intros to talk about each location, type of climb, and often show off Momoa climbing. That may seem random, but Momoa and Sharma have known each other as climbers since before they were famous. Momoa is even the godfather of Sharma’s daughter. The intros do the work of establishing a sense of place while lending Momoa’s fame to a sport that’s still trying to carve a place in the mainstream.

Joining Sharma to host and assess the climbing is Meagan Martin. She’s one of the best commentators working today. An accomplished climber, she’s become climbing’s voice to U.S. audiences, announcing Nationals and the Olympics. Sharma and Martin discuss climbers’ strengths and weaknesses, and once the climbs start they stay a little ways back to analyze for our benefit.

The best camera work and editing for this kind of show should mean you forget it’s even there. That’s exactly the case – the crew spend their time underwater and hanging off cliffs to get shots, doing their job so exceptionally well that you completely forget about them. (There are some drone shots to establish location, but most of the climbing shots they get are crewed. In many ways, this is still a safer way to do this kind of filming.)

Climbing is a great spectator sport already – it puts your heart in your throat and makes your hands sweat just thinking about the idea of clinging to the side of cliffs for dear life. The tensest thing we can think of in storytelling is literally called a “cliffhanger”.

“The Climb” embodies this sense of viewing, while communicating what attracts people to climb in the first place. I can’t overstate how well shot and put together the series is. It gives you enough space to get to know the competitors and their camaraderie without getting distracted from the climbs themselves. It breaks down what different climbs, equipment, and techniques are, and how different types of climbers utilize each. This means it’s just as exciting for viewers with no knowledge of the sport.

If you do know climbing, you’re aware that women and men typically don’t compete against each other. Differences in build and strength have dictated this, though climbers like Alex Puccio (my favorite boulderer) would famously send men’s routes for fun after bouldering competitions, and lead climbers like Margo Hayes have begun to close the outdoor gap a bit. “The Climb” makes up for the difference by ensuring a few of the women are the best technical climbers of the group. Some problems give those with more upper body strength an advantage, and some problems give those who can better identify holds and body positions an advantage. This evens the playing field, and keeps us guessing about who’ll actually make it or be made to climb in the bottom two.

Especially as a show about this sport, the approach works perfectly. One of the best parts of watching climbing is seeing how differently two climbers of different builds and skillsets will approach the same problem. I wrote once about my favorite moment in sports: the 2018 U.S. Bouldering Open Nationals, where the muscular and pinpoint accurate Alex Puccio dyno-ed her way up routes against Ashima Shiraishi, a pliable and creative climber who spidered and slid her way up walls in ways that defied physics. They were joined by the book technical Brooke Raboutou, the tall and reachy Claire Buhrfeind, Martin’s own all-around skillset, and the cerebral Margo Hayes (who did the problem in her head from the ground over and over again before attempting it only once). It was mind-blowing to see these very different climbers each tackle the same problems in wildly different ways. Witnessing that cemented climbing as my favorite sport. “The Climb” finds its own unique format between diverse climbers, skillsets, and a wide range of climbing disciplines, successfully demonstrating many different approaches.

In fact, representation is a key focus in “The Climb”. Climbing in the U.S. has often been described as a predominantly white sport. It can be an expensive sport and a time consuming one (which means more financial sacrifice). Training gyms lean toward affluent, white areas. We lack the structured support for climbing as an organized sport that other countries have pursued. Outdoor climbing is most accessible in the Mountain West – which includes many of our whitest states and most redlined regions.

It’s good then to see “The Climb” seek to address this not just in its inclusiveness, but also in letting the climbers each talk about their experiences. Some talk about their own privilege and what that’s given them access to. Others discuss what it would mean to become the representation they lacked seeing when they first took up the sport. There’s an even split between women and men. Climbers of color, including a trans climber, are among the competitors. An older climber features.

Underlying “The Climb” is a frank and consistent conversation about equality and inclusiveness in sports as a whole, and climbing specifically. It’s an absolute gift to see this incorporated so well into a reality competition. This genre’s format often encapsulates these issues as background stories for feel-good moments of catharsis and closure, rather than stating the problem and letting everyone continue with the acknowledgment that these problems still exist and are not solved by watching the show.

The climbing is great and well communicated, the filmmaking is exceptional and never gets in the way of the natural tension of climbing, there’s enough interview and conversation to convey important themes, the cast is cooperative and supportive of each other (you have to be in climbing or you’re risking lives), and the whole thing fuses together as an exciting and involving just-one-more-episode watch.

If you watch reality shows for schadenfreude and to see people fail, I’m not your reviewer. There’s failure in this, but it’s not that type of show. If you watch reality competitions hoping to see people succeed or come as close as they’re capable, I got lists and “The Climb” is near the top of them.

You can watch “The Climb” on HBO Max.

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To Persist in Cataclysm — “Trigun Stampede”

The first scene of “Trigun Stampede” captivates – a seed ship full of colonists collapses in flame around a desert planet, taking out its support vessels on the way. We fast-forward many years. Settlers are scattered. The resources that survived are meager. Towns subsist on broken-down equipment.

The gunslinger Vash the Stampede has a bounty on his head, wanted for destroying the energy plants that allow humans to eke out their survival. Two reporters stumble across him, the biggest story they could possibly imagine. Yet Vash isn’t the terror described in the stories. He’s a skilled gunman, but also a pacifist. He runs from a fight. He helps the local towns. He tries to save the villains and show them a better way – often succeeding. So why does destruction follow him?

Ambitious rookie reporter Meryl Stryfe and grizzled veteran journalist Roberto de Niro join up with Vash in order to uncover the trut…wait, Roberto de Niro? Well, “Trigun Stampede” is based on a 90s manga, and re-adapts a 90s anime, and the 90s really were a wacky ti– oh, he was invented exclusively for this new adaptation? You know what, it gave me pause for half a second before I saw the guy in action, and then I thought, yep he’s a Roberto de Niro if I’ve ever seen one.

We jump straight into the action. Just look at this trailer:

The animation is beautiful. The first thing I thought of as I watched “Trigun Stampede” was how much it reminds me of Don Bluth’s expressive, energetic, character-driven animation style. Bluth was the director of “The Secret of NIMH”, “An American Tail”, and “Anastasia”, just to name a few.

The in media res storytelling style jumps us into the action in early episodes, and its episodic but linear traveling nature (combined with a larger arc) in later ones recalls popular Watanabe Shinichiro series like “Cowboy Bebop” or “Samurai Champloo”.

“Trigun Stampede” is made by one of the most interesting animation studios on the planet, Studio Orange in Tokyo, Japan. They’re renowned for trailblazing on CG anime that’s full of heart, but this isn’t the most important thing to know about them. What you should know is that they do not world-build so that you and I can see their worlds. They world-build so that the characters can exist in them. We’re only shown the corners the characters encounter each episode. Studio Orange guards the truths of their worlds from their viewers, so that what we’re left with is different characters’ interpretations, memories, myths, and even lies. They’ll show you what’s pertinent to that moment.

This is almost a cardinal sin when it comes to sci-fi worldbuilding as we know it. After the first scene, there’s very little of the grandeur of sci-fi we’re used to. There’s silliness, terror, heartbreak, each as the characters witness the larger world crash into these corners and leave them wiped clean.

As with Studio Orange’s earlier “Land of the Lustrous” and “Beastars”, this means the early episodes are difficult to get into. I wrote in my “Land of the Lustrous” review:

“I was ready to turn ‘Land of the Lustrous’ off after two episodes. I wasn’t sure whether I’d keep watching. This is because I misinterpreted what it is. ‘Land of the Lustrous’ fosters this misinterpretation so that it can turn it upside down inside you.”

You could say the very same thing for “Trigun Stampede”. That’s because “Land of the Lustrous”, a series about sentient mineral-people being hunted and harvested by Buddhist cosmic horrors, ended up shattering me. It left me in heartbroken awe and became my favorite anime series.

That’s why I waited until “Trigun Stampede” had several episodes out. I had a review of this written after two episodes, and it was much less favorable. I held it because I suspected whatever I thought it was, it would change. Whatever corner of its world it showed me, I would understand and remember it so differently later.

The first two episodes of “Trigun Stampede” are filled with charming characters and clever action, but as you watch them, it’s easy to wonder if the show will be capable of offering anything else. They pack too many villains in, the pace is off, and it’s hard to pin down exactly what kind of genre you’re expected to watch from one minute to the next. Then the third episode breaks it all and lays out the true stakes. It’s here I’m reminded how well Studio Orange can tell stories in a specific kind of dissonant space: between the abject terror of victims, the debilitating awe of bystanders, and the banal and casual deliberateness of those who inflict that terror.

Studio Orange series can feel erratic at first because they sacrifice the world-building of omniscience that Western sci-fi often leans on – explanations, histories, foreshadowing – in order to establish longer-term character development. It can feel awkward to miss those details and be thrust into chaos, but it pays off when you see certain elements for the first time alongside the characters, trying to make sense of the senseless at the same speed they do.

This trade-off means it can be very hard to get invested in the world at first, and early stories feel weak and badly paced. The pay-off is that we can identify with the characters readily, we truly feel the strangeness and desolation of this world, and a strong emotional tone emerges. This last is Studio Orange’s toybox, and even when plots are familiar or recognizable, their strength as storytellers can still pierce straight through you at a moment’s notice.

Western sci-fi habitually world-builds like it’s trying to close a sale. Not all of it, of course, but especially in series and film, it wants you to buy the world straight in, and then it keeps building value to stack confirmations that you’re going to keep it. It’s a cynical description, but it’s also an effective blueprint for getting everyone on the same page quickly so that the storyteller can extend into multiple subgenres and create extremely solid foundations for engaging social sci-fi.

Japanese sci-fi has always had a streak of placing you closer to the characters, and allowing its sci-fi elements to enter only as they’re encountered, and then often foregoing a deep explanation until much later. After all, if it’s an everyday thing that everyone knows about, why would they stop and explain it to each other? And if it’s a world-ending horror, why would they stop running or fighting long enough to explain what they can’t? It’s not difficult to look at the history of the last 80 years and understand why this difference exists, or why it became crucial to process in Japanese storytelling.

This reveals the heart of “Trigun Stampede”. Yes, we’re on a journey, but among Vash, Meryl, Roberto, and others, we learn how each cope and hold onto their values in the face of cataclysm, how each finds their own way to persist and endure. Their adventures mean encountering those who had to give up those values at some point, or those who were never given the choice to embrace them. It’s a story of choosing to fight an impending and unknowable terror by knowing yourself, and thereby ensuring there’s at least one factor that you can truly bring to bear with determination.

“Trigun Stampede” always impresses in its animation, design and aesthetic, and characterizations. The storytelling is still gelling, and I continue to have issues with its pacing, but there are story moments every episode that make me appreciate that I’m watching it. The sci-fi environments are phenomenal, but what Studio Orange always delivers is a human understanding of its characters.

Does “Trigun Stampede” hold its own with “Land of the Lustrous” or “Beastars”? I’m not sure yet. Is it worth watching? Yes. There’s a sheer artistic will in all of Studio Orange’s work that captures the most foundational element of storytelling – our need to know what happens next. Their talent in guarding their worlds from us makes us want to see them all the more. The connection to these characters makes us eager to see this alongside them. It makes us listen when characters tell us their stories and beliefs. Somehow, despite mashing together a variety of elements we’ve seen before, the best argument for “Trigun Stampede” is the same one for anything by Studio Orange: because you won’t see anything like it anywhere else.

You can watch “Trigun Stampede” on Hulu or Crunchyroll.

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1 Basilisk Supernatural Romance, Please — “Shahmaran”

I’m not a big fan of supernatural romances. I don’t have anything against the idea, it’s just that they’re usually paired with plots where a protagonist’s town or the world itself needs saving. In terms of storytelling, the romance always gets priority over helping countless people, so I spend most of my time waiting impatiently for the leads to get over themselves and do what’s more important. When they inevitably weigh a bazillion people’s lives against whether they get to sleep together – and can’t figure out which is more important – I inevitably think neither one’s worth a coffee date.

Ah, new Turkish series “Shahmaran” asks, but what if saving the world is dependent on the romance happening in the first place, all prophecy-like? What if there are different camps of basilisk-people who have opposite interpretations of the mythology? The hemming and hawing about whether the leads should get together is really about whether that’ll save the world, curse the world, or do nothing. Now we’ve got a struggle between free will and mutually opposed views of determinism.

“Shahmaran” uses a Persian myth of the same name as the framework for a tale about a human woman and a half-snake/half-human man falling for each other. Serenay Sarikaya plays Shahsu, a postgrad psychology student who attends a lecture in rural Adana. She uses the opportunity to track down her grandfather, who abandoned her mother and left her heartbroken her entire life. Shahsu’s introduction is stunningly strong – she immediately becomes a favorite character and someone with whom it’s easy to identify.

She is complex – strong as Shahsu is, she also comes across as privileged and rude to locals, and her sense of others’ medical privacy can be a bit fungible. It is easy to explain why she values confrontation – everywhere she goes, most men and many women turn their heads. The visual impact is similar to the treatment of Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling in “The Silence of the Lambs”, where every man’s eyes would track her through the room and people she passed in every location turned to look her up and down. When Shahsu first gets to the college she’ll agree to teach at, there’s a long take of her walking through the halls. Pay attention to the background cast and every male eye turns to watch her at length.

“Shahmaran” can be superb at building a sense of lurking dread. It’s slow but it doesn’t feel like a slow-burn. In a slow-burn, you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. You’re anticipating a sharp realization. You gird yourself to react when that moment happens. The atmosphere in “Shahmaran” instead borrows from horror on this front – when you feel like something’s lurking, you’re already reacting, not anticipating doing so.

It also gets the strangeness I like to see of a character stepping into mythology. Flashbacks, dream states, and portents serve to dislodge both Shahsu and the viewer from a sense of stability. Ingredients from multiple other genres get folded in, from horror to magical realism to erotic. It never goes overboard with these, but infuses them in effective ways. Early on, the series is both deliberate and lean.

The technical elements of “Shahmaran” impress the most. The set design, lighting and cinematography, and musical score all create something engrossing but unsettling. Cinematically, “Shahmaran” can stretch from the precise art horror qualities of Tarsem Singh to natural infusions of magical realism akin to a Claudia Llosa film. Those don’t exactly neighbor in the landscape of filmmaking, but director Umur Turagay finds a way to make them feel close.

Shahsu and Burak Deniz’s Maran try to resist falling for each other. He knows the prophecy that a basilisk savior is meant to arise and bring peace so long as a basilisk and human fall in love every generation. The only problem is that women tend to die in this prophecy – and if that’s the prophecy’s cost, is it really worth it? It’s the inverse of the the issue I always have with supernatural romances. He’s not weighing his love against saving others. He’s weighing a prophecy of saving others vs. a reality of sacrificing others that it requires, all against what role his free will should play. It’s the trolley problem, which isn’t exactly new to the genre but usually doesn’t get treated as the real focus like it is here.

The easiest solution would be to leave Shahsu alone, but he can’t do that either when a faction of basilisks is hunting her. They think humans are harmful (I think they’re on to something), and that it would be better for the natural world – such as basilisks – to take over. The usefulness of Maran leaving Shahsu alone so that the prophecy doesn’t risk her life goes downhill when leaving her alone means others will threaten her life.

Place a very good cast in the midst of this all and you’ve got something incredibly watchable. It’s a romance, so it’s also worth noting this is the best-looking cast I’ve seen in a while. Deniz looks and acts like he’s lobbying hard to take over “The Witcher” (there’s still time); Mert Ramazan Demir’s Cihan is immature and pushy, but he makes an argument for a love triangle just by stepping on-screen; and even Shahsu’s grandfather Davut is a silver fox. The series finds an opportunity to put Sarikaya in her underwear once every episode, and Maran has three sisters who embody naive, blasé, and playfully wise attitudes, respectively, and each get a fashion line’s worth of costume design to match. “Shahmaran” knows why people watch, but it doesn’t feel constricted by this. Writer Pinar Bulut has a clear understanding of how to utilize these elements; she often finds smart turns away from expectation that drive important points about agency home.

For the first two episodes, “Shahmaran” has almost every element go right, but for all its skillfully built-up horror and romance, it sometimes misfires when capitalizing on them. Its moments of action can feel slightly stagy, and the romance between Shahsu and Maran can fall a bit flat. This last is hard to get right because there’s a balance between them resisting their feelings, giving into them, and what role trust plays into that. Maran can’t tell her the prophecy because it would risk exposing his people who have only been able to survive by hiding, and Shahsu can’t trust Maran because she knows he’s hiding the truth when supernatural things happen.

CGI is used rarely, and can vary in quality – mostly in the effects feeling on a separate layer from the characters in-scene. I don’t really mind, but some might.

The translation seems to miss some detail or context from time to time. Translation is an entire cinematic art unto itself. I opted for subtitles. Sometimes a decision is made to keep them tight and specific, which can risk making things a little inaccessible for viewers in the target language. In the case of “Shahmaran”, it feels like the opposite approach is taken. A broader approach makes it very easy to keep up, but some details can feel sanded down. In particular, the wordplay that defines a developing romance can occasionally come across as generalized in a way that doesn’t match how the actors are playing it. (Of course, not speaking Turkish I can’t say for sure.)

Ultimately, the opening episodes were enough to pull me in. The visual texture “Shahmaran” creates is gorgeous in its ambience, but in some of the subsequent episodes it narrows its range of locations. The series relies on its varied visual textures and colorations to define the atmosphere and keep things interesting. In the episodes that take place in fewer locations, the slow pace can feel much more apparent.

This metaphor may only speak to some, but in a way “Shahmaran” reminds me of a certain type of very deliberate adventure game, such as Jane Jensen’s “Gabriel Knight” or “Gray Matter”, or Wadjet Eye’s more recent work like the “Blackwell” series. A complex character shows up, gets embroiled in something supernatural, you plug away at some puzzles – not because the plot or puzzles or even the supernatural elements are all that great, but rather because you want to spend time enjoying the texture and feeling of a place. You want to know what happens to the characters because they’re appealing but face tough choices, and you want to see how the mystery plays out because it changes your understanding of the texture of the place you’re enjoying so much.

In the same way gameplay is secondary in these games, the plot is secondary to why I’m watching “Shahmaran”. Humans and basilisks co-existing after the basilisk savior sets better ground rules sounds good. So does basilisks taking over and chastising humans for treating the planet like crap. So does the prophecy being bunk and everyone continuing to have free will. All those outcomes have benefits, but come at a hefty cost. For once, the people in the middle of it all have a real argument for not knowing what to believe and what to do. I want to see how these appealing characters face complex choices, and how their choices change the texture of the place I’m enjoying so much.

If you’re looking for anything all that fast-paced or realistic, “Shahmaran” won’t match. If you want to be pulled in slowly by intrigue and thick atmosphere, or you just want a supernatural romance that isn’t played out, “Shahmaran” does impress.

By the way, if you’re not watching Turkish series, you’re missing out. Period drama “The Club” was one of the best series of 2021, and last year’s “Midnight at the Pera Palace” stands as my favorite light mystery. “Shahmaran” is fun to watch. I wouldn’t put it at the level of those two, but it exemplifies two genres the Turkish TV industry is particularly good at – fantasy and romance. A lot of what’s being created there – or at least the portion that makes it stateside – has a real streak of resistance and feminism to it that can speak to our culture just as capably.

You can watch “Shahmaran” on Netflix.

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A Brilliant Performance on a Neglected Foundation — “Poker Face”

“Poker Face” is very good. The new mystery series won’t disappoint, but it doesn’t excel in all the ways it imagines either. Its technical elements are often gobsmacking and it boasts one of the best actors going today in Natasha Lyonne. It’s beautiful to watch, but it also tries to do so much with such a big name cast that it rides the line between several influences instead of choosing moments to drive one home. The result is a series that’s comforting much in the way of an 80s weekly mystery, but also suffers from the same key oversights.

Lyonne plays Charlie Cale, a cocktail waitress with the ability to tell when people are lying. She doesn’t know what the truth is, just that the lie exists and is worth investigating. She was blackballed at high-stakes poker tables, and trapped by a casino owner in a job that…well, she doesn’t hate it, but it also doesn’t mean she has real freedom.

After her friend Natalie is murdered for what she sees on a high roller’s laptop, Charlie starts digging into the cover-up. This transforms into Charlie going on the run, encountering a new mystery in a new location every episode.

One of the big draws of “Poker Face” is its ridiculous guest cast. Let me throw names for a full paragraph: Benjamin Bratt, Adrien Brody, Stephanie Hsu, Hong Chau, Ron Perlman, Chloe Sevigny, S. Epatha Merkerson, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Rhea Perlman, Ellen Barkin, Tim Blake Nelson, Tim Meadows, Tim Russ (lotta Tims), Luis Guzman, Clea DuVall, Jameela Jamil, Nick Nolte, John Ratzenberger, and Judith Light. Just to name a few.

The story happens right now, but the cinematography evokes 70s crime and spy dramas, with a lot of long zooms, close-ups through crowds, and conversations viewed from a low angle. The effect is one of being in places we shouldn’t – not so much a fly on the wall, but an observer noticing something is off from across the room. That makes for an experience much like Charlie’s.

The editing keeps a more modern pace, and the writing conveys information cleverly. Unlike many mysteries, we know the solution from the beginning. We see the crime, who does it, and what the motive is at the start of each episode. There’s nothing for us to guess. The fun of it is seeing how Charlie gets to the solution. Or at least it should be. Lyonne does her part, but the comedic writing pushes punchlines a little too hard at times when Lyonne could easily make a serious line funny without the help.

We know the solution for each mystery, so the tension in “Poker Face” often comes from a ticking clock. Charlie’s being tracked down in an age where everything we do is traced by dozens of sources. The moment she does anything that can get her noticed, she knows she only has a few hours to solve the case and get out of there.

The show’s less of a mystery and more about Charlie meeting different people along the way. She learns their stories and truncated dreams, does her best to realize some sort of justice for them, and moves on to the next place because no one’s doing the same for her. She’s a drifter and because those hunting her own the police in their town, she’s also got warrants. That means she can’t trust police enough to bring them in until she’s on her way out the door.

You’ve got the stylized technical prowess of a 70s drama going for broke, matched up to a show about meeting people across the country, starring name guest stars playing it as if they’re in a modern comedy of manners, housed within an 80s mystery showcase, and packed with extra jokes. That’s a lot of different things, all done very capably, but they don’t all fit smoothly into the space they’re given. “Poker Face” gets stuck presenting them all, instead of downshifting into the one that would serve moments in each episode best.

I believe this is a very good show, but it’s not because all these influences fuse together organically. They often don’t, and you desperately need a Robert Redford type who can glide over the gulfs between these genres with natural ease. That’s exactly the kind of actor Lyonne is.

Getting all these guest stars shifted through leaves many of them stuck in one of these multiple genres – and not always the one that fits them best. As much as the cavalcade of names sells, the series may’ve been better served by employing a healthier balance of character actors and guest stars from theater. They might’ve better inhabited their roles, and more of those roles feeling real is what you need in a show about traveling across the country and meeting so many different people.

This is an element that varies a lot by viewer. Some will really enjoy recognizable guest stars letting loose and playing it up. That’ll be the highlight of the show and a reason to keep on watching. Others will think too many of those roles become caricatures, and that’s exactly what you don’t want in a show meant to empathize with overlooked and marginalized people.

Showrunner Rian Johnson’s greatest strength is presenting you interesting character dynamics in stories that take place inside a kind of beautiful plot snow globe – as in “Knives Out”, “Glass Onion”, or “The Brothers Bloom”. The ensembles are kept tight and we focus on the interplay between a few characters and their accentuated traits.

That same strength doesn’t serve well in a story about coming across different people all the time. The tendency is to create a new plot snow globe every episode. Even if they’re beautiful, however, that runs counter to the show’s intended heart. Those pristinely crafted, perfectly encapsulated plots deliver worlds that are so precious they rely on caricature comedy to make them reverberate. They don’t serve stories about a bigger world full of people.

It’s hard to empathize with stunt-casted guest actors playing it up simply because that’s the aesthetic. It would have been easy to empathize with character and stage actors bringing it down to detail because that’s the intent we were promised.

Take a show like “Leverage: Redemption”, which is pretty cheesy, often over-the-top, plays its plots loose, and can’t compare to “Poker Face” from a technical standpoint – but this is the one thing it nails. It never loses sight of its intent and its sense of responsibility toward that intent. It guards that intent of empathizing with and representing the marginalized with determination. “Poker Face” may be more impressive in every other way, but it drops this core aspect of what it tells us it wants to do right out of the gate. Its sheer technical and acting prowess can overcome that gap, but there’s still a sense of lacking something core.

Roger Ebert once wrote that a critic’s job ought to be judging something on what it wants to be rather than what the critic wants it to be. I’ve seen some reviews out there saying that “Poker Face” is good but doesn’t get to the level it could – in other words, it doesn’t become something greater that the critic wants. I’ve got no problem with it emulating 70s and 80s mystery shows and deciding that’s enough. That’s what it wants to be and it captures that beautifully. Those shows came with issues of treating the marginalized in offhand, broad, and stereotyped ways, though. We dismiss that as a feature of the times they were made – never mind that our procedural mysteries still do this religiously. “Poker Face” should break that aspect of the format, and it seems to want to challenge that aspect of the format, but when the marginalized are painted so broadly and become caricature, they become props in service of the plot instead of people the plot is there to fervently guard.

“Poker Face” promises empathy and has some great scenes that embody it…before consistently turning it into plot mechanic because there just isn’t room in between a half dozen genre influences and so many name guest stars. Something’s gotta give and it’s not going to be what makes the snow globe so pretty to look at. I disagree with the assessment that “Poker Face” could’ve been more. What it could have been – and at least what it tells us it wants to be – is a little bit less.

It doesn’t know when to stop and I wish this has been closer to Johnson’s approach of ‘what does the snow globe look like when we break it’, as in his “Brick”, “Looper”, or “The Last Jedi”. Those all take big genres with big concepts and a dozen influences while consistently drawing the plot down to the humanization of their characters and the personal decisions they make to effectively undermine their genre. That could have made “Poker Face” feel full, lively, and authentic instead of overly precious. Sometimes Johnson guards aesthetic over character, and sometimes he guards character over aesthetic. This is the first time I feel like he chose the wrong one for a project.

Like I said, I still believe the show is very good and well worth watching. To me, this is because it’s massively elevated – and maybe outright saved – by Lyonne’s rare ability to exist in all these genres at once with the most casual charm. “Poker Face” heavily leans on her ability to communicate empathy that shouldn’t have been cast aside, and to salvage punchlines that should’ve been.

Lyonne and the cinematography are worth the time investment, and that really is enough to turn an average show into a borderline-great one, but I have to admit a certain degree of resenting some of the choices the series makes. When you set out to represent the marginalized but turn them into caricature, you risk conveying that these people are props who are ultimately not worth paying attention to as much as the lead character is…and that’s an attitude that marginalized people have to fight in real life. I don’t think that’s intentional on Johnson’s part. It’s a good intention that misses the mark because certain aspects of this genre are dismissed as elements that existed due to their time period, and not inherent elements that can only be confronted by making that change the focus.

“Poker Face” is being compared a lot to “Columbo” and “Murder, She Wrote”. While Peter Falk and Angela Lansbury boasted a ton of charm, they also had some exceptionally crafted series to support them. I think the closer comparisons here are “Simon & Simon”, “Campion”, or “The Mentalist”. Gerald McRaney, Peter Davison, and Simon Baker had series where everything functioned and the mysteries were good enough, but really you watched because the lead had so much natural charm it raised everyone else’s, and even made up for a muddled storytelling focus.

You can watch “Poker Face” on Peacock.

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The Antidote to Us vs. Them Cop Shows — “MIU404”

“MIU404” is the first police procedural I’ve seen that’s consistently empathetic to its lawbreakers. The Japanese series keeps a keen focus on the circumstances and corruption that funnel many into crime, whether it’s abused workers, indebted women, or immigrants traded in bulk by businesses.

A Mobile Investigative Unit (MIU) is a patrolling unit that arrives on scene to start the investigation as quickly as possible. It’s designed to hand over this initial work to a local or specialized department. Sometimes, they’re brought in as support for ongoing investigations. It’s an interesting approach for a police procedural genre that’s long relied on A-to-B plots that catch the bad guy and wrap up in an hour. “MIU404” can do this, but it’s just as interested in the frayed cases, messy loose ends, and law enforcement blind spots that are never resolved.

What’s shown here is much closer to real investigative work. It relies on comparing interviews to physical details instead of making the crime scene a magic detective diorama. A team that brings multiple perspectives bounces ideas off each other, instead of one genius being relied upon to solve it all. They ask relevant specialists for their expertise instead of having mind palaces that store information like a computer. They consult their captain, go through procedure, and get permission when they want to chase down hunches that aren’t fully supported – or get told why they shouldn’t. DNA is almost never mentioned. It’s a staggeringly fresh breath of air that feels more real than countless gritty detective shows.

The live wire in “MIU404” is Ayano Go’s portrayal of police officer Ibuki Ai. An inexperienced and impetuous officer who’s flunked out of every department, he’s given one last chance with the MIU. It’s not named outright, but he has what might be an impulse control disorder. He also has a past incident of beating a suspect – not someone we’d expect to be the show’s bleeding heart. Usually that would be the background for the series’ grizzled vet, not the excited apprentice. Yet Ibuki relentlessly argues on behalf of victims and suspects alike, always wanting to give whoever they’re after the benefit of the doubt. His two modes are charging in, hoping for a chase or fight, and standing up as the voice that empathizes and presumes innocence.

Hoshino Gen’s Shima Kazumi is the grizzled vet who’s been demoted, but he doesn’t fit familiar stereotypes either. He does his best to make no presumptions about a case. As he often repeats, he distrusts everyone including himself. He’s a skilled and perceptive investigator, and Ibuki’s hunches can grate on him. Shima does things by the book because it means he can better remove his own potential bias.

Interestingly, this includes Shima recognizing his own limitations. He knows that as raw and misdirected as Ibuki can be, the younger man also has a willingness to take chances that Shima lacks. Ibuki will risk chasing something futile that Shima wouldn’t. Shima recognizes this is an asset. He appreciates that Ibuki has a different way of doing things that can also dig out hidden truths, so long as Ibuki remembers to temper his emotions before acting on them.

This gives us partners who are empathetic in completely different ways. Ibuki’s empathy is emotional. He wears it on his sleeve and starts to act on it even when it might be counterproductive. He also lacks the self-awareness to identify the boundary between what he wants for himself and what’s good for others. He can mistake the two.

Shima’s empathy is much more measured. He needs it to be informed. He’s weathered enough to be motivated by the impact of his actions rather than an emotional need to act. Of course, that means he can sometimes overanalyze whether he’s justifying an action. That makes his empathy too guarded and slow at times.

Both approaches have their strengths and pitfalls. Both characters are deeply flawed and imperfect. Yet together, they have a way of tempering those weaknesses. Shima holds Ibuki back when the impact is opposite of the intent, or when Ibuki’s being narcissistic…and Ibuki coaxes Shima into action when the latter would overanalyze away their chance to help.

Their ability to build empathy for each other in a way the other doesn’t have access to for themselves means they have an ability to guard against each other’s potential abuses of power. By the time we’ve met them, neither is doing anything egregious, but they’re able to point out the casual and implicit shortcuts they might take as police that they really shouldn’t. This is a way for the series to highlight criticisms of policing in a way that offers a more constructive route. It’s a remarkably smart and nuanced approach.

“MIU404” doesn’t present us ideal cops or an expectation for them to be perfect individuals. Nor does it give us unrealistic heroic icons who pave over faults as many U.S. procedurals do. Instead, it gives us deeply flawed, often tired people. They might be so flawed as to be harmful, and that grind itself isn’t easy…except the show describes how a healthy environment of various perspectives, accountable oversight, and honest communication about their impulses and ideas can help the department better serve people.

There are elements that may take some acclimation for Western viewers. “MIU404” is a broadcast series made for Japanese audiences, not a co-production with a Western company with global viewership in mind. There are different storytelling priorities, particularly when it comes to the comedy.

The series can flip between video-esque and cinematic approaches to storytelling pretty readily. We’re used to shows that choose one aesthetic instead of contrasting the two. What that video-esque realness brings forth isn’t drama or aesthetic, but rather how ordinary much of what’s presented is. It doesn’t feel like actors are getting gritty realness or neon-at-night hyperreality, but the video-esque quality brings things down from the level of acted drama to the level of “yeah, this could happen”.

Making the investigations feel ordinary, unremarkable, and routine makes it much more consequential than a thousand breadcrumb-by-algorithm NCIS episodes. It’s been a long time since I’ve sat there watching a broadcast police procedural and thought, “This feels real”. Don’t get me wrong, the old Dick Wolf, “Law and Order”, Campbell’s-soup-for-TV approach has its place, but it’s also lost much of its original intent behind an ocean of cop shows saturated in us vs. them themes, computers-are-magic montages, and relentless police brutality glorification. With those, you can hop in halfway through any episode and know the full plot stakes inside two minutes because the progression of each story is exactly the same.

The standout quality of “MIU404” is Nogi Akiko’s mystery writing. It’s not all dead bodies and ticking clocks either. One episode revolves around high schoolers prank calling the police, pretending to be women who are stalked and getting in the way of investigating a real serial stalker. Since MIU is support, they’re tasked with investigating the prank calls while the investigative department pursues the stalker. Even before the two inevitably intersect, the course of that investigation is still compelling, a testament to writing that doesn’t need constant escalation in order to be interesting.

The series does have a few moments of melodrama and heightened drama. This might seem a big leap from that sense of the everyday it features in its investigations, but that’s more because of what we’re used to as U.S. audiences. Gritty drama is made all around the world, but it’s only the primary mode of visual storytelling in a few places – mostly North America and Europe. The rest of the world leans further toward melodrama as its storytelling medium, and let’s be real – our obsession with grittiness is just as apt to go overboard and lack believability.

That shift from the ordinary to melodramatic, which often includes a bit of cute and cringe, is just as normal as our storytelling shifts from ordinary to gritty, which often includes grim menace and a reinforcing one-liner timed to the commercial break. If you’re willing to pick up and understand how one is as natural a progression as the other, then “MIU404” is thoughtful, moving, and funny. If that’s a step too far, then you may get some storytelling whiplash from the show’s shifting tones.

Ibuki and Shima’s different approaches to similar empathy don’t stop the two from constantly getting on each others’ nerves, and herein lies the downfall of many a police procedural. I consider myself something of an expert on witty buddy cop banter, having survived many years of the “Hawaii Five-0” reboot. Why would I do that to myself? It was the only way to watch Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park kick ass for several years running. Unfortunately, every episode would stick the other two leads (Alex O’Loughlin and Scott Caan) together for filler so they could bicker each side of a B-plot nobody cared about. And then they’d play tinkly little piano music over it to suggest this was somehow fun. Every broadcast police procedural made in the U.S. repeats this. It’s Buddy Cop 101 and it makes me want to tear my hair out.

“MIU404” has some bickering, but it’s mostly well written and acted. Some of it borders on comedy routine, and it often veers straight into dramatic and revealing character moments. There’s a rare bit that doesn’t land or that relies on a level of cuteness that’s a big cultural difference – something we’d never include in a U.S. police procedural. Most of it really works, and feels like a welcome deluge in the desert of terrible police show banter.

Moreover, Ibuki and Shima’s bickering reveals a closeness and appreciation for each other, as it becomes more and more of an in-joke between them. It also reflects their growing ability to call each other in when one’s going too far or the other’s being a stick in the mud. It would’ve been easy to take this in an Odd Couple route, but “MIU404” is much more interested in how this helps them see from the other’s perspective and learn their own limitations. It’s a much warmer feeling, and creates the sense of a safe space the series can lean on to tackle some exceptionally tough themes in its cases.

The episodes themselves are explicit about the issues they call out. Investigations center on workplace abuse, road rage, Japan’s lack of witness protection, and the abuse of immigrants, just to name a few early topics. Desperate crimes aren’t seen as a perpetrator to lock up and tally off, but rather a symptom of larger social ills to identify. Other procedurals might do this from time to time as a ‘special episode’, but they’re often written as half-measures because it’s not what those shows really do. For “MIU404”, this is exactly what it’s designed to engage. This is why it’s here, so the areas it focuses on come off as remarkable and pointed.

One of the most interesting moments in the show involves four MIU officers and their captain debating the right course of action for punishing young offenders. They each have a different approach and philosophy that backs it, but as usual their captain’s heard this all before and is one step ahead. Aso Kumiko’s Captain Kikyo Yuzuru is the most admirable character on the show. She’s the first character we meet in the series after she announces the new department’s creation, but what social media’s taken from her leadership position centers on her looks. When meeting with other captains and those who outrank her, she regularly deflects the claim that her differing opinions arise from being a woman, and redirects the conversation into what she requires and expects from others in relation to her department.

There are stereotypes this kind of character can fall into, but Kikyo is a full person who considers her job a responsibility instead of an achievement. Her portrayal can be seen as a microcosm of the show’s arguments overall – that for police to be useful, they have to keep community in mind. They can’t pit victims against each other to justify screwing one or the other over. They’re there to carry out a responsibility, not exert their position. “MIU404” gives us police officers who are susceptible to mistakes and abuses, which is unfortunately the reality. It also gives us a person in charge who shapes an environment where these habits can be communicated and disarmed, and in doing this argues that this should be the expectation for the system as a whole. These arguments are about Japanese policing toward a Japanese audience, but many of them apply to a lot of other places. As a U.S. viewer, the show is resoundingly relevant.

“MIU404” ought to be a good show with a few great episodes, but its warmth, complex understanding of different kinds of empathy, its ability to argue systemic changes, its talented ensemble, and showrunner/writer Nogi Akiko’s skill at both mystery and comedy writing make it feel like an utter treat.

Nogi’s lobbying for her medical procedural “Unnatural” to also be picked up internationally, and I deeply hope it is. She’s an exceptional storyteller whose voice we could stand to hear more of in this part of the world.

You can watch “MIU404” on Netflix. There’s no embeddable trailer, but you can click through and see it there.

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Spellbinding and Gentle — “The Makanai: Cooking for the Maiko House”

Two best friends leave their hometown for Kyoto. Kiyo and Sumire want to become geisha, who perform traditional forms of dance and music in present-day Japan. They live in a house with both practicing geisha (geiko) and apprentices (maiko). Sumire is a natural who loves every second of the training and picks it up with elegance and ease. No matter how hard she works, Kiyo washes out of it. She has no head for rhythm and choreography, and falls further and further behind the other girls.

On the verge of being sent home, Kiyo begins cooking for the house. The house’s usual chef is injured, unhappy with her commute, and the other girls have little idea how to cook. Kiyo quickly becomes the house’s new chef, or makanai.

“The Makanai: Cooking for the Maiko House” is a slice-of-life series that’s beautifully gentle. We see the characters’ daily lives and there’s no artificial conflict in the plot. Sure, there’s some inner conflict about what makes a few characters happy and one or two characters are difficult for some of the others to live with, but everyone sorts themselves out pretty well.

The series is less about these things and more about Kiyo and Sumire coming into their own. Kiyo is a remarkable character. Played by Mori Nana, there are moments where she’s disappointed, but she’s able to find so much satisfaction throughout her day. Kiyo never struggles to be herself, and as much as our storytelling prizes conflict, there can also be something captivating to find in its absence.

The realizations about character in “The Makanai” are subtle and rarely conveyed outright. It feels real that way. Did Kiyo want to become a geiko for herself or so that she could live life alongside her best friend? Can Kiyo not be trained as a geiko because she lacks ability, or simply because she’s someone who already is who she is – who can’t be molded because she’s already so shaped as a person? These answers matter, but they also aren’t crucial for the story to answer because the story is about the moment-to-moment experiences of daily life, and we only find these answers through those experiences.

Kiyo never seems disappointed that she can’t become a geiko. She’s heartbroken that she has to leave, not because she can’t train. One character suggests Kiyo will struggle with being lesser-than as the house’s makanai. The thought never crosses Kiyo’s mind. It’s the role that feels most right to her. She’s proud to share every dish and continue being a part of Sumire’s and the entire house’s lives.

The sense of watching “The Makanai” is to feel things slow down to its pace. It evokes a transcendent sense of calm. After I watched the first few episodes and stopped, I just listened to the wind outside and felt how still things were inside. It’s hard to describe the effect of “The Makanai” in exact terms. I want to avoid using Westernized descriptions like oneness, presence, or mindfulness because they’ve been co-opted as commercialized keywords for us as much as they still describe sensations.

I’ll go with something simpler. “The Makanai” makes me feel like everything’s OK. It doesn’t fix things in the world or make life easy, it’s not magical and it doesn’t cover things over, but it creates a space for gentleness – even to yourself. I wasn’t going through anything pressing or intense surrounding my watching it – it wasn’t soothing a stressor, though I’m sure it could.

We strive for moments that are special, unique experiences, to achieve something memorable. In doing so, we often overlook the ordinary moment we’re already in, that it’s nice to simply feel it slowly and calmly. It’s not difficult to hope a moment of joy or achievement never ends. What if those ordinary, everyday moments were something we also don’t want to end? The space the show creates is one where it’s OK to be still, listen, take no actions. It says that’s enough to be human. To experience is to be worthwhile, before function or schedule. To close my eyes and listen to that buffeting wind and feel still, that this is the best thing I can do in this moment. We don’t think like that or afford ourselves the time to fulfill that basic human need.

“The Makanai” doesn’t even ask us why not. It just creates the space for it that makes it obvious and recognizable, that clarifies how much we miss it.

There’s one scene where a girl wakes up early and asks Kiyo for something simple because her stomach’s upset. Kiyo cooks and listens as the girl talks about her younger sister. It’s a moment of two people sharing a space we don’t normally get to see, one that’s typically so unimportant it’s never thought of in Western series, or that’s left on the cutting room floor if it is.

The characters often call Kiyo’s food “ordinary”, or so the subtitles communicate. To us, this would be a deep insult. Perhaps it’s a cultural difference, or a difficult translation, but it’s clear this is meant as a compliment and Kiyo always takes it this way. And why shouldn’t it be? “The Makanai” is almost entirely about the ordinary in its characters lives, and it feels so calm and peaceful for it. It makes the ordinary feel detailed and captivating, the way it actually is in our lives if we ever bothered to notice.

There’s no empty space in “The Makanai”. There’s always a conversation to be had, a human being to be better understood. Every scene features exchanges and actions. These moments may be quiet and uncomplicated, but every corner of the experiences we see feels inhabited and loved. Every action, no matter how ordinary, feels deeply real and human. Every person feels important, easy to understand but impossible to grasp, a universe of experiences even as they hang laundry, set out candied plums to dry, or watch someone having their photo taken. How often do we overlook these things in our lives?

Often, when a geisha dances we see less of the dance than the reaction of the person watching. This is how we know it’s art, to see someone else’s entire being changed for moments at a time. “The Makanai” reminds us that someone hanging laundry or cooking or listening can also be art, that as human beings our lives are filled with these moments that we’ve taught ourselves not to appreciate. In overlooking the ordinary, the everyday, how many opportunities to be moved and to appreciate the artist do we miss?

There’s a brief scene of Kiyo sitting over a river to enjoy a popsicle after a hard day of work, a moment that communicates how content and fulfilled she is to be here. I wish you could have seen my reaction as I watched, so I could convey to you this is art, that my entire being changed for moments at a time.

You can watch “The Makanai” on Netflix.

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The Most Joyous Series of the Year — “Spy x Family”

“Spy x Family” is one of the reasons I’m looking back at 2022 this way instead of just pushing a top 10 list. I’m not sure that I’d put the hit anime on a top 10 list. For all its unbridled enthusiasm and sense of joy, it has some pacing and focus issues and one or two subplots fall flat for me. Yet I’m going to remember it way better than anything I’d stick at #6 or #7 for the year. It’s going to mean more to me going forward than most things on a top 10 list would. So what’s the point of that list? We don’t watch series so we can organize lists. We watch series for how they bring out the human parts of ourselves that we don’t always get to feel in other moments of our days.

“Spy x Family” appears to land as the most popular anime of 2022 by far, and for good reason. In a land that’s based on the Cold War between West and East Germany, the spy Twilight is assigned to befriend a high-ranking government official who plans to restart an active war. The best way to do this is through the official’s son, who attends a prestigious private academy. Under the cover of Loid Forger, Twilight will have to adopt a child, find a fake wife, get his new child enrolled at the academy, and ensure that she performs well enough to join the social club of upper echelon students.

Things go off the rails pretty quickly. The child he adopts is Anya, who hides that she’s a telepath discarded from a state experiment. She’s not the age Loid needs to enroll her, and she’s not the academic standout that would get her in, but she can read his mind and fake exactly what he’s looking for.

Anya tells no one she’s a telepath – she’s scared she’ll be hunted and rejected. She does use her powers to help connect Loid with a potential new mom – a woman named Yor who’s an elite assassin. Yor’s fearful she’ll be investigated for the unofficial crime of not being married. Loid needs someone to play a wife. Yor needs someone to play a boyfriend. Anya takes care of the rest.

The pair agree to play out a fake marriage. Loid is unaware that Yor is an assassin, Yor is unaware that Loid is a spy, they’re both unaware that Anya is a telepath, and Anya knows everything about them to the detriment of anything academic. And that’s all way before they get the dog who can see the future.

What follows would usually be a comedy of strangeness, of hiding truths and miscommunicating with each other. Instead, it’s something rarer – a comedy of normality. Yor’s strength and martial prowess come off as normal to Loid because those are the kind of people he’s always been surrounded by. When they put on a massive role-playing game for Anya and a drunk Yor plays a witch who fights Loid, he doesn’t wonder why she’s a better fighter than the most legendary spy in the world. He wonders about the role-playing, “Why is she using physical attacks when she’s a witch?”

Raising her younger brother without parents, Yor imagines she has no clue how to parent despite being immensely caring, attentive, and fiercely protective. She’s never had anyone to affirm that she’s doing things right, and even if he can be slow on the uptake, this is what Loid can ultimately give her.

Anya has meant nothing to anyone, and has never had the opportunity to make anyone proud, but here has a chance to participate in an operation that can save the world – even if she misinterprets what’s going on half the time. What’s strange to the world around them is the greatest amount of normal and comfort any of the three has ever experienced.

We get to see spy missions, some with Anya and some without. These are routinely good and often ridiculous – finding microfilm swallowed by a penguin, winning a brutal underground tennis tournament. One of my favorite moments in the series is a brief vignette, only minutes long, where Loid meets with his handler, petals falling from a nearby flower. Loid quietly recognizes that his handler has overlooked a fine detail in her disguise, and when she asks him about the mission, he brags about Anya like any parent would – a gorgeous moment of two spies losing their edge for different reasons.

Anya is the series’ motivator, though. She’s a below-average student, but when her parents try to help her, she can only read their thoughts about spying and assassination. She’s not a savant or phenom, but a kid who knows she’s saddled with the fate of the world, something she understands by reading Loid’s mind, but can’t share with anyone lest she reveal her secret.

What connects about her is that her parents do everything they can to shield her from their burdens, but because of who Anya is they never have any chance of doing so. All they can do is support her through them. In between dodgeball tournaments, craft fairs, and dog adoptions, there’s something about this that speaks to our modern moment. Anya’s played as the cutest thing on television, as a character who exudes ‘must be protected at all costs’, but her attempts to befriend a politician’s son and help Loid succeed in his mission are nearly all remarkable misfires because kids aren’t tactical. They’re unpredictable, pushing boundaries, fearing the lack of them, and just getting a sense of how the world works. In its own way, amid dozens of unrealistic events and satires, “Spy x Family” gives us one of the most accurate depictions of how a kid acts.

Anya stands up for others and what she witnesses as the truth, but she’s also a huge troll who’s naturally curious and likes seeing what she can get away with. She tests out empathy and ego, lying and self-sacrifice. She’s a kid who barely knows anything, except the reality that the future of the world hinges on her accomplishing a mission way beyond her capabilities. Even if it’s desperate, doing something is better than not taking any action.

That’s why “Spy x Family” is a joy. It has a couple subplots that I’m not big on, such as Yor’s brother who works for the secret police and harbors an obsession for his sister, or Loid’s protege who wants to take Yor’s place. The series is a remarkable, quick-witted comedy, sure, but it’s also one where Loid repeats his mantra of creating “a world where children won’t have to cry anymore”, something Anya believes in and takes to heart because she’s never known a world like that before.

We root for Anya partly because she’s an innocent kid with a streak of gremlin, but mainly because this is her chance to live a life where she has hope and is protected. The fate of the world is abstract and hard to grapple with. The fate of one kid is something we can feel in our bones and fight for. We need to see this family work, and as it messily comes closer together, it’s a joy to have it reaffirmed for us that yes, this is a family that cares for each other more and more by the day.

“Spy x Family” is a cleverly over-the-top spy anime, a savvy comedy, a solid actioner, a beautiful story about adoptive family, but what works best about it is that it’s a story of a child finally having the opportunity to be happy and loved.

And its theme songs are absolute bops.

You can watch “Spy x Family” on Hulu or Crunchyroll.

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Freudian Slipstream — “Copenhagen Cowboy”

Where to even start with Nicolas Winding Refn and “Copenhagen Cowboy”? You might know Refn as a purveyor of neon-tinged, retrowave, masculine hyperviolence who makes films that either criticize toxic masculinity or that start out doing so but get distracted admiring how masculine they are.

Is there a really impressive shot you like? Prepare to stare at it for the next minute or so. I tend to think Refn comes down on both sides. He’s got films like “Only God Forgives” that mostly succeed in dismantling harmful aspects of Western masculinity and colonialism. He’s also got movies like “Drive” that revel in it a bit too much to remember to say something about it.

He also makes films without Ryan Gosling. Elle Fanning-starrer “The Neon Demon” was both praised as a feminist takedown of a brutal, abusive fashion industry that chews girls up, and criticized as a film that fetishizes and vilifies girls. It certainly didn’t help when Refn declared the film “beyond feminist” and refused to explain this beyond “It’s what you make it”. Refn’s often embraced polarization by saying that if audiences either love or hate his work with little in between, he must be making good art, which is a fancy way of saying, “Hey, free publicity”.

He enjoys his ambiguity and just in case any of his films starts getting a little plot-intensive, he’ll hit you with a long scene of someone staring at some flowers or wallpaper, or just have the character walk away and let you do it yourself.

“Copenhagen Cowboy” is a six-episode Danish series about a spirit named Miu who’s treated as a good luck charm. We meet her after she’s been sold to a brothel – not to work there, but to bring luck to the owner’s sister. It’s made clear the workers there are trafficked, their papers withheld so that they have nowhere to escape. It doesn’t dawn on the owners, but maybe it’s not the best idea to bring a supernatural being into that type of situation and start demanding ultimatums.

The series takes a number of turns – a half-vampire sex predator becomes obsessed with Miu, we get a few scenes of his dad who tours the world giving lectures about how great his penis is, Miu gets involved with the Chinese mob and tries to rescue a girl, she picks up kung fu which happens to be handy in a surprising number of situations. It sounds episodic, but believe me it doesn’t feel that way.

Do you like it when an actor walks up to their blocking in a way that breaks immersion before standing there emotionless for a long period of time, only to cut to another shot of them standing there for an even longer period of time, and after about 30 seconds they finally give an over-deliberate line reading of exactly one short sentence? Do you want the show to take an hour to tell you what could’ve been accomplished in 15 minutes?

What, that’s ridiculous! What kind of masochist would enjoy that kind of filmmaking? Hey, wussup. As a connoisseur of series and movies where people stand there and look striking while nothing in particular happens, my biggest problem with “Copenhagen Cowboy” is that it’s not always using that nothing very well. Refn circumnavigates any acceleration of pace. When something is actually taking shape in his stories, he uses shots where nothing happens to return to ambiguity. This often means removing meaning, not adding it.

People doing nothing can tell you a lot and enable you to investigate their surroundings, their relationships with each other, the nuances of how they hold themselves in their environment. You can tell a lot from someone who’s not doing anything, especially in the hands of a filmmaker who can load up on detail. The thing with Refn is that he’s a relentlessly Freudian filmmaker. He’s given many interviews about this. Freudian filmmaking can be really interesting, but it also tends to implement its visual metaphors only one layer down. Subtext is often one-to-one, and not all of it is subtle. Modern audiences trained on quick editing can recognize and acknowledge a lot of Refn’s clever details pretty quickly, and then sit there for another 30 seconds a shot wondering when we’ll move on. Without deeper layers of complexity, we’re left to bask in Refn’s colorfully cool and moody visuals.

Admittedly, when the visuals are this good, the one-takes this choreographed, and the 360-degree panning shots this tense, I enjoy just sitting there and admiring the craft. After the first few episodes where I knew what to expect from the pace of the visual language, it was even fun to just sit there and vibe with Refn at the level of, “Hell of a technique, dude”.

In terms of the storytelling, I do like the way Miu’s supernatural abilities are hinted at slowly. They’re never named, we’re just expected to infer what some of them may be: healing, cursing, absorbing others’ skills, perhaps elements of suggestion, it’s hard to say. We’re left to wonder just how much she’s influenced someone else, if doing so is even a power she has, or if her more practical actions simply changed the situation’s outcome. This is where Refn’s tendency for ambiguity works really well.

So too in Miu’s inscrutability. She gives very little reaction to anything that happens around her. She’s a spirit, and her alienness to this world comes through in Angela Bundalovic’s preternatural stillness and non-reaction. Conveying character when asked to barely move, speak, or even have a character as we understand it is nearly impossible. She does a phenomenal job of embodying the role and the idea that Miu is both real and very out-of-place. At a certain point, this does get back to the whole doing-nothing aspect, so let me briefly go through a few different versions of me loving nothing:

“Titane” can melt you down with its scenes of people doing very little. A scene where almost nothing happens can change your entire understanding of who someone is and how they view themselves.

“Cracow Monsters” is usually doing something, but it takes breaks now and then to watch people do a bit of nothing. These can be understood as complex moments where their relationships to each other change without any meaningful words or actions to suggest this.

I’ve often said that a good fight scene should be able to act like a dialogue scene – it can change our understanding of desires, relationships, power dynamics, backstories, often without a word spoken. Refn does a good job of delivering this with Miu’s fight scenes, but a good scene of people doing nothing should be able to do the same things. That doesn’t mean it always has to, but it should demonstrate a reason for being there.

I think of these scenes of ‘nothing’ as fundamentally different from fiction filmmaking that incorporates everyday tasks in a semi-documentarian way, or that use interstitial scenes of inaction such as the concept of ma that’s often found in Japanese cinema. The arthouse approach to nothingness doesn’t pursue cinema verite in order to accentuate realism, and it doesn’t give you breathing space to feel calm (as in a Studio Ghibli film). These artsy scenes of characters doing nothing are there so you can think, analyze, and look at them much like you would a painting in an art history class – to pick them apart and create an escalation of analysis in your own mind – a tension you create within yourself.

One of my favorite films of people doing not-that-much is “Under the Skin”, where most of the film involves long takes that depict a character bombarded with our world’s strangeness. This might be the closest comparison point for “Copenhagen Cowboy” since both deal with a fairly emotionless but dangerous figure who presents as feminine and is alien to our world. Yet “Under the Skin” uses its long moments of people standing still to question boundaries between the chaotic and orderly, and how we institute coded relationships of predatory hierarchy into our own culture.

This highlights both the appeal and the major issues with “Copenhagen Cowboy”. Not to get all Frasier vs. Niles here, but with “Copenhagen Cowboy”, Refn has brought Freud to a Jung fight.

“Under the Skin” is a Jungian film about the relationship between social dynamics and human development, the habituation of processing, and mutable ideas of self-definition. Its progression and conclusions are messy and socially contextual. Each new layer of metaphor screws up the previous so that there is no clean-cut read of its subtext.

This might be getting well into the weeds, so what the hell am I talking about?

Refn wants vampire dad to sit there and loquate about how great his penis is and how he’s forming a religion around it. This can be read as exactly what it is. You don’t even need a psych student who just wrote a paper on Freud to dive into it. Everything’s right there, the dialogue has no subtext.

Other things that do have subtext include a gangster walking in front of a painting of a burned out city while he irons out the details of an arms shipment. Then he walks away, leaving us with a lingering shot of the moment of destruction captured in the painting. There’s subtext, but you don’t even have to look for it when it takes up the whole screen.

There’s incest, castration, a lot of metaphors about pigs: pigs eating humans, humans being pigs, Miu viewing humans as pigs, humans viewing each other as pigs, men and women viewing each other as pigs. You need a pig metaphor, come on down to Nicolas Winding Refn’s Emporium of Pig Metaphors and Fine Furniture.

The thing is, Refn knows how to take Freud, apply it to male characters, and often come out with something remarkable. Here, he’s got a feminine character in a land of male-driven toxicity and abuse. He needs to be able to stretch into territory he normally hasn’t attempted.

“Copenhagen Cowboy” is a more isolated story that feels like it happens in a vacuum. Refn loves his shadowy, colorful neon dioramas, though here he also briefly flirts with satiny hues and giallo-esque gel lighting. This all still holds great capacity for psychological storytelling the way Refn likes to do it, which means we get at a lot of meaningful, easy-to-read metaphors for the men in the story, but very little about Miu or the other women in the plot.

This works to an extent – she’s alien to this world and our culture and Miu should be inscrutable to each other. Yet this also means Miu’s point in the story – her agency as a character – often exists just to get us to the next scene where men tell on themselves through her. When she does start to make plot decisions, Refn needs to take us over to the vampire family for incest, penis lectures, and adventures in castration.

Refn knows how to tell these stories in isolation when it comes to men, because he can translate that isolation in his storytelling as an aspect of what traditional masculinity asks of men. He’s built his style to do this, the plot-in-a-vacuum, the retrowave diorama, every little thing he does serves that considerable and impressive ability. His talent to depict a story in that sense of isolation and pick apart toxic masculinity go hand in hand, so Refn can Freud it out as the day is long. The isolation is of service wherever that’s the central focus.

Here, he’s trying to deliver a very different story about a very different set of relationships and social dynamics, but he’s just not shifting out of the mode he’s used for so much of his other work. There is a lot of interesting work happening for all the men in “Copenhagen Cowboy”, but inscrutable or otherwise, Miu often seems like more of a vehicle for men to get that focus than she does as a fully-fleshed out character with her own agency.

For all Refn’s drawn out sequences, his deliberateness has always masked an incredibly tight sense of editing. He understands his male characters enough to get right up close to them and translate who they are, their relationships to each other, even their wants and how they feel that particular day. He knows how to do this with ease, he can convey exactly who a man is in seconds. The extended shots when it comes to men give us a chance to really turn over who they are in our minds.

Refn does not have the same level of understanding or attention to women as he does men. We’re too distant from Miu even if she is supposed to be inscrutable, and the other women characters here are either catty or sheepishly subservient. Women can be on-screen scene after scene but they never get the depth Refn provides men.

The men never become window decorations, and even the worst of them is seen as a full character. Yet as much as Refn wants to pick apart toxic masculinity, he also doesn’t know how to portray women as the focus. This means when we’re left in those moments of ambiguity with Miu, we don’t have a good way to use the extra time to turn her over in our head and consider her. We’re given countless angles to consider each man, but we barely have one angle through which to understand Miu or any other woman in the slow-motion and doing-nothing sessions Refn gives us to contemplate.

I still enjoyed watching “Copenhagen Cowboy” from a perspective of “I definitely won’t see this anywhere else”, and the performances are all excellent. I appreciated the subtlety of its supernatural elements and many of the one-takes are absolutely phenomenal. It’s also fun to pick up on Refn’s niche tastes in cinematic history, especially if you share a good amount of them – retrowave, giallo, English horror, anime, exploitation, cutscene. If there’s a second season, I’m interested enough to watch it.

That said, it only reinforces my perception of Refn as a filmmaker. He’s done the work to criticize toxic masculinity and systemic abuse in an extremely skilled, sharp, and thorough way. That deserves praise. He also can’t stop admiring his own work in doing this long enough to realize he hasn’t done the work in grasping, deferring to, or presenting women’s perspectives, agency, or voice. That deserves criticism. I say all this realizing Sara Isabella Jonsson Vedde wrote the series. There’s a lot that gets done in “Copenhagen Cowboy” that Refn is uniquely talented in accomplishing. There’s also a lot that’s written into the show but left on the table because Refn steamrolled what he wanted to do instead.

There’s both good and bad in “Copenhagen Cowboy”, both piercing and oblivious, both a clear-eyed call-out of systemic masculine abuses, as well as witnessing Refn practice his own more individual ones. It’s both worth it and not.

At the end of the day, if you’re interested in Refn’s work or want to give the series a try, take the chance. You’ll know pretty quickly if you want to continue. If you dislike slow series or Refn himself, there’s not much for you here. I tend to love the slow, artsy school of cinema more than nearly everyone I know, and this stretched my tolerance for slow pace to its limits.

You can watch “Copenhagen Cowboy” on Netflix.

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The Most Stunning Series of the Year — “The English” & “First Love”

“The English”

There was no shortage of beautifully filmed and designed series this year, but one stood out as striking enough to surpass everything else I saw. “The English” demonstrated a staggering visual sense of endless wilderness, an infinite natural backdrop both gorgeous and intimidating. It contrasts this with pernicious and ironic iconography that represents the destruction wrought by colonization and Westward expansion. The show’s use of natural light shows that few lighting and color-grading effects can match the simplicity of filming at certain times of day – even if that restricts the time you have to capture a scene.

The Western stars Emily Blunt as Lady Cornelia Locke, who’s come to the American West to kill the man who killed her son. Chaske Spencer plays Eli Whipp, a Pawnee scout for the U.S. Army who seeks to live the rest of his life in quiet despite a world that’s determined to kill his people. Naturally, they link up, discover a shared past, and guns blaze.

“The English” doesn’t shy away from commenting on the unbridled savagery of European colonizers, assessing the genocidal history of “Manifest Destiny”, and linking Christian expansionism as directly responsible. Its main story may be equal parts romance, actioner, and tragic backstory, but “The English” picks apart imperialism and methods of forced assimilation thread by brutal thread on its way.

I do have a few issues with “The English”. It’s so eager to demonstrate its clear mastery over every era of Western that the pacing has a few hard shifts. A separate B-plot that eventually ties in hides its secrets and never gives its characters enough time to burn into memory, meaning every time we switch to it, it’s overly confusing. I normally love overly confusing, but I just had to shrug my shoulders and go with it. A few supporting performances here and there try way too hard and cross over into sketch territory. These are infrequent, but enough to notice.

As briefly as it can frustrate or confuse, these elements are ultimately pretty easy to set aside. What really lingers is the unparalleled cinematography, seeing for miles at times, the haunting use of light and shadow in others, and never letting go of a special kind of magic that feels truly cinematic and larger than life. I remember my breath being sucked away at one point as a horse and rider are silhouetted by the sunset in the dust they kick up, a shot that requires complex choreography yet was only possible to capture for a few minutes in a day before the sun changed angle.

If you appreciate the patiently developed tableau of classic cinema and can accept a great series that makes occasional storytelling mistakes, “The English” is a visual feast with superb leading performances and a driving sense of purpose. (Read the review.)

A close runner-up:
“First Love”

I could say many similar things for “First Love”, a Japanese romance series that tells the story of lovers in the 90s who reconnect today. Yae wanted to become a flight attendant and travel the world, but an accident prevented this. Now, she’s content working as a taxi driver, but struggles bridging the gap to her son Tsuzuru, who lives with his father. Her former lover Harumichi works as a security guard after serving as a pilot, but when they meet, she doesn’t remember him.

“First Love” is remarkable for director Kanchiku Yuri’s choice to film in the style of each narrative’s time frame. She echoes the dramatic approach of each era’s storytelling, the parallel stories told during the 90s and today changing down to shot choice, coloration, and even hints of picture clarity. As the flashback begins to catch up, these choices also change according to those times. It’s not the kind of thing that jumps out and hits you over the head; it’s used subtly and in service of the story.

The match of directing, cinematography, costuming, set design, and even dance choreography comes together to highlight the strange mix of quietly trying to find satisfaction in life against a backdrop of loneliness and disappointment. It serves as a phenomenal metaphor for Japan’s Lost Generation, which includes Gen X and Millennials who saw a stiff economic downturn as they entered the job market. Yae’s and Harumichi’s own stories and careers reflect this as well.

The wintry setting of Sapporo, Japan is used exquisitely, sometimes just in the daily routes Yae takes around the city, and sometimes more dramatically – as in a youthful confession of love in a blinding snowstorm. Kanchiku Yuri accomplishes one of the best directing jobs of the year, and I’m eagerly looking forward to whatever she does next. On top of this, Mitsushima Hikari gives one of the best performances of the year as the adult Yae.

Like “The English”, “First Love” has long streaks where it feels like it’s the best show of the year, but it’s similarly undermined by some of its writing. It relies on a key plot device that’s cliché (at least among Western viewers) and large portions of its romances hinge on forms of stalking. It’s certainly not the first drama to treat stalking as romantic, but it feels like a giant rift to justify crossing, even if the other parts of the series are superb.

I’d still recommend it with this caveat. It’s OK to watch problematic things as long as we don’t cover over the problem or lie to ourselves about its presence. It is a remarkably filmed and acted series, but one that includes a necessary “Yes, but…”

Like I said, there was no shortage of beautifully filmed and designed series this year. The others at the top include:

“Pachinko” tells an elegant epic of Korean diaspora that survives genocide and war. (Read the review.)

“Cracow Monsters” is a sumptuously dark and dreary Polish modern fantasy with a silky sense of color and shadow. (Read the review.)

“Andor” is a moving embrace of 70s social sci-fi that may be the height of Star Wars storytelling. (Read the review.)

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